Dot Earth Moves to NYT Opinion Section

Revkin: “I will say what I think, in ways I could not before”

After two-and-a-half years and 940 posts as a news blog, Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth site will be moving to the Opinion section of The New York Times’s Web site, according to an announcement he posted Wednesday afternoon.

Revkin, who was a staff reporter at the paper from 1995 until he took a buyout at the end of December, launched the environment and sustainability blog in October 2007 and has continued writing it since leaving daily reporting.

“One reason I started Dot Earth is that it’s hard to find space in the newspaper for these other issues,” he said in December 2008, after winning the John Chancellor Award for his roughly twenty-plus years dedicated to climate coverage. “So the blog created a space to keep sustained focus on them.”

Since leaving his staff job, however, Revkin—who has accepted a position as a “senior fellow for environmental understanding” at Pace University—has expressed a desire to move even farther beyond the constraints of traditional news reporting.

“I no longer see journalism, on its own, as the single best use of my remaining days,” he wrote upon taking the Times’s buyout offer in December. “In a world of shrinking specialized journalism, direct outreach will be more vital than ever.”

“There have increasingly been times when I’ve felt that I wanted to give my own straight view of things,” he added in an interview on Wednesday. Nonetheless, Dot Earth won’t look drastically different now that it’s headed to the Opinion section. In his post announcing the move, Revkin wrote:

Don’t expect momentous changes. I’m not going to suddenly be revealed as an ardent liberal or conservative.

I am an advocate, for sure — for reality.

I’ll try to maintain the discipline to be “caustically honest” (to steal a phrase used by a climate scientist in a story of mine on tipping points last year) in weighing the issues and opportunities confronting humanity as its astonishing 200-years-and-counting growth spurt crests.

As a freelance blogger, I will say what I think in ways I could not when I was a Times reporter. I’ll do this in a space occupied by other ex-Times reporters, including Timothy Egan and Linda Greenhouse.

One other facet of Dot Earth won’t change: the blog will remain home to a dynamic, sometimes exhausting exchange of reader comment. Many blogs focusing on the environment seem mainly focused on creating a comfort zone for like-minded citizens. Dot Earth will continue to be a place for the expression of all pooints of view — as long as those views are expressed in civil and constructive ways.

Revkin said that after the leaving his staff job at the Times he and editors had been in open discussion about how to sustain a freelance relationship, and that a “combination of factors” led to the decision to move from news to Opinion.

“One is history,” he said. “There really aren’t any freelance contributors with a daily product on the news side, at least not that I know of. And there have been awkward situation where I’ve held off writing on the blog because I knew a reporter was working on a story and I didn’t get in their way.”

There are some drawbacks to the new arrangement, however.

“I won’t be able to contribute to Science Times or other news sections as I might have, so that gives me mixed feelings,” Revkin said. “But I will be able to contribute to the magazine or Book Review off and on if there’s something that comes up.”

On balance, Revkin said he is happy about the decision to re-categorize Dot Earth and that he sees a need for a “firewall” between news and opinion. The line between the two has grown fuzzier over the years, he added, and a number of reporters now express opinions on their blogs in ways that would make him feel uncomfortable.

“All these labels are kind of strange these days,” he said. “I still see Dot Earth mainly as interrogatory—exploring questions, not giving you my answer. That’s not going to change that much because I think anyone who tells you they know the answer on some of these complex issues we face is not being particularly honest.”

Still, Revkin is looking forward to weighing in with his personal views when he believes they are called for.

“What does feel good is that, in this new position, I’ll be able to say what I think when I really feel that I’ve got a firm concept of how we might get out of our energy bind,” he said. “Or, when looking at climate legislation, I’ll be able to say what I think looks reasonable and what I think looks specious or political.”

Even as energy/climate legislation moves to center stage on Capitol Hill in coming months, however, Revkin won’t necessarily concentrate on the wrangling over a bill.

“My focus will remain what it has always been: How do we have a smooth path toward roughly nine billion people on the planet?” he said. “If I see that federal legislation or some new program Obama is rolling out could play a role in smoothing the path and sparking the kind of innovation and dissemination of energy technology that’s required, then I’ll definitely track it closely. If it’s a political sparring match that isn’t relevant, then I’ll leave it alone or just say it’s not relevant, but I won’t be doing the dot-and-dash kind of political coverage.”

Revkin added that he’s more likely to focus on “laying out some new ways to approach international discussions about climate in the run up to the next treaty negotiations in Cancun, Mexico” scheduled for the end of the year.

“If you look at the way my reporting on these issues has evolved over twenty years, it started out looking at the physical sciences – how greenhouse gases work and how warm it is likely to become,” he said. “Then I started covering Kyoto and other attempts to deal climate change. More recently, though, given the lack of progress, I’ve done a lot more looking at the sociological and psychological issues – you know, how humans manage risk or don’t; what signals we miss and what signals we get. You’ll see a lot more of that content.”

By way of example, Revkin cited a recent piece he wrote headlined, “Is the Climate Problem in Our Heads?”—about how psychology shapes behaviors related to humans’ environmental impact—and another, “Puberty on the Scale of Planet,” which explores the idea that we are in our “adolescence as a species,” learning to take responsibility for about our growth and development.

“The voice of science in this saga is kind of like the parent talking to the wayward teenager: ‘If you keep doing x, then y will happen,’” he said. “What does it take to shift the way that all play out? My take on why the whole geoengineering idea makes people so queasy is because it reinforces this reality that we’re not just talking about slowing a warming influence. We’re talking about henceforth being managers of climate, and we’re not a species that is attuned to do anything like that.”

Geoengineering is, of course, one of those controversial topics that brings critics out of the woodwork, and Revkin has weathered his fair share of attacks from both the right and the left on that and other topics. While he has never shied away from responding to criticism, Revkin says that he will likely use his newfound freedom in the Opinion section to confront his critics more directly.

For example, earlier this month, Revkin expressed a few opinions about the feasibility of an international climate treaty at the American Bar Association’s Conference on Environmental Law. His talk was covered by Greenwire and, in turn, drew some critical remarks from Climate Progress’s Joe Romm. The same day, Revkin responded to Romm in post on Dot Earth that he said “hints at” some the news things he’s thinking about, as well as the ways in which he’ll engage critics.

“But I’m not going to make a big deal out of it,” he said of his critics. “Pissing contests, even the ones that occur within my comment thread, are not in the end very productive. I think that if someone makes a substantiated point, and you’re wrong, then you acknowledging that is important. But if someone is on the attack and just out to discredit you in way that’s not justified, I’m not going to be constantly responding to things like that, whether they come from Newsbusters, or Climate Progress, or wherever.”

Indeed, despite his departure from daily reporting, Revkin still has many demands on his time. He is finishing a book about natural disasters for middle-school students, and the talk he gave at the environmental law conference was delivered under the auspices of his new position at Pace University, where he will begin teaching in the fall. Although it won’t be ready for another year or two, he is designing a new course based on some of the ideas and issues he has explored at Dot Earth.

“Now that I’m learning the academic biorhythm, I’m building a course that will clearly have a similar feel to it than that on the blog,” he said. “The students will be conducting an interrogatory look at the key questions of our time on a trajectory toward 9 billion people: how many people are too many, how much nature is not enough, how much poverty is too much? They’ll be looking at those questions and we’ll probably have an online component, either a wiki or a blog that the students will develop each year. But it’s all still kind of TK.”

Indeed, there are many things left “to know,” such as how Dot Earth will fare as an opinion blog, and whether or not readers will find Revkin as relevant a commentator as he was a reporter. Thus far, he has proved to be as dynamic as the rapidly changing media industry itself, but only time will tell.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.