Environmental S.W.A.T. Team

New York Times’s new ‘pod’ gathers talent from multiple beats

On Thursday, The New York Times will launch a new, crack environmental reporting unit that will pull in eight specialized reporters from the Science, National, Metro, Foreign, and Business desks in a bid for richer, more prominent coverage.

CJR received a copy of an e-mail that the Times’s executive editor, Bill Keller, sent to staff in mid-December announcing the newsroom reorganization, in which he describes the paper’s rationale:

The Times has a long and distinguished record of covering the complex of issues loosely described as “the environment:” climate change, pollution, endangered land and species, the husbanding of the earth’s resources and all the related questions of business, politics, lifestyle and health. For some time we’ve been plotting a way to pull together the various reporters who work on aspects of the subject, under an editor who will wake up every day thinking of ways to push the story forward, to give it greater energy and focus.

That editor is Erica Goode, a former behavior and psychology reporter turned Health editor who has been at the Times since 1998 and spent her last year in Baghdad covering the Iraq War. Her impressive team comprises Andrew Revkin and Cornelia Dean from Science, Felicity Barringer and Leslie Kaufman from National, Elisabeth Rosenthal from Foreign, Mia Navarro from Metro, and the Washington bureau’s Matthew Wald, who writes for the paper’s Energy Challenge series (another multi-department project).

“I’m going to have a group of seven reporters who are totally focused on this and they each bring their own area expertise to the table,” Goode said in an interview. “And we have the advantage of being small enough that we can develop a really collaborative team.” In addition, she will work with liaisons at every desk, first and foremost being the “energy cluster” in Business Day, which, along with the recently launched Green Inc. blog, is overseen by editor Justin Gillis.

One of the primary goals is to get more interesting, “big-thought” environment articles onto the front page, according to assistant managing editor Glenn Kramon, to whom Goode will report. That means more investigative work, he added, and sifting through reporting and storytelling approaches that resonate with readers. “My goal is to make ‘em angry enough to do something,” Kramon said.

The approach is well adapted to the current necessities of covering the environment, which has grown and unfolded into a broader and more complicated story than many would have expected even a few years ago. Much of that is thanks to the intense coverage of global warming—and to the journalists who have slowly but surely revealed its threads in science, technology, business, politics, health, travel, fashion, and more.

As gas prices soared last summer and the cost of powering homes and cars became a central issue in the presidential campaign, journalists seemed to clue into the fact that the climate story is really an energy story at heart. What most do not realize—and what makes the Times’s arrangement so progressive—is that behind energy lies human behavior and whether or not we efficiently manage all our natural resources, from power, to food, to habitat, and beyond. Times reporter Andrew Revkin, a member of the environment team, has written about this extensively on his blog, Dot Earth. In a recent interview, Revkin explained to CJR why he thinks it’s not climate that is the “story of our time,” but rather sustainability in a world moving toward nine billion inhabitants.

Along those lines, Goode hopes that the Times’s more strategic, coordinated approach will capture the variety of ways in which a single environmental issue can touch people’s daily lives. As an example of the type of coverage she hopes to do more of, she pointed to a December article by team member Elisabeth Rosenthal about the “passive house,” a new class of cheap and ultra-efficient home being pioneered in Germany.

“I can’t emphasize enough how much interest in this subject there is among readers,” Goode said. “That story immediately went to the top of the most e-mailed list and stayed there for quite awhile. It’s clear that people are really hungry to hear about this stuff. And that was a story that combined some science, some business, some home, and some lifestyle—it went across the traditional boundaries of news departments.”

Unfortunately, as newsrooms around the country shrink and close, such dedicated focus and coordination is becoming increasingly challenging. When I asked Kramon whether the Times’s reorganization had anything to do with cutting costs, he replied that it is “just the opposite.” He has been agitating for the team for a couple of years and sees it as a “dream come true.”

“We’ve had a lot of other things on our minds, what with the economic meltdown and the two wars,” Kramon said, “so I admire Bill Keller for having the vision to do something like this at this time.”

Indeed, only a handful of papers could even conceive of pulling off such a maneuver. But there is still something to be learned for even the smallest outlets. Most importantly, the Times’s connect-the-dots approach represents the right way to think about and report on the environment—whether that reporting is the work of an individual or a team effort.

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