Green Issues Fade

Several magazines cancel, cutback annual environment editions

Another year, another Earth Day, another wave of “Green Issues” on newsstands… or not. After three years, the springtime fad seems to have run its course, with a number of magazines cancelling and cutting back their special editions on the environment.

Is this a symptom of a larger “green fatigue” sweeping the nation? Perhaps. In a column about this year’s Earth Day being a shadow of the original one held forty years ago, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert argued that “Three and a half decades ago, when the nation’s key environmental laws were approved, politicians were responding to the mood of the country. Today, the situation is largely reversed. Polls show that voters regard the environment in general, and climate change in particular, as, at best, middling concerns.”

It would appear that, to some extent, editors are responding to that apathy. Last April, CJR reported that the number of special environment issues had nearly doubled since 2007. This year, the tide turned mightily.

Outside magazine, whose readers have an obvious, natural affinity for the environment, cancelled its Green Issue despite its past success. Last year, the magazine’s circulation manager, Paul Rolnick, told CJR that its 2008 Green Issue was one of the best-selling issues of year, selling thirty percent more copies than its 2007 Green Issue. Two factors influenced the decision to forgo this year’s edition, said editor Christopher Keyes: “idea fatigue” and an overall increase in the magazine’s coverage of environment and energy.

“Feedback from our readers was pretty clear: they enjoyed coverage of the environment, but they’d rather not see a whole issue dedicated to it at the expense of other kinds of coverage,” he said. “We’re content to make [environmental coverage] part of our overall mix as opposed to the entire focus of an issue.”

Vanity Fair cited a similar logic (as well as a recent editorial focus on the global financial crisis) behind its decision to discontinue its Green Issue, which has set the bar for others over the last three years. “Vanity Fair remains committed to covering the environment,” a Condé Nast spokeswoman told The Independent in early April. “We’ll spread our coverage throughout the year, instead of relegating the bulk of it to a specific issue.”

The same thing is happening at Discover. Although the magazine will not reprise its Better Planet issue from last year, CEO and publisher Henry Donahue said environmental issues will not be neglected. Pointing to last October’s cover package on energy, and another, also on energy, which will be published in the upcoming June issue, Donahue explained that Discover has a competitive advantage when talking about “the hard science side of things.”

“People are working through how to put their own unique spin on [environmental coverage],” he reasoned. “Last year, there was a lot of how-to-green-your-life content that wasn’t differentiated any way, so people are pulling back and looking at to how provide content in way that is relevant to their readers.”

Mother Jones publisher Jay Harris argued that profit motive is also a big factor, however. “More power to [magazines] for doing some good stories and for helping raise the profile of environmental issues generally,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But when the ‘Green Issue’ of Vanity Fair isn’t even printed on recycled paper, when they fly Leo DiCaprio to the Arctic (or wherever it was) for the ‘green’ photo shoot, it seems pretty clear that the sell more/make more money ethic trumped whatever actual green values lay behind the concept.”

Donahue and other editors say there is still “plenty” of green advertising to support Green Issues. That may be true—but after last year’s annual International Advertising Festival, The New York Times reported that “Green marketing, while booming, had lost some of its cachet.” According to the article, “The sheer volume of these ads – and the flimsiness of many of their claims – seems to have shot the messenger. At best, it has led consumers to feel apathetic toward the green claims or, at worst, even hostile and suspicious of them.”

Whatever the reasons for their decline, there are still a few Green Issues left on the newsstands this year. But even those indicate a waning interest in such projects. Take the country’s leading newsweeklies, Time and Newsweek.

Time issued bold “calls to arms” asking readers to “Be Worried, Be Very Worried” and “Win the War on Global Warming” in 2007 and 2008, respectively. This year’s plea—to save endangered species imperiled by climate change—is still passionate, but more muted by comparison. Furthermore, unlike in years past, that feature stands alone, unaccompanied by additional articles.

At least it was the cover story. Newsweek, which has fronted its Environment & Leadership section for the last two years, relegated this year’s section to second-tier status. Still, Newsweek did publish half a dozen articles, all dealing with clean-energy debate. Unfortunately, the magazine relied mostly on politicians—including energy Secretary Steven Chu, former Congressman Newt Gingrich, and Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm - to write them. These are illustrious names, but their contributions amounted to familiar stump speeches, lacking much novelty of insight.

The country’s number three newsweekly, U.S. News & World Report, put its usually superior competitors to shame, producing this year’s only truly cover-to-cover Green Issue. Its contents revolve around a central question—“Can America prosper in the new green economy?”—and feature reports on everything from green jobs to shrinking the military’s footprint.

“We’ve seen it, we’ve heard it. We’re locked in the same old debate we’ve been having at least since the ’70s … But a lot has changed very recently, and the debate is moving toward a critical mass for action,” wrote editor Brian Kelly. “What’s changed, in a word, is Obama. The president and the tide of voters who swept him into office want a change in the way we manage energy and the environment.”

As Kolbert made clear in her Earth Day column for The New Yorker, however, Kelly’s enthusiasm and optimism belies a more complicated reality. Enter The New York Times Magazine, whose Green Issue this year featured an apropos cover story about “The Green Mind” and “why eco-consciousness is so hard.” The story, by Jon Gertner, explores behavioral scientists’ research on decision-making. The social sciences produce a miniscule portion of climate studies, Gertner points out, but their insights “may be more crucial than any technological advance in combating environmental challenges.”

The issue is stacked with a couple other articles on the psychology/sociology of green. Jon Mooallem, for instance, has a quirky, intriguing story about the growing “Transition movement,” focusing on its emergence in the small town of Sandpoint, Idaho. “For a generation, the environmental movement has told us to change our lifestyles to avoid catastrophic consequences,” Mooallem wrote. “Transition tells us those consequences are now irreversibly switching on; we need to revolutionize our lives if we want to survive.”

That may be true, but some consequences, such as global warming, are still not readily apparent to most people. One that is apparent, on the other hand, is waste. In keeping with the focus on human behavior and consumers’ response to the financial crisis began, Mother Jones’s Green Issue this year (although it has never actually used the phrase or marked the special issue on the cover) focuses on all things garbage—the breakdown of plastics, zero-waste zealots, and the failure of recycling programs. The short, to-the-point articles jump right into the problems with our waste system. One highlight is an article by Elizabeth Royte on the monopoly large hauling companies have on municipal garbage systems.

“Americans have (post green fad) an economy that still generates literal oceans full of waste, and we thought we should put those wasteful practices up for examination,” Jay Harris, the magazine’s publisher, wrote in an e-mail. “In terms of the zeitgeist, I suspect there was some thought that America may be now, in the New Depression, embracing its inner thrift – waste these days just feels less acceptable.”

One certainly hopes so, but much remains to be seen, including The New Republic’s annual Environment Issue. Editor Franklin Foer says it’s on the way, and “will probably be the same size, if not bigger” than last year’s. We’re also still waiting to hear from Fortune. In 2007, it published a full-fledged Green Issue, which it demoted to a green section in 2008. Whether or not it will disappear entirely this year is unclear, but on Wednesday, the magazine was wrapping up its second-annual Brainstorm Green conference in California.

Given the current political and economic importance of energy and environmental issues, the decline of magazine Green Issues this year is disappointing. One can only hope that editors are true to their word and make these topics a focus of coverage throughout the year. After all, shouldn’t every day be Earth Day?

Curtis Brainard contributed reporting for this article.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Katherine Bagley is a science, environment and health journalist based in New York City. She is currently working as a reporter for Audubon Magazine.