Ménage à Green Blogs

Three new science and environment blogs get experimental

News outlets across the country are cutting staff, sections, and print editions, but science and environment blogs continue to multiply, even among “old media.”

Three that have sprung up in recent months are, in particular, worth pointing out for their efforts to expand the bounds of what a “Web log” is and what it can do. The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware has launched AllGreenToMe, an interactive blog that mixes database citizen reporting and print-edition science news stories. The Christian Science Monitor’s third science blog, Discoveries, acts as an extension of its print coverage, featuring full-length reported articles. Last but not least, the National Journal invited dozens of politicians, energy company CEOs, and environmental group leaders to join an online discussion of contentious topics in Washington, D.C. for their Experts Blog. In a media climate where science journalism is often seen as expendable, this new wave of blogs is another sign that many editors remain committed to the beat.

“I feel like climate and the environment is the story that many of us in our field are not covering,” said News Journal editor David Ledford. “We need to bring some energy and brainpower to bear on [environmental issues].” To that end, the daily, regional newspaper just launched AllGreenToMe just a few weeks ago. The site rounds up environmental news, policy updates, and research, and provides tip sheets for reducing your carbon footprint and other elements of “green living.” Its most ambitious and innovative element, however, is an interactive environmental monitoring forum.

The forum invites readers to upload photos and videos, post wildlife sightings, and voice environmental concerns and observations. “Watchdog reporting is the bedrock we stand on, and we will continue to gather empirical evidence to determine whether things are getting better or worse [for the environment],” Ledford wrote in a February 22 editorial
announcing the creation of AllGreenToMe. “What gets attention gets improved. Let the observations, brainstorming and discussions begin.”

Ledford hopes that by soliciting readers’ (as well as local scientists’) observations, the News Journal can create a searchable online database on all things environmental in the mid-Atlantic region. Want to track the migratory pattern of a certain bird species? Check the records of sightings. Want to learn the status of regional woodlands? Check for deforestation or planting reports from readers across the state. Want to report suspicious waste or chemical dumping near you? Go right ahead.

“Database reporting is a good way to help people understand what is going on in their communities,” Ledford said in an interview. “Get people talking and sharing ideas about green living and climate [and] I think you’d start seeing some commonality in interests and people with a better understanding of what is going on.”

This isn’t the first time that the News Journal has incorporated reader participation into its reporting and Web site. Approximately four years ago, they created a statewide weather watchers’ network to help the newspaper cover storm events across Delaware. Readers sent in information ranging from rain and snow precipitation rates to which beaches and roads were eroding. According to Ledford, the participatory forum was extremely successful.

“Take that kind of readership involvement beyond weather, to all things environmental, and you have a chance to engage citizenry,” he said. “I understand [environmental news] is a niche. But I also really believe we need to do and do it right. The science journalism we give the reader needs to be good. It needs to have legs, be verifiable. You aren’t going to get anywhere … if you’re not paying attention to the quality of journalism you’re producing.”

Ledford says he rearranged News Journal staff so he could appoint an AllGreenToMe editor devoted to the blog’s beta stage. He credits Gannett, the paper’s owner, for supporting the endeavor, and says he is currently working with a sister paper, the Journal News in Westchester County, New York, to expand the citizen watchdog database. He hopes that the environmental database system will eventually be integrated at all Gannett papers, creating a national map of environmental issues, trends, and concerns. Ledford is also incorporating resources from Gannett’s partners into the site, including a green jobs database built by CareerBuilder.com.

A number of publications are reorganizing their newsrooms and pooling resources in order to maintain or expand science-related coverage without incurring significant cost. In April, The Christian Science Monitor will become the first nationally circulated newspaper to replace its daily print edition with online coverage (though it is possible the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will beat it to the punch). The cost-cutting measure is allowing the Monitor to “enhance” its Web content, however. Since early 2008, its site has hosted environment and technology blogs and, in February, it launched a third, written by the paper’s veteran science reporter Peter Spotts. Though the new blog, called Discoveries, is fairly typical in format compared to sites like AllGreenToMe, it bears the responsibility for making sure nothing is lost in the transition from print to Web.

“The Monitor has always viewed science as an important human enterprise that deserves attention,” said Spotts, who covers everything from NASA to coral reefs. And, as Web reporter, he still adheres to the same principles of hard news reporting that he did while writing for the print edition. “I don’t believe people really care what I think about things,” he said. “I try and put at least as much effort into the blog as I would into a shorter news story because I am not the expert.”

Despite worries that Internet newsreaders have lower attention spans than print subscribers, Spotts also sees blogging as a way for science reporters to give their readers more, not less. “There is a certain type of core [science journalism] readership,” he said. “And a lot of them really know their stuff. So they tend to come expecting more than just a quick 200-word summary meant for someone with a passing interesting [in science].”

The launch of Discoveries does not mean the end of Spotts’s responsibilities for the “paper,” however. He will continue to write articles for the daily print edition until the transition in April, and will write non-blog articles for the daily online edition and weekly print edition thereafter. Like other bloggers, Spotts mixes unique posts with others that expand on his print and online articles. “It’s fun to experiment,” he said.

Indeed it is. Last October, National Journal, a weekly politics magazine, launched its innovative Expert Blogs series, which includes blogs devoted to healthcare, the economy, national security, transportation, and energy and the environment. In each post, the blogs’ respective editors pose a question to a long list of distinguished, expert contributors, who then reply in the comments section.

The series is a way for the National Journal to “experiment with new media while remaining nonpartisan, which is crucial for our publication,” said energy and environment blog editor Margaret Kriz. She has a sharp eye for hot topics. The site acts as a forum for debating current environmental and science policy questions, such as the best way to structure a carbon cap-and-trade system, how the United States should handle nuclear waste, and what effect the economic crisis will have on clean energy projects.

The National Journal has attracted an impressive list of contributors, ranging from politicians and lawyers to CEOs and environmental advocates. In a recent post about whether the United States should force electric power companies to use more renewable energy sources, participants included Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass), Chairman on House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming; Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association; Marvin Fertel, President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute; and Bill Meadows, President of The Wilderness Society.

Kriz said she used her contact list, built from twenty years of science and environment reporting in Washington, D.C., to recruit contributors. “About 80 percent of the people I approached agreed to participate,” she said. “These are really hot issues right now, so people were excited to start discussing them.”

The debates are interesting and topical. And although the participants’ use of numbers supporting their own business or causes is a bit heavy, the Expert Blogs are engaging departure from typical comment boards. Kriz said her next step is to keep building the contributors’ list. “I want more participants from more fields,” she said. “If I want to ask a question about the Endangered Species Act, for example, I would know I had plenty of people who would jump in and respond.”

What remains to seen, however, is whether or not readers will respond to any or all of these projects. We hope they do, because the new blogs are a welcome sign that journalists are not rolling over in the face of a challenge.

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