Monitor-ing the Environment

The CSM cancels green blog in favor of a broader approach

In recent years, blogs have become a popular way for newspapers to handle specialized topics like science and the environment. At least one outlet has tried that and decided to go back to a newsroom-wide approach, however.

In mid-February, The Christian Science Monitor decided to cancel its Bright Green blog after twenty-two months in operation and approximately 500 posts, most of which were written by staffer Eoin O’Carroll. In his last post, O’Carroll explained how the success of the Bright Green blog made it “clear to everyone that blogs would play an important role in the Monitor’s Web strategy.”

“Even though it’s closing down, in many respects Bright Green was a roaring success,” he wrote. “Back in February 2008, when I first proposed doing a daily, Web-only update on environmental topics, the Monitor was a blog-free publication. We didn’t even have the technology in place to publish directly to the Web without first running content through our (very buggy and cumbersome) print publication system.”

Following the success of Bright Green, the Monitor launched a technology blog in early 2008 and a science blog in February 2009. In March 2009, the Monitor published its last print edition and switched to online publication where, unsurprisingly, blogs continue to be an important part of its operations. Indeed, the site maintains around a dozen of them on topics from politics to economics. The Monitor’s editor, John Yemma, feels that environmental issues could now benefit from a broader coverage strategy, however. In an e-mail, he wrote:

Our decision to discontinue the Bright Green blog stemmed from several factors. For one thing the Monitor has a longstanding commitment to science and environmental coverage. That continues. Environmental coverage, however, has become much more mainstream in recent years. We expect all of our reporters to be well versed in environmental issues and to pursue these as a matter of course. Several years ago, when the Bright Green blog began — and when similar special coverage was launched at other news organizations — this was not the case. The Monitor’s Bright Green blogger, Eoin O’Carroll, kept the flame alive in the environmental beat while many of our other reporters specialized in regional coverage, legal affairs, politics, etc. But with climate change, cap-and-trade, and a host of other environmental issues in the center of the news, specialized environmental coverage seemed something we could move beyond.

Of course, in a world in which editors manage ever-more constrained resources, no decision is ever made for just one reason. We felt confident about moving in the direction I’ve outlined and we also wanted Eoin, our blogger, to contribute in other ways. He is one of our most valuable Web specialists and has played a key role, for instance, in the implementation of our new content management system. That was a high priority with us.

The Bright Green blog has been updated much less frequently because of Eoin’s other duties. It seemed logical, then, to discontinue it, since best practice with blogs is frequent updating.

The Christian Science Monitor is the second major paper to cut its environment blog since the beginning of the year. In January, The Wall Street Journal canceled its highly regarded Environmental Capital blog. Like the Monitor, the Journal continues to produce strong environmental coverage in its news pages, but its editors declined to explain whether their decision to discontinue the blog was part of a larger editorial strategy or due to some other factor. That’s a shame because the industry as whole could benefit from perspective on what is and isn’t working. Asked how editors can determine the best approach to covering environmental issues, Yemma wrote in an e-mail:

We are constantly reevaluating coverage. The best gauge for whether a subject is mainstream or requires specialized coverage has to do with its complexity. A science reporter or a specialized reporter can help when, for instance, you are wading into technical waters. There’s no general rule for determining where the threshold is.

If a story seems complex, we either put a specialized reporter on it or we give a general-interest reporter more time to understand the technical details. But running a newsroom is all about managing limited resources. Sometimes a non-science reporter gets thrown into a technical issue because the science reporter is unavailable. We try to hire flexible, curious, intelligent writers who are quick studies. I consider myself a general-interest journalist, but I’ve had science assignments, became a Middle East specialist, covered finance and economics, immersed myself in national politics, etc. Every journalist wears many hats and sometimes keeps one particular hat on long enough to become a certified specialist in a discipline.

Asked about a two-pronged approach comprising both news coverage and a blog, Yemma replied:

If we thought a blog would be effective at generating a following and we thought it was the best use of our limited manpower we wouldn’t hesitate to go in that direction. That’s not the case for us now.

That’s a reasonable response, of course, and more significant than it might seem at first glance. Over the last few years, it seems like it has become conventional wisdom in newsrooms that a blog is the best way to cover topics like the environment with limited resources, and perhaps it is. But The Christian Science Monitor is doing the industry a favor by at least questioning that notion.

Blogs are powerful tools, of course, but ideally they complement strong news coverage—they don’t substitute for it. As Yemma indicated, a lot depends on reader demand, but if the choice is between specialized blog coverage and general news coverage, editors might want to consider the latter. It may seem like an old fashioned approach for an outlet racing headlong into the Digital Age, but the news comes first.

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