National Geographic Launches New Energy Team

Reaffirms editorial, educational commitment to environmental issues

Last week, National Geographic magazine announced the formation of a new, specialized editorial team that will focus on “deepening” and “sharpening” the publication’s coverage of energy and environmental issues. Dennis Dimick, executive editor for the environment, will lead the effort. Robert Kunzig, a longtime science journalist and author, who joined the magazine last week as environment editor, will assist him. Dimick and Kunzig will also work closely with Tim Appenzeller, the executive editor for text, and Chris Johns, the editor in chief. CJR’s Megan McGinley spoke with Dimick—a member of the National Geographic Society since 1980 and a key force behind many of the magazine’s award-winning packages since 2003—about how the new team plans to cover the vast field of environment and energy.

Megan McGinley: When and why did you decide to launch this new energy department?

Dennis Dimick: We talked about this idea last fall when we decided to search for a staff text editor for environment. We’re trying to recognize and acknowledge that our coverage of environmental issues has been a significant part of what we do. So this is just building a formal team and leveraging some of the expertise we already had. With Robert Kunzig [joining me and Tim Appenzeller], we now have three people on the beat, where before we had two. That positions us to be able to think more strategically about what we want to write about and cover. The three of us are trying to imagine and orchestrate a long-term agenda for the kinds of environmental stories we need to be looking at and presenting to our readers.

MM: What will your readers see change, both in print and online?

DD: There might be a modest up-step [in coverage]. We have significant planning in the works. We already cover energy and environmental issues heavily and will continue to improve upon that coverage. For example, we already have two stories on energy in the upcoming March issue, two more on climate change in the upcoming April issue, and several more are in the offing. We’ll devote a full issue to global fresh water in early 2010. The new editorial team really just means that … we’ll have more horsepower in-house to be able to think up and produce these stories. As for major changes on the Web, we continue to work on building a deeper, more cross-disciplinary environment section for our Web site. How fast we can build depends on limited resources.

I’d say our team goal is to stay on top of emergent research, issues, and trends, build a long-term strategic plan for environment coverage, sharpen the discussion, and make sure ideas and angles we pursue provide fresh, useful insight and context for our readers. Whether we are able to commit more resources to the environment is a balancing act. How much we do depends on available resources and the magazine’s need to cover other topics like archaeology, history, cultures, habitats, natural history, and science. We already heavily depend on freelance photographers, writers, and graphic artists. Our work is not just writing; it is a multimedia orchestration that combines words, pictures, graphics, type, and maps. This approach gives us a unique platform for vividly communicating these complex issues.

MM: What, in your opinion, is the current “state” of the energy story? In other words, what are the most important or missing angles that you hope to tackle?

DD: Well, I think most of the carbon dioxide story is little understood. I think the part that is least understood is the longevity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and what it really will take to remove it from the atmosphere. It’s a tough story to tell. But it’s something people need to understand. It’s not so simple—there’s this idea that raising carbon dioxide emissions makes the planet hot and simply lowering them cools the planet down, which isn’t the case. Instead, you need to figure out a way to get it out of the atmosphere before you can start to see a cooling. It’s like a bathtub that you’re putting more water in than is actually draining. We’re a long way from being able to drain the water, and then getting rid of what we’ve already put in. We’re actually exploring some of these issues at our forum with the Aspen Institute in March.

MM: How much is National Geographic investing in this effort?

DD: We have already been investing a significant amount of editorial coverage in these issues. This [new editorial team] is just a realization that these are key issues that we need to continue to focus on and make sure readers in the United States and overseas are given a chance to be exposed to, through the explanatory journalism we produce. This is important, especially in the United States, where we see a diminishment of coverage in newspapers and broadcast journalism, such as with the closing of CNN’s science team. But these issues need to be explained to the public, and we’re just trying to do our best to inform and educate the public on all of these things that are happening. Essentially, we’re telling the story of human aspiration and the planet’s ability to try to support that.

MM: Along those lines, your press release mentioned that the new focus on environment and energy issues is not only editorial in nature, but will also involve National Geographic’s Speakers Bureau and education groups?

DD: Actually, I’ve been involved in the Speakers Bureau for about a year. I have an illustrated slideshow that I show all over the country. So, I think that the person-to-person outreach is all a part of this. This is an ongoing educational effort. We’re only at the beginning. There’s a long process ahead of us in terms of trying to help raise public awareness to understand the need to make changes in the energy, so we might have a chance to take control of the climate.

MM: How will you environment and energy coverage differently than, say, The New York Times, which recently launched its own, specialized team dedicated to environmental coverage?

DD: Well, it takes us months to a year, even, to organize ourselves and get our fieldwork done and get our stories edited and represented. I think the upside for us is that we can provide long-term context on many of these environmental and energy issues and trends. I think what we’re able to do with the kind of explanatory journalism we provide is help people understand why they’re reading certain things in the newspapers. We’re trying to go after the “why” as much as anything. We can’t compete on timeliness, so we have to take the longer view. Can there be a new green revolution for example? Or, we’ll look at the effects of long-term temperature changes or the melting of Arctic ice caps. We can’t respond with the same rate of speed as daily newspapers do, but these are stories for the millennium, for the ages and the generations.

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Megan McGinley is an intern at CJR.