Environment coverage TBD

The Times says it’s committed, but only time will tell

The New York Times’s decision is to dismantle its four-year-old environment “pod” has been called everything from “an unmitigated disaster” to potentially “a good thing.”

In fact, a lot remains to be seen. InsideClimate News reporter Katherine Bagley broke the story on Friday and quoted Times managing editor Dean Baquet insisting that the change is structural and that the paper remains as committed to environmental coverage as ever. But he and other top editors haven’t provided many details about what that means.

Over the next few weeks, the environment pod’s two editors and seven reporters will be reassigned to other desks, including, presumably, Science, National, Business, and Foreign, but word in the newsroom is that few, if any, people know where they’re headed. It’s also unclear what will happen to the Green blog, though Baquet has said, “If it has impact and audience it will survive.”

Baquet told InsideClimate News that the reorganization is an effort to better cover today’s “more complex” environmental stories, but that’s basically the same rationale that the Times used to create the pod in 2009. The question is, which is a better strategy: delta formation or the scattered-embed approach?

The decision to dismantle the pod engendered a widespread worry among environmental journalists in other corners of the media (not to mention among environmentalists) who argued that the decision to eliminate the positions of environment editor and deputy environment editor send a message that the beat is a low priority.

There were some optimists, however. Andrew Revkin, a former environment reporter for the pod who took a buyout a year after its creation and now writes the opinion blog, Dot Earth, said, “The Times excelled at environmental coverage before there was an environment pod,” and predicted that it could continue to do so. And Bora Zivkovic, the blogs editor at Scientific American, argued that a bit of “cross-fertilization” with other beats could be good for environmental coverage at the Times.

They’re right. Breaking up the environment pod doesn’t have to mean that environmental coverage will suffer (and it’s worth remembering that the Green blog started as the Green Inc. blog at Business Day). But what excited Erica Goode, the pod’s first editor, was having a group of reporters who were “totally focused” on the subject, and it’s difficult to imagine that it will receive the same level of attention when some of its former members have to report to editors will different priorities.

Nobody’s talking about it, but environmental coverage did seem to improve under the pod. Data from the University of Colorado indicate that climate-change coverage at the Times was on the rise before the pod’s creation, and fell thereafter, but there’s been a strong uptick in the last year, and the paper has thrown itself at a variety of other stories, producing a slew of big projects and a steadier diet of shorter reports.

“I think environment coverage has improved,” said Times assistant managing editor Glenn Kramon, who’s been the beat’s champion at the paper for more than a decade. “That’s partly because of the environment group—lines of reporting like ‘Chilling Effect,’ the series this past year by Libby Rosenthal and Andy Lehren on the dangers for the atmosphere of the coolants used in air-conditioning, and ‘Temperature Rising,’ Justin Gillis’s series on the effects of climate change. It’s also partly because other desks have made important contributions, like Charles Duhigg’s ‘Toxic Waters’ project on pollution in American waters for Business Day, Ian Urbina’s ‘Drilling Down’ series on the risks of hydro-fracking for National, and Jim Glanz’s ‘Cloud Factories’ series on data centers that waste lots of energy for Investigative.”

The Times’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, asked a couple pod journalists what they thought of the situation. Environment editor Sandy Keenan told her “she wishes the decision had not been made.” Meanwhile, foreign correspondent Elisabeth Rosenthal offered Sullivan an odd defense of the changes while noting pros and cons of the pod structure.

“There’s not a lot of news in this area—we’re watching glaciers melting—so there isn’t an urgency to get things into the paper right away,” she said, in what was hopefully meant to be a tongue-in-cheek reply, to which Sullivan added: “Integration into the main desks can be a help with that.”

Obviously, you could debate whether the pod or no-pod strategy is better until you’re blue in the face, and not get anywhere. The Times’s brass decided to on the latter, and it’s not like the environment is being singled out unfairly. The paper has also broken up education and “how we live” pods in recent months, and there’s a media pod whose fate is uncertain.

“Even if there was no fiscal pressure to do so, we would be making some structural changes in the newsroom to balance our precious journalistic resources,” executive editor Jill Abramson, who declined to comment for this article, wrote in a memo to the staff. “In order to expand digitally and internationally in the exciting ways we have planned, it is natural to reshape our contours.”

Perhaps, but then it all comes down to editorial commitment, but here, too, there are reasons to be concerned.

Though untroubled about the demise of the pod, Revkin conceded that he was dismayed by other factors. First, there is the fact that the newsroom is undergoing it second round of major staff reductions in three years, offering buyouts until January 24, after which it may have to resort to layoffs. Second, as New York Magazine revealed on Sunday, Kramon is headed to San Francisco to become the new technology editor.

That’s unfortunate because he has probably been the paper’s staunchest advocate for environmental coverage. Asked who on the masthead would carry the torch when he moves to the West Coast in mid-Spring, Kramon said, “Abramson, Baquet, and countless other journalists here, recognize the importance of this subject to New York Times readers (as well as the planet).”

He requested only that the Times be given a chance to prove its enduring commitment, and that it will have. But as Sullivan, the public editor, pointed out, “Keeping environmental reporting strong won’t be easy.”

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