All thumbs, none green

Environment coverage is down at the Times, even if it wasn't supposed to be

Two weeks ago, I excoriated The New York Times for canceling its Green blog a month after it had dismantled its environment desk and reassigned its editors and reporters to other desks—some, to other beats.

My post got a lot attention, and many commentators noted that my criticism was “harsh,” which it was. Among other things, I called the decision to eliminate the blog a “terrible idea,” and I stand by that. But two of my barbs went too far.

The Times announced the blog’s demise at 5pm on a Friday afternoon with no explanation, and I immediately tried to call Editor in Chief Jill Abramson, Managing Editor Dean Baquet, and corporate spokeswoman Eileen Murphy to find out what was going on, only to be told that none of them were in the office.

Their absence, and the timing of the announcement, looked like an obvious effort to break some bad news when no one was looking, and I found it all the more infuriating because government press offices use the same maneuver to avoid coverage by papers like the Times. So, I called it an “act of total cowardice,” which was rash. Clumsiness is more like it.

I’ve talked to a variety of people at the Times since then, all on background, and I don’t think there was any conscious effort to dodge notice or criticism. Nancy Kenney, who edited the blog, had been reassigned to the Culture desk after the Environment desk was dissolved, and that Friday was the last day in her old role, so managers pulled the plug on the blog.

“We could have handled the situation better,” Baquet, who won’t speak to me, admitted to Public Editor Margaret Sullivan a few days later, but that concession only helps so much.

I think the fact that the editors didn’t foresee the need for more grace itself says something about their level of regard for environmental coverage, but in my post about the Green blog’s closing, I accused Baquet of telling “an outright lie” when he said in a January interview with InsideClimate News that the Times was as committed as ever to the beat. That, too, was insulting and impetuous.

I don’t believe that Baquet set out to deceive anyone. He’s an admirable journalist who was forced out of his job as editor of the Los Angeles Times because he refused to dole out any more layoffs there. And I agree with Sullivan’s opinion that his “intentions are good” in New York. Baquet’s strategy, as he outlined it to her, is to spread what was once on the blog more widely throughout the paper and website.

“I think our environmental coverage has suffered from the segregation — it needs to be more integrated into all of the different areas,” like science, politics and foreign news, he told Sullivan, and it’s a fine idea. The problem is, very few people think it will work.

“Here’s my take:” Sullivan wrote, “I’m not convinced that The Times’s environmental coverage will be as strong without the team and the blog. Something real has been lost on a topic of huge and growing importance.”

An examination of the Times’s recent environmental coverage suggests that she’s right.

When the Green blog closed, a farewell post encouraged readers, “Please watch for environmental policy news on the Caucus blog and energy technology news on the Bits blog.” As of Monday afternoon, however, the Caucus had posted four pieces about the environment out of 60 total since the Green blog folded, and Bits had posted four out of 81 total. By comparison, in the last couple weeks of its life, the Green blog (which didn’t get a lot of traffic, according to my sources) was averaging three to four posts per day.

Has the missing content been “integrated” into the paper itself? It’s hard to tell, but it doesn’t look like it. There are two main places where environment news is aggregated on the Times’s website: the Science desk’s Environment page and the Business desk’s Energy & Environment page (there’s a lot of overlap, but each one has some content that the other doesn’t).

According to what’s listed on those two pages, since March 7—the Thursday following the Green blog’s closure—the Times’s print edition has run just over three environment stories per day, on average. There have been 21 articles in the A section, including three front-pagers; 14 in the Business section; and two in the weekly Science section. [Update: Tuesday brought two more stories on the front page and an article and a brief on the inside.]

That’s pretty good—way better than most newspapers, at least—but it doesn’t seem markedly different from the rate at which the Times has been publishing environmental coverage all along. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to check that since neither the Science desk’s Environment page nor the Business desk’s Energy & Environment page goes back more than a week and a half, and you can’t scroll back to older stories (yet another shortcoming of the current setup).

Regardless, it’s fairly clear that without the Green blog, the Times is already publishing less environmental content than it once did. That doesn’t necessarily diminish Baquet’s sense of commitment, however. He’s had to make some hard choices about where to cut back in the newsroom, and I accept that in January he felt like he was trying to do right by coverage of the environment, even if it hasn’t worked out that way.

I probably should’ve written this mea culpa sooner, but I wanted to talk to as many people as I could, at the Times and elsewhere. A lot of them — the majority, actually — were happy that I struck so hard, even though they realized the force was excessive. Someone had to do it, the thinking went, and I, too, worry that if I hadn’t been so caustic, the criticism wouldn’t even have registered with the Times’s editors.

But, for better or worse, it did, and now I feel a responsibility to try to restore some civility to the discussion about the paper’s future, however un-green it may be.

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