With the Senate poised for an “uphill push” to pass climate and energy legislation, and numerous surveys saying that Americans’ concern about global warming has declined, seven news outlets have banded together to improve upon what they see as chronically poor coverage of climate change.
On Monday, The Atlantic, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and the new PBS current affairs show Need to Know launched The Climate Desk, a collaborative reporting project that aims to flesh out the human, environmental, economic, and political impacts of a changing climate. It is a story that “hasn’t been told very well,” according to a statement on the group’s new Web site, theclimatedesk.org.
The seven partners first gathered in December 2009 in what Mother Jones co-editors Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein describe as the result of brainstorming “the perfect editorial meeting.” Now, just four months later, the project is beginning to post its first series of articles, about “how American businesses are adapting to the liabilities, risks, and opportunities presented by a changing climate.” Over the next two weeks, two dozen stories, produced collaboratively by all seven organizations, will run on all the participating outlets’ Web sites, as well as The Climate Desk Web site.
The decision to focus on the multifaceted impacts of a changing climate was a response to what Climate Desk partners saw as fragmented and lackluster coverage of climate issues in most media outlets, according to Jeffery and Bauerlein. The Climate Desk Web site lists four factors imperiling good journalism:
1. Climate change is slow-moving, vast, and overwhelming for news organizations to grapple with.
2. What coverage there is tends to be fractured and compartmentalized—science, technology, politics, and business aspects are covered by different teams, or “desks” of reporters, despite the intrinsic connections.
3. Coverage is too often fixated on imperiled wildlife, political gamesmanship, or the “debate” over the existence of climate change, all at the expense of advancing the bigger story—how we’re going to address, mitigate, or adapt to it.
4. Cuts to news organizations are making matters worse.
“Climate change has typically been covered in a very siloed way,” Jeffery said in a follow-up interview, “and I think that what you’re most often left with is this political shout-fest coverage, and that’s not the most interesting—or important—part of the story.”
The inaugural series of posts will cover the adaptation of business to the risks and opportunities associated with climate change. According to Jeffery, this is a topic on which they have seen very little coverage, and one that “would provide a good way to probe at the issue in a different way that might lead us to a lot of stories that we can tackle long-term.”
Content for the series, and for The Climate Desk in general, falls into one of three production categories (although it’s not exactly clear what is what on its Web site or on the sites of individual partners):
1. Stories that were jointly assigned by the group, written by freelancers, reviewed and edited by volunteers from the partner organizations, and then posted on The Climate Desk Web site, as well as any other partner site.
2. Stories that were written independently by one organization, edited by the entire group, and shared so that they could be posted on any of the members’ sites, in addition to The Climate Desk Web site.
3. Stories that were written independently and are then linked in the Publish2 feed, which means users can see the story on any partner’s site, but it can be viewed in full only on the originating site.
Jeffery and Bauerlein, who have handled much of the coordination for the project, said that climate change is the “perfect lab” for testing the collaborative model because it is such a “vast and complex” topic that it requires different, but complementary areas of expertise to cover well.
“When we were contemplating how this topic could be better covered, we thought, what if we could have Wired’s design team or Slate’s meme-machine and great pulse on culture?” Jeffery said. “And you start to imagine the different skill sets and how they can partner up to make something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.”
Although the focus of the project is to improve the coverage of climate change, however, much of the partners’ interest comes from a common belief that collaborative projects like The Climate Desk will play an integral role in defining the future of journalism.
“We were looking at shops we thought would have something interesting to say to one another, but weren’t head-to-head competitors, as then it gets more difficult to tell [your partners] what your stories are going to be, or discuss what your Web traffic is,” Jeffery said.