Audiences are (finally) paying more attention to climate stories

For years, conventional wisdom has held that climate coverage is not especially good for business. The story always seemed too abstract, or too technical, to command attention. “It was pathetic,” David Gelber, who for decades was a producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes, says, reflecting on the consistent absence of environmental reporting in mainstream outlets. “It baffles me. This is such a dramatic story. When they write the history of journalism, this is going to be a very long chapter, the refusal to look at this issue.” In 2011, Gelber left CBS along with a fellow 60 Minutes producer, Joel Bach, to develop Years of Living Dangerously, which cast celebrities (Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Don Cheadle) as climate-journalism field correspondents. It aired for two seasons on two different networks; the show drew praise and won an Emmy, but couldn’t sustain interest from studio executives.

Environmental journalism continues to be perceived as unpopular: last July, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes—who devoted a week of his show to climate change in 2016 and appeared on Living Dangerously—described climate coverage as “a palpable ratings killer.” Last fall, when the United Nations released a landmark climate report concluding that disastrous impacts of warming were nearer than previously thought and that rapid, worldwide changes were necessary, many leading outlets didn’t cover the news at all. This spring, major networks devoted significantly more airtime to the royal baby than they did to climate change; ABC’s World News Tonight, in particular, gave the baby more coverage in a week than it did climate change over the entirety of 2018.  

It’s easy to see the news media’s unwillingness to confront looming catastrophe as a grim picture. But what if the prevailing thinking is wrong? A review of industry-wide data and accounts from numerous top-line publications suggest that audience interest in climate coverage is, in fact, on the rise, and that dedicating resources to the story might suit companies’ bottom lines. “Climate change content matters,” Su Hang, a data scientist at the web analytics company Chartbeat, says. “That’s clear based on the data from both coverage and consumption of climate change content.” 

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In response to a request from CJR, Hang analyzed climate-related articles in roughly 1,300 media websites worldwide (mostly in North America and Europe) between January 2017 and June 2019. Looking at the first quarter of each year, she found that the number of “engaged minutes” site visitors spent with climate stories in the first quarter of 2019—in other words, the minutes people spent reading—had almost doubled from the time spent in previous years. “The amount of time and attention readers are paying to climate change is strong and growing stronger,” Hang says.

The jump in interest has been noticed at the Los Angeles Times, where, over the past year, the average climate story has outperformed average stories in other news sections, in terms of total audience, subscriber audience, and conversions from reader to subscriber. According to Scott Kraft, the paper’s managing editor, the pieces that do best are in-depth, enterprise projects, such as a recent story on the effects of sea-level rise on the California coast. Published over the July Fourth weekend—a time not known for high traffic—it impressed editors by quickly becoming one of the best-read stories of the year. (The LA Times declined to provide more specific data, which it considers proprietary, as did other newspapers that provided input for this story.)

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At The Guardian, a partner of CJR and The Nation in the Covering Climate Now project, the environment is among the beats that bring the most money to its donation drive; over the past financial year, contributions resulting from environmental coverage were up 50 percent compared with the year before. Monthly traffic to The Guardian’s environmental section increased by about a quarter—surpassing the modest uptick in traffic to the rest of the site.

For The New York Times, too, climate readership rose in 2018. According to Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, a spokesperson for the paper, climate-related stories received 41 percent more traffic than the previous year. That’s not necessarily a surprise, since the paper’s Climate Desk was established in 2017, but Bevacqua says that certain pieces, especially deeply-reported and visual stories—an interactive feature, “How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown Than When You Were Born?,” for example—drew strong traffic, more than two million readers from more than 18,000 cities and towns in the case of “How Much Hotter.” Subscribers to the Times’s “Climate Fwd:” newsletter have doubled since last June.

“This is staring us right in the face,” Al Ortiz, vice president of standards and practices for CBS News, says, of the climate crisis. Ortiz, who is helping oversee a commitment to environmental coverage at CBS, says that the audience for climate stories is expanding, especially among millennial and younger viewers—both coveted demographics. “This is going to affect almost every aspect of human life,” he says. “I really consider it the beat of the future.”

Even in smaller markets, which may lack the resources for ambitious investigations, there is growing evidence that audiences have an appetite for environmental reporting. In 2010, Ed Maibach, who directs the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, worked with Climate Central, an independent news and research organization, to form Climate Matters, a program designed to connect local meteorologists and journalists with expertise and materials for locally-relevant climate stories. A pilot run of the program with WLTX—a CBS-affiliated station in Columbia, South Carolina—and chief meteorologist Jim Gandy received enthusiastic feedback from viewers—an especially promising sign, Maibach says, given that Columbia is a conservative media market. The network’s coverage also proved good for business: when WLTX first began focusing on climate stories, it was third in the ratings in its market; as Gandy continued emphasizing climate as a local story, WLTX ascended to first.

Today, Climate Matters partners with more than 750 weathercasters, in 85 percent of American media markets. (Weathercasters in conservative areas—including parts of Florida and Texas—were the fastest to sign on.) Some stations get pushback from skeptical viewers, Maibach says, but more often the response is positive. “They get comments like, ‘Thank you, no one but you ever tells me about how climate change is relevant to my life,” he says.

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Andrew McCormick is an independent journalist and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, the South China Morning Post, and more. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.