the observatory

Will Collaborative Climate Coverage Work?

Mother Jones and six other outlets step into the unknown
April 19, 2010

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,

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.

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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.

According The Climate Desk Web site, “more hands on deck and more outlets mean we can do more coverage, bringing our various strengths and audiences to bear. For another, given the transformation of the media business, collaboration seems to be part of the future of journalism. We want to test out a new kind of distributed journalism—bringing together a group of reporting shops to brainstorm, assign, and share coverage. Already, this process has enriched our own understanding of the issue, and that can only be a benefit to our readers.”

With seven news organizations involved, one might expect the editorial process to be proportionately difficult. However, Bauerlein and Jeffery said that besides a marked increase in daily conference calls and shared Google Documents, collaboration has been surprisingly easy. There is no real accounting system for content contributions made by each organization, they added, but they stressed that the output of each partner is not the chief concern of the project.

“The biggest thing everybody’s been putting in is brain cells,” Bauerlein said. “It’s really an ideas collaboration. That’s the thing that we’ve all found enjoyable about the process, the coming together of minds. And from that has flowed a commitment of resources that is appropriate to each partner.”

The partner organizations cover their own costs for the pieces that they contribute to the project, but for the joint assignments and for maintaining the Climate Desk Web site, the project has received funding from the Surdna Foundation and the Park Foundation.

Bauerlein and Jeffery admit that it’s difficult to measure the concrete benefits this project will bring, but both were adamant that the most important product of the collaboration was the exchange of ideas it provided.

“Just in talking to each other about how our publications work mechanically, we’ve all learned some very valuable information. It’s better to come and learn from each other’s successes and failures. As journalists, we all rise and fall together,” said Jeffery.

Other benefits could come from the shared audiences between each organization. The partners command a combined online audience of more than 25 million monthly unique visitors, 1.5 million print readers, and an anticipated 1.5 million TV viewers, but there has been little talk of the effect The Climate Desk will have on each organization’s respective bottom line.

Moving forward, Bauerlein and Jeffery said that they’re looking to innovate even further within the collaborative structure they’ve helped build.

“What we did with this project was the thing that we all know really well how to do, which is report stories and publish stories,” Bauerlein said. “The kind of things that could be really exciting with a collaboration like this—if we get it right—are interactive things, things with user involvement, mapping, data visualization, any number of things that break out of the box.”

The project is still in the pilot phase, but some publications, like Ad Age, are already calling it “revolutionary.” That might be a bit much, but whether it marks the beginning of a new age of journalism, or just provides a shot in the arm for flagging climate-change coverage, The Climate Desk is worth keeping an eye on.

Thomas K. Zellers is a CJR intern, currently studying economics and environmental science at Fordham University.