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The Heat is on as the NYT Closes Its Environment Desk
The paper risks much by folding its environment desk – just at the moment when climate change has never been more pressing
Late last week, the New York Times made news – when it broke that the paper has shuttered its environment desk. The change isn't supposed to result in any layoffs, and the managing editor for news operations, Dean Baquet, told the news site Inside Climate that it "is purely a structural matter" – they haven't lost interest in covering environmental issues. The reporters will just be doing it from other formal desks.
The change is still disheartening, to put it mildly. Compelling, well-reported environmental stories are only becoming more important, and the Times has, without a doubt, been a leader of that coverage – especially since it launched the environment desk in 2009.
Take just one example of environmental coverage: climate change. Even as the issue gets more imperative, the science more complicated, and the implications more apparent, climate coverage has dropped around the world last year, according to a study by the Daily Climate. The Times was notable in that it led the five largest daily papers in the US in coverage of the issue, and actually increased the number of stories on it last year.
I couldn't agree more with Baquet's argument that environment stories are never really just about the environment: they're "partly business, economic, national or local, among other subjects". But these stories are also always united by the fact that they are about the environment in some way. They're about how we affect the environment or how it affects us: they're complex and multilayered, and reporting on the subject requires the story to have some degree of scientific context, a way of telling the story across those themes. And it requires something more from the reporter – a solid background in the subject matter, a reasonable understanding of the science and issues at play, and the ability to explain complex subjects in a way that will make sense to readers.
It's true that "environment" stories are about a lot more than just that, but that very fact requires reporters dedicated to connecting those dots, as well as editors who can guide that coverage. That's why having a team of reporters and an editor committed to that beat is essential.
That's not to say that the other beats – business, health, politics – should not also be involved. But that can and should be done in addition to a dedicated team of reporters on the beat. Many of the reporters who cover this beat bring an educational background in the subject, or at least, have had years of covering it to develop an expertise. There is a skill set that needs to be developed in order to tell these stories well.
I also agree with the sentiment that the Times' move will help shift environmental stories out of what has been called the "green ghetto". It does often seem like many outlets marginalize environmental stories by putting them on a specific blog or webpage, rather than integrating them in the publication at large. Elsewhere, this practice tends to exacerbate the idea that the environment is some sort of niche or special interest.
I've never felt like that was true at the Times, where environmental stories regularly get prominent placement. If anything, it seemed that they were able to write stories worthy of front-page coverage specifically because they had a team dedicated to producing them.
I also get that environmental stories aren't that sexy. (Trust me, I write them!) But they are important, and sometimes, as journalists, we cover things that are necessary, but not shiny. I think Glenn Kramon, the paper's assistant managing editor, described it best as to why they've committed resources to covering the issue, in the recent Daily Climate piece:
"I ask myself, 'In 20 years, what will we be proudest that we addressed, and where will we scratch our head and say why didn't we focus more on that?'"
I asked Beth Parke, the executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), about the Times' decision. SEJ is membership group dedicated to supporting, training, and elevating environmental reporting and reporters, and I'm a proud member that has benefited from its mentorship and opportunities. Park noted – and I agree – that journalism organizations should be widening the net on environmental stories:
"I don't think excellence in coverage necessarily has to be either team/unit or individual assignment based. The best outfits do both. Any news organization that aspires to excellence in public service must cover environmental issues or they are failing.
"They need to do it, consistently, via dedicated reporter(s), dedicated team(s), and through the lens of varied beats. Environment is a big story and only getting bigger."
It's good to hear that, at this point, the paper isn't planning to cut any of those reporters; they're just shifting them around. Should they expand the issues and skill sets of this beat to other desks? Of course. My concern is that there will simply be less environmental coverage, or at least, less prominent environmental coverage.
It's hard not to think of some of the recent outlets that have cut their environment desks, making similar promises that this would not deflate their coverage of the issue. CNN reduced their environment team four years ago, stating at the time that the plan was "to integrate environmental, science and technology reporting into the general editorial structure rather than have a stand alone unit". I think most CNN viewers would agree that the network's environmental coverage has been lacking since then. NBC also slashed its environmental reporters in 2008 – in the middle of "Green Week", an irony it failed to note.
I can only hope that the New York Times doesn't follow that trend.