What Lies Ahead as Mainstream Outlets Shrivel?

Potential Abounds, But Will They Deliver? New Media and Coverage of Environment

As the watchdog press splinters from an aged business model, the prospects for original reporting of climate change and environmental topics have seldom appeared more uncertain. Indeed, mainstream coverage of global climate change dwindled last year as newspapers filed for bankruptcy protection and curtailed or ceased publication in record numbers.

As newspapers go digital, so too will  news on climate change.

But the recent launches of myriad web-based news media may counter the threat for audiences increasingly going online for their substantive news. Editors and journalists from more and more news organizations now are delivering sophisticated, in-depth reports online on topics ranging from how Bangladesh is suffering from effects of climate change to whether natural gas drilling is endangering water supply.

Among the independent, new media newsrooms is the non-profit ProPublica, which focuses on public interest investigations with “moral force.” Led by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, ProPublica is funded by grants, partnerships with media outlets, and individual donations – a model not unlike that of National Public Radio. ProPublica’s mission: “Carry forward some of the great work of journalism in the public interest that is such an integral part of self-government, and thus an important bulwark of our democracy.”

ProPublica.org went live last summer, and it has co-published wide-ranging articles on its website. An energy series by reporter Abrahm Lustgarten was made available to a broad audience through media partnerships at WNYC radio in New York, The Albany Union, the now-defunct New York Sun, and San Diego Union Tribune, and also through outlets such as Business Week and Grist.org. His reports also appear on propublica.org. (ProPublica’s stories can be republished free of charge under a Creative Commons license.)

Lustgarten, a former staff writer at Fortune, is one of two ProPublica staffers concentrating on energy and the environment Lustgarten spent six months on an ongoing investigation into water quality effects of natural gas drilling. He says dedicating resources to a single story for more than two or three months was “inconceivable” at Fortune. At ProPublica, he said, the opposite is true. “After six months, I feel that I only now understand the topic well enough to get into the nuances of science and analysis, and develop strong reporting without oversimplifying,” he said in a phone interview.

Reporting Globally

As mainstream news media move away from using international correspondents, the new GlobalPost may be among those trying to pick up the slack. The Boston-based news group that started publishing in January focuses solely on international reporting. Leading its climate coverage is independent journalist Stefan Faris, author of Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley (Henry Holt and Co., 2008). Faris has been a contributor to The Atlantic and Slate, among other publications.

Faris says his weekly stories initially will draw from his book. Climate change as it relates to the developing world will remain his focus throughout the year, he said in a phone interview.

Multiple streams of revenue will support the mission of GlobalPost, including web advertising, syndication and paid membership of a premium content service called “Passport.” About 70 contributors get a monthly stipend, and some have been offered shares of the privately owned company.

Earth News for Everyone

Also launched in January is the Mother Nature Network, which covers environmental stories in ways intended to be understandable to a broad readership, but one clearly self-identifying as being interested in environmental issues. Rather than focus on experts and science-heavy reporting, it provides six channels of lively environmental content aimed at mainstream America. Accessible content is the goal. Co-founded by Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavel, an intrepid environmentalist, the site features “ecollywood” features along with coverage of the new Obama administration.

Mother Nature Network CEO Joel Babbit says his company, which is headquartered in Atlanta, has benefited from some unfortunate timing coincidences. “CNN laid off its environmental team; and with the acquisition by NBC, The Weather Channel followed suit,” he said. As a result, many of the former CNN and Weather Channel staffers (also Atlanta-based) now comprise his 15-person newsroom. Together, they create 60% original content for mnn.com. The rest of the content is derived from the news aggregator Mochila.

Lifestyle and sustainability topics have long been the realm of online publications such as Grist, TreeHugger and PlanetGreen. The three outlets produce witty content and blogs on green issues and sustainability for the masses. Grist, an independent, non-profit entity, announced last summer a new affiliation with The Washington Post. Grist now syndicates some of its articles to washingtonpost.com. Other syndication partners with Grist include MSN, MSNBC, and The Huffington Post.

When the Discovery Channel acquired TreeHugger in mid-2007, TreeHugger expanded its online content. According to TreeHugger editor Meaghan O’Neill (who also edits the web site of Discovery’s Planet Green channel), stories shifted from fragmented environmentalism to mainstream sustainability. “After ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ everything collated under the umbrella of climate change,” O’Neill said in a phone interview. “Everywhere from WalMart to your beauty salon, we were seeing shift toward an environmental awakening.”

“TreeHugger focuses on the ‘do’ level, with stories that push the conversation forward so that people are talking about the cutting edge important things, such as technologies that work or not, or policies that are bunk or not bunk,” said O’Neill. “Our main role is to host the conversation, to be this nexus of sustainability and lifestyle as it relates to climate change, but not drive the conversation.” Both TreeHugger and PlanetGreen contain a multitude of “how-to” and consumer-oriented feature articles. A recent headline at TreeHugger announced “Careers in Renewable Energy and CleanTech,” and PlanetGreen featured “Top 7 Ways to Reduce Your Driving Emissions without Reducing Quality of Life.”

O’Neill acknowledges that TreeHugger and PlanetGreen do not have the resources that a major metropolitan daily could marshal to cover breaking news, such as sending writers to Tennessee to report on the coal ash disaster. But, she says she has contributing writers who are experts in their fields that “have a tendency to connect the dots and reveal aspects of a story that mainstream media sometimes overlooks.”

Finally, at least one traditional media outlet continues to play a leading role on global climate topics. The New York Times in a December 17, 2008, memo announced it is expanding its science and environment coverage, and in mid-January it officially assembled its new reporting team comprised of reporters and editors whose expertise runs the gamut of disciplines: Science, National, Metro, Foreign, and Business.

Reporting on global climate change science and policy/politics can be exceedingly complex, yet new online media outlets hold promise for multi-faceted coverage at a time when traditional “mainstream” news outlets continue to face daunting challenges in an unprecedented economic and competitive climate.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a Public Policy Scholar at The Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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