Niche News Outlets Filling News Void Resulting from Smaller ‘Legacy’ News Rooms

At nytimes.com, the Energy & Environment page on a recent Sunday led with stories generated by its Green, Inc. team – covering everything from U.S. Chamber of Commerce efforts to derail climate legislation to Canada’s greenhouse goals and efforts by an Idaho pub to cut its greenhouse gas footprint.

But look farther down that November 1 page and you’ll find a cache of climate- and energy-related stories parked in spaces reserved for Greenwire and ClimateWire – two of several content products from Environment & Energy Publishing.

Long valued as a news source by Washington policy wonks, politicians, lobbyists, and business people inside the Beltway, E&E has spread its wings in an effort to expand its readership.

It’s one of a handful of specialized news organizations that have partnered with some of the nation’s largest and most respected traditional or “legacy” media companies. Both sides see concrete benefits. As mainstream news companies continue to shed revenue and reporters, niche news organizations are beginning to fill gaps in coverage. Niche news outlets, meanwhile, are gaining valuable exposure as they seek to build customers.

Times, Washington Post, PBS ‘News Hour’

Besides the E&E/New York Times partnership, others include: washingtonpost.com and Grist, the environmental website; and PBS’s NewsHour and Climate Central.

There’s a great diversity of specialized news organizations devoted to covering the climate issue. They span the spectrum, from the youthful and sometimes irreverent Grist to the sober and policy-centered E&E. But traditional news organizations are finding value in a variety of environmental news outlets that have the resources and the expertise to focus more sharply on the climate issue.

The New York Times is not able to expand its newsroom anymore to cover everything that’s going on,” said Kevin Braun, editor-in-chief of E&E Publishing, in a recent telephone interview. “They need someone to help flesh out the excellent content that they’re already producing, and I think they felt we were a very good fit for that.”

The Times decided to approach E&E about a partnership during the summer of 2008, as part of an effort to strengthen coverage of energy and the environment inside its business section, said Tom Zeller, Jr., editor of Green, Inc., a blog embedded in the business section of nytimes.com.

“I initiated the contact with E&E because they were (and I think, continue to be), the leaders in providing highly-focused, intelligent and dispassionate reportage of energy and environment policy coming out of Washington,” Zeller said in a recent e-mail interview.

E&E Publishing’s specialized news operations.

The partnership with nytimes.com marks the first time that E&E has made content available to the general public through a third party, Braun said. Other media companies have approached E&E seeking similar arrangements, but “at this point we’ve chosen not to act on any of the proposals we’ve seen other than The New York Times,” he said.

E&E, which offers annual subscriptions for individuals starting at $3,000, doesn’t charge nytimes.com for its content. But the exposure has led to “a decent amount of subscription revenue” – generated by readers who saw a story in nytimes.com and clicked a ClimateWire or Greenwire hotlink to get to E&E’s website, Braun said.

While eager to build exposure, E&E is careful to not give away too much content to the Times. “We made a conscious decision to limit the number of stories that we send them each day to about seven, in order not to dilute the value of paid subscriptions to our services,” Braun said.

Times Posts E&E Copy Without Additional Editing

The partnership is mostly automatic. E&E selects the stories it will provide nytimes.com, and those are automatically fed into what the nytimes.com calls “modules” on the Energy & Environment page of the Business section within nytimes.com.

Zeller or someone else at the Times may choose to highlight one of E&E’s contributions, but the stories are posted as they come in – no additional fact checking or editing. “We entered into the relationship with a strong sense that [E&E's] journalistic reflexes were sound, and that the quality of its work … spoke for itself,” Zeller said.

E&E, which employs 40 reporters, has expanded its coverage beyond the Washington, D.C., beltway in recent years, opening bureaus in New York City, San Francisco and Brussels. And while its focus remains on climate and energy policy, it has dispatched reporters to Bangladesh, China and elsewhere to report on climate change.

Grist, which has its own monthly readership of about 800,000, doesn’t charge washingtonpost.com for its content, said Russ Walker, its executive editor.

“Obviously, if we felt like we could monetize these kinds of relationships, we would explore that, but right now it’s not in our plan,” Walker said. “Right now, I think the value for us is exposure.”

Unlike E&E, Grist has sought partnerships with other popular media, including MSN, Microsoft’s news outlet, and the Huffington Post, and it’s working on a closer editorial relationship with the magazine Mother Jones, Walker said.

Grist‘s experience with each partner reflects a rapidly evolving media landscape.

MSN’s feature on “green” topics no longer has its own dedicated staff, so demand for Grist‘s paid content has fallen, Walker said. “They occasionally pick up and link to our stuff now, but it’s not a formal relationship like we had,” Walker said.

With its partnership with the Huffington Post, Grist‘s goals are to generate traffic as Huffington monetizes pages with Grist content but offers links to send readers back to Grist.

“On some days [that can] drive quite a few readers over to our site,” Walker said.

A relationship with Mother Jones, meanwhile, is evolving as the two prepare for covering climate talks in Copenhagen. The two news organizations will share resources, including personnel on the ground and housing. Grist plans to produce some video content in Copenhagen, including a news/comedy show akin to “The Daily Show,” which Mother Jones and other partners may choose to run, Walker said.

“None of us has all the resources we’d like to have, but some of us have reporters accomplished in one area and not in another,” Walker said. “We can divide and conquer and share the fruit of that by re-posting each other’s content.”

Climate Central, meanwhile, has created a media model somewhat different from that of other niche news organizations. With a staff that’s a mix of journalists and scientists, it aims to produce a steady stream of content, both video and print, that tells stories about regional and local impacts of climate change.

Climate Central provides climate coverage for the PBS ‘News Hour’ and others.

Climate Central, organized as an independent nonprofit organization and public charity, was formed in 2008 with seed money from The Flora Family Foundation and development funds from The 11th Hour Project, a California-based group launched by Wendy Schmidt, spouse of Google President Eric Schmidt, to promote sustainability.

While it seeks partnerships that share production costs, it doesn’t charge the NewsHour for its work. Climate Central’s reporting staff, which includes former Weather Channel climate scientist Heidi Cullen and former Time magazine science writer Michael Lemonick, has produced a number of video pieces for the NewsHour in recent months.

They include an Oct. 19 piece reported by Cullen from Greenland on paleoclimate researchers drilling ice cores, and one in early September on climate change and wildfires in the West filed as the Angeles National Forest burned (more on Climate Central’s work).

Questions of Similar News Values … ‘No Agenda’

As traditional news staffs continue to shrink and lose specialized reporters and their expertise, one of the challenges that niche news organizations will face is overcoming perceptions that they’re biased or short of traditional journalistic commitments, Walker said, such as separating news from opinion.

“The barrier is getting the traditional news organizations to understand that nonprofit media doesn’t have to come with an agenda, that it can come with the same values and standards that traditional media comes from,” Walker said.

“As more and more traditional media people like myself transition over into the nonprofit world, it will break down those barriers,” he says.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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3 Responses to Niche News Outlets Filling News Void Resulting from Smaller ‘Legacy’ News Rooms

  1. At GreatLakesEcho.org we have a highly specialized niche – the environment of the Great Lakes region. And while we’re not partnering with the New York Times, regional news organizations have begun to pick up our copy. This has happened with little effort beyond a notice on the site that the stories are available in return for a credit line.
    Like all nonprofits, we’re stretched thin and pick our shots. Here’s a growing concern: We recently ignored a story that was so important and mainstream that we were confident it would be covered by traitional news organizations. Our plan was simply to aggregate that coverage and spend original reporting resources on other issues.
    But newsroom resources are stretched so thin that we had nothing to aggregate. The number of holes in the dike preserving quality news are increasing. We need more fingers to put in them.

  2. Likewise, I’m producing original content and coverage of environmental news from Florida’s capital city — picking up where I left off before I got laid off from the newspaper. An outlet like mine should also appeal to readers from outside of Florida who wan to keep track of what’s going on here.