But How, How Much, Where Still TBD

Andy Revkin, Cory Dean Seen Contributing In Some Ways to Ongoing Times Coverage

Less than a year after launching its newly reorganized reporting team designed to enhance the paper’s focus on environment and climate change, The New York Times finds itself without the two long-time science desk reporters – Andrew C. Revkin and Cornelia Dean – who for years provided the heart of just that coverage.

It’s not that Revkin and Dean are expected to disappear entirely from the Times. Revkin could well end up continuing his popular Dotearth blog, the success of which goes a long way in explaining why he left his in-paper reporting position in the first place. And Dean, a one-time editor of the paper’s weekly “Science Times,” is likely to continue contributing to the in-print newspaper from time to time as a freelancer.

Both Revkin and Dean took advantage of corporate buy-outs finalized late in December, a move designed to pare the paper’s reporting and editorial staffs by 100 employees. In neither case did the career moves come suddenly or solely in response to the buyout offers.

Revkin in fact says he had been thinking of making a transition away from daily news reporting for at least the past two years, starting with his writing of his own “second half” personal memo outlining what he might want in the next two decades of his career. (He is 54 now.) In interviews with The Yale Forum, he has left little doubt that he had grown frustrated and weary with the fundamental limitations of traditional journalism, and in particular daily news reporting; weary from a blistering 24/7 pace that often had him multi-tasking; and eager to explore opportunities presented by new media. He expects to be able to do more of just that in his new position as “Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding” at Pace University’s Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies.

While details remain to be worked out – perhaps as early as mid-January – it appears that both Revkin and Times top editorial managers hope to fashion an arrangement in which he will continue blogging for Dotearth under contract.

Revkin Reviled Increasingly as Stakes Mounted

Revkin does not deny that the withering spears of critics’ attacks have increased markedly over the past year, but does not see them having sped-up his resignation from the Times. Instead, Revkin says it’s a phenomenon he says derives naturally from increasing stakes that national and international efforts could regulate climate change. But asked whether it is the “skeptics” or the “consensus” science types who might be most happy to see him leave the pages of the Times, he acknowledges that criticisms from both sides of the issue – read, for instance, Marc Morano of climatedepot.com and Joe Romm of climateprogress.com – have intensified.

Then too there was the recent kerfuffle in which conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh suggested to his nationwide radio audience that Revkin could leave the world a better place if he would only take it into his own hands to leave it now. Leave the world, that is, as in suicide.

None of that, however, suggests that Revkin’s departure – let alone the huzzahs! from the blogosphere – was brought about as a result of pressures from outsiders. Not even Morano, who regularly claims to see things no one else ever sees and trends that never quite materialize, appears to have staked such a claim.

Notwithstanding criticisms from partisans of all stripes – and sometimes-legitimate critiques also from among responsible scientists – Revkin leaves his position as the nation’s most highly respected and influential climate change journalist with the respect of his journalism peers.

Praise from Times‘s Semple, Stanford’s Schneider

“Andy was in a class by himself in terms of his knowledge, energy, writing skills, and devotion to the issues,” Times editorial writer Robert Semple, Jr., himself a Pulitzer Prize winner for his environmental editorials, says. “I admire his industry no end.”

Long-time acquaintance and friend Tom Yulsman, of the University of Colorado, acknowledges that Revkin perhaps “just got fed up … and maybe even a little burnt out from it all.

“The guy is never not working, unless he’s sleeping. He doesn’t even play guitar any more, and he is a mind-blowing guitarist,” Yulsman said of Revkin’s resignation as a Times employee.

While some of those scientists recently most critical of some of Revkin’s reporting – the very same scientists collectively responsible for some of the recent decades’ most important findings on climate change – judged harshly some of his reporting, it’s likely those same scientist/critics who may end up missing Revkin’s laser-focus reporting the most.

“You have been the most significant person of record on the climate problem for decades,” Stanford University climate scientist Stephen H. Schneider told Revkin in an e-mail widely distributed by Schneider. “Despite an occasional complaint or two from your admirers … and a continuous barrage of insults from the denial set … your work has kept this problem very credibly in front of the public and decision makers.”

Schneider also commends Revkin for his frequent personal involvement in “meetings and panels doing science-journalism navel contemplation” (including several organized by the editor of this online journal). Revkin’s contribution through those small group efforts has “materially increased cooperation among the media environment specialists and media-oriented scientists.”

To Times Assistant Managing Editor Glenn Kramon, one of the few individuals named on the paper’s daily masthead, Revkin “more than any reporter here had migrated successfully” to the web and online journalism. He says he thinks the Dotearth “brand” created by Revkin can continue to be valuable both to the paper and to Revkin personally and professionally in the future.

Times Exec: Coverage Can ‘Emerge Stronger’

Working with team editor Erica Goode, who for the past year had been both Revkin’s and Dean’s immediate editor and supervisor, Kramon said he thinks the environmental and climate coverage at the paper could actually emerge stronger, after at least one new reporter is added to the team from within, if it can sustain a consistent front-page presence and maintain its strong web presence through Dotearth.

That is a tacit admission, one that Revkin personally acknowledges, that the time-demanding success of Dotearth has come at least in part at the expense of Revkin’s front-page day-to-day reporting.

For Revkin, who says he hopes to use the Internet “to make the world a better place,” his immediate professional future will involve teaching and coursework, writing and researching, communications program development, and continued blogging … the latter either as a blogger for Dotearth still through the Times or in some other yet-to-be-determined venue.

He expects to develop and teach a course reflecting his “9 billion People + 1 Planet = ? ” theme from his Dotearth blog focus. He hopes to help stir more collaboration between various campus journalism/communications and science departments.

Asked in December about his next move, Revkin said he has no interest in using the Internet or a blog to espouse his own opinions, but rather wants to maintain “an interrogatory journalistic exploration, not an opinion piece.” Any writing he freelances for magazines or other publications will be “reportorial” and not of an editorial opinion nature, Revkin said, and he said he rules out working for climate advocacy interests on either side of the issue.

‘Journalism Retrenchment’

“I still have a big to-do list,” Revkin said, looking ahead to his final day as a Times employee and news reporter. “The blog format is on its own not sufficient for the kind of writing I want to do. And there is much more to do on modeling” and on the economics of climate change, an issue he feels he could have done much more on as a reporter.

“I feel bad leaving the Times at a time of such retrenchment in journalism,” Revkin said from his home in Garrison, New York (as always, multitasking – this time doing both a phone interview and playing, and losing, a computer game with his son). “But I’ve seen enough issues of how journalism works or doesn’t work to want to work outside of journalism as well.” In a period of accelerated change, he may or may not any longer be considered a journalist by the strict (and anachronistic?) definition; but he hopes to “work at the recipient end of environmental information” as well and help foster an upcoming generation with “global-scale thinking and, as they’re becoming entrepreneurs, help them stay attuned to the reality that we really are on a small planet with finite resources.”

Having plumbed the earth sciences aspects of climate change for more than two decades, Revkin said he looks forward to now plunging head first into the perhaps even more dicey social science considerations. In his web-based format, he is likely to find himself continuing to address, as he has through his Dotearth blog, a more expert and more sophisticated audience than he would find through the in-print pages themselves. To some extent, that might run the risk of preaching to the choir, rather than earning new converts to increased understanding. But that is a risk Revkin is prepared to continue taking.

As for criticisms of his work, Revkin acknowledges that in addition to not doing as much on climate economics as he might have, he can point to a few specific stories he wishes he could do over. One in particular: his effort to compare the rhetoric of climate skeptic and columnist George Will with that of Al Gore: “In Climate Debate, Exaggeration is a Pitfall.”  He had sought in that story to shed light on the poles of opinion, he says, but he acknowledges the execution was fraught with problems, and the article itself ended up being somewhat ham-handed.

Another Revkin article that rankled many of those scientists most concerned about climate change was his January 2007 piece headlined “A New Middle Stance Emerges in Debate over Climate.” It was an article many found seeming to refute an extensive body of scientific evidence on climate change in something akin to a journalistic faux-balance.

In May 2009, Revkin called a reporting slip-up “my worst misstep as a journalist in 26 years.” He later said in several interviews, including one with National Public Radio, that he thought his reporting in 2009 did not match the overall accuracy of his reporting in earlier years.  Speaking at the time to The Yale Forum, he pointed to “the tyranny of time” in a 24/7 news cycle involving constant blogging as well as traditional reporting.  ”One mistake is more powerful than 750 stories reported accurately,” he said then, leading some journalism watchers to conclude that he was being unduly critical of himself in that case.

As for Dean, her focus was less on climate science per se than on science more generally and various aspects of oceanography and natural systems, all of which, of course, relate to, and she related to, a changing climate. Dean had gone from Times science reporter to editor of its respected “Science Times” before heading to Harvard University several years ago on sabbatical as a visiting journalist, scholar, and lecturer. She returned to the paper as a science reporter and an occasional science columnist (her 2003 scientist-as-citizen column, “COMMENTARY; Rousing Science Out of the Lab and Into the Limelight” is a must-read). That column is also a forerunner to Dean’s 2009 book, “Am I Making Myself Clear: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public,” published this past October by Harvard University Press.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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One Response to Andy Revkin, Cory Dean Seen Contributing In Some Ways to Ongoing Times Coverage

  1. Frank T. Manheim says:

    Thank you for the knowledgeable article on Revkin. Can you provide me with a pipeline (email) to communicate with him? I didn’t realize he was retiring from the NY Times. I highly respect Revkin, but (perhaps having missed key articles) find him similar to most American experts, scientists, etc in showing marginal interest or knowledge about foreign experience.

    In my recent book* my goal was to identify the origins of our political polarization and gridlock over environmental and energy policy. It took only a couple of research years to find the roots of conflict – but then what? There seemed little hope for the craziness of American society. I felt the cynicism of many policy experts and partisans on both sides – until I retraced steps to my own doctoral studies in Sweden and looked in depth at the EU.

    It was only then that our American problems came into better focus. Some “obvious” requirements (though also unseen by me earlier) emerged if the U.S. is to achieve effective energy policy and regain former dynamism.

    “If we don’t understand our problems, we can’t solve them”. Thus one of our most crippling problems the almost complete corruption of the U.S. information system. Environmentalists, industry, academia, media, government – there is very little communication among and between these and other isolated interest groups (Daniel Yankelovich). All the while, the volume of communications piles higher. So there is little rational trust in any source, however credentialed or logical sounding. It is safer to make common cause with an emotional, ideologically polarized cause where at least there is common commitment and certainty.

    Another overlooked, grave problem, is the diversion from the 1950s of the nation’s scientific talent into fragmented disciplinary groups in the universities. These feed at the federal and state legislative troughs (and alumni and corporate philanthropy) but communicate primarily with peers. American curricula have also tended to be skewed to fit the interests of faculty, the ruling force in American universities since the 1960s, not the goal (as in Finland) of training students for meaningful jobs in society and nationally needed skills. So the Finns have 30% of students at higher education institutions majoring in science and engineering – whereas we have 13% and have been sinking.

    Yale has been a consistent leader in environmental affairs since the 1960s – but I don’t have a real clue about what is going on now – there being so many different signals. I’m therefore signing up to find out.

    Cordially,

    Frank T. Manheim, Affiliate Professor
    School of Public Policy
    George Mason University
    Fairfax VA 22030