'Artifact' of Current Media Economy

‘Climate Desk’ News Org Collaboration Launched: New Model for Serious Journalism in Troubled Times


Health care insurers are woefully behind the curve when it comes to preparing for the risks that climate change poses to human health. Wine grapes, highly sensitive to extremes in temperature, may well foretell how continued warming will stress global agriculture. Most corporations, focused on a five- to seven-year time horizon, aren’t planning for how they’ll adapt to climate change in coming decades.

Where can you find these stories, presented in one place and generated by a new collaboration by national publications such as Slate, Wired, Mother Jones, The Atlantic and Grist?

The answer: The Climate Desk, a new collaborative journalism project launched on April 19.

The project was born last summer from a sober assessment by editors at some of the most well-known print and Web-based magazines in the country: coverage of climate change is disjointed and too often generated by reporters working in isolated silos.

One day we read a Washington-based story on the political horse race on this or that climate bill. The next day we hear of back-door discussions in Copenhagen or at some other international climate meeting. Glaciers are melting. Polar bears are endangered. A new offshore wind farm just got the green light.

Individual Ideas ‘Bounced Off Each Other’

Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein at Mother Jones were two editors who wanted climate news to be unified under one collegial roof. While they are assuming a coordinating role for the new collaboration, the editors say the project benefits from a flat hierarchy and mutual respect.

“We wanted to do something that none of us could do fully inside our newsrooms, where the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts,” Bauerlein said in a telephone interview shortly after the project launched. “It turned out that the way we could [do that] … was by the exchange of ideas and by making all of our individual ideas better by bouncing them off of each other.”

The collaboration includes The Atlantic, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS’s new public-affairs project “Need To Know,” which premiers May 7. None of those news organizations, of course, is known for doubting the mainstream view that climate change is under way and that human emissions are a significant factor in the warming, and most are known for having a progressive political bent.

Essential Ingredients – Mutual Trust, Respect

Several of the editors governing The Climate Desk are colleagues and friends. Jeffery and David Plotz, editor of Slate, are old colleagues going back 20 years. Adam Rogers, senior editor at Wired magazine, is also a friend of Jeffery, and the staffs of Mother Jones and Wired – both based in San Francisco – socialize outside of work. Bob Cohn, editorial director of TheAtlantic.com, has known Jeffery for years going back to his days as executive editor at Wired.

The Climate Desk can work only if its partners are willing to share ideas and at the same time preserve their own autonomy as they report on the topic, the partners said.

“So long as there’s mutual respect and trust – that was a big concern – we found that we gained more than we put in,” Bauerlein said. “We all knew that if one of us had a scoop, A, we wouldn’t give it to the group, and B, the group wouldn’t steal it.”

Journalistic collaborations won’t work with every subject, Plotz said in a recent telephone interview. News organizations competing to break news during the fast-moving political fight over health care reform, for example, probably wouldn’t have been interested in collaborating.

But climate change – a sprawling, multi-faceted and complex subject with plenty of stories that aren’t breaking quickly – lends itself to collaborative reporting in a way that other subjects don’t. Furthermore, The Climate Desk partners aren’t breaking news all the time like a TV network or daily newspaper.

“If we were all … breaking-news organizations, and if the project we’d undertaken was primarily a news project, this would be a more fraught exercise,” Plotz said.

Bringing Together Different Strengths

As it is, each of the partners has built its own distinct audience, and each brings its own unique strengths to the table.

Mother Jones has a long tradition of no-holds barred investigative reporting; The Atlantic is expert at long-form narrative journalism, smart analysis, and commentary; Wired has particular expertise in covering science and technology, and a forward-thinking sense of design and graphics (Wired staff were behind the design of The Climate Desk website); Slate has an affinity for legal analysis and taking subjects of the day and reframing them in intellectually new ways; Grist, obviously plugged in to environmental affairs, has a rich cadre of bloggers.

Jeffery joked that those who follow the work of all the partners are probably all journalists. There’s some truth to that, and it suggests the impact could echo through media officially separate from the partnership itself.

Most of the partners have engaged in limited collaborations in the past. But The Climate Desk is something much bigger, and while it remains a pilot project, the partners say they envision it as a long-term collaboration.

Artifact of Economy … More Willing to be Resourceful

Obviously, the partnership blows up traditional views of competitive journalism. But in today’s tough economic environment for media organizations, the partnership makes a lot of sense, Cohn emphasized in a recent telephone interview.

“I really think it is an artifact of the current economic climate,” he said. “I think that we’re all more willing to be innovative and creative and resourceful about how we pursue our journalism – perhaps more now than we would have been five or 10 years ago because resources are constrained but the stories are no less complicated.”

After an exchange of e-mails and telephone calls to settle on a core group of participants, editors representing each partner met for the first time in December. They decided that the theme of the inaugural batch of stories appearing on the website would focus on how businesses and governments are adapting and planning – or not – for a warmer future.

Some stories generated by partners appeared both on their own websites and on The Climate Desk website. Other stories were group-assigned and produced specifically for The Climate Desk.

As of the start of May, the website had more than a dozen stories posted.

Among them were a piece produced by The Atlantic on California’s efforts under Arnold Schwarzenegger to curb CO2 emissions; a Mother Jones piece titled “Can Global Warming Give You Kidney Stones?” that discussed how continued warming could affect health and the health insurance industry; and a piece on risks to the wine industry, adapted from Mark Hertsgaard’s forthcoming book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth and produced specifically for The Climate Desk collaboration.

The Climate Desk also features Twitter feeds from a variety of journalists and journalism outlets.

The partners have broadcast their participation in The Climate Desk in a variety of ways. The Atlantic, for example, packages climate change stories under the heading “The Climate Report: Preparing for a Changing World.” The Atlantic notes that the special section is “in collaboration with The Climate Desk” and offers a hotlink to theclimatedesk.org.

On May 1, Mother Jones ran a banner over reporter Kate Sheppard’s story on health impacts that read: “Risky Business: Can American industry adapt to climate change?” Click on the banner, which includes the project’s moniker, and you’re taken to a list of stories aggregated from The Climate Desk.

At Wired, the May issue of the magazine ran a story on Energy Secretary Steven Chu and his efforts to spur innovation and enhance America’s relationship with China in the drive to lower global CO2 emissions. The story was in the works as The Climate Desk was being formed, but by the time it ran it carried a tagline that noted: “This story is Wired‘s first contribution to The Climate Desk, a collaboration among several news organizations that explores ways to address climate change – environmentally, economically, politically and technologically.”

“We decided we should brand it as part of Climate Desk,” Adam Rogers, the senior editor at Wired, said in a recent telephone interview.

‘Hands-Off’ Foundation Funding

To help fund The Climate Desk, including hiring freelance writers, the partners have so far secured a $100,000 grant from the Park Foundation. Other money has come from the Surdna Foundation, which has supported Mother Jones in the past.

But much of the backing is coming from the partners themselves. Wired, as mentioned earlier, led the design of the website. Many of the articles are being generated by the partners out of their own newsroom budgets, shared among partners, and posted to the site.

Grant money has come without any expectations of control over editorial content, the partners said.

“They decide to fund or not to fund, but they get no access to the editorial workings once the actual project is under way,” Jeffery said in a follow-up e-mail interview. “If they’re not satisfied … they can choose not to renew their grant. Foundations with a long history of funding media, like both of these, know better than to even ask to interfere.”

The hands-off approach was critical for The Atlantic, Cohn said. “Certainly it was important to us that there be no strings attached to any of the funding, that we pursue any story in any direction it takes us,” he said. “The Atlantic would definitely not be comfortable with a funder having any role whatsoever in the tone or content of the story, and that hasn’t been the case at all.”

Looking ahead, The Climate Desk collaboration may grow, reaching out to more broadcast media such as radio, and perhaps a newspaper, Jeffery said. It’s also interested in involving media organizations overseas, Bauerlein said.

But a big part of the collaboration’s success so far is that it grew organically, largely among editors who know and trust one another. Expanding the group too much could pose logistical challenges, Jeffery and Bauerlein said.

“I think we’re all experimenting,” Jeffery said of the project’s future. “I think the great fun of it has been really being open to imagining all different kinds of ways we can work together.”

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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