Adapting to the New Media Climate for Climate Change

E&E: Covering Climate Change in the Age of Digital Media

Amidst a shrinking ‘news hole’ for science news coverage by mainstream media, this Special Report explores how a still-upstart digital publisher finds itself among the top producers in the climate reporting niche. A successful business model perhaps. But can it offset the loss of ’public’ coverage for the population at large?


To accommodate the continued interest in this piece, and to provide more examples of the coverage it describes, The Yale Forum has created a downloadable PDF that includes the full text and the four sidebars. For this printable version, fifteen more links have been added, along with icons for E&E’s three major wires and seven of its special reports and/or series. The methodology for the searches in Factiva and Lexis-Nexis has also been clarified. And in a final round of copyediting, a few remaining matters of style and formatting were addressed.


In an October 2011 Sunday Review essay in The New York Times, Elisabeth Rosenthal posed a critical if quixotic question: “Where Did Global Warming Go?” In response, several commentators pointedly rephrased the question: Where did the media’s coverage, including that of the Times, go?

With end-of-year tallies in hand, we can now answer these questions. Sort of.

In its annual tally of climate change coverage, The Daily Climate (TDC) confirmed that media coverage of climate change in 2011 was even lower than that of 2010, when, in the words of Drexel University’s Robert Brulle, climate coverage “fell off the map” after the December 2009 meeting in Copenhagen. If it is driven by coverage, one should not be surprised that concern for global warming has gone missing.

An In-Depth Special Report: E&E Publishing

But in a letter to TDC, freelance journalist Stephen Leahy suggested that the situation is more complicated. Coverage of climate change has remained steady and has even increased outside the U.S. And if one looks beyond the mainstream media, at the websites and newsletters of nonprofit news services, even the English-language numbers look better.

To Leahy’s revised equation, Columbia Journalism Review’s Curtis Brainard called attention to another variable — articles that lie behind the paywalls of business-to-business enterprises like Environment and Energy Publishing, or E&E as it is more commonly known. Based on his own searches at Factiva and on numbers provided by E&E’s editor-in-chief, Kevin Braun, Brainard concluded that coverage was down, but not uniformly. Contrary to the impressions of Rosenthal’s first respondents, coverage at the Times was down only 10 percent from 2010. (Maxwell Boykoff’s analysis, as reported in ClimateWire‘s story on U.S. climate coverage in 2011, showed a slight boost in NYT‘s numbers.)

Perhaps more surprising — at least for readers who do not have access to ClimateWire, E&E Daily, and Greenwire — was Brainard’s finding that in 2011 only Reuters published more articles on climate change than E&E.

Not observed in this somewhat confusing swirl of quantitative data is a key qualitative trend: coverage of climate change is becoming less public. As newspapers shrink — and as science sections shrink or disappear altogether — more of the remaining coverage appears in less public venues. An Andrew Revkin Dotearth blog post is less public than an in-print article by Times reporter Matthew Wald. An open-access environmental news site, like Inside Climate News, is less public than a NYT blog. Unless they appear in local or national newspapers, news service stories are less public than local or national newspaper stories. And paywall-protected reporting is less public than open-access news.

Rosenthal’s essay was strangely prescient on this point — in two ways. An illustration of an inverted iceberg accompanied the article. The likely message: even as the problem has grown, less appears above the surface, in public view. As if to prove this point, the day after Rosenthal’s piece ran, the Times ended its content-sharing arrangement with E&E. The small fraction of ClimateWire, E&E Daily, and Greenwire articles E&E had chosen to make public was now less public. Only self-motivated science and environment readers would look for these articles at the far less trafficked sites of Scientific American, The Daily Climate, or, if one subscribes to their weather service, Accuweather.com.

What are the implications of this deeper qualitative trend?

To answer this question, The Yale Forum, which had noted the start of ClimateWire in 2008, decided to take a closer look at E&E. The following is based on interviews and e-mail exchanges with E&E newswire editors, starting in September 2011 when E&E first learned that the Times intended to terminate their content-sharing arrangement.

The Numbers

To understand the context for this story, one first needs to know the numbers for the pieces published — and the problems one encounters in calculating them.

The Daily Climate’s annual tally of climate change coverage is based on counts of items “aggregated” over the course of the year through its Web searches. Twenty-five venues account for nearly 50 percent of the roughly 19,000 items captured and archived in 2011. (Download attachment, Sidebar 1.) Just five account for nearly 25 percent.

Even though most of its output remained hidden behind a pricey subscriber paywall, E&E was the fifth most prolific news operation in TDC‘s year-end tally, behind Reuters, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Associated Press. And five of E&E’s ClimateWire staffers made TDC‘s list of “most prolific reporters,” journalists who filed 30 or more stories on climate change in 2011.*

But when Brainard did his own tally, based on E&E’s estimate of its total climate-related output and his own searches for the other four publishers in Factiva, he came out with a different order: Reuters (2,410), E&E (2,212), The Guardian (2,091), Associated Press (1,379), and The New York Times (1,280). In the same e-mail in which he shared these numbers with The Yale Forum, however, Brainard also said “it’s virtually impossible to rank and/or compare relative productivity of different news outlets. TDC did it its way, I did it mine, but neither method is terribly reliable.”

The Yale Forum‘s analysis confirms TDC‘s conclusion about the reduced coverage in 2011 and also Brainard’s revised ranking and his point about inconsistencies in the data. Searches were conducted at TDC, Factiva, Lexis Nexis, and E&E’s website. A quick look at the data (Download attachment, Sidebar 2.), shows dramatic declines from 2009 to 2010. But the steepness of the declines from 2010 to 2011 vary significantly depending on the publisher and the database.

To get a more precise measure of E&E’s output for 2011, The Yale Forum then tallied and coded the articles for each reporter in its archive. The result: the 2,473 articles on climate change represent 30 percent of 8,355 bylined articles E&E reporters published in 2011 on energy and environmental issues, which also included water, pollution (mercury, pesticides, sewage), land management (conservation, mining, zoning), wildlife (biodiversity, endangered species, fisheries), oil (Gulf spill, the Keystone XL pipeline), natural gas (fracking), solar (Solyndra), wind, and all of the legislative, regulatory, and legal wrangling associated with these issues. (Download attachment; Sidebar 3.)

Of these 8,355 articles, TDC captured 534, 439, or 270 articles, depending on the search strategy used — less than the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

A Reporter’s Newspaper

So how does an organization achieve this output while remaining largely out of the general public’s view? The back story for the 78-person operation that is E&E Publishing can be told quickly. (Download attachment; Sidebar 4.) And the gist of this story can be stated as follows: In the 14 years since Kevin Braun and Michael Witt purchased the precursors from what had been the Congress-based Environment and Energy Institute, E&E has expanded its operations several-fold by broadening and deepening its D.C.-based coverage of energy and the environment for institutional subscribers wanting and willing to pay for accurate and timely news about U.S. policy on these issues. (And the expansion continues; the figures cited above represent a 13 percent increase in E&E’s payroll since September.)

E&E managed this expansion even as many traditional newspapers and news services contracted or closed. Several of E&E’s senior editors and reporters in fact were hired just as they were about to be laid off, bought out, or otherwise “downsized.” In addition to the greater job security provided by a growing rather than contracting organization, they found a culture they saw as committed to good journalism. “This is the most journalistically rewarding job I’ve ever had,” said Lisa Friedman, who joined E&E staff after stints with The Oakland Tribune and L.A. Daily News.

“We’re a reporter’s newspaper,” Greenwire editor Cy Zaneski says; “decisions about stories are driven by what reporters learn on their beats.” And E&E encourages reporters to think big. “I have never worked for an organization that was so inclined to say ‘yes’ when a reporter comes up with an idea,” Zaneski added — even if that idea means traveling halfway around the world.

This past year, for example, E&E exceeded its average annual travel budget (~$200,000) because, in addition to financing trips to the farthest flung states of the U.S. (Alaska and Hawaii) and to iconic climate change destinations,** it sent two reporters to the Durban international meeting in December. The stories that result from such trips do not typically provide the sort of actionable information for which E&E’s subscribers pay their fees — for that they look to the incremental stories about action on the Hill. But writing such big-picture feature stories, Braun and Zaneski said, keeps E&E’s reporters sharp and motivated.

In return for these opportunities, E&E expects its reporters and editors to produce a lot of copy; the four wires publish an average of 60 stories per day, five days a week, every week Congress is in session. The two early editions, ClimateWire and E&E Daily, together post 20–25 articles by 9:00 AM. Greenwire adds another 20–30 by 1:00 PM. And E&E PM closes the day at 5:00PM with another 6–10 stories, mostly updates to stories published earlier. (Land Letter, E&E’s weekly newsletter on natural resource policy issues, publishes 12–16 pieces each Thursday.)

Each day’s output includes a standard mix of items:

  • Roughly 15 percent are digests of news stories found by clippers. (According to Braun, there are now half as many newspapers for these clippers to scan as when E&E started.)
  • Another 15 percent are write-ups of studies and reports released by universities, government agencies, or non-governmental organizations.
  • Another 40 percent of each day’s output, on average, consists of incremental stories that trace the progress of bills being debated on the Hill or of policies or rules in the works in federal agencies.
  • The final 30 percent are feature stories — stand-alone pieces that cover international issues, business enterprises, science, or social concerns — and installments in special reports or series. In just the last six months, for example, E&E writers and editors have run reports on Arctic Thaw, Gas Rush, The Nuclear Crisis in Japan, Solyndra, and The Third Pole (on the glaciers in the Himalayas) and initiated or added to series on Cities, Coal Country, Drought, Money Matters, Pipeline Politics, and Polluters on the Run.

The Window in the Paywall

Although advertising is a gradually increasing portion of its revenue stream to help cover the costs of this daily output, E&E Publishing depends on its base of subscribers — roughly 40,000 readers in some 2,000 institutions — for most of its revenues, ballparked by Braun at “north of $10 million.” (The $4,000 base price for an institutional subscription is adjusted, according to Braun, “depending on the number of readers and divisions within an organization.” Pricing for universities follows a different schedule: for example, George Washington University’s annual membership in the National Council for Science and Environment, through which it receives E&E’s wire services, costs just under $10,000.)

To maintain the value of these subscriptions, E&E restricts access to the content its reporters generate, sequestering it behind a secure paywall.

But there have always been holes in this paywall.  E&E has allowed subscribing news operations to reprint timely or relevant stories, provided they get permission. Reporters could repost stories in personal blogs or on affiliated websites. And E&E has maintained a public website for several years, where articles allowed beyond the paywall are cached. (But of several E&E personnel interviewed last fall, only Braun seemed to know how to access it.)

In March of 2009, however, E&E created a special window in its paywall. In the wake of the Obama election and with the international conference in Copenhagen on the horizon, coverage of climate science and policy was now in demand. And so E&E agreed to allow The New York Times, one of its institutional subscribers, to repost five articles per day — three from Greenwire, one from E&E Daily, and one from ClimateWire. They were reposted in a new “Energy and Environment” subsection of the newspaper’s Business page at its website. (Linked lists of ClimateWire and Greenwire articles also appeared on the Environment page of the Times’ Science section. A somewhat similar arrangement was made with Scientific American.)

But when prospects for enactment of federal greenhouse gas legislation died, broader public interest in the details of climate policy began to flag. Management and staff at E&E braced for a drop in subscriptions; instead business continued to grow, albeit much more slowly.

The annual tally of articles on climate change did fall, however, because there was no longer a U.S. policy discussion to cover. ClimateWire sustained its output by systematically surveying different parts of the big picture, but the number of climate-related articles published by E&E Daily, the wire most tightly focused on Capitol Hill, fell dramatically.

The partnership with The New York Times was likely a delayed casualty of this change. While never a significant factor for E&E’s bottom line, according to Braun, the partnership may have softened the impact of the collapse of the cap-and-trade bill, allowing E&E’s name to become known to a wider audience, a portion of which was still interested in the bigger picture. The real benefit of the connection, however, may have been its side effects.

Having stories reprinted in the Times was a bonus for the reporters, who appreciated the recognition. And that recognition sometimes made it easier to get the next story. “I go to U.N. conferences, and I’m always prepared to tell someone who I’m with and what this publication is,” Lisa Friedman explained. “I never have to anymore; everybody knows what we are, what we do.”

Although daily operations and access have not been affected, according to the editors interviewed for this report, E&E’s reporters are disappointed by the end of the relationship with the Times. And anyone interested in the public’s understanding of climate change may be disappointed that their work is now less public.

‘A Newspaper of Record’

Two special series, however, generated strong responses both inside and outside E&E’s paywall, confirming for reporters that their work is being read.

They appear to be exceptions to the general rule about feature versus incremental stories. These two very different collections of stories about the people behind the news on E&E’s beats have generated strong responses from E&E’s paid subscribers.

Josh Kurtz, editor for E&E Daily, last summer had asked reporters to identify the real problem-solvers on the Hill. The result was a series of articles on “The Grown-Ups.” The most frequently named figure was New Mexico Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman, who was profiled in one of the final pieces.

The other popular series, as measured by clicks on the links, is ClimateWire‘s “Movers and Shakers,” an ongoing effort to identify significant players, pro and con, in the national and international debates over climate change. The first three articles in this series, published in July and August, profiled atmospheric scientist and climate skeptic Richard Lindzen of MIT, Tim Phillips, president of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and author and 350.org activist Bill McKibben. Another three articles were published in November, one on Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and the other two on the late academic John Dales and on the Environmental Defense Fund’s Dan Dudek, both pivotal in the modeling and marketing of cap-and-trade systems in the U.S. and in Europe. Climate Wire Editor John Fialka wrote four of the first six entries in “Movers and Shakers.”

Braun pointed to what one might call “the People reader” in all of us to explain the popularity of these pieces. But for the comparatively small community of readers who make up E&E’s subscriber base, from organizations either supporting or opposing environmental policies and regulations, there are good reasons to read these pieces: One can learn more about who one is up against. “Our readers are our subscriber base are the subjects of our stories,” said Braun. And for this specialized community, Zaneski observed, E&E is something of a newspaper of record — rather like a small-town newspaper.

Finding the New Balance

Because so many of their new hires have come from newspapers forced to downsize or eliminate their environmental or science sections, or even their Washington bureaus, E&E’s publishers and editors are well aware that both the quantity and quality of climate coverage available to the general public has declined.

But having witnessed the failures of many traditional news operations, as well as of numerous ad-based online startups, E&E’s managers are reluctant to tinker with their business-to-business, institutional subscriber model, and they say philanthropic funding would raise questions of neutrality as well as continuity.

At the same time, however, E&E clearly profited, albeit indirectly, from the outside exposure afforded by the repostings in the Times. The added recognition seems to have improved access. Being re-published in the Times may also have been a factor in several awards received by E&E’s reporters, such as Friedman’s five-part series on Bangladesh, which won the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award in 2009. (In December 2011, E&E reporter Nathaniel Gronewold won the UN’s 2011 award for coverage of climate change for his four-part 2010 ClimateWire report, “Pakistan: The Deluge.”) And E&E’s reporters liked writing bigger stories for a wider readership. (According to Braun, one reporter resigned her position because almost nothing of what she wrote could be accessed by her family or friends.)

E&E thus has its own good reasons for keeping a window in its paywall open. This will likely mean coming to terms with another mainstream news operation. For now, however, non-subscribers can view E&E articles only at Scientific American, The Daily Climate, or Accuweather (for subscribers to its weather service), or, if you can find it, at E&E’s public site. (Readers can find it here.)

Where Next for Coverage of Global Warming?

For those with access to E&E’s output, whether through the limited selection available at these public sites or through their own institutional subscriptions, E&E’s newswires will continue to cover climate change from multiple viewpoints.

ClimateWire’s Fialka says he believes interest in global warming will return to America’s agenda sooner than most think: “People know the climate is changing, especially if they’re outdoors at all. And they know eventually they’ll have to pay for it.” The first bills may be issued by insurance companies, a business sector Fialka plans to follow closely, adding that:

The insurance industry may the biggest industry in the world, in terms of money, and it is barely covered in the general media. It is profoundly impacted by climate change. All their rates are going up, and their losses are huge. The actuarial tables don’t work, because you can [no longer] judge the future by the past.

In the meantime, ClimateWire will work to explain U.S. governmental inaction to the rest of the world and the rest of the world’s actions to its readers in the U.S. One vehicle for this effort will continue to be “Movers and Shakers.”  Deputy editor Lisa Friedman, who presented her recent series on Nepal in a Roundtable Discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center in October, is expected to continue to cover the international beat.

And as opportunities arise, reporters will add to ClimateWire’s new series on “Cities,” which examines how urban centers around the world are planning (or not) for the impacts of climate change. These articles are to offer the sort of detailed regional coverage that, in the past, would have been sought and summarized by E&E’s news aggregators.

At E&E Daily, editor Josh Kurtz and his team are gearing up for the 2012 presidential campaign; a new series, “Money Matters,” will track money pouring into the campaigns, especially from the energy and agriculture industries.

Greenwire, too, will closely follow how environmental and energy issues factor into the campaigns. “We’re also going to intensify our coverage of the push for unconventional energy (hydraulic fracturing, oil sands, ultra-deepwater drilling, and so on),” said Zaneski.

E&E as a whole is preparing for the launch of a new daily, probably in March. Braun would not disclose details, but an increase in staff since September suggests that the new hires have already been made.

The Correlation … Media Coverage and Public Concern

With another daily scheduled to go online later this spring, E&E’s portion of next year’s tallies is likely to be greater still. But barring unlikely changes by the mainstream media, climate change coverage in 2012 likely will still be less public than it was in 2011. Should we be concerned? Several responses to this question are possible.

First, an anomaly of this year’s tallies, noted by TDC and ClimateWire, was that public concern over climate change actually increased in 2011, albeit only slightly, even as coverage decreased. Coverage is not the only driver of public concern. According to Yale’s Anthony Leiserowitz, The Yale Forum publisher quoted in the ClimateWire piece, the public now seems to be making its own connections between climate change and extreme weather.

Second, while not read by the public, E&E’s paywall-protected content is read by the public’s representatives. “Our readers,” Braun noted in a follow-up e-mail, “represent a huge cross-section of the public: unions, environmentalists, academics, members of Congress, consumer advocates, corporations, financial institutions, international organizations such as the World Bank and UN, government agencies, [and] associations, [including] the Garden Club of America and the National Rifle Association.”

Third, the presumption in some quarters that quality reporting should be free raises issues of its own. In the past, the cost of producing news was covered by subscription fees, advertising revenues, or a combination thereof. With the Internet, news did not become free; readers simply stopped paying for it. “Free” news externalizes real costs. An environmentally responsible public should recognize the need to pay the real costs of the goods and services it consumes.

But, fourth, the outputs of E&E and other newswires hold different values for different parties. By Braun’s estimate, even the incremental on-the-Hill stories most prized by E&E’s institutional and “inside-the-beltway” subscribers have a very short shelf-life. And for these subscribers, the big picture stories are mostly window dressing. But for the general reader, and often for the reporters themselves, the big-picture stories are the high-value items. For academic researchers, however, both kinds of stories are of interest, but timeliness is less of an issue. The challenge is to get the desired stories to the desiring readers at the desired time. This is a logistics problem.

A stronger website might help solve part of the problem. E&E’s website and daily newswires deliver the subscriber content well. But its public site seems an afterthought. It does not have a separate daily e-mail, and it cannot be separately searched. (Traffic at the site has increased since E&E’s relationship with the Times ended, Zaneski noted in a follow-up e-mail, and, according to Braun, a major overhaul of the site is planned for the release of the new daily.)

A consistent procedure for archiving the output would solve another part of the problem. Here, however, legacy issues arise. Most academic and media databases were designed to track print. The handling of online publications, including the blogs at major media outlets like The New York Times, is inconsistent at best. Within Lexis-Nexis Academic, for example, searches for E&E articles are frustrated by inconsistent cross-referencing within the system. This is another way E&E articles are less public than traditional newspaper articles.

Reshaping the News-Scape: First the Telegraph, now the Net

The legacy newswires, such as The Associated Press, United Press International, and Reuters, came into being, Paul Starr explains in The Creation of the Media, because newspapers could not by themselves finance or manage the opportunities created by a new technology: the telegraph. Now another new technology, the Internet, is reshaping the news-scape.

Newswires may be in a better position to face this challenge/opportunity as well. And for the specialized niche of environmental news in the age of the Internet, E&E Publishing seems well adapted. Because its business model works with a small community of institutional subscribers deeply invested in these issues, E&E can continue to cover climate change with a breadth and depth few news organizations, including Reuters, will be able to match.

Thus E&E will likely account for increasing portions of each year’s coverage. But to assure this coverage does not also become ever less public, E&E, or other specialized online news outlets, must find better ways to share its public content more effectively — with or without an outlet like the Times.

___________

*The “most prolific” E&E reporters, as measured by stories released outside the paywall and captured by TDC, were Evan Lehmann (46 stories), Lauren Morello (40), Saqib Rahim (31), Jean Chemnick (30), and Lisa Friedman (30). But their 2011 totals (paywall-protected plus publicly released) were much higher: Lauren Morello (192), Jean Chemnick (185), Lisa Friedman (161), Evan Lehmann (107), Saqib Rahim (94). If their output had been calculated on this basis, another 19 E&E reporters would have met TDC’s thirty-stories-on-climate-change minimum.

** Editor’s Note:  This piece was lightly edited on 2/1/2012 to delete a misleading reference to a staffer’s international travel.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The George Washington University with a long interest in climate change communications. (E-mail: msvoboda@yaleclimateconnections.org)
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4 Responses to E&E: Covering Climate Change in the Age of Digital Media

  1. John Wihbey says:

    Michael – This is a very valuable piece of reporting! Much thanks to you for all the hard work and data-crunching. I think we all learned a lot from this one. -John

  2. When something is supposed to happen — something very dire — and then it doesn’t happen, and doesn’t happen, and STILL doesn’t happen, there’s a limit to how long a journalist is going to keep writing, “Well, it still isn’t happening.” Furthermore, there is a limit to how long someone will retain credibility when he keeps on saying, “Have faith! It’s going to happen! Let’s run and tell the King! Again.”

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    +1 to Daniel E Rogers

  4. Thank you, Michael.

    My wife and I have discussed at length the myopia of the news industry and the publishing industry, not with respect to climate change, but more generally, with respect to news pieces becoming shorter and focused on whatever has the headlines at the moment rather than the long investigative stories that connect the dots, giving you the big picture, or news for the sake of an informed public. How publishing is no longer trying to publish quality or keep quality books in print, but simply looking for the new, next best seller.

    This story is more nuanced.

    And yes, up to a point, people will start making connections for themselves, whether it is the heat dome over two thirds of the country, the severe drought in the Southwest, the 500 year floods in Iowa not fifteen years a part (my home state), or the 1000 year flood in Tennessee. But that only works so far, at least for a while, until things get even more serious.

    I mean, we live in a division of labor society where we rely upon specialists, to educate us, take care of us when we are sick, build our houses, make our shoes, and keep us informed, rather than having to do all this for ourselves. But with what has been happening to news, I am afraid we are moving backwards.

    It does not speak well of our mainstream news that people are, albeit with some success, having to make these connections for themselves. Particularly when to do it properly would involve the equivalent of long, in-depth investigative journalism. Come to think of it, a bit like the kind of journalism you’ve done here. Thanks again.