Abandoning Green Coverage Is an Act of Journalistic Malpractice

Last week, the New York Times shuttered its Green blog, inviting a volley of criticism, especially after they closed their environment desk in January. Kevin Drum thinks the inherent boringness of environment coverage is to blame:

But let’s face it: the reason they did this is almost certainly that the blog wasn’t getting much traffic (and, therefore, not generating much advertising revenue). So a more constructive question is: Why do readers—even the well-educated, left-leaning readers of the Times—find environmental news so boring? Is it because we all write about it badly? Is it something inherent in the subject itself? Is it because most people think we don’t really have any big environmental problems anymore aside from climate change? Or is it because it’s just such a damn bummer to read endlessly about all the stuff we should stop doing because, somehow, it will end up destroying a rain forest somewhere?

When political parties lose, we all advise them not to shoot the messenger. If people don’t vote for you, there’s a reason. The same is probably true in this case. The Times editors are basically just the messengers here. We need to figure out why most people don’t seem to care about this stuff, and whether there’s anything we can do about it.

With respect, I disagree. It ought to be easily possible to sustain decent traffic to a green hub if you really tried, and lots of organizations are already succeeding in this regard. There’s Climate Central, there’s Climate Progress, there’s High Country News, and many others I’m sure. The best model in my view is Grist, which has a couple star writers anchoring a whole bunch of less serious, more interesting stuff to keep traffic up.

Of course, the biggest story in this area is climate change, and it shouldn’t be necessary to dis-aggregate the two. Climate change isn’t a classic environmental issue, but it is already in the early stages of wrecking human civilization, which will happen through environmental backlash. If were Times dictator, I’d poach one of the bigger climate writers, like David Roberts, and have him hire 5-10 smart young folks to do some hipper, Buzzfeed-y things to keep traffic up. This could serve as the anchor for the Times climate coverage, which would then permeate far further into other areas of reporting—it’s ridiculous to talk about deficit projections for 2080, for example, without considering the implications of unchecked climate change. But just shuttering the blog, especially after closing the environmental desk, makes me suspect the Times just can’t be bothered to try and make it work. Dumping the news out late on a Friday makes me suspect they know it’s wrong, and feel ashamed.

As James Fallows says, the mission of journalism is to “make the important interesting.” There has never been a more important time to have deep, solid environmental reporting. Closing half of the paper of record’s blogs on the topic (the other being Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth) at this point in time is sort of like the Times firing half its foreign correspondents in 1942. Even if people weren’t reading those stories, wouldn’t the paper have an obligation to try their damnedest to keep those people at their desks and in the field? Even if it put the financial security of the paper at risk?

Because as I read somewhere, this is the most important coverage in history.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.