January 13, 2013 | 15
A few days ago we woke up to the news that the New York Times is eliminating their environment desk.
Predictably, the immediate reaction of many was “oh, noooo!”.
After all, whenever we hear such news, about a science or health or environmental desk being eliminated at a media organization, this means the reporters and editors of that beat have been fired.
But New York Times did not fire anyone. Instead, they will disperse the environmental reporters around the building. Instead of all of them sitting together, chatting with each other, they will sit next to other people, chatting with political, economic, science, health, education and other reporters.
The concern also arose as this piece of news came as a part of broader news of cost-cutting at the New York Times and actual impending layoffs of high-level editors.
And concern is certainly warranted. But there is potential for this to be a good thing. It all depends on the implementation.
My first reaction, quoted here, was that this may be a way to modernize environmental reporting at the Times. After all, reporters were not fired, the senior editors may be. All the environmental expertise is still at the Times, but now outside of its own ghetto, able to cross-fertilize with other beats, and to collaborate with reporters with other domains of expertise.
My cautiously positive reaction to this news probably comes from my recent thinking (and blogging) about three aspects of modern media. One is about the distinction between beats and obsessions. The other one is about the importance of expertise in today’s journalism. And the other one is the distinction between push and pull models of science (and other) communication.
Let me parse these a little bit more….
Beats vs. Obsessions
I wrote at length about this before, but let me restate it briefly, the part that is the most relevant to this situation.
….But another way the difference is explained is that an obsession is actually broader, not narrower, by being multidisciplinary. Instead of looking at many stories from one angle, it focuses on a single story from many angles. This may be a way to solve some Wicked Problems….
By dispersing environmental reporters from a dedicated desk to other desks, New York Times eliminated the environmental beat. Now environmental reporters are free to follow their own obsessions – whatever aspect of the environment they most care about at any given time. In essence, The New York Times is starting to quartzify itself (did I just invent a new word? I bet Quartz folks will be pleased). Instead of the environmental vertical, The New York Times will now have an environmental horizontal – environmental angle permeating a lot of other stories, as environmental reporters talk to and influence their new office neighbors.
Importance of Expertise
I have argued many times before, and most recently and forcefully here, that having or building expertise on the topic one covers is an essential aspect of modern journalism. Being a generalist will become harder and harder to do successfully. Specialization rules. And there are many kinds of expertise and ways of being a specialist.
It is much easier to turn an expert into a journalist than a journalist into an expert (though that is certainly not impossible), and there have been many calls lately (here is just the latest one) for journalism schools to insist on science, and even more importantly on math and statistics classes as requirements for their students.
I will now make an assumption that all NYTimes environmental reporters actually have sufficient expertise to report on the environment. They are now bringing that expertise to other desks. And they are now forced to discuss this with people whose expertise lies elsewhere. They will get into debates and discussions. They will teach each other. They will change each others minds on various things. They will be prompted by those discussions to dig in deep and do some research. That will inspire them to write the next piece and next piece, possibly in collaboration with each other. By forcing cross-fertilization between people with different specialties, NYTimes will force them all to learn from each other, become more sophisticated, to tackle more complex and nuanced stories, and to produce better articles. That’s the theory… We’ll see if that happens in practice. It all depends on implementation.
Push vs. Pull
You may have seen this excellent post that Danielle re-posted the other day.
I know I talk a lot about push vs. pull methods for science communication, but the earliest appearance of the concept on my blog is this brief but cool video clip. Soon after, I described and explained the concept in much more detail here and here. I have since applied it to a bunch of other topics, from the role of new/upcoming journalists to the different reporting strategies for different areas of science to strategies for gaining trust in the broader population to differences between science reporting on blogs vs traditional media to narrative storytelling in science.
I have argued many times that, despite the proliferation of many new outlets that may do reporting better, traditional big venues, like The New York Times (and just a few other ‘biggies’, like BBC, Guardian, Washington Post, The Economist, PBS, NPR and not many more), will continue to play an important role in the media ecosystem for quite some time. These are trusted brands for far too many people who grew up in that world. And they generally do a good job, even if nobody can be perfect, and expert bloggers are quick to point out errors as they appear.
But, nobody but a few crazy news junkies, all of whom are probably in the business anyway so not the target audience, reads any newspaper, including The New York Times, every day, every page, every article. I’ll tell you a secret – print edition of The New York Times lands on my front porch every night. My wife reads some of it sometimes. It is there mostly in case something I see online is so long that I want to sit back and read it on paper rather than on screen. Or if a friend of mine publishes something so I want to cut it out. Or my name appears in it, and I want to cut it out and save it, to show my Mom.
But back in the old times, when I actually read newspapers on paper, how did I do it? I pick up the paper. I open it up. I take out all the sections I am not interested in – Sports, Auto, Business, Real Estate, Classifieds, etc. – and throw them directly into the recycling bin. Then I read the parts I am interested in (front sections, domestic and world news, opinion, Sunday Magazine, Week In Review, Book Review). When I was a kid, I read the comics first, then TV and movie listings, then Kids section, perhaps some nature/science, perhaps some sports.
Other people have their own preferences. If there is such a thing as “Environment” section, or “Health” section, or “Science” section, how many people do you think automatically recycle them and go straight to Sports instead?
A dedicated Environment section is a pull method. It pulls in readers who are already interested in the topic. Others never see it. And being online doesn’t change a thing – it works the same way as on paper, in its own ghetto, isolated from the stuff people actually read.
The ‘push’ method inserts science/health/environment stories everywhere, in all sections of the paper, linked from all the pages of the website. It includes science/health/environment angles into many other stories. People interested in politics, economics, education, art, culture, comic strips, whatever, get a steady diet of relevant information mixed into their breakfast. They can’t avoid it any more. It is pushed onto them without their explicit request.
Let’s hope that The New York Times is thinking this way, as that would be the best possible outcome.
Central importance of the Green Blog
The managing editor Dean Baquet was reported to say this about the Green Blog: “If it has impact and audience it will survive”.
That is disappointing. Green Blog’s destiny is not, and especially now should not, be decided by the vagaries of traffic. It has suddenly become much more essential to the Times than they know, or so it seems. Let me try to explain…
Dispersing all the environmental reporting all around New York Times is a potentially great “push” strategy – feeding the unsuspecting readers a steady diet of environmental thinking.
But dispersing all the environmental reporting all around New York Times also makes it very difficult for the “pull” audience, the readers who are interested in environment, to find everything. People who are interested in environment, people like me, will be forced to look into automatically recyclable sections, like Business or Real Estate for articles with potentially environmental angles. That takes time and energy we don’t have, so we’ll rather miss those articles.
Now, some tech-savvy know-it-all is likely to post a comment “Use Tags”. Sure, you are a programmer, you know what tags are. Can you explain that to your grandma? Can you teach her how to use them?
No, the answer is Green Blog.
Green Blog should now become not just a cool place for interns to build their reporting chops, but also:
- place where all environmental reporters link to, explain, describe and quote from all their articles that appear elsewhere in the Times,
- place where someone puts together, every week, a summary and round-up of all environment-related Times articles of the previous week,
- place where all environmental reporters come to crowdsource their stories, get feedback and expert information from readers as they are working on their more and more complex stories
- place where all environmental reporters come to see each others work, now that they are not sitting next to each other,
- a central place where people like me can come and at a single glance see all of the Times environmental reporting in one place, and
- a central place where someone like Andy Revkin can check each day to see what else is going on in the Times regarding environment, so he can blog about it on Dot Earth.
This is like what ethologists call the “central foraging place”, like a beehive. Honeybees (readers) get information (blog posts) from other foragers where the flowers (NYT articles) are, so they go there (following links) to get nectar. They then return to the hive (Green Blog) to deposit the nectar (their comments), to tell others where else the flowers are good (e.g., on other sites beyond NYT) and to get new information so they can go for another run, again and again.
Now that there is no Environment desk and no Environment editor, the Green Blog should assume those two roles.
Now, if only higher ups at the Times get to read this post. If you know them, can you share the link to this post with them?