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Why the NYTimes “Green Blog” Is Now Essential

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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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?


Comments 16 Comments

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  1. 1. DanFagin 11:21 am 01/13/2013

    Ah, Bora, wouldn’t it be great if Jill Abramson saw your column and said, ‘Eureka! He’s right, I will fundamentally recast the way blogs function at my newspaper!’ But I don’t think this will happen, for reasons of organizational culture and especially economics. If the Green Blog survives (I worry that it won’t, but hope I’m wrong) it will inevitably become a lower priority for reporters because there are deep incentives for reporters to write for the ‘regular paper’: the print edition and its equivalent online, which are still overwhelmingly regarded by most people at the Times (and by readers, judging from traffic numbers) as the most valuable real estate. The Green Blog had good content not only because of talented interns (yay SHERP!) but also because contributing to it was considered part of the job of the environment desk reporters. Good luck convincing a business editor or a metro editor or a foreign editor to mandate regular contributions to a Green Blog that has no designated editor/champion at the paper. Hopefully the NYT will set up a structure that at least attempts to address this disincentive problem, but it will never be as strong as a designated desk led by an editor (or two) whose career success depends at least in part on the success of the blog — as well as on the number, quality and play (display) that environmental stories get in the paper.

    That brings us to the flaw in your reasoning re: “ghettoization”. Remember there was never a physical ‘environment section’ in the printed newspaper, and in the digital paper environment-related stories carried multiple tags depending on their content. So environment-themed STORIES will be no more segregated now than they ever were. Most readers to the Times come via search, anyway, not by perusing designated sections from the home page. Your point about the REPORTERS being less segregated now within the newsroom is valid. There can be wonderful cross-fertilization when reporters share there expertise outside of designated silos. In reality, however, that happens very rarely in a frenetically busy newsroom — and newsrooms today are more frenetically busy than ever before thanks to the obvious economic pressures.

    Ultimately, this is much simpler than many people are making it sound. If you want more and better environmental coverage (or science coverage, or medical coverage, or widget coverage) you need to incentivize it within the newsroom. This new structure inevitably disincentivizes because it brings environmental coverage into more direct competition with topics that are ‘newsier’ — that vague, troublesome term we use for stories that we know are likely destined for mass readership without requiring a lot of reporting effort. Can environmental stories meet that standard? You bet they can and sometimes do. More often, though, they require reporting time, effort and expertise to attract big audiences. (This applies, of course, not just to environmental stories, but any coverage area that requires expertise.) If there are faster, cheaper, newsier options, more difficult stories are less likely to be assigned in the absence of a management structure that pushes against this trend. Eliminating the environmental desk, and the incentives that go with it, is a small but significant step away from encouraging expert coverage, and that is inherently not a good thing.

    Will the NYT stop covering environmental news? Of course not, the stories are too important and the reporters and editors are too smart and committed to allow that to happen. Will the volume, quality and play slide? I hope not, but I fear so.

    Link to this
  2. 2. revkin 11:51 am 01/13/2013

    I hate to sound like the middle child I am, but there’s truth in both Bora’s and Dan’s views. As I wrote on Friday (post and link below), I think the paper was wrong to eliminate the environment editor position. It’d be natural to have such a position on the Science desk, but with one responsibility (as with The Times’s health editor) being to eyeball any story coming through the overall news pipeline with environmental themes. The Green blog will not persist unless it is attached to a desk. Under Science, there is only one non-health blog at the moment — Scientist at Work — and the Green Blog could clearly live on there, but not without a dedicated editor (see the first point above).

    Dan’s points about a dedicated team are sound, but butt up against financial realities. Having two editors full time on environment is hard to justify in a shrinking newsroom. But, as I’ve said, having an environment focal point within Science is not only justifiable, but vital. Here’s the piece: The Changing Newsroom Environment

    Link to this
  3. 3. DanFagin 12:20 pm 01/13/2013

    I agree with Andy that an environment editor within the science desk would be a decent fallback, but the key will be whether this editor has a designated staff (as the health editor does within the science desk). Without a staff of at least two or three reporters to generate a stream of projects, daily stories and blog posts, this editor will be forever locked in battle with editors at other desks who are not incentivized (there’s that damn word again!) to cooperate by lending their reporters.

    I also think Andy is right that this specific situation has to be viewed within the larger context of broken revenue models. It is indeed increasingly difficult to fund specialized coverage at any general-interest publication. Those of us who have spent our lives covering environmental issues think that “our” issues are especially important and timely, and will only become more important in the future, but others can make strong cases, too.

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  4. 4. akrewson 1:02 pm 01/13/2013

    I have to disagree with one statement:
    “It is much easier to turn an expert into a journalist than a journalist into an expert.”

    Programs like the Knight science journalism fellowship at MIT help, and I have evidence they pay off for individuals as well as those who read them. In addition, taking a generalist journalist, who might have previous specialties in other newsroom beats, and turning her into a science specialist, helps with that concept of “horizontals” instead of verticals.

    However, I love your thoughts on push-pull, and the use of ecology metaphors for news and information. I’d love to hear more thoughts from you and others on the concept of the hive – or Green blog – and how it differs from a topic page. It sounds like you’re looking for a place where the readers (bees?) can share information about changing conditions in the fields.

    But the hive/flower/honey metaphor still feels off. An optimal farming theory, or gardening theory, rather than an optimal foraging theory, seems more apt. In either case, when we have so many places to comment, link and curate, why clutter a topics page with that content?

    It sounds like you’re looking for something like MediaGazer or Memeorandum for science, in which the audience plays a role in how stories get played. But simpler and cleaner, perhaps is the MediaGazer River:

    The problem remains with any tool that counts on the audience: It easily becomes a giant echo chamber, minimizing the quieter voices and stories and amplifying the effects of the long tail. Simple, clean curation tools like topics pages avoid that, but also don’t bring in the diversity of crops or voices from other sources.

    The challenge: Creating tools like topics pages with diversity of sources, with some sustainable human curation involved that allows some push within the pull.

    Two books on my reading list to explore this more: “The Newsphere: Understanding the News and Information Environment,” and of course, “The Shallows.”

    Link to this
  5. 5. theghost 3:54 pm 01/13/2013

    could it be that the owners of the NY Times realize that public interest in AGW is waning and they can’t waste the money on unprofitable employee’s ?

    Link to this
  6. 6. Bora Zivkovic 4:37 pm 01/13/2013

    Thank you all for thoughtful comments (I know, there are more on social media, but that is how the system works these days).

    Having the Green Blog (and environmental reporters) under the Science Desk editorial control would be a decent solution, I agree.

    Note on comment moderation on this blog:

    This is my own, personal blog.

    My comment moderation rules are capricious. Deal with it.

    There is no Free Speech clause giving you the right to post on my blog. If unhappy, start your own blog.

    If you use the word “censorship” give me a few minutes I’ll need to laugh about it.

    I want the discussion to be constructive, and to stay on topic. This post is about NYTimes environmental reporting, nothing else.

    Any comment that mentions Al Gore will be deleted.
    Any comment linking to Watts and other purveyors of rightwing opposition to climate science will be deleted.
    Any comment I think is trolling, or derailing the conversation, or off-topic, or inhibiting potential constructive comments by others by being vile in tone, will be deleted.

    My blog, my rules. Tough luck.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Mims 5:22 pm 01/13/2013

    Just a few thoughts:
    1. I think Businessweek, The Economist and The New Yorker are doing a good job of “pushing” environmental coverage in front of audiences that might not normally see it. In fact, with the exception of a few truly retrograde outlets like WSJ, I feel like just about everyone is doing this to some degree or another. I really love this push/pull idea.
    2. That said, I think this completely misses what is for many audiences the most important way to consume news, and that’s social. If you haven’t looked into the model of e.g. Upworthy yet, I urge you to. Social sharing of news scrambles to some extent the difference between push and pull, in ways that are worth exploring.
    3. Perhaps social is simply the new Pull. In which case the blog remains a good anchor for this kind of content.
    4. But here’s where it gets weird: Because social prioritizes streams of individual authors, it’s possible for them to become the new epicenters. What if NYT didn’t have a green blog, but rather a green social “stream” that simply pulled related stories from all across the paper.
    5. There is a deeper battle here that is not yet won. Inertia dictates that many of the assumptions of other sections of the paper do not reflect the new global realities revealed by reporters on the environment desk. That’s why it’s a good reason to disperse them. But one transplanted environment reporter against, say, an entire news desk full of finance or economics reporters? If the Times is truly committed to getting this kind of thinking incorporated in every desk, they will keep their environment editor as a coordinator of this kind of coverage, and an advocate. It is too easy to get your priorities swamped by the needs of whatever desk you’re on, regardless of your convictions.

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  8. 8. Bora Zivkovic 5:32 pm 01/13/2013

    Great points, @Mims. Lots to unravel there.

    1) Yes, I agree, some other outlets are really good at it. Of course, dedicated science (or environment) outlets (like this one) are good, but they are “pull” by definition. In this post I tried to limit myself to this specific example of NYTimes.

    2) I completely avoided the discussion of social in this post as it was getting too long. I have already written about it (including some of the posts linked above) and talk about it often (as do others, like Ed Yong). This post is focusing on the more traditional audience, people who actually ready NYTimes in hardcopy, or perhaps online by specifically visiting the NYTimes site. Gotta remember that Twitterati who get their news, including all the links to the NYT articles, are still a minority.

    3) Social is the new Push, not pull. I post tons of links on my Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus pages, where many of my followers/friends/subscribers are not so much into science. Yet they click on links and read them. They are the unsuspecting audience I push science onto. They would have never read those articles unless I posted them on social media. And they often thank me for that – they realize, due to my linking, that science is cool. Now they may even start seeking science content on their own (becoming more of a Pull audience).

    4) Yes, I think NYT should pull all their environmental coverage into a dedicated social stream. But that does not reduce the importance of Green Blog for the millions who are not on Twitter etc.

    5) Yes, this is my biggest worry. Which is why my thoughts are tentative, cautious and in a “wait and see” mode. We’ll see how it all turns out in the end.

    What is also important to note is that NYT had great environmental coverage BEFORE they instituted the environment desk. So there is at least some historical evidence that they are capable of doing it well without a dedicated desk, even though the financial situation is worse today. We’ll see….

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  9. 9. marynmck 8:00 pm 01/13/2013

    Some points:

    - I have worked in six newsrooms; your description of how you think this will work does not match the culture of any I worked in or know of. Dan’s points, and Mims’ #5, are valid. Competition for space, attention and time to report is acute; without an editor to battle for them, those reporters will have a hard task in front of them. The editor you belong to always has something else for you to do.
    - Andy is a fantastic journalist and is responsible for much of the NYT’s til-now excellent reputation on enviro news. But as he acknowledges in his own post, he occupies a unique position as a contract employee to Op-Ed, no longer within the newsroom structure. The voices we need to hear (but probably will not) are those of the reporters being reassigned.
    - The derision directed at Paul’s post is unkind. He expresses the concerns of many of us.

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  10. 10. Bora Zivkovic 8:04 pm 01/13/2013

    There was no derision. Just description.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Mooloo 11:33 pm 01/13/2013

    Green Blog should now become not just a cool place for interns to build their reporting chops, but also:

    - 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.

    Doesn’t this just lead to ever-decreasing circles? For Revkin to blog about what others of similar mind have blogged about already seems like very little advance.

    Why not look outwards, to different views. My favourite is Ben Pile’s place but I’m sure other readers can suggest more.

    Centralising information is great if you want to push a party line, but most of us prefer our blogging to at least attempt to expand our minds.

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  12. 12. Bora Zivkovic 12:34 am 01/14/2013

    I doubt Andy would just cover what NYTimes covers. But he needs to find out easily what his colleagues there are doing. Perhaps specifically to focus on stories they did NOT cover.

    Link to this
  13. 13. hrynyshyn 8:53 am 01/14/2013

    I share the skepticism of those who have actually spent time in newsrooms. The truth is, as Marilyn and Dan have implied, individual reporters need champions in the newsrooms if their perspectives are to find expression on the web or in print or on the air. Who will fight to put the climate above the fold at a news budget meetings if there is no editor to make the case? I think any of us, including Andy R, if he can remember back to his early days, can dredge up cases of trying to push environmental — or more specifically, climate — stories to the news desk, only to have the pitch dismissed as a fringe story of interested only to other green freaks.

    And I find the argument about cross-pollination of ideas to be a curious one. No one bothers to argue that doing away with the business section would lead to an increase in business-oriented ideas in other, ostensibly less-business-oriented sections. Or imagine a budget meeting without a business editor. There is no reason to treat business and the environment differently. And yet we do.

    Sure, Bora’s vision is a pleasant one. But he is right to be cautious. The NY Times COULD keep up the good fight, but from my experience, without a team of journalists dedicated to the subject, it’s just not going to get the attention it deserve. Doing away with the environment desk doesn’t guarantee a decline in coverage, but it does make it harder to keep it up.

    On the other hand, I find the discussion on these pages to be such high quality — with more in common than separating our opinions. It gives me hope. Look forward to discussing the subject at Science Online 2013.

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  14. 14. Enviro_Equipment_Inc. 3:51 pm 03/6/2013

    Our company is heavily involved in environmental remediation efforts and we relied upon the NY Times green blog to get a feel, if you will, for the public pulse on various environmental issues through its comments section.

    It was perhaps the most widely read and arguably the most influential environmental blog out there and will be missed for sure.

    Link to this
  15. 15. GreenfishBluefish 2:57 pm 03/20/2013

    I totally agree with many of the points in this article – especially the emphasis on the increasing importance of expertise in environmental journalism…

    It must be said that my company which is involved with fisheries and marine environmental management, has suffered significant setbacks as a result of the scrawls of generalist environmental reporters, or worse specialist environmental reporters who know nothing of fisheries management.

    The pro-environmental polemic that is growing most notably as a result of the ever increasing pro-environmental discourse has prompted me to begin a blog of my own…. one that tries to negotiate this polemic rationally. Its called Greenfishbluefish…

    Link to this
  16. 16. florcom 4:49 am 07/10/2014

    Un artículo muy interesante. Pienso que la el reparto de todos los periodistas ambientales por todo el edificio del new york times dará un aire fresco.

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