The New York Times is closing its environment desk in coming weeks, assigning its seven reporters and two editors to other departments and eliminating the positions of environment editor and deputy environment editor. While the paper has insisted that the closure will not affect its environmental coverage, many remain unconvinced.
"This change to our environmental coverage is purely a change in the architecture of the editing," Eileen Murphy, Vice President of Corporate Communications for the New York Times Company, told TriplePundit in an email.
The Times’s environmental coverage has generally outpaced other media outlets in recent years. A recent analysis by The Daily Climate found that media coverage of climate change has steadily declined since 2009 even as the incidence of extreme weather events has dramatically increased.
The U.S. paper of record said it decided to close the desk because environmental stories are always related to other news categories -- national, foreign, economic, and so on -- and so "it makes sense to have reporters on all relevant desks covering a wide range of environment issues," according to Murphy.
The Times has not said if it will shutter its Green Blog, which is edited from the environment desk, and Murphy insisted that the closure of the environment desk will not make the paper's environmental coverage any less aggressive or comprehensive.
Still, environmentalists and several members of the media have expressed concern that the Times's closure of its environment desk, which has been lauded for excellent coverage of climate change and other issues, sends the wrong message to the public and the media.
"When you abolish a standalone beat, it sends a strong message to every career-conscious reporter and editor that chasing environment stories is not a path to advancement," Peter Dykstra, publisher of the Daily Climate, told ThinkProgress in an email.
Dykstra was let go from CNN when that news outlet closed its environment department four years ago, and while the Times is merely reassigning its reporters, others in the media say that environmental coverage at the paper is bound to suffer.
Dan Feign, a professor of journalism at New York University, posted a comment on Facebook about the closure that is worth quoting at length:
...[W]ithout a designated staff your editor would have to rely completely on borrowing reporters from other desks, and editors on those desks would get no credit from management for any environmental stories their borrowed reporters produce. Meanwhile, the reporters themselves would feel the pressure from their desk editors -- the editors who do their evaluations -- to stay on their own desks. It sets up an adversarial system that has already failed in many newsrooms. The best solution is what the Times has sadly dismantled: a small dedicated staff with diverse skills AND the ability to tap other expert writers when appropriate.
"Despite their official statements to the contrary, this move will reduce the paper’s institutional focus and capacity to report on environmental issues," he added.
While such criticisms have been commonplace in the wake of the paper’s announcement, Andrew C. Revkin, a frequent Times Op-Ed contributor who runs the popular Dot Earth blog, pointed out that the paper’s environmental coverage was excellent even before it opened an environment desk in 2009.
Moreover, much of the Times’s best environmental reporting originated on different desks even after the environment desk was open, Revkin noted.
Ultimately, the effects of the closure remain to be seen. Al Gore probably had it right when he wrote recently, “While I am sad to see this dedicated desk come to an end, I hope that its tremendous reporters can, as the newspaper’s leadership promised, continue their crucial work and can help influence the general newsroom by incorporating important environmental perspectives throughout the paper.”
Harry Stevens is a freelance reporter covering climate change, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, and sustainable finance. Harry has contributed to several media outlets, including Justmeans, GreenBiz, TriplePundit, and Sustainablog. You can follow Harry on Twitter: @Harry_Stevens