Environmental News Site Funded by Natural Gas Co. Beating Out the Competition

It’s a brave new world for news media. Clean Skies Network, a video news website bankrolled by the American Clean Skies Foundation, which is in turn bankrolled by Chesapeake Energy, the country’s largest natural gas producer, has been quietly putting out well-produced, timely stories on clean energy and climate policy.

Clean Skies is still ranked far below major green news sites, like Greenbiz.com, the Environmental Leader, and of course Triple Pundit. But the site has won praise from the New York Times, and a recent visit shows why.

Clean Skies’ flagship product, “The Energy Report,” a video news round-up with professional production values, covers the gamut of breaking energy and environmental news with timely reporting of topics often missed by other environmental outlets.

A recent Report included a piece about the Virginia AG suing to stop new fuel efficiency rules, a juicy story not on most other mainstream sites, as well as coverage of the Cape Wind Project, an update on Obama’s drilling plans and other news.

Given the current state of the news media — total chaos — is it possible that the cleanskies.com model is the future? Or at least one version of it? If Fox News can wear its politics on its sleeve and still be called a news organization, why can’t Clean Skies be one too, provided it’s honest about who cuts the paychecks?

Impartiality, guaranteed

Clean Skies addresses the whole conflict of interest thing on its About page, starting with its mission statement:

Clean Skies News is committed to presenting the highest-quality, unbiased news coverage and informed analysis of events and trends at the intersection of energy and the environment. Our journalists focus on providing accurate information, defining emerging trends, and assessing important political developments concerning America’s environmental and energy future. Our goal is to be an honest broker of news and information about one of the most important stories of our time.

and more explicitly further down:

Clean Skies News operates with full editorial independence in our reporting, guaranteed.

(emphasis added)

Oh, that gas company…

The obvious test of impartiality for a news site funded by the natural gas industry is to look at its coverage of hydraulic fracturing, a type of gas drilling that has been accused of polluting ground water, and is currently under review by the EPA. It is also the road to untold riches for natural gas producers, since the method has opened up huge untapped sources of natural gas in the US, enough to supply the country for 100 years, by some estimates.

A search of the Clean Skies website for stories on hydraulic fracturing came up with 19 stories on the subject, including a spate of stories about the environmental controversy.

In every article where Chesapeake Energy is mentioned or quoted, a disclaimer is added: “Chesapeake Energy is a supporter of the American Clean Skies Foundation, which sponsors Clean Skies News.”

Does this mean the site is really unbiased? Of course not.

Other weaknesses

Outside its video segments however, Clean Skies may suffer less from biased reporting than simply skimpy reporting. Most of the written posts weigh in at around 100-150 words — pretty short, even for web news.

It’s also not clear just how long it will be around. This is not the first “news” site started by Chesapeake Energy. In 2008 Chesapeake launched Shale.tv, a website devoted to the Barnett Shale, a source of natural gas in Texas. The company killed the project several months later to cut costs.

After Shale.tv was shuttered, the disappointed executive editor, Olive Talley, told the Dallas Morning News “she’d hoped to create a new business model for the sagging media industry.”

Clean Skies did not respond to my requests for an interview before I could slap together this blog post.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

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