Environmental Journalists, Activists Keeping a Watchful Eye on the New York Times

Earlier this year, the New York Times announced that it was shuttering its environment desk, reassigning its 7 reporters and 2 editors to other departments. Despite reassurance that the move was structural and the newspaper’s coverage of the environment would not be affected, environmental activists and journalists were dismayed.

In a post on HuffingtonPost.com titled “Worrisome Change to the New York Times’ Ability to Cover Climate,” former vice president and current climate change activist Al Gore wrote, “Along with many, I am sorry to see this team disbanded; over the last several years they have consistently provided high-quality reporting on critical environmental issues, especially the climate crisis. Newspapers generally are under economic stress, and unfortunately, the Times is also profoundly affected by the tectonic shifts in the media landscape.”

Hillary Rosner, a freelance journalist covering science and the environment, was shocked by the move. “I definitely found it baffling and surprising,” she said. “I found it particularly odd that they did away with the Green Blog, since it was widely read and really popular.”

The Times’ Green Blog, which Rosner contributed to from August 2011 to June 2012, was overseen by the environment desk and was ended in March. The blog focused on energy and the environment.

According to Dean Baquet, the paper’s managing editor for news operations, part of the rationale for the restructuring was that today, environmental stories are “partly business, economic, national or local, among other subjects. They are more complex. We need to have people working on the different desks that can cover different parts of the story.”

“On the one hand, I respect the idea that environment permeates all the different desks,” said Rosner. “On the other hand, that’s true of just about any big issue – you could say the same about politics, science, culture, etc. – and yet none of those desks are being shut.”

Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, views the change as a symbolic defeat. “Symbolically, this is bad news. And symbolism matters – it shows a commitment and an intensity of interest in a crucially important topic.”

Rosner agrees. “I think that you can have the best of intentions with respect to covering environment issues, but if you don’t have a dedicated desk and editors, you really run the risk of burying it.”

While Rosner thinks it’s too soon to tell what the ultimate impact will be on the paper’s coverage, she sees it as a growing problem. “We’ve seen similar things at a lot of other outlets, where they’ve eliminated their science and/or environment desk,” she said. “It’s a bad trend.”

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