What should the journalistic community expect of a joint venture formed to cover a topic as complex as climate change? Of a joint venture begun during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression? Of one that must operate in the context of changing rules and failing business models? What, in short, should the journalistic community expect of Climate Desk, now that it has passed the half-year mark?

When the partnership was first announced in late April, just before Earth Day 2010, expectations ran high. Chris Mooney, blogging for Discover Magazine, proclaimed it “the biggest news in climate journalism in some time.” Writing for Columbia Journalism Review online, Thomas Zeller noted that “the seven news outlets have banded together to improve on what they see as chronically poor coverage of climate change.” And in a post for The Yale Forum, Bruce Lieberman highlighted the collaboration’s ambition to overcome “the [disjointed] coverage of climate change … generated by reporters working in isolated silos.”

Illustrating their shared effort to write about climate change from multiple angles and beats, all 14 of the Climate Desk’s inaugural collaborations — on “how businesses are adapting to a changing climate” — were posted on the websites of the seven participating organizations: The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, the PBS/WNET-TV public affairs program Need to Know, Slate, and Wired. The same 14 articles were also posted at climatedesk.org, the website created for the partnership itself. Within hours of becoming public, the Climate Desk logo adorned more than  210 web pages. A few weeks later, six of the original Climate Desk pieces — by writers from Wired (Clive Thompson), Mother Jones (Josh Harkinson and Kate Sheppard), and, from outside the partnership, The Nation (Mark Hertsgaard) and Reuters (Felix Salmon) — were published in the July/August 2010 issue of Mother Jones.

In the period after the launch, the Climate Desk website began to fill with “shared content,” material published by one of the partners and then reposted to the Desk. Where, for example, the inaugural collaborative contribution by Kate Sheppard (“Fair and . . . Carbon Neutral”) was listed at the site as a “Climate Desk” article, the repost at Climate Desk of Sheppard’s July 16 update on the Gulf Oil Spill (“The Gusher Is Plugged — at Last!”) referred only to Mother Jones. By August, more than 800 pieces were archived at the Climate Desk website, using the Publish 2 collaborative curation system. The oldest of these items dated back to November 2009, archival evidence of when the partnership had begun preparing for its April 2010 debut.

A Fading Logo, Also a Fading Effort?

By the end of July, however, the Climate Desk name and  logo had begun to fade from view. New pieces — most often by writers at Mother Jones and Grist — were still re-posted at the website, but none bore the Climate Desk imprint. Nor did any of the seven pieces on the Gulf Oil Spill published in the September/October 2010 issue of Mother Jones. In fact, by the end of September, the Climate Desk logo had disappeared from the homepages of five of the seven partners. Only Grist and Need to Know still featured it on their sites, and only Need to Know highlighted the partnership’s role in new pieces — in-house efforts and also interviews with the partnership authors of pieces recently reposted to Climate Desk — created for their podcasts.

Was the partnership unraveling? That was the implicit question that prompted the Yale Forum‘s November 7 inquiry to Climate Desk for a follow-up report. An interview was arranged with Monika Bauerlein, associate editor of Mother Jones and one of the co-coordinators for Climate Desk, for mid-November.* But by the time of that phone call, the question behind the interview had been resolved by a new bloom of Climate Desk logos on four of the seven partners’ websites.

On Tuesday, November 16, under the editorship of Daniel Engber and moderated by The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigral, Slate began posting pieces for a forum on the choices climate activists face given the failure of efforts to pass federal legislation and the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. For a week, the nine co-produced pieces of “Climate Next” were shared and featured content on the websites of Grist, Mother Jones, Need to Know, and Slate. (At The Atlantic, the series was not featured and the logo does not currently appear on the homepage, but links for the nine pieces do come up in response to a search on “Climate Next.” At Wired and Center for Investigative Reporting, the Climate Desk logo does not appear on the homepage, and a search on “Climate Next” yields no results.)

Episodic Output ‘to be Expected’

The episodic output of these first seven months is precisely what readers should expect of Climate Desk, Monika Bauerlein said in the phone interview the next day. The partnership represents a new kind of journalistic collaboration; breadth and depth, rather than regularity, are the goals. Planning for “Climate Next” had begun in late August, she said, midway through the lull that followed the inaugural burst of articles in April.

Even the lulls, Bauerlein noted, could be periods of high productivity for individual partners, adding that the “shared” content steadily accruing at the Climate Desk website was evidence of this effort. By common agreement, each partner determined what portion of its climate- or environment-related content would be re-posted at Climate Desk by so tagging it for Publish 2. Bauerlein expressed no surprise that The Atlantic chose not to tag James Fallows’ December 2010 cover story, “Why the Future of Clean Energy Is Dirty Coal,” for re-posting at Climate Desk; the partnership had not presumed a sharing of marquee content.

By contrast, “collaborative” content, material created or commissioned by two or more of the partners working together, was automatically shared. But whether this shared content was actually posted by a given partner on its own website remained the decision of that partner.

Bauerlein accepted a description of the asymmetries in the partnership — of the nearly 400 items reposted to Climate Desk since April 2010, nearly 300 were provided by just Grist, Mother Jones, and Need to Know — but then affirmed that all seven organizations are still active. In particular, Bauerlein stressed the behind-the-scenes contributions of Wired. Inconsistent tagging might account for some of these observations, Bauerlein said; however, given the explicit environmental agendas that Grist and Mother Jones brought to the collaboration, she said their portions of the total output are not surprising. And given that Need to Know offered new and unique opportunities to re-present that material in other media, it made sense that its portion of the archive was expanding.

In a November 29 phone interview, Erin Chapman, a producer for WNET’s Need to Know and coordinator for its Climate Desk segments and podcasts, agreed with Bauerlein’s assessment of Need to Know‘s  expanding role and on the importance of Wired‘s behind-the-scenes contributions. [Editor:  This sentence was edited 12/5 make a correction.]

Chapman said the program’s executive producers had decided to join Climate Desk when the news weekly was still in pre-production. As evidenced by the subheadings on its website masthead, Need to Know treats the environment as a core news topic, Chapman said, on par with the economy, health, and security; the collaboration with Climate Desk fits that mission. Beginning with the partnership’s extensive shared coverage of the Gulf oil spill, she said, Need to Know has welcomed the opportunity to work with writers from Climate Desk partners, notably Mother Jones, Grist, and, during the spill, The Atlantic. But 80 percent of the Climate Desk stories produced for its podcasts, the medium for most of its climate change coverage, originate in-house. The most recent addition to this list was a November 24 story on the environmental footprint of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Energy policy, the “re-branding” of climate change, and how urban areas are preparing for its impacts are among the topics being considered for future podcasts and broadcasts.

The next burst of activity for the partnership as a whole is to be a forum on the UNFCCC’s COP 16 December 2010 meeting in Cancun. (The first piece was posted on November 29.) Longer term planning is also under way for pieces on how climate policy and science can recover from the perceived failures of cap-and-trade legislation on Capitol Hill, from the disappointments of the December 2009 international meeting in Copenhagen, and from the “climategate” controversies.

New Material: Online and On Air … but Not in Print

All of this new material is to appear online and, possibly, on air, but print is not part of the planning for any near- or mid-term collaborative projects. “We all knew going in that ‘bandwidth’ would be our biggest problem,” Bauerlein noted. Collaborating with such interested and willing partners can quickly produce more material than any single partner, especially the print venues, can accommodate. Most of what its own writers produce for Mother Jones — which over the last four years has transformed itself from a bi-monthly magazine into a 24/7 news organization — appears only online. (Bauerlein estimated the figure at 75 percent.) Climate Desk, it seems, will evolve in response to the same forces that are reshaping the formats and operations of its seven partners.

So is the partnership meeting its stated goals? “It has absolutely improved coverage of the issue,” Bauerlein said. “It’s been a tremendous help for all of us [to have] … the ability to talk with other really smart journalists about … how to make the stories better.” And according to Erin Chapman, those conversations, whether by e-mail or conference call, are regular and frequent.

Evidence of this collective fine-tuning might be seen in the “Climate Next” series, which offered a stiff critique of Michael Shellenberger’s and Ted Nordhaus’s technological optimism without devolving into charges of “climate delayer” and “climate McCarthyism.”

But while Climate Desk may have liberated the partnership’s writers from their “isolated silos,” most readers and viewers may be stuck in theirs, in part because of the voluntary character of the collaboration. When all seven partners share the same content, Bauerlein said in a subsequent e-mail, Climate Desk may reach an audience of as many as 27 million. But for most of the past seven months, only the most active partners have cross-linked their work, and they account for less than 12 percent of that potential audience.**

At the seven-month mark, readers and viewers of partners with the least exposure to the issue have the least opportunity to sample the material generated by the partnership. Perhaps this is a point on which environmental journalists and climate scientists might voice their own hopes and expectations to Climate Desk: “More please.”

*Interview requests to Grist and, through Climate Desk, to The Atlantic, went unanswered.
**This calculation is based on (1) an estimate of Mother Jones‘ online readership provided by Bauerlein, (2) the estimate of Grist‘s readership provided in its Media Kit 2010, and (3) the forecast for Need to Know‘s viewership included in Zeller’s April 19 CJR article on Climate Desk.

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...