The daily generally considered to be the best in the U.S. for the second time in two months sends a troubling signal as it again eliminates a platform for specialized climate and environment coverage. Editors’ promise to ‘forge ahead with our aggressive reporting” for many rings hollow.

Another one bites the dust.

Another outlet for zeroing-in on environmental and climate coverage, that is … coverage that just can’t be shoehorned into the shrinking news budget of “mainstream” major metropolitan daily newspapers.

This time — and for the second time in two months — it’s The New York Times that is tightening the noose on dedicated space for those stories. Adding irony to insult, the “Old Grey Lady,” a term bestowed on the nation’s “paper of record” when admiration of it stood higher, made public its decision to eliminate its green blog at 5 p.m. on a Friday.


That’s the time, journalists know full well — and the Times as well as anyone — when organizations release news they’d prefer get scant outside attention. The irony was salt in the wounds of environmental journalists, environmentalists, and the usual array of full-throated Times-bashers always quick to smell a rat.

But the signs of something gone awry wasn’t limited to partisans and professional press bashers. Among those skeptical of the move is the paper’s own “public editor,” or ombudsman.

Coming while the scent of the paper’s scrapping of its dedicated environment desk still filled the pungent air of dying newspapers-in-print, critics wasted little time trashing the decision, notwithstanding vague promise from the paper that the blog’s regular freelancers would still find receptive venues among the paper’s surviving blogs.

The decision to throw in the towel on the paper’s Green blog came in a 5:01 p.m. March 1 e-mail to regular contributors from the site’s editor, Nancy Kenney:

Dear Friends and Contributors,

Masthead editors at The Times informed me around noon today that they plan to discontinue the Green blog and devote resources elsewhere.

Sandy Keenan and I are deeply grateful to you for your engrossing contributions and support over the last three years. Our deepest thanks to all of you. I will be following up with individual e-mails as best I can; I apologize for the abruptness here.

On Monday, I will begin a new editing assignment on the Times culture desk and will be reachable at the same e-mail address.

Fond regards,
Nancy Kenney

An opening blast highly critical of the Times’ move came in less than two hours from the usually staid Columbia Journalism Review. The magazine’s well-regarded Curtis Brainard, in a post on the magazine’s online “Observatory” site, took no prisoners:

“Terrible news, to say the least,” Brainard wrote, accusing Times Managing Editor Dean Baquet of “an outright lie” for saying in January that the paper remained “as committed as ever to covering the environment,” notwithstanding its having eliminated its environment desk and designated editor.

Other signs also have raised questions: former Times Masthead Editor Glenn Kramon, assistant managing editor, who for seven years headed the paper’s enterprise reporting efforts, including extensive and award-winning environmental and climate coverage, was transferred from New York to San Francisco, where he’ll take over as editor of the paper’s technology coverage.

In announcing that move, Times “Bizday” editor Dean Murphy pointed to Kramon’s new responsibilities for “one of our most vital and dynamic areas of coverage,” with no mention on Kramon’s having been taken off the climate responsibilities, which Kramon and other journalists have at various times described as a “story of the century.” (Which isn’t to deny the importance also of the technology story.)

What’s good for technology coverage may not be so good for climate coverage. And, one way or the other, the new assignment removes Kramon — and environment and climate — from the select list of editors published daily as part of the newspaper’s masthead.

CJR’s Brainard: ‘A horrible decision … folly’

“They’ve made a horrible decision that ensures the deterioration of the Times’ environmental coverage at a time when debates about climate change, energy, natural resources, and sustainability have never been more important to public welfare, and they’ve done so while keeping their staff in the dark,” Brainard railed. “Readers deserve an explanation, but I can’t think of a single one that would justify this folly.”

News of the Times’ scrapping of its “Green” blog lit up the small but often vocal sliver of the blogosphere populated by environmental journalists, climate activists, and others. The paper’s DotEarth blog, domain of former Times science writer Andrew C. Revkin, was of course early out of the gate, with a post the morning after the Times’ late March 1 announcement.

“From a logistical standpoint, the shutdown of Green was probably inevitable once the environment desk was closed in January,” wrote Revkin, whose work on the blog is still supported by the Times news managers who decided to scrap the Green blog.

“I would like to have thought there was space for the environment in that mix” of continuing Times blogs, Revkin wrote in a commentary substantially more mild-mannered than Brainard’s.

For those wanting to unload on the Times’ decision, Revkin offered this advice: “Before you write in to complain, also make sure your subscription to the paper is up to date.”

Among those raising a skeptical eyebrow over the newspaper’s move and its explanation is Public Editor Margaret Sullivan. “I’m not convinced that The Times’s environmental coverage will be as strong without the team and the blog,” Sullivan wrote in a March 3 posting headlined “For Times Environmental Reporting, Intentions May be Good, but the Signs Are Not.”

“Something real has been lost on a topic of huge and growing importance, Sullivan wrote.

“Especially given The Times’s declared interest in attracting international readers and younger readers, I hope that Times editors — very soon — will look for new ways to show readers that environmental news hasn’t been abandoned, but in fact is of utmost importance. So far, in 2013, they are not sending that message.”

Less Climate, More Horse Racing and Award Shows?

Other than from environmental activists and other environmental journalists — increasingly frustrated about seeing their beat pared-back — among the most vitriolic comments was a post by Will Oremus in Slate, headlined “The Times Kills Its Environmental Blog to Focus on Horse Racing and Awards Shows.”

“Wonderful,” Oremus deadpanned. “If there’s anything the world needs in the 21st century, it’s less resources devoted to perhaps the most profound and pressing set of issues facing the world in the 21st century.” Noting some 65 surviving Times blogs on a wide range of issues, Oremus wrote of Times editors’ having suggested that “green-minded readers follow the politics blog Caucus and the technology blog Bits.”

The addendum above, released minutes after news came out about the closing of “Green,” generally failed to assuage concerns.

“Perfect for those who like their news about endangered species filtered through the lenses of horserace politics and/or gadgetry,” the Slate columnist wrote.

Perhaps nowhere was the sting of the Times’ two recent decisions more reviled than — no surprise — on list serves frequented by environmental reporters and editors, many of them now struggling as freelancers rather than as full-time employees. Amidst a few more-tempered comments, anxiety, concern … and disgust and rank suspicion of Times motives … best describe many of the remarks filed on these sites.

Amid the scraps of its ever-declining in-print and online news hole for environmental and climate coverage, there remains a reality, however increasingly painful it may be: Times coverage of these issues is likely to remain among the best in a steadily diminished field of daily general-circulation and newsweekly competition. The best may not be as good as it traditionally has been, and may not even rise to the standard of “good” in many ways. But in a news industry increasingly bereft of daily journalistic excellence, one need no longer be great — or even good? — to be among the best.

That’s the sorry state of much traditional or so-called “mainstream” journalism in America and throughout much of the world in 2013.

Read it and weep, one might say. Soon, you may be able to read only online about newspapers’ declining coverage of serious news.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is Editor of Yale Climate Connections. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as Assistant Director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission on Air Quality,...