Six years ago, The Guardian newspaper, based in the U.K., launched its “10:10” campaign, an advocacy program with news content aimed at getting organizations and businesses of all kinds to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent in 2010.

That campaign followed in a long tradition — long faded in the United States among so-called “mainstream media,” but still alive in Britain — of large newspapers muckraking, rabble-rousing, and explicitly imploring the public to change the status quo on some issue. Other Guardian causes have included pressing the monarchy for an end to Catholic exclusion; an end to corporate tax avoidance; and more inexpensive drugs for the world’s poor.

Editor Alan Rusbridger at right (courtesy of The Guardian).

Now, at the end of a storied career, Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger — who will step down in June after two decades at the helm — has decided to launch one last campaign.

It is a kind of multimedia power move that pairs The Guardian’s formidable storytelling powers, massive global audience, and platform with climate campaigner Bill McKibben and’s global grassroots push around climate change action and divesting from fossil fuel companies.

‘Biggest story in the world’

The “Keep It in the Ground” campaign specifically targets the world’s two largest philanthropic organizations: the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Guardian campaign asks them to move their investments away from fossil fuels companies. The website subsection features video, text-based stories, updates on the campaign’s progress, and a charming podcast series — influenced by the viral public radio hit “Serial” — that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Guardian’s own internal deliberations.

Distinguishing this from past newspaper advocacy campaigns, however, Rusbridger himself has been put up as the initial face of the effort; it is framed, with a mix of melodrama and earnestness, as the 61-year-old editor’s last stand on the “biggest story in the world.”

“I’ve been a bit cautious about campaigns in the past,” Rusbridger told Yale Climate Connections in a recent telephone interview, acknowledging that it “can be dangerous to do this” and risk the outlet’s editorial integrity by partnering with advocates. He said that on issues where the underlying facts are in great dispute, such as with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, “I wouldn’t do it.”

But “on this subject, where the science is pretty conclusive, notions of balance and nuance don’t matter too much,” Rusbridger said. “It’s more important that people read it.”

Rusbridger concedes that the podcast, which features editors and reporters arguing and disagreeing over strategy — and even over whether divestment is a good idea — has made The Guardian susceptible to criticism. Neither the Gates Foundation, a funder of some of the newspaper’s past work, nor the Wellcome Trust has committed to divestment, Rusbridger acknowledged in a public radio “On the Media” broadcast.

Picking fights you can win

Even if the consensus science is settled, policy tactics to address climate change are still in dispute. And the reality is that has specific political agendas and tactics, ones not always perfectly in line with other groups equally committed to mitigating climate change.

Obvious targets, such as ExxonMobil, say they will no longer comment to the newspaper on its stories explicitly because of the campaign. A Guardian report in March printed this comment from the global oil giant: “ExxonMobil will not respond to Guardian inquiries because of its lack of objectivity on climate change reporting demonstrated by its campaign against companies that provide energy necessary for modern life, including newspapers.”

Some media observers say that, politics aside, the overall media strategy is actually not that radical in its conception — and in many ways is merely catching up to the way many people now consume information online.

“News has to exist in the context of people’s lives,” said Josh Stearns, director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. “Sometimes you can’t separate a story from a cause… You can’t just pretend that activism or change-making doesn’t exist.”

Many news organizations, including old and venerable “mainstream” ones such as the Christian Science Monitor, have enabled features that allow site visitors to “take action” or “get involved,” making the descriptive reporting more potentially “useful.” (Of course, media companies have few qualms with digital tracking and behavioral ad targeting in order to induce other forms of “action” from audiences: Namely, getting people to buy things.) And it is true that many media outlets openly tout the outcomes of their work — a law is changed, a politician jailed — as a net good in the public interest.

Stearns said that The Guardian campaign makes these embedded commitments and values more “transparent.” He said he sees “Keep It in the Ground” as “realistic in the way people are already thinking about using the news,” while “not compromising editorial standards.”

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen — long a critic of the news media’s stance of “objectivity,” or what he has famously called the “view from nowhere” — has touted it as an “old fashioned newspaper campaign,” while climate blogger and scientist Joseph Romm has praised the effort, noting that there’s a long and proud history of journalists such as Edward R. Murrow speaking out on the “greatest issues of the day.”

Boston University journalism historian Christopher Daly, author of Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism, points to the tradition of “movement journalism.” He notes that William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator worked “hand in glove with the American Anti-Slavery Society”; and Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine teamed up with NOW to “change laws and attitudes.”

Rusbridger is uncertain that The Guardian will ultimately “win” this campaign. In that way, it breaks the cardinal rule that you only start newspaper campaigns in which you know you can succeed.

It could be a tough way to bow out for the veteran editor and journalist. Still, there have been small, local victories. And with the Paris climate talks coming up at the end of 2015, Rusbridger says that many have told him they are “really grateful we’re doing this” right now, putting pressure on policymakers to push for more action at a pivotal moment.

Topics: Policy & Politics