New York Times Re-Org Poses Reporting Challenges

The newspaper’s decision to scrap its specialized environment reporting structure raises coverage questions going forward: Will the paper still be the best even if it’s not at its best?

A measure of the importance of The New York Times in the journalism and environmental journalism communities is that it’s likely the only daily newspaper which can make news not only by reporting on the issues, but also in the way it goes about reporting on them.

It wasn’t major headlines, mind you, but word of the “Old Gray Lady’s” recent “dismantling” of its environmental team reporting “pod” structure lit up the blogosphere with fiery forecasts: on the one hand, that the paper’s environmental and climate coverage will suffer, and, on the other hand, that coverage might actually improve over time as environmental issues are embedded more closely with other coverage … and less “ghettoized” on their own.

The story of the Times’ decision broke January 11 in a Washington, D.C., newsletter, “Inside Climate News,” which reported that seven reporters and two editors on the paper’s environment desk, or “pod,” would be reassigned to “other departments,” with the pod itself dismantled. That report by Katherine Bagley led to her follow-up story, and more blog doings, about how many — actually how few — full-time dedicated environmental reporters there now are at leading national newspapers. A dozen? Fifteen, maybe? Five or six? Estimates vary, in part with how “full-time dedicated” is defined. But, exact numbers aside, the point remains: ┬áNot many.

Amid claims by the newspaper’s management that the elimination of the specialized environment desk is “a structural change only,” Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, or ombudsman, wrote that the “reassuring words” from top editorial managers still leave unanswered how the change will affect coverage of environmental and climate change issues.

“Symbolically, this is bad news, Sullivan wrote in a Times column, “Keeping Environmental Reporting Strong Won’t Be Easy.” “And symbolism matters — it shows a commitment and an intensity of interest in a crucially important topic.” (It’s that symbolism that some media watchers fear will become the “signal” the Times action sends to other editors around the country … ergo that environmental issues aren’t all that special after all.)

“In real life, it doesn’t have to be bad news,” Sullivan continued. “A pod’s structure, outside the major desks — Foreign, Business, National and Metro — by its nature means that the coverage is not integrated into the regular coverage of those desks, which have their own space in the paper and their own internal clout.

“If coverage of the environment is not to suffer, a lot of people — including The Times’s highest ranking editors — are going to have to make sure that it doesn’t.

“They say they will. But maintaining that focus will be a particular challenge in a newsroom that’s undergoing intensive change as it becomes ever more digital while simultaneously cutting costs.”

Sullivan reported also that Sandy Keenan, environment editor of the now-eliminated environment team, “told me she wishes the decision had not been made.”

Former Times science correspondent Andy Revkin, who made his journalism reputation primarily covering climate science, largely dismissed the doom-and-gloom forecasts many others see in the paper’s reorganization. Sullivan reported Revkin’s telling her that he thinks the change is more “about efficiency” than about quality of coverage.

Some commenters on blogs and listserves wholly independent of the Times were far less charitable. Among the concerns expressed was the likely difficulty in seeking to “borrow” reporters and editors from other desks — themselves experiencing shrinking reporting staffs in some instances — to adequately staff an in-depth reporting assignment of the kind that has won the Times many journalism awards over the years.

Time will determine whether the paper’s long-time and frequently cutting-edge news coverage of climate will gain or suffer from the reorganization, and the paper is likely to continue to be regarded as among the best daily newspaper in the world — perhaps the best — in covering climate and related energy and environmental issues.

Given the economic suffering and “dumbing down” of much print newspaper coverage over the past decade, however, that may be setting the bar a bit too low. The real question is whether the paper can manage to do exceptional in-depth coverage of the issues under the new arrangement. And on that point, the jury for sure remains out.

The Times, after all, might still be the best without necessarily being at its best. Its readers and followers will have to determine for themselves whether that is good enough.

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