InsideClimate News reported on Friday that the New York Times is closing its environment desk. The Times confirmed this report and explains that the move is not a signal that they are moving resources away from environmental reporting. It is, they say, simply newsroom restructuring. Nonetheless, the move touches a nerve since the dramatic decline of the newspaper industry has been hard on environmental journalism.
The overall decline in the newspaper industry has been snowballing for some time. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in September 2012 that total employment in the newspaper industry declined by more than 40 percent over the 10-year period from 2001 to 2011. The New York Times itself had 12,050 employees at the close of 2001. By the close of 2011 Times employment dropped to 7,273 amounting to just under a 40-percent decline.
Environmental reporting may be particularly vulnerable to this upending of the newspaper industry. A study from 2008 found that about 555 daily newspapers had a dedicated environmental reporter in in 2000. By 2008 that number fell below 300. Symptomatic of this decline, Columbia University suspended in 2009 its graduate program in environmental journalism, noting that the weak job market was the primary driver.
The New York Times describes its newsroom shift as an attempt to promote interdisciplinarity, attributing a change in the nature of environmental journalism from 2009 to today’s “pre-fracking and pre-economic collapse” world. To their mind, environmental journalism was “singular and isolated” in 2009 when the Times opened its environment desk. Not to suggest that the Times is giving up on environmental reporting, but this explanation is absurd. Fracking and the economic situation are certainly high-profile issues in 2013, but in 2009 one could have said the very same thing about the economic situation or healthcare reform or swine flu.
No single issue changes the nature of environmental journalism and, in any case, reassigning environmental reporters to other subjects does not create interdisciplinarity, it creates distraction. Good environmental reporting is difficult because scientific issues are complex by nature. The science may be difficult to summarize and its real-world implications—in other words, its inherent interdisciplinarity—spans a number of areas, from economics to politics and many others. A reporter’s ability to specialize should make reporting the connections easier, not harder. By removing the structural focus on a single area of reporting, an editor is more likely to direct a reporter’s focus away from the important environmental news and instead toward high-profile issues. In 2012 fracking was one, but so was the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.