In 2012, the New York Times published 857 stories about climate change, The Washington Post published 593 and the Los Angeles Times published 496, according to Boykoff's review. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today published 133 and 124 stories, respectively.
"The top environmental reporters seem to be from dedicated teams, which makes sense since it means their attentions aren't divided," Boykoff said. "From what I’ve seen, I think that diluting resources runs the risk of diminishing coverage."
Newspapers are constantly restructuring their staffs and have long debated whether core subjects are best covered by forming specialized teams or by distributing coverage throughout the newsroom. The Times also has closed its education desk and is considering closing its religion desk.
But Bill Kovarik, a journalism historian and communications professor at Radford University in Virginia, said the timing of the Times' decision is worrisome because public concern about climate change is growing.
"Science and environmental coverage has always gone through cycles based on interest and the issues of the day," Kovarik said. "What is surprising to me is that we seem to be on the downward slope of one of these cycles, and yet the effects of climate change are becoming more and more visible every day."
Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist and hurricane expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he is more concerned about the quality of the articles journalists produce than the quantity. He said he would rather see "a few excellent and well-researched articles than a deluge of coverage, some of which may be low quality."
Josh Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, a project of Harvard University that is exploring the future of journalism in the Internet age, said he believes there are "real benefits" to integrating environmental coverage into the entire newsroom, as the New York Times plans to do.
"Asking the entire newsroom to do more could help push environmental coverage to the forefront" and result in more stories from more reporters, Benton said.
Still, several people interviewed questioned how environmental stories will make it into the New York Times without a designated editor to champion them—and how, without a designated editor monitoring the coverage, the Times' leaders will even know if its coverage has slipped.
Last week Baquet told InsideClimate News that he'll be responsible for seeing that the Times' coverage remains as strong as it was before the desk was dismantled. When asked this week how he intends to do that, Baquet said he'll make sure section editors across the paper make the environment a top priority, but provided no details beyond that.
Kit Frieden, health and science editor at the AP, the largest U.S. news service, described a kind of hybrid structure for its environmental coverage. She said most major environmental news is overseen by the health and science desk, which has two full-time editors, but "we try very hard not to work in silos and to draw in all of AP's expertise." She said the desk's stories on energy issues such as fracking "are often vetted by our energy writer or others who are highly familiar with the science and nuances of such issues."
Meanwhile, as the Times pushes ahead with its plan, the Guardian, a large and influential London-based daily, is ramping up its environment coverage—in particular, its coverage of climate change. The Guardian now has two editors and four full-time reporters assigned to the subject, plus three staffers handling production.
"It means we aren't pulled in a million directions," said Adam Vaughan, editor of the paper's online environment content. "We can prioritize, and really cover an issue in-depth."
Correction: The text and headline in an earlier version of this article said the nation's top five newspapers will have fewer than 10 reporters exclusively covering environmental issues once the New York Times dismantles its environmental desk. That figure did not include the Times' reporters who are likely to continue reporting on the environment from other desks. The more accurate estimate is about a dozen reporters among the five papers.