NPR Reduces Its Environment Team to One Reporter

NPR says move to shift reporters off the environment beat was driven by an interest to cover other fields more in depth.

NPR offices/Credit: Eric Langhorst

NPR has cut back on the number of staffers focused solely on the environment and climate change.

Earlier this year, the news outlet had three full-time reporters and one editor dedicated to covering the issue within NPR's science desk. One remains—and he is covering it only part-time. A few reporters on other desks occasionally cover the topic as well.

The move to shift reporters off the environment beat was driven by an interest to cover other fields more in depth, said Anne Gudenkauf, senior supervising editor of NPR's science desk.

"We'll think of a project we want to do and the kind of staff that we need to do it, and then organize ourselves that way," she said. "One of the things we always do is change in response to the changing world."

Gudenkauf also said she doesn't "feel like [the environment] necessarily requires dedicated reporters" because so many other staffers cover the subject, along with their other beats.

Richard Harris, widely known as NPR's climate science guru (he has reported on international treaty talks since 1992), started covering biomedicine in March. Elizabeth Shogren, who largely focused on the Environmental Protection Agency, is no longer at NPR. Vikki Valentine, the team's editor, is now lead editor for the outlet's global health and development coverage, which includes a new project launched this summer using a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Reporter Chris Joyce, a 21-year veteran of NPR, remains.

The number of content pieces tagged "environment" that NPR publishes (which include things like Q&As and breaking news snippets) has declined since January, according to an analysis by InsideClimate News, dropping from the low 60s to mid-40s every month. A year-to-year comparison shows that the outlet published 68 environment stories in September 2013 and 43 in September 2014. Last month, about 40 percent of that content was climate-related due to NPR's cities project, as well as the media-intensive People's Climate March and the UN climate summit in New York City. The rest was a mix of stories on agriculture and food, land conservation, wildlife, pollution and global health.

Gudenkauf said she hasn't noticed "any real change in the volume of material...Just as the news about climate changes from week to week, month to month, and year to year, so does our coverage."

The news outlet got considerable grief on social media and from readers and listeners about its lack of reporting on the People's Climate March in September. So much so that the group's ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, wrote a post defending NPR's coverage.

NPR's decision to cut back its environment-focused staff comes at a time when other news outlets are ramping up their climate beats.

A year after dismantling its environment desk—citing several of the reasons echoed by Gudenkauf—and a resulting decline in its environment coverage, The New York Times announced earlier this month that it added an editor and three reporters to focus on the topic exclusively. This is in addition to the four staffers already covering climate change.

"The idea is that climate change is the biggest story going, and we ought to be on it in a big way," science editor Barbara Strauch was quoted in a blog post announcing the decision. The Times' new executive editor, Dean Baquet, has "made it one of his priorities," she said. 

The Washington Post recently hired Chris Mooney, a long-time climate journalist, to start a new blog about the environment.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Vikki Valentine's new position. She is the lead editor of NPR's on-air and digital global health and development coverage, not the editor of the beat's Goats and Soda blog.

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