The New York Times will close its environment desk in the next few weeks and assign its seven reporters and two editors to other departments. The positions of environment editor and deputy environment editor are being eliminated. No decision has been made about the fate of the Green Blog, which is edited from the environment desk.
"It wasn't a decision we made lightly," said Dean Baquet, the paper's managing editor for news operations. "To both me and Jill [Abramson, executive editor], coverage of the environment is what separates the New York Times from other papers. We devote a lot of resources to it, now more than ever. We have not lost any desire for environmental coverage. This is purely a structural matter."
On Dec. 3 the Times announced that it was offering buyouts to 30 newsroom managers in an effort to reduce newsroom expenses. But Baquet said the decision to dismantle the environment desk wasn't linked to budgetary concerns and that no one is expected to lose his or her job.
Instead, Baquet said the change was prompted by the shifting interdisciplinary landscape of news reporting. When the desk was created in early 2009, the environmental beat was largely seen as "singular and isolated," he said. It was pre-fracking and pre-economic collapse. But today, environmental stories are "partly business, economic, national or local, among other subjects," Baquet said. "They are more complex. We need to have people working on the different desks that can cover different parts of the story."
The environmental reporters were told of the decision on Wednesday. Baquet said he will meet with each of them to discuss their next assignments and the future of their beats. No decision has been made about the fate of the Green Blog, the online site for the Times' daily coverage of energy and environment news.
The paper did a similar restructuring of its education desk a few months ago. Baquet said editors are also considering whether religion reporting could benefit from this type of change.
News that the New York Times is closing its environmental desk comes just a week after The Daily Climate reported that worldwide coverage of climate change continued a three-year slide in 2012—and that among the five largest U.S. dailies, the Times published the most stories and had the biggest increase in coverage. Times assistant managing editor Glenn Kramon told The Daily Climate that "climate change is one of the few subjects so important that we need to be oblivious to cycles and just cover it as hard as we can all the time."
"I ask myself, 'In 20 years, what will we be proudest that we addressed, and where will we scratch our head and say why didn't we focus more on that?'" Kramon said.
On Thursday, Kramon responded to questions from InsideClimate News in an email. "Fortunately, we still have those reporters who cover climate change so well, and we expect to cover the subject just as aggressively going forward," he said.
Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, said that while solid environmental coverage doesn't always require a dedicated team, the Times' decision is "worrying."
"Dedicated teams bring strength and consistency to the task of covering environment-related issues," she said. "It's always a huge loss to see them dismantled ... It's not necessarily a weakening to change organizational structure, but it does seem to be a bad sign. I will be watching closely what happens next."
Dan Fagin, a longtime science journalist and director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University, said the Times' decision was "disappointing." He said the environmental desk "has done a terrific job and produced outstanding work" in large part because its editors and reporters could make covering the environment their sole responsibility.
"The New York Times has too much editorial integrity to abandon its environmental coverage completely," said Fagin, who serves on the InsideClimate News advisory board. "But if you don't have the editorial structure to support the kind of commitment needed to do both daily coverage and deeper investigative and explanatory work, it is hard to imagine that you could keep the same level of intensity."
Baquet said it's up to him to make sure the Times' environmental coverage doesn't falter. "My goal is to make sure we're producing the same level of work," he said. It "is too important of a topic to let it slip."
Bill Keller, the Times' former executive editor, created the environmental desk in 2009 and hired Erica Goode, now a national desk reporter covering criminal justice, as its editor. Sandy Keenan took over in April 2011 and is now being reassigned. Under their leadership, the desk has tackled complex and controversial subjects. In 2012, Justin Gillis won the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism with a 10-part series, "Temperatures Rising," showing the consequences of global warming. A few months before Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York City, a story by Mireya Navarro warned that the city was moving too slowly in its preparations for rising seas and increasingly severe storms. After the storm, Gillis and Felicity Barringer wrote a story questioning the wisdom of rebuilding coastal areas that are repeatedly destroyed by natural disasters.
Corrections: An earlier version of this story said that Sandy Keenan was hired as the environmental desk's first editor. Erica Goode, who now covers criminal justice for the Times, held that position. Keenan was appointed in 2011.
Glenn Kramon is an assistant managing editor at the Times, not managing editor.