Inside Climate News reports that “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.” Is this a good thing or bad?
The conventional response would be that it represents a loss of commitment to the subject. Dean Baquet, the paper’s managing editor for news, says not all:
… 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.”
OK. fair enough. It would, in theory, be great to see environmental issues find their way into other stories. Climate change has an effect on just about everything, after all. But let’s follow the logic. Surely no one would challenge the reality that business stories are party environmental, national or local among other subjects. They are more complex and so require people working on different desks that cover different parts of the story. And yet, find me a major metropolitan daily editor who would last more then two news cycles after dismantling a paper’s business section and redistributing the staff among the general reporting staff.
No, the reality is that some subjects require reporters — and editors — who specialize. Without an unwavering focus and dedication to understanding a subject rooted in sometimes-counterintuitive science, it is impossible to do justice to the field. This is one of the primary lessons of the last few decades of science and environment reportage. It is not the same as chasing ambulances.
Back in the pre-Internet days, dedicated science sections seemed like a wonderful idea — to science journalists. But publishers who have to worry about ad revenue tended to come to a different conclusion and few let their science section survive into the 21st century. Now the bells tolls for environment coverage at the Gray Lady. Plus ça change.