NPR's Environment Coverage: What's Next

Sep 15, 2015

In my first post on this topic, I highlighted some of the concerns that NPR audience members have raised about the network's on-air and online coverage of climate change and the environment. This follow-up post gives my own views and talks about a couple potentially very positive new NPR initiatives.

Over the months that I reported this, one conclusion jumped out. If the topic is as important as I—and many, many listeners—believe it is, there simply has to be a better way to make NPR's good work both visible and heard after it initially appears. I am not a digital expert and I need to acknowledge that NPR's digital team has many competing priorities, but it seems to me that the format of the environmental page at the moment fails to highlight NPR's most important work. The same is true of many other topics. Even dedicated researchers can have a tough time finding NPR's stories that are more than a few days old.

Secondly, while I found many strong reports in the archives, I would agree that in recent years the coverage has been driven more by the news cycle—oil spills and similar tragic news events and official government reports, for example— when it would have benefited from a more concerted focus. Yes, NPR is a news organization and it needs to cover the news when it happens. But NPR always has claimed to go beyond covering the daily news; its own marketing emphasizes its capacity to "track complex issues over the long-term." NPR did just that in 2008 when it undertook an initiative called Climate Connections, a joint venture with National Geographic (and the web landing page for that series, once you know to look for it, is similar to The Guardian's environment page, with rich archived material.) Some of that intensity seems to have faded, even though the urgency of the topic has not.

Initially, I thought a strong argument could be made that NPR should shift budget priorities and set up an entity such as Planet Money, or its education desk, NPR Ed, that would focus attention on the topic.

But a couple unexpected developments over the summer changed my mind—and I think they will sway many critics, too.

In one of my first meetings with news chief Michael Oreskes, he acknowledged to me the importance that NPR listeners place on NPR's coverage of environmental issues. He has also made it a priority as he starts his tenure to set up ways for NPR to work much more closely with NPR's member stations. That relationship has not always been a smooth one over the years, but combining the reporting power from NPR's national operation with the local station reporters who are deeply knowledgeable about the issues in their communities offers a tantalizing prospect.

That prospect became a reality in July when NPR announced that its latest collaborative effort with the stations would be focused on energy and environmental coverage. This week, a handpicked team of reporters from 12 member stations will meet in Chicago for training and the official launch with the NPR reporters and editors on the project. Those NPR employees are longtime environmental reporter Chris Joyce, who will report and edit, and Alison Richards, the deputy supervising senior editor for NPR's science desk, who will also edit. Jeff Brady of the National Desk and John Ydstie of the Business Desk will contribute as well. The lead editor is Nishant Dahiya, the current Asia editor.

The station partners are Alaska Public Radio, Allegheny Front, Colorado Public Radio, EarthFix, Inside Energy, KQED, KUT, Michigan Radio, StateImpact Oklahoma, StateImpact Pennsylvania, WABE and WWNO.

Bruce Auster, NPR's senior editor for collaborative coverage, said the goal is to "marshal national expertise with local" knowledge, which will lead to more coverage overall and national exposure for some of the very good work that is being done at the local stations and simply not getting enough attention. This was a point made by scientist and critic Stan Cox in his April piece. The project, Auster said, "springs up out of the recognition that climate change is a major issue, and it will revamp the way NPR and member stations work together."

Oreskes said the collaboration project "takes advantage of the power of the network and taps into great journalistic strengths all over the country." Other collaborations around other topics are also planned.

When news breaks, Auster said, there will now be an established procedure, so NPR will be more prepared to jump quickly. Weekly planning calls will focus the work when news isn't breaking. Overall, if the project works as planned, the coverage should be less haphazard, or "scattershot," to use one critic's description.

Is this a blog or a section of the web site that will bring focus to the issue, as some people have requested? No. But I think this project could go a long way to answering listener concerns. It comes at a crucial time, too, as the world gears up for the 2015 United Nations Climate Summit in Paris in December. NPR has already produced some strong reports on the advance jockeying and has been planning its coverage for months, science editor Anne Gudenkauf said.

And there is one more bit of good news for critics, as well. NPR's Storytelling Lab has recently piloted This Land, an environment podcast headed up by Brady and Ashley Ahearn from Seattle member station KUOW. They hope to incorporate the reporting from the collaboration and from member stations, based around themes to be explored in depth; local stations will also be able to use the individual segments.

The first episode, on the role of climate change on wildfires, is available now on the NPR One mobile app. It's not yet certain it will become a regular podcast.

Execution is everything, so we will have to wait to see if these initiatives play out as the newsroom suggests—and, just as important, if they can be sustained over time. But I'm hopeful that they will bring renewed emphasis to an important topic where NPR should be out front.

Editorial researcher Annie Johnson contributed to this report.

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