The Death of ‘Green’ and Plan B for Science Communications

March 8, 2013

Bob Lalasz is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Maybe the most surprising thing about the demise of The New York Times’ Green blog was that…so many people were surprised by it.

When I attended the ScienceOnline 2013 conference in late January — an annual gathering of digitally savvy scientists and science reporters and communicators held at North Carolina State University — everybody I talked to about Green thought its death was a foregone conclusion.

That’s because the Times had dissolved its environment desk earlier that month, and paying the desk’s two editors to essentially manage a blog is a rather dear expense in today’s precarious newspaper environment.

Still, the Twitterverse erupted in howls when the news finally leaked out last Friday. Bora Zivkovic, the irrepressible blogs editor for Scientific American, summed up the agony:

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(Background: When the Times shut down its environment desk, Bora put forth this long post outlining how its reporters who used to be on environmental beats could now evangelize with the rest of the news staff to build an environmental newsgathering ethos throughout the paper, with Green as its flagship. It was a nice theory, but newsrooms unfortunately don’t really work that way — especially as more and more reporters work from home these days.)

I wasn’t surprised when Green got killed, but I was still a little shocked. “Shocked” because, while I saw it coming, the idea of one of the most influential newspapers in the United States giving up its dedicated channel for reporting on energy and the environment is a particularly big tree to fall in the ever-thinning forest of mainstream U.S. environmental journalism.

You probably know the numbers by heart: More than half of all environmental reporting positions at U.S. dailies have been terminated since 2000, and the number of science sections at dailies has fallen from about 150 to fewer than 20.

(And, let’s be frank: The shock for many enviros also stems from the Times’ reputation as a liberal paper, friendly to environmental concerns. As the thinking goes: If even the Times can’t even see fit to keep an environmental blog going, is there any hope of getting our stories back in the mass media?)

Once the shock wears off, though, what does the disappearance of Green mean for environmental science and science communications? It’s more complicated than you might think.

There isn’t any question that environmental coverage at The Times will decline — in raw numbers, anyway. Media Matters reports that, since the Times closed its environment desk, Green has accounted for 64 percent of its climate coverage. (The Times has led four other major US newspapers in coverage of climate change issues over the last 13 years, according to the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research.)

Closer to home, when the Conservancy’s Jeff Opperman got a series of posts from his recent trip down the Mekong published by Green, I was thrilled. Jeff was writing about the complicated issues around hydropower development on one of the last largely undammed great river systems of the world, and Green was a close-to-ideal platform for the story — read by media, bloggers and policymakers concerned about energy and the environment.

Green delivered for that audience pretty consistently. That identity, though, also meant that Green was more or less locked into that niche audience. It was truly a blog — a specialty channel that happened to be part of a mass media flagship. So of course it provided 64% of the Times recent climate change coverage — one thing blogs do well is volume. As an aggregator for energy and enviro news, it was often peerless. But again, that’s a social media function, and its audience will find that news elsewhere, although less efficiently.

So tying Green’s death to the end of mass media environmental journalism misses the mark. Environmental journalism today is already largely a niche practice, even if environmental stories still make it onto the front pages of major newspapers and the nightly news.

Yet many environmentalists and conservationists still yearn for the days when we could rely on mass media platforms we didn’t own to “deliver” our findings to mass audiences. That portrait of how media works was always something of a myth, an iteration of the Science Deficit Model, and it’s the biggest mistake environmentalists who lament the decline of environmental news coverage make — that more coverage automatically means winning more hearts and minds. (In some cases, like with climate science, it might mean just the opposite.) The science of science communications tells us that our first question as communicators should never be: How many? But rather: Who are they, and what do they care about?

That doesn’t mean You, Conservation Scientist should ignore traditional media; on the contrary. But it means you should also be developing your own presence and skills on more conversational media and venues — where you can get to understand your audiences and they can talk back to you. Reject the tyranny of being picked and pick yourself, as the marketing expert Seth Godin puts it. For example:

Blogs like Cool Green Science are ideal ways to develop a consistent online voice and presence for yourself and your ideas. If you’re successful within a group blog, the next step is to start your own blog like The Prairie Ecologist by the Conservancy’s Chris Helzer or Corey Bradshaw’s Conservation Bytes — both have vigorous and growing niche audiences. Then you could pitch a move to a bigger platform like the mammothly successful blog families at Scientific American, Discover, and Nature. The appetite for science news and views online continues to grow enormously.

*  On a more intimate level, Cafe Scientifique is a grassroots public science initiative in dozens of cities across the United States, the UK and the world — each month, a scientist comes to an informal setting to talk to dozens or even hundreds of people about their work. These are great experiences that break down the barriers between science and the public and force scientists to engage with and not talk down to their audiences. Panel discussions such as the Conservancy’s series “Nature and Our Future” held at The New York Academy of Sciences are also excellent training grounds for jousting about ideas in public.

Twitter is fact becoming a premier audience cultivation tactic for scientists. Jon Hoekstra, Peter Gleick, Matt Herbert, Doug Pearsall, Gina Cosentino and thousands of other conservation scientists to are using it to have conversations with each other, with the public and (yes) with media. It’s not for everyone, but there’s often no better way to get quick reactions and generate conversation among some of the audiences you might desire.

A portfolio of blogging, speaking, and selected social media presence, along with an updated web page with your specialties and publications, can be invaluable toward building your profile as a scientific thought leader — and building audiences for your work and ideas.

A week after the death of Green, the online laments for its passing have already died away as well. That doesn’t mean it won’t be missed, or that there is any substitute for good hard reporting on environmental issues. But the access and collaborative power of the Internet softens the blow just a bit, putting the power of aggregation and speech directly into the hands of scientists, science communicators and environmentalists. Increasingly, it’s up to us to embrace our niche and make our own media.

The Columbia University media theorist Clay Shirky put it best — in this new environment, “nothing will work, but everything might.”

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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