Budget Knives Don't Cut Creativity, Content In The Blogging World

August 15, 2008

By BILL DAWSON

 "Doing more with less."

The phrase is now often lampooned as a preposterous cliché, but newspaper executives must have thought at first that it was an artful way to spin the bad news of escalating staff cuts.

Publisher Joe Pepe of The Commercial Appeal, for example, used the words when he announced in late 2005 that the Memphis newspaper would slash its workforce of 774 by 170 employees.

"All businesses, including newspapers, are going to have to do more with less or find more cost-effective ways of doing the work to stay competitive,'' he was quoted by the Associated Press as saying.

By 2008, however, deploying the rhetoric of "more with less" has become a dicier tactic for industry leaders trying to put a hopeful face on the still-mounting toll of layoffs and buyouts.

Former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon left no doubt that he was ridiculing the phrase this year when he had the editor of a fictionalized Baltimore Sun pompously utter it on The Wire, Simon's gritty HBO drama about the intersecting lives of drug dealers, cops, politicians and journalists

A similarly bitter note was evident in the American Journalism Review's December/January 2008 edition in a piece titled "Doing Less with Less." AJR editor Rem Rieder fumed that "the 'do more with less' silliness is bad enough when it comes from other industries. But it's particularly appalling when it comes from people who are in the truth-telling business."

Rieder suggested giving a "Pulitzer Prize for candor" to Steven A. Smith, editor of the Spokane Spokesman- Review, for these blunt words: "A smaller staff means a lesser paper. Doing more with less is corporate-speak BS and you won't hear it from me." Well, you won't hear it from me, either. But no one would argue that newspapers are doing a lot of new things with their smaller staffs – a growing number of reporters' blogs are an especially prominent example – even if all the new functions and what's left of the old ones don't actually add up to "more."

Under the heading, then, of "doing new things – plus old things – with less," this installment of The Beat looks at some of the ways environmental reporters at newspapers of different sizes and missions are blogging.

The New York Times 

   The nation's leading newspaper got into the environment blog business last October, when reporter Andrew C. Revkin launched "Dot Earth" to supplement and complement his regular reporting.

Revkin's blogging is focused largely on subjects related broadly to sustainability and climate change. "Dot Earth" is "supported in part by a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship," according to the "about" blurb that appears next to Revkin's photo. Last year, Blog Herald reported that the Guggenheim grant would fund part of Revkin's travel for the blog.

In a post introducing "Dot Earth", Revkin wrote: "The strength of science lies in the trajectory of understanding more than in any single finding, and the most durable ideas emerge from conversation, not monologue.

"So for me, a blog offers an ideal way to interact with the world, and with an audience — one that tracks and tests ideas over time and has the feel of a jam session more than a formal, static solo performance (forgive the comparison; I'm a musician in spare moments)."

A recent example of this "jam-session" approach was on display on May 14, when the U.S. Interior Department listed the polar bear as a "threatened" species.

Following a brief post reporting that development, Revkin posted Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's statement.

Interspersed throughout the text were Revkin's explanatory comments. Added early the next morning were hyperlinks in the text, which led to relevant comments that had been posted by readers. The comments appeared in their traditional place below the blog post itself.

The Wall Street Journal

The nation's leading business periodical – and as it is being restructured by new owner Rupert Murdoch, a direct competitor of the Times on more fronts than before – has its own environmental blog, "Environmental Capital," which was launched in February 2007 to provide "daily analysis on the business of the environment."

On the blog's first day, there were 10 posts, most of them very brief (such as a one-sentence summary of a linked Associated Press story) and credited simply to "wsj.com staff."

Now, the blog has a staff box, which identifies two Journal reporters as the two main contributors of "Environmental Capital." One is Keith Johnson (the blog's lead writer), who formerly reported from Europe on energy and other matters. The second is Jeffrey Ball, also the blog's editor, "who has covered the auto and oil industries and now covers the business of the environment." Other staffers at the Journal, WSJ.com, and Dow Jones Newswire also contribute.

Posts are now more entertainingly written than that early, terse summary of an AP report and also have grown longer (typically running 400 words or more) and decidedly more interpretive, analytical, and laden with multiple links.

A May 13 post, for instance, offered an overview of reportin policy, including discussion of the Journal itself, other newspapers, standalone blogs, and National Review's "Planet Gore" blog.

International Herald Tribune

The Paris-based International Herald Tribune, now the "global edition of the New York Times," also features a businessoriented environmental blog on its website – "Business of Green: A Global Dialogue on the Environment."

Like the Journal's blog, it also has two featured authors – James Kanter, whose assignment since 2005 for the Herald Tribune has involved coverage of "European and global business issues," and Elizabeth Rosenthal, who has been the newspaper's health, science and environment correspondent for the last three years.

Kanter has written most of the blog's posts in recent months – sometimes keyed to an article in the newspaper, such as one on June 2 by Rosenthal about desertification in Spain – and sometimes to a subject discussed in his own "Business of Green" column.

An example of the latter sort of synergy was his joint blogcolumn focus on May 27 on a biofuel project in Goteborg, Sweden, where biogas for vehicles is being produced from the decomposition of sludge from the municipal sewer system.

The Boston Globe

The Globe's entry in the enviro-blog arena, "The Green Blog," was launched in February with the proclaimed purpose of "helping Boston live a greener, more environmentally friendly life."

The blog's lengthy and diverse list of contributors attests to what might be called a wide-angle approach.

The roster of regular contributors on the right side of web page boasts seven Globe staff members. Besides Beth Daley, the Globe's environmental news reporter, they are the Globe's deputy business editor and health/science editor, plus the editor, site architect, lifestyle pages producer, and features editor of Boston. com, the newspaper's website.

Other contributors post on the blog, as well.

One February post – a nearly 900-word account of a speech by Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch and Earth Policy Institutes – was written by Michael Prager, whose own independent blog says he left the Globe in 2007 after 14 years when he took a buyout.

On May 27, a piece that did double duty as a news article for the Globe was posted on "The Green Blog." It was "A green tech bubble?" by staff reporter Carolyn Y. Johnson, which addressed the question of whether "amid concerns the planet is warming, the market for clean, green technology is beginning to show signs of overheating, too."

Louisville Courier-Journal

In the brief history of newspapers on the Web, the Courier- Journal's James Bruggers ranks as one of the forefathers of environment-beat blogging by reporters. In contrast to the more recent blogs mentioned above, Bruggers started his "Watchdog Earth" in mid-2006 with a helpful list of some of his favorite environmental links for readers.

Appropriately – for a blog with "watchdog" in the name and written by an SEJ board member – the list included this item:

"Government agencies are keeping more stuff secret. No surprise there. Get the latest examples from the Society of Environmental Journalists' Watchdog TipSheet on First Amendment and access issues and use them as conversation starters at your next party."

A mission statement on "Watchdog Earth" says Bruggers posts "news items and observations from inside the environment beat locally, regionally and globally. He calls your attention to new studies, reports and events. And he goes behind the headlines to answer questions and explain some of his own coverage in the newspaper."

The blog is wide-ranging, to put it mildly, though with an expected local and regional focus. For example, one post in May featured a photo from the Phoenix Mars Lander, with a link to more shots from the red planet. It was sandwiched between one post about polluted Kentucky waters and another about the new secretary of the state's reorganized environmental/energy cabinet. Exemplifying the newspaper blogs' potential to enlist readers' assistance for reporting endeavors, another "Watchdog Earth" post in May asked for their "experiences, stories and photos" to help with an examination of water quality in a local creek.

Texas

Fairly or unfairly, the Lone Star State may not enjoy the most environmentally conscious reputation compared to some other parts of the country. But it is no stranger to environmental concerns or the launching of newspaper environmental blogs.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Scott Streater started writing his "Planet DFW" in January, offering "a look at the environmental issues that affect the Fort Worth region and what you can do to help." The Fort Worth region, of course, includes Dallas (the "D" in "DFW") and a lot of sprawling suburbia that isn't, strictly speaking, either Fort Worth or Dallas.

As Streater approaches the blogger's task, the definition of environmental issues affecting his metro region is a broad one, as illustrated by a regular blog feature, "Daily Roundup," which is billed as "a sampling of the best environmental journalism published today."

Typically running in the 800-word range, these posts include numerous citations of news stories from outside Texas. On May 19, for example, the 11 article summaries included a Wall Street Journal article about the Texas oil and gas industry, a Minneapolis Star-Tribune piece on the prospects of the coal industry, a Washington Post story on childhood obesity, and an Associated Press report on Al Gore's commencement speech at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania.

Speaking of Gore, the Austin American-Statesman's "Salsa Verde" blog by environmental reporter Asher  Price may well be the nation's only newspaper blog about the environment or any other subject to include a standing "Al Gore" category on its tags list. The former vice president's name is right between "air emissions" (an item at home on just about any environmental blog) and "Barton Springs" (Austin's beloved, spring-fed swimming hole near downtown).

Price launched the "Salsa Verde" blog in April 2007, offering "commentary on green goings-on from deep in the heart of Texas."

The blog does indeed include commentary, often delivered with a typically bloggish dose of humor. One recent post was headlined "With gas at $4 a gallon, walking to work looks like a bargain," and offered what Price drolly dubbed the "tragicomic relief" of a press conference transcript from earlier in the year in which President Bush seemed surprised that the $4 price was then being forecast.

Along with such posts, however, Price also provides oftenbrief news items, such as a three-paragraph post identifying candidates for the open job of executive director at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

About 180 miles east of Austin, the Houston Chronicle styles itself as one of America's most blog-friendly newspapers, with a website listing 20 staff blogs, some of which have more than one regular contributor. The Chronicle's "Houston Politics" blog, for example, has five reporters writing posts.

Despite the newspaper's avid embrace of the blog phenomenon, an environment beat blog has not been introduced. (Disclosure: I was the Chronicle's environment reporter in the long-ago pre-blog days of the early 2000s.)

Chronicle science writer Eric Berger writes about climate change as a regular topic on his "SciGuy" blog, however. And in May, Berger introduced a spin-off blog about climate science on the Chronicle's website, called "Atmo.Sphere." Two university professors are the regular bloggers.

Northwest

Newspapers in the legendarily eco-conscious Northwest likewise take a variety of approaches to blogging the environment. 

The Oregonian's only staff-produced blog on environmental matters, "PDXgreen," is tied to a weekly print-edition column. The column is displayed on the blog site along with often-shorter items that columnist-blogger Shelby Wood posts at other times during the week

Wood's blog was introduced last September as an "intensely local clearinghouse for green news, views, tips and ideas that matter to Portlanders and Oregonians."

Links to the "PDXgreen" page are found on two other pages on The Oregonian's website, OregonLive.com, hinting at the blog's blending of feature-writing and hard-news elements. One link is just beneath the logo of The Oregonian's new web page that collects articles by its sizable environmental and sustainability team of reporters. Another link is on a separate list of all Oregonian blogs, where "PDXgreen" is grouped with blogs on lighter topics including fashion and pets.

"PDXgreen" has an obvious "green living" orientation, but Wood often incorporates a detailed, hard-news element in her handling of such subjects.

A recent column/post, for example, was a multifaceted examination of increasing commercial claims about products' biodegradability, including close attention to regulatory questions and municipal policy.

Reporter Rocky Barker's "Letters from the West" blog for the Idaho Statesman is often focused on the science and law of the environment, but some posts are just plain politics.

This variety of content is telegraphed in a descriptive blurb that says Barker writes on the blog about "issues that define the American West including the environment and natural resources."

For instance, Barker recently followed a post titled "Fish and Game Commission sets the table for wolf delisting hearing" with one headlined "Paul's success in Idaho could show McCain's depth of support in the West."

He launched the text-heavy "Letters from the West" last October and (lately, at least) has been posting a fairly lengthy item practically every weekday.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's environmental blog, "Dateline Earth," has an even earlier provenance than Bruggers' "Watchdog Earth," with the oldest post in its archives dated Nov. 22, 2005. The P-I's blog is produced by environmental reporters Lisa Stiffler and Robert McClure (McClure is an SEJ board member, like Bruggers).

The blog's self-description says it offers "enviro tidbits from around the region and across the globe – stuff you might have missed, cool environmental happenings locally and speedy updates for ongoing issues."

The two reporters make a prolific blogging team, sometimes posting two or three items per day.

"We really wanted to be able to write about the stuff that was falling through the cracks, whether it was something quirky and local or something national or international that was beyond the scope of what the P-I's usual coverage includes," Stiffler said in an interview published in the Environment Writer newsletter in April 2006.

The blog's three posts on May 14 illustrate its kaleidoscopic approach.

Updating four previous posts about six sea lions that died near the Bonneville Dam, one item reported an announcement that they had succumbed to heat exhaustion, not gunshot wounds as previously reported.

The day's second item gave credit to the rival Seattle Times for a series on Puget Sound, saying it "broke some new ground on the disappearance of wetlands in the Puget Sound basin, a topic we've been meaning to get to," but also noting that the Times discussed "topics we've covered before numerous times and will certainly again."

The third and lengthiest post of the day dealt with the Interior Department's polar bear ruling.

Sacramento

Newspaper blogs seem to be here to stay, but the Seattle blog's longevity offers no assurance that one will survive.

Stuart Leavenworth, an associate editor of the Sacramento Bee's editorial pages, started writing a blog called "The Hot House" in 2007 to track implementation of California's landmark laws regulating greenhouse gases.

The blog's final post – "Hot House RIP" – was dated April 30, 2008.

Leavenworth wrote that "after a short year of blogging and 141 entries" it was apparent that "I just don't have the time to regularly feed this blog and handle other responsibilities, like writing one or two editorials each day.

"As a friend once told me: 'Starting a blog is like buying a puppy. You have to feed it at least twice a day, and the more you feed it, the bigger and hungrier it gets.'

"I should have listened."

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal and (more disclosure) is not only a former Chronicle environment writer but also a former staff writer at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2008

By BILL DAWSON