By BUD WARD
It's no stretch to think that Andy Revkin was at the top of his game when he chose this past December to leave The New York Times, where for years he had headed the paper's science coverage of global sustainability and climate change.
Andy Revkin on the sea ice near North Pole, 2003.
Certainly, he was at the top of his journalism career, in a position that made him one of the few "rock stars"…or celebrity reporters … in environmental journalism.
Over much of the past 15 years, Revkin had enjoyed a generous Times travel budget that would make most other journalists drool with envy; had toured the globe, from the Arctic to Antarctica; had unparalleled access to climate science experts both nationally and internationally; and, through the Times, had wielded an agenda-setting journalism capacity like few others.
And all that on an issue seen by many of his peers in and beyond journalism to be the environmental issue — perhaps even THE issue — of the coming century.
Along with a very small group of other science reporters — none of them with the match of international audience, freerange of coverage, and high visibility — Revkin for years had set the bar high and had defined the standard for climate science reporting. His copy was closely followed by other reporters around the nation and world as a verification, or refutation, both of quality climate science and of journalism. The scientific community — which spared him no barbs from either end of the climate change spectrum — followed his every word, his every Tweet. He was a marquee speaker at workshops, in campus presentations, and on air …seldom detached from the 24/7 online world and networking that made him seem all the time to be everywhere.
Now, as he moves into a new role, the journalism community may once again learn, not just about climate change, but also about our new world of communications.
So Why Leave When He Did …and To Do What?
Why did Revkin leave a journalism job to which most others covering climate change can only aspire?
In fact, it's not entirely accurate to say that he has fully left the Times: he expects to continue his popular Dot Earth blog as an independent contractor, and Times management appears inclined to keep him in that capacity. And he certainly hopes not to be leaving reporting entirely either, though he hopes and expects his future writing career will more often come through magazines and books. He now is working on a book for middle-school children on resilience to disasters and another, for adults, on "ways to navigate the next 50 years with the fewest regrets."
In late December, the Times pared 100 news and editorial employees. But Revkin's acceptance of the buyout surprised many. In fact, it had been in the works for months. His new affiliation as Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding with Pace University's Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, near his home in New York, had long since been secured. (Pace in 2007 awarded Revkin an honorary doctorate in humane letters.)
Writing of his own future on Dot Earth in December 2009, Revkin said, "I no longer see journalism, on its own, as the single best use of my remaining days. Among other goals, I want to help make scientists and scientific institutions into better, more committed, more creative communicators. In a world of shrinking specialized journalism, direct outreach will be more vital than ever."
…Beyond Traditional Journalism and Newsprint
The roots of his move actually go further back. Some two years ago, Revkin had written a personal "second half" memo sketching what shape his work life might take over the second half of his life — he's 54 now. What became clearer to him then was a realization that his future work career would have to go beyond journalism, beyond newsprint, indeed that it might not even encompass traditional newsroom journalism as that phrase had adequately captured his early career.
Even before launching the Dot Earth blog in October 2007 as part of the Times' venture into the digital world, Revkin was continued on page 7 Long-time NYT reporter Andy Revkin charts new future as "communicator" among the most aggressive reporters in the paper's news room in adapting to multi-media reporting and new online formats, Times Assistant Managing Editor Glenn Kramon has said. Pointing to a workshop on the subject, Revkin has referred to it all as "straddling the uncertain interface between the front page and home page."
Revkin personally and professionally was clearly caught up in the tensions between being a full-time news reporter while also being a 24/7 blogger. There appears little question that the enormous success he enjoyed as a blogger through Dot Earth came at some expense to the quantity of his front-page output, and in 2009 he acknowledged and accepted responsibility for what he called "my worst misstep as a journalist in 26 years."
He acknowledges the tradeoffs. "Blogging is not something that the policy makers in Washington follow," Revkin allowed in a recent phone interview. "They'll pay attention to the printed page, and not to something that's coming out on a blog. If I break news on Dot Earth, unless it gets on to Drudge or something, it will just sort of pass in the flow. And that's a limitation, and the sort of constrained nature of the thing …a preselected audience that's interested in global change. And that's a limitation, and it's why I want to keep a hand in print coverage too."
Self-Marketing …While a Tempting Target of Scorn
In addition to his constant online blogging, Tweeting, friending, listserving, commenting, and interviewing, Revkin also possessed another skill few of his journalism peers can match. But it's a skill they all should mimic: He excelled in marketing and promoting his own work, leaving a trail of tiny URLs for all on his extensive distribution lists to follow like squirrels pursuing nuts. It's a skill not to be taken lightly and one that does not come naturally to many ink-in-the-veins reporting types.
Don't get any notion of Revkin on some kind of infallible journalistic pedestal, however. While standing atop a mountain of kudos from journalists and scientists alike for his climate coverage, he acknowledges gaps and takes some responsibilities for what he sees as the Times' shortcomings in reporting too little on the strengths and weaknesses of modeling and the economic implications of climate change — both costs and benefits.
Andrew Revkin moderating questions and answers following an address by
There is little question too that with his high visibility he became a tempting — for some, almost irresistible — target for barbs from advocates left and right. (Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh's broadcast suggestion that Revkin take his own life is only the most highly publicized example.) As much as climate "skeptics" deplored much of his handling of climate science issues, he in 2009 found himself the target also of many in the "pro" AGW (anthropogenic global warming) community, some of whom had sworn not to deal with him again.
It all contributed to the growing frustration over what he increasingly saw as the restrictive limits of traditional black ink on white newsprint journalism. Revkin had a distaste for what he called "the front page thought"— the newsroom tension to pursue the dramatic, the "newsy" sometimes beyond newsworthiness, to boost a potential inside-page story to the front.
So add to those very professional concerns the round-theclock pressures of his reporting job. He had to keep a backbreaking on-call pace that was increasingly taking a toll professionally and personally.
After an exhausting 10 days and international flights to Copenhagen to cover the climate meetings in December, his last official business trip for the newspaper, Revkin returned home seriously ill and pretty much spent. His work schedule already had forced him to set aside his affinity for playing his guitar, sometimes solo and sometimes as part of the Uncle Wade acoustic/blues/country group.
Still a 'Journalist'? — Yes …No …We'll See
In his new capacity, Revkin now appears ambivalent, at best, about whether the term "journalist" still will apply to him. Asked recently, for instance, if he still considers himself a journalist, he replied, "Yes, well, no, well, let's see."
And asked if he plans to remain a dues-paying member of SEJ (active, associate, academic?), he responded that he would most like to make a presentation before the group arguing that its proper name should no longer revolve around journalism, but perhaps rather around communications. (It's not an entirely new thought among SEJ types, but one that has scarcely gotten out of the starter's block.)
"Oh, God," Revkin replied when asked about his ongoing SEJ membership status. "I mean my communications is still going to be a primary function. If I were just listed as academic, that would be a problem for me. I'm basically now a communicator."
Along with his teaching and class work revolving around a new course tentatively titled "9 Billion People + 1 Planet =?," echoing the focus of his Dot Earth blog, he explains that he willcolleagues in academia to "create and promote online communication and educational tools for building and linking communities in ways that foster one-planet living." And he said he hopes to develop a "go-to" portal to compile and improve public understanding of critical sustainability issues, helping to improve links between journalism and communication schools and science departments.
In more down-to-earth terms, Revkin recently said in a radio interview that his reporting on climate science since the mid-1980s had given him "the privilege and the horror of getting a more realistic view of how this issue related to the grander trends that are under way in human history right now. And that leads to a very clear understanding that the more you look at the moment that this is not a moment, that it's a journey."
It was part of Revkin's recognition that while he shepherded climate science coverage during a critical era, the road to overall societal change is a long one.
"You know, our relationship to energy is not going to be solved or transformed by any one president, any one administration, any one Congress, and any one conclave in one capital or another. It's an evolving process."
Part of that evolution has involved a steady, and in past months a steadily increasing, pace of criticisms of his coverage, not only from climate skeptics but also — and more so — from climate scientists more aligned with the official IPCC view of things. As the prospects for real and serious legislative or regulatory action increased, either at the federal or international level, as they had been increasing until the past four months or so, so too did the attacks and criticisms of Revkin for his reporting.
Big Challenge for Media: Need for 'An Intellectual Agora'
Characterizing what he describes as his "interrogatory reportorial exercise" at Dot Earth, Revkin says he much prefers the kind of communication in which he poses questions and outlines what the answers tell him. "I'm not saying what to do, and I'm not telling you what to think," he told a Living on Earth interviewer. He has said he does not foresee himself practicing advocacy journalism and does not plan to align with interest groups on climate change or sustainability issues.
Still in negotiations with Times management over his continuing to handle Dot Earth as a contractor (both parties appeared eager, and close to reaching an agreement), Revkin said in a February telephone interview that newspaper reporters nowadays must embrace the need to be multi-media.
"If they're interested in covering the brewing kinds of stories like climate …one approach is to do more comprehensive pieces every once in a while. And just really press for the space for that.
" Pointing to a mix of in-print and online reporting tools, Revkin says, "You can't just do the one thing, I think that has to just go away. It's ancient history." He points to Albuquerque Journal science writer John Fleck and to Houston Chronicle reporter Eric Berger and Charleston, W. Va., Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. as exmples of reporters who have achieved a delicate balance between their on-paper and online reporting.
"It's a big challenge for the media...We need an inellectual agora, the Greek work for the plaza, " Revkin says. "We've lost that with the death of the nightly news and the death of the daily newspaper, the sense of a common sort of vista on what's happening. Something that everyone is experiencing together."
"How do we maintain that, and also have the depth? You have to have the interactivity and the real-time dynamics of blogging, Twitter, and the like at the same time that you have the same core strength reserved for doing the heavy lifting."
"A conversation that we've been having even in our newsroom is that more of the daily responsibilities of the person who we used to call a reporter will include things like managing topics pages, and that's already the case."
"All of us, increasingly, will be managing flows of information, on topics that are enduring, rather than simply or only reporting the news."
Environmental journalists pondering their own futures — and that of journalism overall — will at least have a role model to follow to see just how it might be done. Granted that Revkin leaps into this uncertain future from the strength of having been the nation's leading climate science journalist, a launch pad few others will enjoy. But Revkin may again be blazing a journalism/ communications path others will want to learn from as the entire field moves in directions as yet unknown and highly uncertain.
Bud Ward, a founding SEJ member, is an independent journalism educator and former editor of Environment Writer. He edits The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media.
** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2010 issue.