Welcome to the latest Newsroom Initiative newsletter.
Climate change is the biggest story of our era, and it can be a commercially successful area for newsrooms that address it in a way that attracts audiences and advertisers.
Ahead of my upcoming Newsroom Initiative Webinar with experts on how newsrooms and publishers can address climate change editorially, I talk this week to two of them, discussing how to tackle an enormous subject well and how newsrooms can adapt their thinking to the subject.
There’s also my Recommended Follow and a few media must-reads at the end.
When your city almost runs out of water, it’s big news
In 2018 Cape Town, the coastal South African city of 4.6 million people, nearly ran out of water — not just a shortage or a drought. It went close to having to ration water. It’s a problem other cities, notably Los Angeles and others fed by the Colorado River system, are confronting.
For Jillian Green at the Daily Maverick, it was the year she realised the news outlet had to get serious about covering climate change, which is already having a big impact in Africa.
“In terms of our motivation, Cape Town’s drought three years ago really put it into sharp focus that it’s [happening] now. We approached Day Zero so closely because of drought, not anything else. And tied in with the fact that everything that was happening globally, it felt the right time,” Jillian told me in a conversation ahead of the November 9 INMA Webinar, The Business of Climate Change Reporting.
Since then Jillian, who leads the climate project Our Burning Planet and is also managing editor of The Daily Maverick, has built a team of 10 reporters focused on climate change and its impacts. The vertical is fully integrated within the wider offering of the Daily Maverick.
Three critical elements have made that possible:
Sponsorship directly for climate coverage.
Engaging readers in a way that makes them feel hopeful rather than defeated.
And trust: reporting on climate change in a way that is responsible and honest.
“It's giving people information that they can use to make informed decisions,” Jillian said. “There’s a fine balance between putting in front of people what’s happening with the climate crisis and also empowering people, giving them hope.”
Data and content analysis are helping Our Burning Planet address climate subjects in a compelling and engaging way.
“People often think climate change is somewhere in the future and they don’t have to deal with it now. We’ve got to think about how do we do headlines that will attract the reader to read but are not clickbait — that is a true reflection of the story. I think there’s an extra responsibility on journalism not to do clickbait, that there’s that level of trust. With climate crisis, the issue so so big that we can’t afford to stuff it up,” she said with classic South African understatement.
As with any editorial project, the business model for Our Burning Planet is critical. In this case, the project is driven by sponsorship from the South African bank ABSA, itself a lender to the fossil fuel industry among others. Backing Our Burning Planet is part of ABSA’s in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investment.
Gillian says ABSA has no editorial influence and understands that Our Burning Planet may write about its clients and its investments. She says will do so without fear or favour.
“They’re not allowed to greenwash through us. We focus on the bank’s support of fossil fuels. We ask the same hard questions we do of anyone we write about… .We bite that hand that feeds us constantly,” she says.
The Our Burning Planet approach appears to be working with readers as well as the sponsor. Green says the section has grown by 300% in pageviews in the past two years and brings in about 400,000 unique users a month.
So, maybe it’s possible to combine must-read reporting on climate change with good business.
Register here for the free INMA Webinar on The Business of Climate Change Reporting on November 9.
Ways to make climate change reporting sustainable and credible
Climate change challenges newsrooms and publishers in multiple ways:
How to pay for it.
How to serve readers without just terrifying them.
How to adapt to the fact that the subject covers virtually every beat in the newsroom — not just a dedicated climate desk or reporter.
Diego Arguedas Ortiz is at the epicenter of ways to spread best practices and answer some of those questions in his role as network manager of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, part of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
I talked with Diego ahead of the November 9 Newsroom Initiative Webinar, The Business of Climate Change Reporting, where he and other experts will talk about their approaches to the reporting and the funding of climate change reporting — and some of the opportunities.
“You have to have a business case for climate change journalism as much as for journalism,” Deigo said. “When I started doing climate change journalism in Costa Rica, I did a little bit here and there. Then we approached the biggest renewable energy company in Costa Rica and they gave us a year of advertising, which got us off the ground.”
Climate reporting long ago ceased to be a niche topic and now affects every beat and every publisher — whether it’s environmental impacts and disaster reporting, financial reporting on insurance and renewables, or the impact of the travel industry, for example. That’s where the INMA Webinar and, more significantly, the Oxford Climate Journalism Network come in — helping publishers and newsroom leaders think about how they adapt or find opportunities.
“I'm very much of the idea that you need to have a business case for journalism to work, especially in climate change,” Diego told me.
Advertisers and potential sponsors are there if the opportunity and the audience are right and the reporting of high quality.
“I think there is an appetite for this (from advertisers). All brands are trying to greenwash. Just try to work with brands you can trust somehow and make a business case for it,” he says.
That is to some extent the approach taken by several publishers such as Bloomberg Green or the more specialised Bloomberg New Energy Finance — or on a smaller scale Callaway Climate Insights, whose founder Dave Callaway will also take part in the INMA Webinar. They are covering both the business costs of climate change but also opportunities that arise from adaptation and mitigation, both of which require enormous investments and innovation.
In New Zealand, publisher Stuff has a quarterly newsprint supplement, The Forever Project, which is sponsored by a national retail chain that also sustains regular climate reporting. A related Stuff project on extinctions This Is How It Ends won an INMA advertising award.
Half of the members of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network are climate change or environmental reporters, but the other half come from throughout the newsroom. Every reporting beat and every publisher has some angle to tackle on climate change, Diego says.
“There’s a very healthy mix of people who have various backgrounds … because you just can't cover climate change alone anymore,” he says.
That has spread to the advertising and marketing teams as more people in publishing realise there is money to be made in covering climate change and in attracting advertisers and sponsors with good stories to tell. These companies have a need to either to satisfy their environmental, social, or governance objectives or, more lastingly perhaps, to reach customers seeking solutions and services.
“They realise there is a business case for this and advertising and marketing, and they are interested in this,” Diego says. Bloomberg Green, he reckons, is a great example of where that mix of interests — between journalism and advertisers who see a market: “I think as soon as you put money behind journalism and you know how to do it, they manage to do fantastic journalism and it shows.”
The debate about the science of climate change is over in most markets, he argues, unless it is still promoted by legacy fossil fuel companies and their allies. In most places, climate change reporting has moved from activism or explanation of the science towards a more sophisticated discussion that brings in audiences and a new wave of potential advertisers and sponsors.
That also feeds into new forms of accountability journalism, where reporters can track how their governments are adhering to climate commitments.
Bill McKibben @billmckibben is among the most compelling journalists on the activist side of the climate change ledger, with a raft of books and powerful reads in The New Yorker.
Let me know your recommendations for climate journalists and experts, and I will add them to an emerging Twitter list you can find here.
We are looking at the biggest reconstruction story since World War II is an interview with journalism executive Wolfgang Blau, whose work was central to the creation of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network carried by the European Broadcasting Union.
Tell me what you want to read and what you like or don't like in this newsletter, please. E-mail: email@example.com. I also plan a Slack group. Interested?
About this newsletter
Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.
This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.