Publishers are broadening their climate change coverage with new products

Publishers are bolstering their efforts to cover climate change, launching sub-brands, newsletters, dedicated print editions and hosting events. Fueling this is growing reader and business interest in environmental issues, as well publishers’ targeting of international audiences and use of reader-funded models to sustain investment in topics that require deep reporting.

Over the past 12 months or so several publishers have made big bets on engaging in climate coverage. During September’s United Nations Climate Summit in New York many media companies embraced reporting on the environmental topic. Also in September BBC Global News announced a new sustainability-focused sub-brand called Future Planet. While The Economist launched in September a dedicated print issue on the climate crisis, in December it followed up with a dedicated climate newsletter issue. This month Bloomberg Media launched Bloomberg Green, which features daily newsletters, broadcasts, radio programs, live events and even a recyclable print product about climate change and the “green revolution.”

For decades publishers have covered the climate crisis, using specialist reporters and producing specific sections — with varying degrees of reader interest. In the past online journalism was largely financed by ad revenue generated by clicks. Now, the severity of climate change and its wide-ranging impact have made the topic impossible for most publishers to ignore. As publishers with international audiences have increasingly turned to non-advertising funding models involving subscriptions, sponsorships and grants, they have offered sustainability-focused products.

And over time, publishers’ coverage has evolved from alarmist fare to more solutions-based reporting as readers and businesses demand more action, said Alice Pickthall, a senior research analyst for Enders Analysis.

“The nature of the coverage has had to shift,” she said. Bloomberg has a “compelling offering,” she noted. “If it comes to fruition, it will be an incredibly useful data source for people.”

As is true for all science-related reporting, providing coverage of complex, global issues with interlinking effects in an in-depth, coherent and relatable way takes a certain amount of funding. Philanthropic gifts and grants are ways that publishers are financing more service journalism, including the coverage of climate change, according to analysts.

The Economist claimed this fall it was measuring the commercial impact and audience interest in its September climate crisis edition. The goal of The Economist’s new “The Climate Issue” fortnightly newsletter for registrants and subscribers is to drive subscriptions. To date, this is the third and only topic-specific newsletter from The Economist, which also provides weekly and daily email newsletters featuring the publisher’s best content.

Next month when the BBC launches its sustainability vertical Future Planet, sponsors will help fund it.

Providing more coverage of “the environment makes sense in general but also increasingly in [a] business-to-business [context] as environmental considerations become so important to business,” said Nic Newman, author of the Reuters Digital News Report.  “Then there is more sponsorship and reader revenue funding available, too, as it jumps up the agenda,” added Newman. 

But publishers’ reliance on advertising to fund this type of coverage presents challenges.

“It’s easy [for publishers] to say they’ll go carbon neutral and report the issues fairly,” Pickthall said. “But by still accepting advertising from big polluters, they aren’t walking the walk properly. That undermines their cause and readers are paying more attention to that.”

This week the Guardian announced that it will no longer accept advertising from fossil fuel extraction companies for any of the Guardian’s products. Five years ago the Scott Trust Endowment fund, which supports the Guardian, began excluding all fossil fuel investments; today they represent just 1% of the trust’s total funds.

Yet climate change is a hot-button topic eliciting polarizing opinions, and misinformation and fake news abounds on social media channels. Climate change denial posts were at the center of YouTube’s brand safety snafu this month but fewer companies responded by pulling their advertising spend from the platform than they did in 2017.

“There have been backlashes,” Pickthall said. “There’s so much greenwashing that goes on, and people jumping on the climate bandwagon.”

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