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Despite 80 journalists covering climate, New York Times won’t ban fossil fuel advertisers

The New York Times’ Climate Hub at Cop26 in Glasgow. Image via New York Times

The New York Times’ (NYT) international president Stephen Dunbar-Johnson tells The Drum: “We are not an activist organization.”

After forming its dedicated climate desk in 2017, The New York Times climate coverage has evolved into a fully realized sector of the publication, with 12 full-time staffers and up to 80 journalists worldwide publishing 4,000 articles on the subject in the last year.

The publisher hopes that its multimedia climate offering will be an alluring proposition to potential subscribers engaging with the subject. However, it remains firm that, despite pressure from campaign groups, it will not cease to draw revenue from fossil fuel and other so-called ‘dirty’ advertisers. The Drum asked its international president Stephen Dunbar-Johnson why.

Prior to 2017, Dunbar-Johnson says that NYT had taken a position of “balanced coverage” on the subject of climate change. “We were always going to look for the other side of the story.”

He says it was executive editor Dean Baquet who pushed for the publication to take climate coverage more seriously, recognizing it as “scientific fact, a man-made phenomenon and the biggest story of our time, which was when we realized we needed to cover the hell out of it, in-depth and consistently.” And so the climate desk was created.

Solutions-focused journalism

Since then, NYT’s climate coverage has grown to boast a team of 80 journalists, covering the emergency from around the world. However, “that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Dunbar-Johnson.

“Climate change touches everything. It’s a business issue, a health issue, even a religious one. We may have a designated climate desk but this issue touches every desk we have.”

Dunbar-Johnson stresses that so much of what we read on the subject of climate change tends to be “quite dystopian in nature,” but that in the hopes of leading the category, NYT strives to be solutions-focused in its coverage.

He says in many ways, this was the genesis of The New York Times’ recent Climate Hub at Cop26 – a 10-day program of panels and discussions from leaders and thinkers including Greta Thunberg, Al Gore, Stella McCartney, Vanessa Nakate and Emma Watson, all discussing and debating the complicated topic of the climate emergency.

“Cop26 was a critical global moment and we felt it was a great opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to journalism in the climate sphere, as well as showcase that much of that journalism is focused on solutions.”

However, he notes: “The further commercial backdrop is that it was also a great opportunity to grow The New York Times outside of the US. One thing about the climate crisis is that it is borderless and affects us all.

“So it was a very interesting commercial proposition to promote and claim our coverage to a global audience and drive that relevancy as to why they should subscribe to The New York Times.”

Driving subscriptions

Dunbar-Johnson says the digital-first content created by the climate hub allowed NYT to amplify its coverage to a broader audience. “We think that if we can get people to come and spend time in our ecosystem, we can get them to engage with our journalism and have a pretty good chance of keeping them there and converting them.”

He says the key audience it now wishes to target are the younger generations, who are undeniably engaged with the issue of the climate crisis but “they’re so used to getting stuff for free.

“We have a long-term approach to young people, and hope to show them value over time. The most important thing is engagement, and developing their relationship so they’re addressable and registered with us and then we can get a better sense of what they’re interested in – but we’re confident that we have enough good content to keep them engaged in this space.”

The New York Times is indeed seeing growth in its digital subscriptions. Revenue from digital-only products increased 27% in the third quarter of last year, while print revenue declined, and ad revenue also declined by 2.3%.

Ad revenue

The subject of advertising amid the climate crisis is one that has seen much debate over Cop26. Greta Thunberg called the conference “the global north greenwash festival” and campaigners such as Greenpeace executive director Jennifer Morgan (who herself spoke at the NYT Climate Hub) have spoken out against fossil fuel advertising and the social license to operate it provides so-called ‘dirty’ companies.

NYT competitor The Guardian became the first major news org to ban advertising from oil and gas companies last year. Dunbar-Johnson says that the NYT Climate Hub did not take fossil fuel advertising or sponsorship and nor does its Climate newsletter; however, this does not apply to the publication at large.

“We have an advertising standards team that checks our advertising on its veracity and if we find any untruthfulness we won’t accept it. However, the blunt reality is that advertising supports our journalism.”

The Drum asked The New York Times for clarity on what portion of its revenue is derived from fossil fuel advertisers, but it declined to comment beyond what is published in its earnings report.

Dunbar-Johnson asserts that NYT accepts advertising from a broad church of organizations, but this does not mean it is either misleading readers or advocating for these companies. “People can advertise with The New York Times, the journalism ignores all advertising.

“We have many people working on climate, so if you see an Exxon Mobile ad running in The New York Times, it’s very likely we are going to have journalists holding Exxon Mobile to account in their investigations.”

He concludes that, as we move beyond Cop26, holding governments, organizations and companies to account for their role in the climate crisis will be at the heart of NYT’s committed climate coverage.

“We don’t see our position as being an activist organization, we see it as our role to inform our readers and to call out businesses and governments and hold them accountable – that’s our responsibility, and we take it pretty seriously.”

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