Tiny Online Publication Wins Pulitzer Prize

This week a scrappy little online publication with no physical headquarters and an editorial staff of just seven was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award in American journalism. InsideClimate News, based theoretically in Brooklyn, N.Y., is just the third electronic-only publication to be given a Pulitzer--ProPublica, the first to get one, now has two, and Huffington Post has one.

InsideClimate news won the Putlizer for an investigative story by three of its reporters about an under-covered oil spill in Michigan, an article that testifies to the publication's broad interest in energy and the environment, going beyond climate news as such.

The publication's report that most caught my eye was one in January, on the subject of drastic cuts in environmental reporting staffs at top U.S. newspapers. Prompted by the news that The New York Times was dismantling its environmental desk and reassigning many of the desk's reporters to other beats, InsideClimate News said that the country's leading five newspapers now had only a dozen journalists covering the environment, despite the general public's obvious interest in the subject.

The second paragraph to that story noted that Hurricane Sandy had just "brought home the reality of climate dangers to many Americans," and that a recently released draft government report predicted "far worse to come." Temperatures could rise by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century, threatening "Americans' health and livelihoods and the ecosystems that sustain us," as the draft report put it.

Michael Mann—whom the Yale University alumni magazine has dubbed "the most hated climate scientist in the U.S."—told InsideClimate News that "specialized, experienced environment editors and reporters are essential to navigate the escalating politics and complicated science of climate change." Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, said that climate change was "not just the biggest crisis ever, it's the biggest story ever."

Another InsideCimate News story catching my eye concerned John Kerry's appointment as Secretary of State: It said that he would take personal control of the controversial Keystone XL review. This struck me as a shrewd political observation. When President Obama delayed his decision on the pipeline last year, calling for further review, it was widely assumed that he would approve construction after the election. But his appointment of Kerry as Secretary of State may indeed have changed the political chemistry. Kerry is well known to be a passionate advocate of strong policy to counter climate change, respected as such around the world.

One of the InsideClimate News reporters who won this week's Pulitzer told The New York Times that though people think of the publication as an advocacy organization because of its name, that's wrong. This may be a trifle disingenuous. If you decide to devote a publication, say, to the science of evolution, that would seem to imply that you take evolution seriously. Or if you were to devote it to planetary science, that might imply you think the Earth is spherical and rotates around the Sun. By the same token, if you call your publication InsideClimate News, that will generally communicate that you take climate science seriously.

In any event, the award should hearten anyone who fears for the future of investigative journalism—a fear that all too often seems warranted. Like ProPublica, InsideClimate News has a set of media partners and makes its stories available to other publications. As other publications reduce their editorial staffs, it's a hopeful sign that other organizations are emerging to pick up the slack.

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