Launch: Yale Environment 360

Roger Cohn endeavors to make ends meet online

Two seemingly disparate things dominate the chatter coming from the journalism world these days: coverage of the environment, and the din of confused voices calling for the ascendancy of our favorite wunderkind disruptor—digital media.

Yale Environment 360 , an online magazine that launched this week, will test the assertion that the future of science and environment coverage is strong, and that the Web is the best way to use limited financial resources to focus on producing nonpareil reportage, opinion, and analysis. That is: the concept that money is better spent on reporters than dead trees and postage.

On that count, e360, as the editors are calling it, got off to an auspicious start: twelve reported pieces from veteran journalists such as Bill McKibben (on whether we’ve reached a carbon-dioxide tipping point), Richard Coniff (on “the myth of clean coal”), and New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert (on the environmental tasks facing the next U.S. president), and an editorial cycle including daily news articles and one to two features per week (to be expanded to three features per week eventually).

A couple of hours after e360 went live on June 3, I spoke with the publication’s editor, Roger Cohn—former editor of Mother Jones and Audubon—about his vision for the new magazine, and where it fits in with the rest of the political and media landscape.

“It would have been difficult to get backing for this,” a few years ago, he said. But after seven years of political evasion on global warming and other environmental problems, readers are pushing back. “There has been a lot more coverage of environmental issues in the last year, and that’s strictly a reflection of heightened public interest based on the implications of climate change.”

Given the fact that global warming occurs on the time scale of decades and longer, and that our civilization is just starting to seriously grapple with what it will mean to have nine billion people living on the planet by 2050 (as the blurb for Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog at The New York Times put it: essentially adding two Chinas to the number of people alive today), starting a new environmental magazine at this point is probably as good a time as any.

What is more striking, however, is that Yale and Cohn are going with a model that is all online, nonprofit (with no current plans for advertising), and committed to original features.

“I think that in an era in which the media world is seeing so many things cut back and diminished, this is one area where we are seeing growth,” said Cohn. “And if done right, this could be a tremendous model for the future.” He compared e360’s approach to that of ProPublica, whose slug line reads: an independent, non-profit newsroom that will produce investigative journalism in the public interest.

It will take some time to determine whether e360 can live up to the promise of consistently delivering reporting that compares favorably with established print operations—but if the experiment works, it’s safe to expect more from this inchoate trend.

Cohn, although he still loves ink on paper, believes that with limited resources, an online publication can actually produce better content if it does not overextend by trying to put out a print magazine:

We saw the opportunity to reach a global audience. We have some really generous grants [from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and other donors] and support from Yale to get us going here. With those resources we can take it a lot further with our editorial coverage than if we were publishing a print magazine. And we will have a much greater reach.

This all sounds good and exciting. As does the fact that within hours of launching, e360 had over a thousand unique visitors, and readers already commenting on some of the stories. The lingering question is what happens next?

Cohn says that funding for e360 so far extends for only three years. That’s not to say e360 is a temporary project. Cohn hopes to secure more funding from nonprofit sources by then, but when three years are up, who will foot the bill to hire top freelancers and new voices to keep this thing going? Will enough readers be willing to follow e360 online (or on Amazon’s Kindle, Apple iPhones, or some other device) to convince major donors to keep pumping money into a publication that isn’t self-sustaining? Will e360 be forced to sell ads?

It will be interesting to watch what e360 does over the next few years. At both Mother Jones and Audubon, Cohn successfully overhauled traditional print publications for contemporary times. At e360, his task is greater: to find a successful path forward for serious journalism as the print world fades.

What is sorely missing from a lot of science and environment stories—even those from mainstream media powerhouses like The New York Times—is just the type of deeper analysis that e360 is taking a stab at. It would be pleasing to see this newshole develop into a successful template that other publications could adopt, but the obstacles standing before sustainable, grant-funded, online publications are manifold.

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Russ Juskalian is a contributor to The Observatory and a freelance writer.