Why The New York Times and The New Orleans Times-Picayune teamed up to cover climate change

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet has made the same point in interview after interview over the years: The crisis in local journalism is the biggest threat to American journalism.

The Times has resources and the global reach that most local news outlets can only dream of, and the paper has started to try to share its wealth with local publications. 

Last year, the Times partnered with The New Orleans Times-Picayune to take on one of the most vexing issues of our time: climate change. 

This week in Solution Set we’re going to take a look at how the New York Times and Times-Picayune found value in collaborative reporting on the effects of climate change in Louisiana in a way that served both of their audiences. 

This issue is the first installment in our series on how news organizations are covering the climate crisis. You can read my colleague Brianna Baker’s overview of the project here.  



Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one worthwhile thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.

Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

• The Challenge: The New York Times and The New Orleans Times-Picayune developed a strategy for collaborative reporting on how climate change is affecting the Louisiana coastline. 

• The Strategy: The newsrooms’ science and investigative reporters reported and wrote stories together, but those stories were then edited separately to fit with each outlet’s house style. 

• The Numbers: The Times-Picayune and the Times jointly published three stories. They were published by both outlets in print and online. 

• The Lessons: Through sharing resources and defining goals, national and local newsrooms can work together to educate the public.

• The Future: The Times has subsequently worked with other local newsrooms, and the New Orleans journalists said they’d be eager to collaborate again. 

• Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn more about the Times-Times-Picayune partnership as well as other climate-focused collaborations. 


The Challenge

It started with a call to action. 

In a 2016 interview, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet was unequivocal about what he saw as the most significant threat to the news industry. 

“I actually think the biggest crisis in journalism is local news,” Baquet said. “There’s no way the Times-Picayune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, or the Miami Herald can cover as much government and economics as they could when their staffs were three times bigger. That’s just not possible.”

Those comments initiated a sequence of events much larger than the scope of one interview. 

After the story was published, Baquet received a number of calls from local editors, including one from his own brother, Terry Baquet, a longtime editor at the Times-Picayune. 

(In early 2019, The Times-Picayune was sold to The Advocate, the Baton Rouge-based paper that launched a New Orleans edition in 2013 after the Times-Picayune’s previous owner eliminated a seven-day print paper. The newsrooms were combined, and the papers are now published under a joint title. Many journalists lost their jobs due to the acquisition. Much more detail here.)

The Times-Picayune also happened to be Dean Baquet’s hometown newspaper, and his first gig in journalism was as a reporter for the paper. So when his brother called him asking to collaborate on a project, he had every reason to agree. 

A familial connection wasn’t the only thing holding this project together. In 2017, The New York Times doubled down on climate coverage, building a staff of 15 journalists to take on the important issue. 

The Times-Picayune had been reporting on climate change for years, especially around sea-level rise and increased storm frequency. With reporters well-versed in hurricane and environmental journalism, the paper was an obvious choice for the Times. It also had just expanded its climate reporting team. (More on this in The Numbers.)

Was there a way to combine the Times-Picayune’s local expertise with the Times’s national reach and resource levels? 


The Strategy

The idea for collaboration was born, but the plan still needed to be hashed out. 

Reporters from both the Times and Times-Picayune were asked to brainstorm coverage. There was a meeting between the reporters, Dean Baquet, and the editor of the Times-Picayune to discuss initial ideas. There were more meetings between the reporters and editors to hammer out the structure of the pieces. 

Many pitches later, the two organizations finally decided upon the nature of the collaboration. The delegation of resources and people was going to be a key part of making the project function cohesively. 

After the project was OKed, key reporters such as New York Times science writer John Schwartz and senior writer Kevin Sack along with the Times-Picayune environment reporters Mark Schleifstein, Sara Sneath, and Tristan Baurick began discussions about what they should cover. 

“It was a lot of ‘who’s around and can do this?’” Schwartz told me. “We knew that the expertise of someone like Mark Schleifstein is unparalleled. We had our strengths but we didn’t have anyone like him.” 

(Schleifstein has won multiple Pulitzer Prizes and other awards for his work covering storms and the environment in New Orleans.)

Armed with notepads, fishing boots, drones, and some expensive dinners (more on this later), these journalists set out to educate their broad audience about the biggest modern threat to our planet. 

Reporters from both newsrooms would go into communities and coastal zones together and collectively report on the topics at hand. The photographers and videographers were capturing the same material for both publications. 

Schwartz and Sack spent a lot of time in the community of Jean Lafitte for one of the stories in the package. Jean Lafitte is a small town experiencing many of the dangers of coastal erosion and the rising sea firsthand. 

As Schwartz and Sack put it in their article, “The question for Lafitte, as for many coastal areas across the globe, is less whether it will succumb than when — and to what degree scarce public resources should be invested in artificially extending its life.” Sack, an investigative journalist known for his unique style of identifying narratives, felt that the town was a perfect place to build this narrative out. 

This came from multiple exploratory trips with the team through Louisiana and interviews with local residents and officials, including the state’s governor. 

Sack wanted to highlight the damage that the rising sea has had on families, and those effects were very apparent in Jean Lafitte. “We’re watching their home and potentially their livelihood get washed away,” he said. 

After some searching and conversations with locals, they zeroed in on the government’s responsibility in funding countermeasures against sea-level rise, as many families are unable to afford them otherwise. 

For example, because of the frequency of flooding, houses in the town need to be elevated. Those living in older structures, however, need to have them elevated hydraulically, a technique that often costs more than $100,000. 

Sack and the team figured this would be a “fresh and compelling way to tell land loss that would appeal to both publications,” as well as to their audiences, he said. The expertise of the Times-Picayune kicked in here, as they are the reporters most familiar with covering how and where climate change is hitting the state hardest. 

And while this is only an example of one story, the same approach was used for the entire project. It depended on reporters immersing themselves in the community and living through the conditions the locals lived through everyday. Trust in each other and trust in the people around them drove the project’s success. 

The journalists reported and wrote stories together, working with editors at both papers. But once the final versions of the stories were completed, they were sent to editors at each outlet to put in their respective style.

“Once the decisions were made and the reporting and writing were underway, we really edited and produced the stories. We didn’t edit cooperatively,” Paul Fishleder, senior editor for investigations at the New York Times, as well as Sack’s editor, told me.

Heading into the initiative, both publications recognized that it was important to communicate the issues plaguing the New Orleans community on a national scale. It wouldn’t be long until other cities started seeing the same effects of climate change.


The Numbers

On February 24, 2018, three stories were published as a result of the project, all featured in special print sections of both the Times and Times-Picayune. The journalists spent 10 months reporting out the stories. 

“The idea that both papers were producing a special section on the same day was just amazing. It doesn’t happen very often, if ever,” Schleifstein said.

The stories were cross published on both publications’ websites. However, the stories were presented differently by each outlet. While the Times-Picayune was able to include the photos taken from the initiative, they were unable to recreate the New York Times’ motion graphics, due to lack of functionality on their site.

Here are the stories published as part of the series:

• Schwartz’s and Sack’s report on sea-level rise in Jean Lafitte.

• A report, by John Schwartz and Mark Schleifstein, on how the post-Katrina expansions of New Orleans’ levee system might not be sufficient

• A look at the invasive species destroying Louisiana’s wetlands by Tristan Baurick.

The partners also collaborated by holding a community event to accompany the reporting.

The photo above was taken at a panel discussion of the series co-hosted in New Orleans by the New York Times and the Times-Picayune, at the auditorium of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

In early 2017, the Times-Picayune received $325,000 over three years from the Walton Family Foundation to fund its climate reporting team, dubbed the Louisiana Coastal Reporting Team, and add two more positions, Sneath’s and Baurick’s. The grant was administered through the Fund for Environmental Journalism. 

The grant made it possible for the Times-Picayune to expand its environmental team, which had previously only included Schleifstein. He was joined by the newsroom’s state news editor, a couple photographers/videographers, and Sneath and Baurick on the team. They have sought to answer the tough questions surrounding the state’s coast, including how the government plans to save it and what the impact will be on the lives of residents. 


The Lessons

• Go in as partners: “You gotta understand that you’re teaming up with people for a reason,” Schwartz told me. 

For a project on this scale to work, it’s important to develop a connection with and mutual understanding of the other organization and its staff. 

“To the point that budgets allow, you gotta eat some really expensive dinners together,” Schwartz said. “You’re being thrown into a situation where you’re going to be collaborating with someone you don’t know necessarily know all that well with an institution whose structures, in ways, are different than yours. It sounds like a joke, but in fact it’s really serious that you have to spend time together.”

And while everyone can collaborate with the best of intentions, it’s critical that any partnership works for everyone involved. 

Sack told me that this was a great example of a fresh subject and storyline where collaboration made sense for both parties. Between the existing relationships of participants, depth of topics chosen, and scope of the publications, there are a lot of things to keep in mind. 

“All those factors have to be there for a project like this to work well,” Schwartz said. 

• Play your part(s): Everyone found their niches in the project, and they often overlapped.

The Times-Picayune’s Sneath and Baurick contributed database and statistical support, for example. Sack breathed life into the story like the “astonishingly eloquent long-form investigative reporter” that he is, Schwartz said.

Schleifstein and Schwartz acted as the resident environmental reporters, allowing their expertise to combine and highlight different areas of interest. 

With so many moving parts, it’s imperative to hold each other accountable and bring in the resources that you can. A big advantage The New York Times brought to the table was its wealth of technological resources such as drones, high-end cameras, and immersive graphics, helping illustrate the story vividly.

On the other hand, the Times-Picayune was able to bring its deep background knowledge on the topic and the region. Having reported on environmental issues in New Orleans for many years now, they, particularly Schleifstein, knew exactly where to look to find the right narratives.  

[Schleifstein’s] deep understanding of the problems of protecting places like New Orleans, and his ability to spot problems deep in dull official documents, make him an absolute force,” Schwartz told me in an email. 

• Climate reporting is unique. Like every beat, writing about the environment has its own nuances and challenges. One of those challenges unique to climate coverage, however, is how to present the issue to the community in an actionable way. 

It’s especially imperative if the audience to which you’re writing doesn’t even believe what you’re saying. 

By emphasizing local issues, journalists are able to make issues such as climate change more relatable. 

“We recognize that there are people in Southern Louisiana that don’t believe or understand what climate change is,” Schleifstein told me. “But they recognize sea level rise and the loss of wetlands and recognize that it’s a major issue. So we explain it all and cover the things that they’re interested in, and they let us.”

By packaging things in a more comfortable and digestible manner for the audience, they may be more inclined to lend an ear. 

“It is a recognition that my community needs a voice to make sure their concerns are heard about the risks that they are facing and that they have adequate information about the choices they’re going to have to make,” Schleifstein said. “I see that as my responsibility as a reporter.”


The Future

This wasn’t the first collaboration for the New York Times, as it has previously worked with outlets such as  The Guardian and ProPublica.

But this was its first local collaboration — and it won’t be the last. 

In July, the Times partnered with The El Paso Times to co-report a story on migrant detention facilities along the border in Clint, Texas. The story was also cross published on both publications’ newspapers and websites.

“We ended up churning out a pretty beautiful piece of journalism,” New York Times political investigations editor Paul Fishleder said. “It is a good model for projects that we and others can do going forward.”

The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate has also continued collaborating. This past May, the publication teamed up with ProPublica to cover political corruption in Louisiana

And beyond collaboration, the New Orleans journalists are going to continue to make climate coverage a priority as they deal with the ever-evolving challenges that climate change and global warming present. 

“Take Hurricane Barry, which should’ve been a nothing storm. People were freaked out because there was a chance that the Mississippi River would have storm surge because of unusually high rainfall patterns here in the Midwest,” Schleifstein said, referring to the hurricane that hit Louisiana in July. “Add the potential of having water over top the river rather than the hurricane levees on the outer edges of the city. That’s something that’s never happened before.”


Want to Know More?

• Schwartz, the Times environmental reporter, wrote a post last year sharing some behind-the-scenes details of the project.

• Poynter’s Kristen Hare also wrote a terrific overview of the Times/Times-Picayune collaboration last year.

• Another groundbreaking local-national partnership is ProPublica’s local reporting network, which empowers local reporters to pursue big investigative stories.

• Here are a couple of other climate-related collaborations you should be aware of: The Lenfest Institute, National Geographic Society, and William Penn Foundation are supporting collaboratives in the Delaware and Ohio River watersheds. And CJR, The Nation, and The Guardian are organizing Covering Climate Now — a network of nearly 200 outlets that will all be reporting on the climate crisis over the course of a week later this month.


Anything to add?

[Ed.Note: Last week, my colleague Brianna Baker wrote an introduction to our climate change series. Here’s an update from her on the feedback we’ve received since then.]

Since publishing our introduction to climate series, people have sent us a ton of resources that have been created to help newsrooms cover the climate crisis. There were too many to list here, so we created a Google Sheet listing all the toolkits. 

You can find the sheet here

Folks also shared some awesome examples of newsrooms doing outstanding coverage of the climate crisis. Here’s a list of some stories and organizations you should check out for inspiration: 

Thank you to everyone who shared resources or story ideas. If you have anything to add, please email me at [email protected]


Photo of the IHNC Lake Borgne Surge Barrier from the Army Corps of Engineers.Photos courtesy of Schwartz, Kevin Sack, and Mark Schleifstein