As many as 3,000 journalists from around the world are convening in Paris over the next two weeks to cover the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Summit. It will probably result in the largest swell of climate stories we’ve seen in a while, as news organizations send reporters, devote magazine issues to the topic, and build out dedicated sites for their coverage. But is there any opportunity for newsrooms with few resources, for whom climate issues rarely, if ever, break into the front page?
Since May of this year, several dozen publishers from around the world have been participating in an initiative that allows them to republish climate change-related content from other news outlets, without fees and without getting tangled in copyright legalities. The goal is to allow all participating publishers to ramp up the volume and scope of their climate change coverage leading up to COP21, without having to add staff or stretch their existing resources thin. The syndication agreements are currently set to end December 11, the final day of the Paris summit.The Climate Publishers Network (CPN), launched officially by The Guardian, Spain’s El País, and the Global Editors Network, includes 40 publishers ranging from The Huffington Post to Bolivia’s El Deber, all of which have had varying levels of engagement with climate reporting (full list here).
“I was interested in how we could make our climate coverage more international,” said Nabeelah Shabbir, the Guardian journalist who has been managing the network. Shabbir, who works on The Guardian’s own Keep It in the Ground campaign, had wondered how to get the stories to reach more people. “A logical approach was to offer the stories to other newspapers. And with publishers in the network, everyone agreed to let their terms and conditions slide for a while.”
In May of this year, Wolfgang Blau, then The Guardian’s director of digital strategy (he’s now chief digital officer at Condé Nast), and Bertrand Pecquerie, CEO of the Global Editors Network, discussed a content management system that would facilitate discovery of new stories. They also worked on a set of simplified terms for publishers.“The goal was not to spread The Guardian’s content, but to create a real network of partners, all of them at the same level,” Pecquerie told me. The Global Editors Network leveraged its address book of editors-in-chief from around the world in recruiting other publishers to participate, growing from 25 publishers at the CPN’s launch to 40 today. As part of the initiative, according to Pecquerie, “we made an agreement with the COP21 General Secretariat to offer environment journalists regular 60-minute briefings with top executives of COP21 and IPCC, through hangouts.”
On a daily basis, liaison editors from each participating publisher can log in to a shared Google spreadsheet — with a tab for each publisher — and upload headlines and brief descriptions of articles that might be good candidates for republication. The Twitter hashtag #climatepublishersnetwork signals some of this cross-publication action.
“It’s all about everyone’s spreadsheet etiquette,” Shabbir said. “They’ve got to be inspired to log in, upload the headlines and trail text, and check the tabs to see what news stories are coming from other countries.”
Widespread translation is a key component to keeping CPN publishers active. Shabbir chooses articles she think may be of global relevance. Those articles are then translated into multiple languages by a pool of translators maintained by the European news portal VoxEurop. VoxEurop is mostly volunteer-powered, but in this case its translators are being paid because The Guardian provided a small budget for translations, VoxEurop editor-in-chief Gian Paolo Accardo told me. “The fee is quite low compared to the market because we really wanted [the CPN] deal and our translators understood that it is critical for further development,” he said. Shabbir then sends out a curation of translated texts (French, German, Spanish, English, Portuguese, Flemish) to publishers, in order to encourage global republication.
“The eccentric ones might get taken more often,” Shabbir said. “I do wish we could get more Greek stories, maybe more South African stories. And we’re always looking for more stories about people and characters. But the network is dependent on volunteers!” Climate change stories that are newsy and locally focused aren’t the best candidates for republication elsewhere in the world.
— Tom Arup (@aruptom) October 27, 2015
— Lieven Sioen (@lievensioen) November 13, 2015
Some participating editors spoke of the network as a catalyst. While a few of the larger European dailies were hesitant to grab stories and were less active in the network, smaller newspapers outside Europe relied on the network to jumpstart their climate change coverage.
“We are a small newspaper with few resources, and we couldn’t pay as much attention as we wanted,” said David Duster, an editor at El Deber, which has been able to use about one Spanish-language story a week from the network — though “unfortunately we couldn’t contribute [to the CPN] at the same pace.”
“The discussion of climate change in Argentina is just beginning,” Marina Aizen, an editor at the Argentinian daily Clarín, said. “Many editors just don’t grasp the concept. They believe they will be killed by a bus first before climate change hits them. So, for any environmental reporter, it is an uphill battle to work on this topic without being scorned.”
According to Aizen, her paper “had not covered climate issues systematically” until the CPN came into place in May (she credits Clarín’s editor, Ricardo Kirschbaum, then president of the GEN, who was among the CPN’s founding members). Now Aizen also runs a new online vertical dedicated to climate.
“This was a perfect excuse for me to start writing every weekend about a whole set of issues, to try to initiate the discussion from different angles,” Aizen said. “This is a very broad topic, from the burps of the cows to the political decision to maintain subsidies for fossil fuels.”
Still, she said she found it challenging to navigate the diverse offerings in the CPN network, usually opting for the broader stories: “Argentina is just waking up to this debate, so we cannot go with super-specific topics, because the editors don’t like it.”
— Marina Aizen (@marinaaizen) November 11, 2015
The Straits Times in Singapore, which already had a strong tradition of covering climate change (of enormous interest to an island nation), found that the CPN spurred it to write even more on the issue, assistant foreign editor Shefali Rekhi told me. The paper hasn’t been able to pick up many stories due to space considerations, but with COP21 starting it plans to pick up more. The Straits Times also recently launched a microsite to host additional coverage. (Rekhi wishes that the stories available for republication also included photos.)
The Straits Times offered up features and opinion pieces “that would be valid for a longer duration of time.” It also offered some news articles on Singapore’s haze problem.
“Seven months later, it does seem great to have been part of this network,” Rekhi said. “CPN has gone a long way in raising far more awareness about the seriousness of the issue of climate change.”
Discussions about the network’s future are ongoing. A multi-language MOOC on how to cover climate change post-COP21 is in development for next year, according to Pecquerie. But “nothing is 100 percent sure: the CPN is a very smooth network; nothing compulsory.”
“I think maybe there would’ve been the possibility of frightening off some papers if we just said, we’d like to do eternal exchange of stories,” Shabbir said. “So maybe in the first instance, we just say ‘let’s try, we haven’t done anything like this before, don’t be scared, but you just have to give some articles up for free for a few months.'”
The ultimate challenge, though, is in sustaining the conversations after December 11.
“Like many others, I am hoping for a good outcome, with major steps forward, given the momentum that has been built,” said Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez. “It would be most unfortunate if readers lose interest in the challenge, if the talks fail to deliver.”