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Feb. 19, 2020, 3:15 p.m.

The New Yorker’s new weekly newsletter on climate change will try to break through the daily noise

“Climate is one of those big, overarching topics that feels essential to understand and also very overwhelming. The newsletter form seems like the right way to approach it because it narrows the focus.”

What’s the right pace for journalism about climate change to maximize its impact?

Hammering people with a constant torrent of stories can make some people feel helpless and overwhelmed by the onslaught — not to mention the sheer scope of the problem. But checking in only sporadically, like when there’s a major new international report, leaves the story too far off the public’s agenda. A crisis many years in the making — with both its impacts and solutions often measured in decades — is hard to align with the rhythms of a newsroom.

The New Yorker is betting that weekly — and in your inbox rather than as just another link in your Twitter feed — might be right. The magazine announced this week that it’s moving deeper into newsletter-only content with a weekly email dedicated to climate change — written by perhaps the biggest name in environmental journalism, Bill McKibben.

McKibben — whose 1989 book The End of Nature was many people’s introduction to global warming — will write a newsletter called The Climate Crisis every week. Despite the magazine’s commitment to — and success with — a metered paywall, the newsletter will be free to everyone, subscriber or not.

The New Yorker has long seen newsletters as central to its mission of turning casual readers into paying subscribers — a way to build habit and attachment that could later be turned into reader revenue. (Here’s a Nieman Lab story from two years ago in which editors were already talking about standalone newsletters.)

Jessanne Collins, The New Yorker’s director of newsletters, said the publication has published newsletter-first content in its food and election coverage, but McKibben’s newsletter will break the mold in key ways. “The Climate Crisis is a new direction for us, as we conceived it first and foremost as a newsletter that highlights the distinct voice of a particular writer and makes the most of the newsletter as an editorial form in itself,” Collins said.

Collins, who previously led the team that published Quartz’s lauded Obsession emails, said newsletters are “a great way to form an intimate bond with readers.”

By making the newsletter free from paywall restrictions, “Our thinking is that a newsletter from an expert like Bill gives us an opportunity to widen our audience at the ‘top of the funnel,'” she said. That flow of new potential subscribers has also informed other New Yorker expansions into non-paywalled content, like its radio show/podcast and videos.

McKibben is a former New Yorker staff writer and has earned a number of awards for his writing and activism since he left the magazine more than three decades ago. (According to his website, McKibben has also been honored by biologists who named a species of woodland gnat after him in 2014.)

Each issue of The Climate Crisis will consist of a short essay, links, and an interview section called “Pass the Mic” to highlight emerging perspectives on climate change. The name is a nod to the NAACP publication co-founded by W.E.B. Du Bois a little more than a century ago.

The Climate Crisis is hardly the first newsletter dedicated to climate change. From established institutions, there’s the weekly Climate Fwd: from The New York Times. More 2020 is Emily Atkin’s HEATED, a subscriber-only daily on Substack.

Indeed, McKibben tweeted that he hesitated on taking the offer because he didn’t want to hurt Atkin’s prospects.

Robinson Meyer, who sent out a climate change newsletter called Not Doomed Yet that we wrote about in 2015, argued that climate change resists the standard article format because it happens on a scale much larger than any election cycle or cultural conversation.

Collins said the digital team at The New Yorker was thinking similarly when it designed The Climate Crisis. The newsletter will serve as a practical guide to understanding climate change, and McKibben will offer readers a sense of what they can do.

“Climate is one of those big, overarching topics that feels essential to understand and also very overwhelming. The newsletter form seems like the right way to approach it because it narrows the focus,” she said. “A newsletter is finite and accessible and even fun to read when it’s done right.”

McKibben’s platform and The New Yorker brand will give the newsletter a shot at reaching readers who want to hear more about climate change. And it’s hard to beat free.

Illustration by Tom Clohosy Cole used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 19, 2020, 3:15 p.m.
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