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The Switch: A Green Reporter's New Beat

By: Alec Appelbaum

April 01, 2010

The reporter who covers "the environmental beat" can cover the beat for years without hearing a bird sing. Instead, this reporter can make every assignment a chance to explore theories and trudge through engineering reports even if he barely knows an ampere from a watt. After years on a self-defined mission to report on how cities can become greener at scale, I now know how thoroughly the old border between nature and cities is vanishing and something new is coming into sight. I also know how intense the glare can be on people who try to map the new territory.

It is odd that as venture capitalists have embraced clean technology and defenders of nature have started working with financial tools, the idea of the "environmental reporter" still often suggests an ingenue wandering through the Muir Woods, holding a notebook and cocking an ear to hear the creaking of branches. In fact, today's environmental reporter combines the skills that once stayed on the business, policy and science beats. She covers the people and rules that change our economy. When I got my first gig writing for the Times in 2000, I explained in a humorous tone for the magazine how you could make cars from recyclable material. Eight years later, I got another assignment — for the business desk — elucidating the hard business edge that landlords get from quickly reskinning their buildings. In both cases, I did the job of the new environmental reporter: shave off the jargon, show which way the money flows, and make every reader understand that every building and every car is part of the environmental story.

Not that doing this job makes me unique. There's a growing class of reporters whose task is to ask who left the lights on, what kind of lights they are, where their electricity comes from, why the lights are still on, how they work, and when the ignored megawatts will hurt the landlord's bottom line or drive some new regulation into being. It's not the old beat report recipe of who, what, when, where and why. Our sources jump across traditional news sections: they're architects, engineers, landlords, scientists and public servants. Our story is, most of the time, a scientific one with political intrigue: what's the new technology? How will it get to scale? What vested interest wants to stop it? And what effect can any of it have, given all the scientific uncertainty about the cumulative effect of carbon waste around the world?

A journalist is only as good as his most patient and honorable sources: my best sources are usually scientists, economists and entrepreneurs. As this suggests, most of my writing is about business: my readers tend to be landlords, owner's reps, architects and the consultants they hire. And as this suggests, I work green stories in shades of gray. There are few clear ethical markers on this mixed-up new beat.

The new environmental reporter is less heroic and more plodding than someone in the Rachel Carson mode: most of the time, she's trying to clarify the difference between two business strategies or demystify the slowness of a bureaucracy. But people watch each of us as closely — and spit as fiercely — as the chemical companies watched Carson when she exposed their fraud.

I revere the muckrakers who are crying out the news: that mining still sickens and exploits people in low-income countries, that Big Oil companies still buy policy, that pollution disproportionately harms the poor. But when I walk my beat I use a different compass (or now a GPS unit). I use the language of economics and finance, to document how the "environment" now consists of the mix between natural phenomena and engineered processes. This is a corollary search for a fair deal, and one that expands on other journalists' work exposing cheats. We're generally chasing a pretty elegant number — what is the price of carbon? — and we do our job when we inspire careful thought.

Every story expands the audience- and reduces the circle in which a reporter can choose to soften terms to keep readers mellow. Once, writing about the threshold level of demand that would trigger electricity pricing that varies hourly, I simplified some highly technical language to make it easier for readers. As a result, an electrical engineer wrote my editor's editor to fine-tune the phrasing, I got a proper rebuke, and what had seemed momentarily like a heroic effort to bring electricity pricing into the mainstream became that journalist's nightmare, a correction.

If I had been writing about efforts to save the spotted owl, I would have had the same obligation to blend accuracy with clarity — but there would have been less money at stake, so experts may have cut me slack on ambiguous phrasing. On the new environmental beat, we're talking about huge economic stakes, which means that what we record, shoot or quote stirs intense interest from many camps.

The transition is jerky. Two noble liberal publications assigned, liked, and paid in full for stories in the past year that they never published: both, they said, were too evenhanded to fit into their pages. For editors who think environmental stories must have heroes and villains, or scenic backdrops, the new environmental beat can look forbidding. That's why the new environmental reporter's job — which I scarcely have begun to do — is to show how every light switch, parking space and zoning ordinance is the beginning of a story that a reader can see playing out in her daily life.

Often, our job is to make the arcane seem urgent. When Mayor Bloomberg turned from congestion pricing to regulating energy use in buildings, new environmental reporters documented the terms and techniques. Our next big story asks if the Department of Buildings can staff up and reform to meet the inspection challenge in this new law. This has been under-reported, in part, because landlords speak in generalities about shooing away excessive regulation and city officials speak of good intentions that nobody can disprove. When I do get a core fact that gives the story weight, I will know to test my assumptions and choose my words with utter care, (I hope). But something in the bowels of the machine will bring out another story.

In the next decade, a market price will attach to carbon and an industry will emerge in managing buildings' energy use. The new environmental reporters have claimed choice seats at this show, but the potential for corporate accountants and governments to fudge the numbers will test our mettle. Count on us, though: we will be probing into how monitoring and verification will work, how green jobs will become visible and trainable, and how big cities can turn carbon reductions into income. We will get hammered any time we let a unit of measure seem ambiguous or let a politician off the hook. We will receive no refuge from sylvan retreats or gorgeous vistas. But we will keep pressing for honest answers about the limits we all face in the new territory we will have to call home.

Alec Applebaum writes for the New York Times, AOL and others about how cities can become fairer and greener. An avid student of how buildings can use less energy, he lives in a vertical small town in Lower Manhattan with his family.

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