NPR disbanded its climate and energy team–and nobody noticed.

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It seems nobody noticed until last Friday, but National Public Radio has disbanded its four-member climate and energy team.

In January, Vikki Valentine, the team’s editor, was reassigned to lead global health and development coverage. (NPR’s media relations director, Isabel Lara, said that “includes global climate and environment stories.”) In March, one of the team’s reporters, Richard Harris, abruptly switched to medical coverage. In June, reporter Elizabeth Shogren was laid off. The last remaining member, Christopher Joyce, still covers the environment–but he spends some of his time covering other science.

Shogren’s layoff came as part of a major cutback announced in May of this year, when NPR announced that it was canceling its weekday program Tell Me More and eliminating 28 positions “as part of a larger effort to end the company’s persistent budget deficits,” according to the press release.

As far as I can tell, the disbanding of the climate team was first reported on Friday by Inside Climate News, which says its tally of NPR environment stories shows a significant drop since the beginning of the year. (The methodology was open to question. ICN searched for stories tagged “environment,” which might not have caught everything.)

Anne Gudenkauf, NPR’s science editor, told Inside Climate News that she likes to keep her staff nimble. “We’ll think of a project we want to do and the kind of staff that we need to do it, and then organize ourselves that way,” she said. She added that she doesn’t feel that the environment requires dedicated reporters because some others cover it as part of their beats. (I asked Gudenkauf yesterday to expand on her comments and will update if she responds.)

The decision to disband the climate-energy team comes at a time, as Inside Climate News noted, when The New York Times and The Washington Post have just added environmental reporters.

The Times was sharply criticized last year when it canceled its popular Green Blog and disbanded a “pod” of environment reporters. And it was praised by its public editor earlier this month when it assembled an environment team that includes a new editor and nine reporters, if I’m counting right.

And the Post announced on Oct. 3 that it had hired Chris Mooney from Mother Jones to write a new environment blog.

Two journalists close to NPR strongly defended Gudenkauf. One argued that few news organizations had covered climate and energy as thoroughly as NPR, that Gudenkauf was doing her best to maintain quality in the face of budget constraints, and that other NPR shows also cover climate and energy, so NPR shouldn’t be judged solely on the basis of what the science desk does. Another told me that Gudenkauf has not lost her commitment to strong, skeptical reporting on the EPA and the environment, and that she thinks it’s “more important now than ever.”

From the outside, it’s difficult to know whether NPR made the right choice in disbanding the climate team. Newsrooms never have enough people to do all that they would like to do, and they are always forced to compromise. But this looks bad on paper. The timing is terrible.

Strong, skeptical coverage of the environment and environmental policy, no less than coverage of medicine or science, requires reporters to be familiar with the issues, to understand the jargon, and to be able to sort out false claims from legitimate ones. The climate and energy team had the expertise to do that. Not all reporters do–even the good ones.

Gudenkauf doesn’t think coverage of the environment needs dedicated reporters. I disagree.

-Paul Raeburn