Inside the Times | Mike Fancher
"Climate Challenge" taps motivated readers
You can fight global warming, and we're going to help you do it, with "The Seattle Times Climate Challenge. " In fall 2005, The Times published...
Seattle Times editor-at-large
You can fight global warming, and we're going to help you do it, with "The Seattle Times Climate Challenge."
In fall 2005, The Times published "The truth about global warming," by staff reporter Sandi Doughton. It concluded, "Every major scientific body to examine the evidence has come to the same conclusion: The planet is getting hotter; man is to blame; and it's going to get worse." That threshold story got the attention of a lot of readers, including Times reporter Alex Fryer. "That really got me thinking. What is the responsibility for the newspaper to take it further?" He didn't cover the environment and was reacting more as a reader than as a journalist, but he saw the potential for the newspaper.
"What could The Times do? What could people do in their own lives if they wanted to? Wouldn't it be even better if we all did it together?" he wondered.
In January 2006, Fryer started pitching an idea to editors, along the lines of "If everybody read the same book." What if people tried to cut their individual greenhouse-gas emissions or "carbon footprint," and they had a mechanism for sharing their experiences and learning from each other?
"Newspapers can do that better than anyone else," he said.
Editors were skittish at first. If the newspaper successfully encouraged people to do something, would it really make a difference? Would this be inappropriate advocacy about an issue that was still being debated among the public, if largely settled among scientists?
Fryer was asked to do more research, and without his persistence we wouldn't be launching the "Climate Challenge" today. He gathered information and talked with anyone in the newsroom willing to listen. We came to believe that individuals could make a difference regarding very large issues if enough of them changed their behavior. We got comfortable with the advocacy question by presenting the challenge less as a scold and more as an encouragement.
Our readers are very environmentally conscious, and they often ask what they can do personally to make a difference. So, we thought the "Climate Challenge" would be an engaging way to provide useful information that inspires readers to act, while also learning from each other. The Times would provide some tools and ideas, but reader motivation would take it from there.
Fryer found the perfect vehicle to help readers monitor their consumption, a "carbon calculator" available on the Web site of the Environmental Protection Agency. "The EPA Web site is geared to your home and your life," he said, adding that EPA officials were very helpful in our effort.
Richard Wagoner, the editor overseeing the project and a major force behind it, said there are many other types of carbon calculators on the Internet, including some that are more sophisticated than the EPA's. We chose EPA because it had the official stamp of the government and was less likely to be clouded by issues of advocacy than sites sponsored by groups with particular agendas.
Today's presentation explains how you can determine how many pounds of greenhouse gases you and your family are responsible for now. It provides a full page of tips on how you can lessen them. And it introduces you to some people who are going to take the monthlong challenge in May and share their experiences.
The challenge targets a 15 percent reduction in emissions. "It is doable, but it isn't easy, and I thought that was perfect," Fryer said.
Wagoner added that the target is an attainable but significant accomplishment.
Editors asked metro columnist Nicole Brodeur to take the challenge to personalize "going green" by putting it through the eyes of someone at the newspaper. "And since I have already humiliated myself by admitting that I DRIVE to my RUNNING path, what did I have to lose?" she said.
"To be honest, I look forward to it. I think readers should see someone doing exactly what they would do themselves: Sorting out the bus schedule. Standing there in front of the recycling and yard-waste bins, wondering how to dispose of what heretofore has been known only as 'garbage.' Getting tips from everywhere — maybe even Al Gore himself. I might even start a compost bin.
"In short, it will be a smelly spring. But if I do it right, it means the air will be cleaner for my kid, and that the planet will last just a few milliseconds longer. One can dream," Brodeur said.
Wagoner pointed out that, even if you aren't motivated by the question of global warming, participating in the challenge can help you cut your utility bills. Even if you don't sign up to be part of the challenge, you can benefit from reading tips and facts every day in The Times.
Each Tuesday we'll have a special story or question-and-answer package. Every Wednesday, seattletimes.com will let readers participate in an online Q&A. The entire project is designed to be very interactive, with blogs, quizzes and more. There is even a Newspaper In Education component for schools.
Wagoner said he is curious to see how many readers participate in the challenge. "I'm really glad we're doing this now because so much has come out about global warming. The story is taking a turn toward what can be done about it."
Fryer deserves a special kudos for having the idea and sticking with it, but he said he's just happy it's coming to fruition. "I think it's just thrilling."
Inside The Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.