Where is sustainability in The New York Times?

Questioning Assumptions

Where is sustainability in The New York Times?

To highlight the The New York Times's lack of coverage of sustainability and sustainable business, I aired my concerns via two innovations aimed at improving the newspaper's journalism and level of reader interaction.

The first, a few years ago, was a direct response to a columnist’s plagiarism and what had gone wrong, but has evolved beyond that to look at broader quality issues at the newspaper. It is the Office of the Public Editor, or Ombudsman.

The second, established a few months ago, was “Invitation to a Dialogue.” The newspaper started a feature that would publish a particularly provocative letter to the editor, ask for reader responses, print several of them, and then give the original author a chance to respond to the responders. It has been a way both to better engage readers and to treat important topics at a deeper level.

These weren’t the first times I had written to The New York Times about the scarcity of sustainability coverage (they’ve already had four ombudsmen). As they now have a new one, I simply just sent her what I had last sent her immediate predecessor:

I had asked you to track the coverage of the recent Rio +20 Sustainable Development Conference. To the best of my knowledge, there was only one (maybe two) article(s) in the body of the newspaper, zero editorials, although somewhat better coverage in the electronic version (for those who have access to that) in Andrew Revkin's columns and a bit elsewhere.

On the general subject of sustainability, while Mark Bittman's elevation to the opinion pages to write on food, and Tina Rosenberg on social innovation, are improvements, there is little or practically nothing on key developments in corporate social responsibility (businesses stepping up to do the right thing), business/non-profit partnerships, a few businesses starting to look at how much their prospects actually depend on ecosystems, alternative measurements to GNP, sustainable consumption, etc. Your "Name" columnists also ignore this topic, although Friedman and Kristof occasionally get close. Things are better on urban gardening and renewable energy.

But there are vital developments going on in the field of sustainability, including some that question conventional wisdoms, that NYT's readers deserve to know about.

A few weeks ago, the entry for the “Dialogue” was a letter by Jay Feldman calling for corporations to be “good citizens.” One of his complaints is corporations’ viewing of “environmental concerns” as “obstacles to profitability.” Others criticisms were: outsourcing, elimination of pension plans … you get the point. He ends by saying good citizenship could “help ensure the long-term viability of our free-enterprise system.”

I responded, but wasn’t picked to be published (although they did print a letter with the provocative suggestion that all companies should be “B” corporations). Below is my slightly revised response to Feldman’s letter.

Jay Feldman’s call for corporations to be “good citizens” would be complemented if The New York Times (and other newspapers) would write about them when they are.

While the criticisms of corporations Feldman makes are important, there is no shortage of stories about failures. But it seems the mindset is that they (companies) never do the right thing, could never do so, or when they do it’s for cynical reasons, such as attempted greenwash.

However, a barely noticed corporate social responsibility field is growing up. An increasing number of companies are finding ways to reduce their environmental footprints, while creating shared value for society.

Yes, they sometimes fail or success is limited to divisional pockets, their motives not necessarily pure, and they have a long way to go to help us meet society’s challenges. All would be fair game to examine. But coverage would help their internal change-agents. So New York Times (and other newspapers): feel free to do so in the news, op-ed, and “Business” sections.

Relatedly, while I can’t prove it, it may have taken my contacting their “Obituary” section to get them to run one on Ray Anderson, as a few days had passed without any mention of his passing (and accomplishments). (Odd that Obituary is so responsive. Maybe they don’t get a lot of requests.)

Whether I personally get in The New York Times or not isn’t that important. But our field could stand more mainstream press coverage, don’t you think? Why should sustainable business, and what we do, still be such a secret? It would be nice to some day meet college students who even know they could grow up to be CSOs. We would certainly get fewer uncomprehending looks at “And What Do You Do?” events. More seriously, I’d think it would also help us at work. What do you think it will take?