In Depth

MSNBC Gives Green Light to Keeping Eco News Online

By Hillary Atkin

When MSNBC.com first launched in 1996, the big environmental news was the upcoming Kyoto Protocol, aimed at combating global warming through regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

As vice president during the Clinton administration, Al Gore was credited with forging a breakthrough in negotiations that led to the treaty’s signing the following year — and then fighting an uphill battle to get support for it in the United States.

Thirteen years later, the Web site remains dedicated to covering and disseminating environmental news online, and what began as a climate section has evolved into the current environment section under U.S. News that is overseen by editor Miguel Llanos.

“Over the years it’s been a pretty popular section for advertisers, and that’s helped it keep going, giving it a better chance of getting visibility and support,” he said.

And so has the visual aspect of many stories that makes for absorbing multimedia coverage. “In 1997, two-thirds of what we were doing was climate-related. We did a big special project on climate change,” Llanos said. “It evolved to include solutions, species conservation efforts and a list of endangered species. We’ve worked with the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature], the main authority on the status of species, to do a large package with a slide show. Those get a lot of viewer response.”

Slide shows, although not new technology, are actually more popular on the site than videos. If a reader clicks through to all of them — and typically there are more than 20 — each counts as a page view, as if they were reading a new story on each page. A recent 23-photo package was used to illustrate the news that the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are shrinking faster than scientists had previously thought.

“We love slide shows. It’s a great user experience, and we can use caption space to tell a story. We are also experimenting with maps, and using video in responding to questions,” said Llanos.

For this past April’s Earth Day, the grassroots organization promoting the event asked MSNBC.com to be the exclusive host for an interactive project that used a world map (Microsoft Live Map, of course, given the corporate ownership) and photos of places around the globe that have been impacted environmentally, such as sandstorms eroding the Great Wall of China, with a discussion of what was happening in those locations.

“We might use a map again to illustrate global pollution flow, like marine debris, or pollutants from China making it over to the U.S.,” Llanos said.

The section boasts up to 50 stories on the environment, with 3-5 new elements added daily. Along with a selection of videos, such as President Obama’s recent speech at the United Nations climate change summit, there are many interactive features that engage readers, like a carbon calculator to determine how much carbon dioxide someone emits on their average commute, a paper versus plastic interactive feature on the greenest way to cart away groceries and a map of how 200 of the nation’s beaches did in a survey about water quality.

An interactive library features information on topics including automobile engines, whale watching, population control, invasive species and wildlife in danger.

There is an entire section of videos from NBC News environmental correspondent Anne Thompson, on such topics as wind power, plastic water bottles, drought conditions and cleaner coal.

At the beginning of September Llanos launched a social media feature called “Eco-issue of the week” with questions like: “Should the United States be more aggressive in curbing greenhouse gas emissions?” Readers can vote and comment on the issues through newsvine.com. “It’s for news junkies,” he said — a label he gives to himself.

“I spend the first part of my day doing breaking news in politics, crime, education — and the second half in the environment and the weather,” he said. He looks for bigger stories that he can make into a cover piece like the recent faster ice sheet melt in Antarctica, which led the news one recent afternoon on the site’s main home page.

The environmental page also features subsections such as “The Business of Going Green,” “Green Day With Marisa Belger,” “Science” and “Earth Talk Q&A,” where readers submit questions about environmental and energy issues that are answered by editors from E/The Environmental Magazine. They also provide Web sites that have more information on the topics at hand, such as upgrading to more energy-efficient appliances at home and making use of rainwater.