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4 stars
Climate Central usefully combines science and journalism to inform the climate policy debate

While the scientific consensus is clear that human civilization is rapidly changing the climate through uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions, details matter. Which regions will be hit hardest? Which natural disasters can be attributed to climate change? Do positive effects outweigh negative ones in some regions?

To tell this story accurately requires grappling with the latest scientific findings. Science/environment beat writers must do their best to translate these findings to their audiences. Sometimes the truth gets lost in translation, and important findings may be missed. Moreover, traditional media prefer reporting on the human drama of the moment (crime, politics, etc.), and climate change rarely gets the attention it merits.

Is there a better way? Climate Central combines climate science and climate journalism in a single nonprofit organization. It is less focused on the politics of climate change than, say, InsideClimate News (review), but it does cover policy interventions, as well.

It’s been fully operational since 2009 and is based in Princeton, New Jersey, near the famous university. That’s no coincidence. One of the organization’s biggest seed funders is Princeton alum Eric Schmidt (of Google/Alphabet fame), and several staff and Board members are Princeton-affiliated.

Funding and Compensation

The organization’s latest tax return shows revenue of $9.3M, which places it among the better-funded nonprofit journalism outfits.

Most of this funding comes from foundations, but the organization also lists government agencies such as NASA and the US Department of Energy among its supporters. Funding is not further broken down (by year/gift size), and multiple requests for details through the site’s contact form received no reply.

The organization does not publish Annual Reports, and there is no other page that speaks to impact of specific programs, with one exception: The “What We Do” page features a loose list of links to articles by many international publications which have featured Climate Central’s news and research.

Program expenses are split between journalism ($2.7M) and research ($2.2M). Executive compensation is very high by nonprofit journalism standards: CEO Paul Hanle received total compensation (including benefits) of $379K in 2014, Chief Scientist Dr. Heidi Cullen received $395K, and two (S)VPs received more than $280K in total comp.

Granting that Climate Central is an unsual organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (based in Cambridge, MA – not much less expensive than Princeton) may serve as a useful additional benchmark. It is a much bigger organization, with $26.6M revenue in 2013-14 (tax return), yet its Executive Director received “only” $270K in total comp, and its Chief Climate Scientist (who was one of the Lead Writers of an IPCC report) received $186K.

Sampling the News Feed

  • “Trump and Automakers Target EPA Mileage Rules” is a typical Climate Central news story. It neutrally summarizes how the Trump administration is following through on a campaign commitment to roll back EPA rules implemented towards the end of Obama’s second term, and quotes both environmental experts, an auto industry lobby group, and an environmental advocacy group. (There’s nothing wrong with quoting industry lobby groups, as long as their interests are clearly identified. Problems arise when dealing with “think tanks” that act as corporate front groups, pretending nonpartisanship.)

  • “Polluters Could ‘More Easily’ Commit Crimes Under Cuts” examines the Trump administration’s proposed EPA budget. Importantly, it highlights some landmark EPA settlements and the complexity of cross-state pollution by large corporations, which refutes the idea that a state-level regulatory approach is sufficient. Again, the article is neutrally written and cites multiple voices, largely focusing on expert opinion.

  • “Carbon Dioxide Is Rising at Record Rates” cites recent measurements of the carbon dioxide concentration and is partially based on a press release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate Central includes its own simplified version of the NOAA chart (see below) and adds useful additional data and context.

Climate Central chart comparison

The NOAA version of the chart vs. the Climate Central version. To simplify it, Climate Central removed tick marks, labels for in-between years, and 10-year average bars, and highlighted the most recent years. The most idiosyncratic of these changes is the removal of the year labels; most publications show at least some in-between year markers for time series data (NYT example, Vox example, Bloomberg example).

Other Projects

Beyond its news feed, Climate Central makes efforts to translate its own research into explanatory journalism. Sea Level Rise is one such example project. It is based on peer reviewed research such as the paper “Carbon choices determine US cities committed to futures below sea level”, and translates these findings into interactive visualizations.

An example of these visualizations is the “Seeing Choices” map which displays the sea level rise in cities like New York under different temperature scenarios.

Some news feed stories also feature interactive content, such as “Meltdown: More Rain, Less Snow as the World Warms”. Many of these interactive widgets are embeddable, though they don’t offer the rich set of share/embed/download options a site like Our World in Data does.

I didn’t find a list of all papers published by Climate Central scientists, or an open access policy, though the papers that are referenced do appear to be freely available online.

Design and Licensing

The main website doesn’t have a mobile version (a pretty major fail in 2017), and it is a bit cluttered with many sections competing for attention (“featured content”, “climate services”, “special sections”, etc.), drowning out the news portion of the site. Perhaps to make up for that, a large story carousel features the latest headlines.

wxshift screenshot
wxshift provides local weather information in combination with longer term climate data and other climate change context. While much more visually appealing than Climate Central, it does not appear to have much of an audience yet.

Climate Central has created much slicker story-centric designs for some of its feature reporting (example). It also operates wxshift, which combines weather reporting with context about how climate change is impacting the weather. Some of the main site’s news content is mirrored to wxshift, as well. Launched in 2015, it appears to have only a very small audience (as of this writing, it has 1,751 Twitter followers and barely registers on traffic ranking tools like Alexa).

Climate Central’s content licensing page is restrictive, requiring case-by-case permission requests rather than using a free license for some or all content. This is fairly typical; even among nonprofits, permissive licensing terms are the exception, not the norm. The organization goes through a lot of trouble to create graphics and maps, which would be entirely appropriate in reference works like Wikipedia, where they could be added to articles read by millions – but the restrictive copyright terms make that kind of re-use impossible.

The Verdict

Climate Central’s journalism+science approach usefully complements more politically focused sites like InsideClimate News. Its journalism is nonpartisan, understandable, and fair, while being based on the scientific consensus. If you care about climate change (and unless you are reading this from another planet than Earth, you should), it’s a source worth adding to your social media or RSS reader.

The main site could use an upgrade. While it’s certainly non-trivial to upgrade older sites, there are many open source projects specifically targeting nonprofit journalism, such as the Institute for Nonprofit News’ widely used Largo Wordpress theme and the Ghost publishing platform.

The organization would also benefit from greater transparency. Being open and accountable about how impact is measured and under what conditions projects are shut down can help donors appreciate that their support is put to good use, and that projects aren’t just left to spin even if they aren’t producing a lot of bang for the buck.

The rating is 4 out of 5 stars, with high marks for the overall quality of Climate Central’s journalism. 1 point off for lack of organizational transparency, for executive compensation well above other science and journalism nonprofits, and for a site design that is not consistently mobile-friendly.

Posted under: Nonprofit Media

4 stars
In revisiting 1980s sci-fi/horror themes, Stranger Things manages to be more homage than rip-off

Stranger Things is one of last year’s big Netflix hits. We finally found the time to watch the first season and quite enjoyed it.

The series borrows liberally from many 1970s-1980s books and movies (Stephen King’s “Firestarter”, Richard Donner’s “The Goonies”, Ridley Scott’s “Alien”) to tell its story of a bunch of kids investigating the disappearance of a friend. They are up against evil government agents and, well, stranger things.

This could have turned into a series of tropes, but the talented actors (kids and adults alike), the well-paced plot, and the lovingly crafted sets and special effects make the show a joy to watch from start to finish. David Harbour shines as Police Chief Jim Hopper, gradually revealing his character’s depth. Winona Ryder plays the distressed mother Joyce Byers convincingly, though a little bit less distress would have worked just as well.

The kid actors all do an admirable job, but Millie Bobbby Brown (El) and Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin) give especially memorable performances. The show’s weakest bits involve some bog standard high school drama, and the cardboard character government agents.

The show references its inspirations, but not in an obnoxious way. Stephen King is once mentioned by name, and other 80s pop culture bits are woven into the story where appropriate. Beyond that, there are many elegant visual references (link contains spoilers) .

If you haven’t gotten around to it, I definitely recommend watching the first season. You’ll be quickly pulled in, and if you grew up during the 80s, you might laugh out loud a few times, quite possibly confusing the hell out of any younger folks present.


5 stars
A necessary alternative to Wikileaks

There’s little doubt that Donald Trump owes a large debt to Wikileaks. In 2016, the site systematically and incrementally released a stream of hacked emails about Trump’s political opponent through the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, while not releasing any materials about Trump himself. Defenders believe that Wikileaks simply releases what it gets its hands on, but its Twitter account, as well as the targeted timing of past releases, speak to clear political intentions.

Wikileaks has repeatedly disseminated conspiracy theories, spread info from fake news sites, even weighed in with its “hot takes” on the vice presidential debate. It has ignored Trump scandals while joining alt-right speculation about Hillary Clinton’s health. As I write this, its most recent tweet is not about, say, an example of corruption in the Trump administration, but yet another Podesta email.

Political bias aside, Wikileaks has also been frequently criticized for its lack of curation, including by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (“their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake”) and by progressive activist/scholar Lawrence Lessig. It has overhyped leaks and dismissed valid concerns about linking to a “doxing” site. It has carelessly flirted with anti-Semitic tropes in its commentary.

So what’s the alternative? The late Aaron Swartz knew that tools for whistleblowers would become increasingly important and started a project called “Deaddrop”, an open source platform for secure communication between whistleblowers and media. After his death, development has been taken up by the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Unlike Wikileaks, SecureDrop is a piece of software, not an actual site to leak to. It can be installed by any media organization that wants to make itself accessible to whistleblowers beyond accepting anonymous brown envelopes. Under the hood, SecureDrop uses the anonymous Tor network, to allow sources to connect to media organizations while significantly mitigating the risk of discovery.

Sources are assigned a code phrase they can use for additional document uploads and two-way communication. I haven’t leaked anything, but I’ve walked through the first bits of the user flow and can confirm that, from the source’s point of view, it’s very easy to use. (Of course, there are still many risks when dealing with confidential/sensitive information, including digital fingerprints that could give away a whistleblower’s identity.)

SecureDrop has since been installed by countless media organizations: the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Washington Post the CBC, ProPublica, the New Yorker, The Intercept, VICE Media, The Guardian, and many others. The site offers a helpful directory of all of them.

Does it work? David Fahrenthold thinks so. He is the Washington Post reporter who broke the story about Trump bragging about being able to sexually assault women with impunity, and who also reported extensively on many legally and ethically questionable activities of the Trump Foundation. In October 2016, he tweeted meaningfully: “It works. I know.”

He’s not alone. An in-depth report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism concludes:

I spoke to representatives of ten news organizations for this study, and nine told me that they regularly receive useful tips or publish stories based on information provided to them directly through SecureDrop.

While any submission system like this is bound to also draw in crackpots and nonsense, “most reporters were adamant that the trouble of installing and maintaining a SecureDrop system has been worth it, whether it is measured on journalistic value, financial return, or moral principle.”

The software has already been independently audited four times, is fully open source, and managed by a small nonprofit (you can donate here).

The alternative to Wikileaks, then, is not simply yet another website. It’s a piece of software that, like a webserver, can be installed by any journalistic organization, giving whistleblowers full control over whom to trust with a given piece of information. And that alternative isn’t one we have to wait for. It exists today.

True to Aaron Swartz’s vision, there is now a decentralized set of secure drop boxes that whistleblowers can choose from. The idea of a central uber-platform for leaks – one which doesn’t hesitate to abuse its standing for political purposes – is obsolete. It’s time, in other words, to kick Wikileaks to the curb.

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