How Carbon Brief is becoming the authority in climate media

Future News 98

You have to understand what Carbon Brief is not to appreciate where it has succeeded. It is not a news agency. It is not a daily news outlet. And it is not in the business of rushing-out stories.

The 10-year-old organisation happily sits in the slow lane of the media industry, sometimes taking a year to publish a novella-length feature around an evergreen climate change subject. “We are always that one beat behind the news cycle,” editor and director Leo Hickman told FN. 

It hasn’t always been that way for Carbon Brief, though. The outlet started off life in December 2010 as a sort of rapid rebuttal blog to the UK tabloid media, which, until recently, adopted an anti-green editorial stance.

Over the years, however, Carbon Brief has transformed itself into a more thoughtful, long-form offering with “calling card” data visualisations of climate change trends. 

Because of its philanthropic model, with the European Climate Foundation (no relation to the EU) awarding it an annual grant of almost £600,000 (as of 2019), Carbon Brief is not under the immense commercial and advertising-focused pressure other media outlets face. This enables it to take a longer, more informed view of climate science and policy responses. 

And because of the outlet’s impartial stance on climate policy, Hickman, who joined in 2015 from The Guardian, is against accepting sponsorship opportunities for his publication.

This is despite the many offers he has received for Carbon Brief’s popular daily briefing, an editorial product read by ministers in the UK and civil servants in the US. “Hopefully we are a really good case study to show how this new form of journalism can work,” Hickman said.

But just because Carbon Brief isn’t commercially minded, doesn’t mean it isn’t ambitious. The outlet, for instance, is considering whether to launch a podcast this year (the team was still very much in the research stage of this process when FN last spoke to Hickman) and Carbon Brief also has two new editorial recruits focusing on China, both the world’s largest polluter and biggest investor in environmental infrastructure. 

The publication plans to use social media platform WeChat to attract new readers with important pieces of coverage like an explainer around the country’s five-year plan and how that policy document will impact China’s climate ambitions and, ultimately, the world. “What China does, matters for us all,” Hickman stressed. 

In total, Carbon Brief now has three full-time journalists focusing on the East Asian nation. They are all part of a 12-strong full-time editorial team, which triple-edits big stories before publication.

That means beyond the author of a piece, Carbon Brief’s policy editor, Simon Evans, science editor, Robert McSweeney, and Hickman himself will cast an eye over the work. There is also a team of contributing editors, who are on-hand to lend their scientific expertise.

This rigour has paid off, with many of Carbon Brief’s stories ranking highly on Google and other search engines, allowing the outlet to benefit from the so-called “Greta [Thunberg] effect] of interest peaking around climate change in 2019.

Hickman also said that Carbon Brief has had a Trump bump, with North American readers overtaking their UK counterparts three years ago. “We also had a 50% increase in readership [in 2020],” Hickman added.

And although Carbon Brief doesn’t publish opinion pieces, it does encourage climate scientists to write about their most recent academic studies in lay-audience terms. This drew in a third of all unique views, Hickman said, although he could divulge the total audience figures for “commercial reasons”. 

So as Carbon Brief attempts to be the “island amid the storm” of the often heated and nearly always partisan climate change debate, what does Hickman think of the likes of The Sun and The Daily Express launching green campaigns and committing more resources to the beat as the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) approaches at the end of the year?

“The more the merrier,” he said. “We are highly complementary to the news reporting around climate change...we will rise up with that tide as well.”


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Image: Future News, “TV Error" by Sibe Kokke is licensed under CC BY 2.0