Interview: Tom Zeller, Jr.

Tom Zeller Jr. edits The New York Times' Green Inc. blog, which covers the intersection of business, politics, and the environment. Zeller also contributes to the Times' Energy & Environment section.

Tom Zeller Jr. edits The New York Times' Green Inc. blog, which covers the intersection of business, politics, and the environment. Zeller also contributes to the Times' Energy & Environment section. Previously, Zeller founded the Times' news blog, The Lede in 2006, and has edited and reported on various subjects for the paper. Also, Zeller has served as an editor-at-large at National Geographic Magazine.

PRWeek: How did Green Inc. come about?

Zeller: Green Inc. came about as the result of a lot of brainstorming that went on here at the Times even before I came back. I was with The New York Times for almost 10 years, and then I went to National Geographic magazine for about a year and an half. And, while I was at National Geographic, the minds here at the Times realized there was a great need for concentrated environmental coverage, particularly from a business point of view. So, they started work on a vertical and contacted me and asked if I would [be] interested in editing it. I was, and Green Inc. was born. Green Inc. was the first iteration, and now we've launched the new Energy & Environment section which wraps itself around Green Inc.

PRWeek: Do you think an online venue is best suited for this type of crossover of business, politics, and renewable energy discussions?

Zeller: I don't know if it's best. I think it's vital, important, and necessary. You pretty much can't do anything journalistically these days [without an online component] and expect it to reach people. I do think lots of people [who are] interested in this topic are online. But, the coverage we're doing here is not exclusive to the Web site. We're doing a lot of stuff for the paper. The reporters who are working and covering the Energy and the Environment [section] are doing lots of work in the paper and the blog. It's kind of a seamless operation. We don't really distinguish between the two.

PRWeek: Any industry trends you could highlight, that could happen in energy?

Zeller: We're waiting to see what the trends will be now. We've had this steady increase in investment in renewable energy technology, solar [and] wind, a lot of startups and venture capital, and [it's] all [been] kind of frozen with the economic downturn. The big question is, ‘Now what's going to happen?' Where will the stimulus package flow? And what will the outcome of those disbursements be, six months from now? A year from now?

PRWeek: Have you seen increased awareness from readers about the importance of green industries?

Zeller: Americans are more aware of energy in general, how their lives interact with energy, and how it's procured. That can often be a tenuous process politically and also increasingly environmentally. Some people would credit [former vice president] Al Gore for helping push that over the top and reaching the mainstream. It's certainly been growing for a long time. The recent spike in oil prices helped also. So, I don't know if there's anyone thing that made it happen.

Certainly people are far more aware of these issues and they come at [them] from a lot of perspective. Some [are] interested in alternative energy strictly from a political point of view, and that they prefer the United States be energy independent, so, [it's] not at the mercy of foreign suppliers. Other people want renewable energies because it's good for the planet. Some of those groups overlap, but overall, I'd say it's certainly true that more and more people are concerned about this topic.

PRWeek: What are some areas where you're seeing increased interest?

Zeller: Certainly, [it is] among consumers who are looking at the products they're buying. We get a lot of traffic on the blog and commentary [from] readers, talking about their homes and the products they use, how much energy [they're] using, or what kinds of cars they're driving. Small businesses are far more interested in this topic, than they used to be because they suffer the spikes in oil prices as much as anyone and have a lot to gain from any kinds of improvements they can make in efficiency.

I think across the board even big corporations are increasingly aware that, in one way or another, not only do they owe something to their stockholders and to the business to be as efficient or as mindful of these issues as they can be, but they may well be held to account, with the new administration, for practices that they have. It looks like we're going to have some kind of carbon cap and trade market. That's something that would concern all businesses very suddenly if that were to happen.

PRWeek: Within the past few years, corporations have sought to promote a greener image, whether through promoting carbon offsets or sustainability reports. How do you find it best to measure the efficacy of these claims?

Zeller: There's no single answer. The whole business of measuring sustainability and assessing sustainability and efficiency is still developing. We've got several certification organizations cropping up, that ostensibly verify these things, but that whole regime is still taking shape. It's sort of a wild frontier…I should also say the science of assessing one's carbon footprint whether you're an individual or a corporation is really new too. So, it's really hard thing to say, “They're doing it right,” and, “They're doing it wrong,” because there are a lot of different benchmarks out there.

[Also], it's a case by case kind of thing. It depends on what the business is, and what it is they're purporting to do. If someone is suggesting that they're improving their sustainability. A lot of these things are unassailable on their face.

If a business says, “Hey we've just started up this great recycling program,” which maybe they should have been doing for the last 20 years, and are doing it now you could question it and ask is it enough towards sustainability? But, on the other hand, if recycling makes sense it's hard to assail them for that. There are caveats with even [this] because recycling doesn't always make sense on its face. It can often [lead to] a larger carbon footprint, than just throwing things in the landfill.

PRWeek: Do PR professionals pitch you often?

Zeller: Yes…I'm more of a traffic cop. I'm often assigning stuff to other folks here or working with writers who are contributing to the blog or other parts of the paper. I often will read the first few lines [of an e-mail] and think, “Oh, that might be a good thing for [the reporters] Kate Galbraith or James Kanter,” and forward it to onto them.

In terms of what types of PR people I encounter it's everything from government agencies, big and small business, local community groups, environmental groups, [and] public interest, and consumers groups. All of the above.

I receive lots of pitches from businesses of all sizes, saying “We're doing this and we're doing that to be green or improve our sustainability.” And, I have to admit I often don't dig very deep to find out whether or not it's true because it [can be] very hard to distinguish one effort from another.

PRWeek: Any characteristics, in particular, that encompass a good pitch?

Zeller: I've often thought about that. I do empathize, and think about folks who are doing their best to get our attention and break through on this end. Our attention is wildly divided among any number of things on a given day…The best way is [e-mail], because in the age of caller id, most of us will not pick up the phone if we don't recognize whose actually calling. I do tend to open all of [my e-mails]. If the subject line is very focused and to the point, and within the first two to three sentences I get a real sense of what this is about, and I don't have to read terribly far to get to the point, those are the best pitches.

One pet peeve would be a PR representative who appears to get upset when I haven't responded to them as quickly as they would like. I think everybody needs to understand that any one of us gets hundreds of these things in the week, sometimes in a day. Obviously, we cannot respond to all of them. It does happen fairly regularly that I'll get repeat emails from someone appearing to be exasperated or taking it personally and if could communicate anything to them. [It would be that] it's absolutely not personal.

PRWeek: Any pitches you've received lately, which have turned into a good post or article?

Zeller: I just got one today in fact I forwarded onto James Kanter. This was just a matter of serendipity. We'd been writing about CO2 concerns as they relate to the shipping industry and investment in shipping companies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent an e-mail to us about maritime shipping, making hefty contribution to harmful air pollution. Whether or not they knew that we'd written [about] this topic and very quickly pushed it forward. I don't know, but it caught my eye. Whenever we write about something I usually get a flood of pitches, saying “I see you're covering this topic or that.” If there's a very pointed and directed pitch that comes directly off of a story we've just done and pushes it in a new direction or another direction. That's often very effective, at least in getting me to open it up and say, ‘Where do we go next with this topic.'

Name: Tom Zeller Jr.

Title: Editor of Green Inc. blog

Outlet: The New York Times

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