Globe Kills Health/Science Section, Keeps Staff

After twenty-five-year run, content will be moved to lifestyle, business sections

It is the end of an era that began more than twenty-five years ago, when test-tube babies and compact discs were new. This week, The Boston Globe stopped running its highly regarded Monday Health/Science section and began placing its content in the paper’s trendy new “g” lifestyle tabloid, as well as its business section.

It is the latest casualty at the struggling but storied New England paper, located in what is arguably the center of the health, science, and technology universe. According to health and science editor Gideon Gil, the Globe’s nine-person specialty staff is expected to stay intact—at least for now—and coverage of everything from stem cells to climate change will still have high priority in the paper.

“I don’t see it as a serious retreat,” said Gil. “The content is all running in the paper, but going in different places. … It’s entirely occasioned by the need to cut costs. We have found a way to continue to provide essentially the same level of coverage while saving money. To me that shows a continuing commitment to covering health and science in a major way out of recognition that those are crucial topics for our community, areas that make Boston distinctive.”

But, Gil acknowledged, some hard sciences such as physics or astronomy—which don’t neatly fit into personal health or business innovation—could suffer with the disappearance of Monday’s dedicated Health/Science section. “It was nice to have our own sandbox to play in, the freedom to stretch,” he said. “Science is quirky sometimes, so a bit of serendipity is lost when we have to fit into different niches in the paper.”

“It will definitely put a crimp in the amount of science and health coverage in the paper,” said former Globe science editor Nils Bruzelius. “It will continue to be high-quality, but this can’t help but dim the overall breadth and scope of coverage when you’re fighting for space every day and defining what you do in a more narrowly focused way.”

He flew to Boston last week to join about twenty of his former Globe health and science colleagues in an Irish wake for the dearly departed Health/Science section at Donovan’s, a local pub in the Savin Hill section of Boston.

“It was very bittersweet. There was a sense that we could not have believed it would come to this. Those of us still in journalism are wondering how much worse it is going to get. A fair amount of beer helped,” said Bruzelius, who is now deputy national editor in charge of science at The Washington Post. “I would say it is a measure of how desperate things have become in the newspaper business. Even in Boston, the mecca for science, they couldn’t find a way to sustain a section devoted to health and science.”

The transition occurred quietly in Monday’s Globe, with editors using “skybox” tabs at the top of Page One to direct readers to the day’s top health and science stories. An environmental story, “Nature Gets Makeover in Forest Lab,” appeared in its new home, the business section, which will have a “science and innovation” focus on Mondays. A psychology take-out, “When Perfectionism Becomes a Problem,” was highlighted on the cover of the “g” lifestyle section, which will have a “personal health” focus on Mondays. The popular section also houses everything from music and movie reviews to puzzles and comic strips.

The last official Monday Health/Science section appeared on February 23 in the Globe’s A section, but the end has been coming for about a year. Health/Science had its own three-page section front until last April, when it moved inside the A section to accommodate the paper’s cost-cutting switch to a four-section paper, said Gil. In early 2009, the Health/Science news hole was trimmed to two pages. But, at the same time, Gil said, the paper created regular space in the A section where it began to group science-related staff and wire stories from Tuesday through Saturday.

Currently, the Globe has two health/science editors and seven staff reporters—five in the health/medicine arena, one environmental, and one basic science/biotech. In addition, another environmental reporter will be there until July on a Metcalf Institute environmental fellowship. It is an illustrious team. Staff science reporter Gareth Cook (now the paper’s Ideas editor) won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his coverage of stem cell research, and environment reporter Beth Daley was a 2008 Pulitzer finalist for a series on how global warming impacts New Englanders. Excerpts from her Green Blog appeared in the Monday business section, in addition to online.

The future of staffing is not certain, however, since the paper is now in a new round of newsroom buyouts. Gil doesn’t know of anybody on his staff that is applying to take one. But the paper has announced a goal of cutting as many as fifty newsroom jobs by the end of March, and no decisions have been made about which sections may lose people once the buyout/layoff process is completed. Gil said that the paper is down only one health/science reporter since he came on board in 2003, but an earlier round of buyouts around 2001 led to a wholesale loss of some of the paper’s most seasoned health and science reporters.

Bruzelius said that, at its height, the Globe’s Health/Science section had about six pages. But, he noted, the downsizing of science coverage is occurring at many papers, including The Washington Post, which is down three senior science reporters in recent years—to its current six—due to buyouts. The Post still has a Tuesday Health section, but most of its staff are gone due to a buyouts. Only three-quarters of a page in the A section each Monday is dedicated to science in addition to the regular, daily coverage.

For the wake at Donovan’s pub, Gil had his library dig out the paper’s first science section, called “Sci-Tech” when it started on April 4, 1983, which included a “medical frontiers” story on in vitro fertilization and a technology feature on “compact new digital records (that) will last longer, sound better.” It was modeled on the successful Tuesday Science Times section in The New York Times, which many still view as the gold standard for science, health and environmental coverage.

The 1980’s were the heyday of newspaper science sections and science magazines, with high but short-lived hopes built on advertising from computer companies. Ninety-five newspapers boasted weekly science sections in 1989, according to a survey at the time, but the number has been dropping ever since. A paper I prepared as a Harvard Shorenstein Center journalism fellow found only about thirty-four such sections in 2005—two-thirds of them focused primarily on consumer health—and many have shrunk dramatically in size or moved inside. Ironically, in another big science town, the Baltimore Sun started a brand-new science section in 2005, only to fold it two-and-a-half years later as the Tribune-owned paper’s fortunes fell.

Gil said thus far he has not heard much in the way of protests about the Globe’s decision to drop the Health/Science section: “I had written a script for the telephone operators, but nobody called. Either they were snowed in and couldn’t get the paper, or we communicated effectively through the editors’ notes in the paper.” There was more reaction, he noted, when the longtime section front moved inside the A section last spring.

Correction: This article was changed to reflect that the Globe intends to cut fifty newsroom jobs, not fifty reporters.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.