Citing examples such as the Los Angeles Times’s “Altered Oceans” series or the New Orleans Times Picayune’s “Last Chance” series about erosion along the gulf coast, Zimmer said he is worried that the long-form, resource-intensive investigative projects that newspapers used to do so well are particularly endangered. And so far, neither syndicated science news services nor blogs have proven themselves capable of filling that void. Says Zimmer:
At least for the time being, there are just big cultural differences between how the typical blog post about science is written and how the typical article about science is written. If I were to write an article for The New York Times about a particular subject, I’m going to call people up, I’m going to talk to them a lot, and I’m going to tell a story, in part, in the scientist’s own words. I’ll go and visit the scientists. I’ll spend days with them taking in all the details and describing what it’s like for them and all sorts of interesting little details if I can find them. That’s just standard when you’re writing about science for the so-called mainstream media. A typical blog post would be somebody sitting down and reading a paper and describing it. I’d say it’s more of an essay. Or it would be a kind of commentary on how people react to science, whether it’s attacking a politician who doesn’t understand science or attacking a bad article about science. So it’s possible that most of the mainstream science media people will be driven out of work. That’s unfortunately not a total fantasy. But bloggers have not yet, as far as I can tell, started to take over most of what traditional science writers actually do.
Whether or not that will change is anybody’s guess. And perhaps it is too late for newspapers, but there is some evidence that rather than “mainstream” science journalism being “supplanted” (to use Nature’s term) by niche outlets, the two will simply marry—taking the best of the new and the old and creating something more robust and important than either is on its own. Zimmer, for example, recently moved his popular blog, The Loom, from the Scienceblogs.com community to the Web site of Discover magazine.
“The decision was a no-brainer,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Blogging for Discover in particular was attractive for several reasons, including the fact that I would be one of a handful of bloggers, rather than an army, as has become the case at Scienceblogs. Discover does a lot to promote its bloggers, whether in the pages of the magazine or having us moderate panels about science.”
Indeed the trend in mainstream outlets of all varieties—from MSNBC to the Orange County Register—investing in blogs (and the potential for more of that) is one thing that Nature could have stressed more heavily, Zimmer suggests.
When a team of investors, led by Bob Guccione Jr., purchased Discover from the Walt Disney Company in 2005, one of the first things the management team did was build a significant Web presence, according publisher and CEO Henry Donahue. Within the last year, the site has added a feature called 80Beats, which aggregates and analyzes daily science news, and a number of “outside” blogs. In addition to Zimmer’s blog, Discover picked up two others: Cosmic Variance, run by a group of astrophysicists, and Bad Astronomy, run by Phil Plait, a former researcher turned full-time blogger. Both of those were formerly independent, but next week the site will add another “top-ten” blog from the Scienceblogs.com community.
“We have different people with different backgrounds writing about science and topics that our readers are into,” says Discover’s online editor Amos Kenigsberg. “Mainstream media, old media—we don’t really think of it that way. The Web has all these different components, people bring different things to the table—we’re really into it.”
Moreover, Donahue adds, he has never been sold on the “ghettoization” of science news, and a robust Web presence has helped pull Discover out of the science-magazine niche. “I’m not sure that people ever looked much beyond the stuff they were already interested in,” he tells me. “When people read the newspaper, they read the sections they’re interested and don’t read the ones they’re not interested in. I think for us, online has expanded the audience. Many, many more people are reading our content now than read the magazine, certainly, and there’s not much overlap between the print readership and the online readership. I think our subscriber surveys say that it’s like 25 percent-ish.”