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.”
And if that’s still not mainstream enough, Discover also began syndicating its online content last year to outlets like MSNBC and CBSNews.com. Discover is just a “small player” in that business, Donahue admits, but he points to other outlets, such as LiveScience, which are sharing content on a wider scale.
How far any of this will go to halt or turn back the overall decline in the quantity, quality, and reach of science journalism remains to be seen. As Zimmer notes, “It would be great to have more hard numbers” about where readers and viewers are getting their science news, as well as more objective measures of quality in those areas.
The Nature package—despite its either-or tone—is a good step toward sorting it all out. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s survey of 493 science reporters found that nearly 68 percent believe they’ll still be working journalists in five years, compared to only 6 percent who don’t. Unfortunately, Zimmer points out, the “simple economics” of the industry implies that there will be fewer jobs, which is important to bear in mind regardless how happily married old and new media end up.