Other speakers at the conference focused on the need for more high-quality, awe-inspiring science stories, while raising an eyebrow at the impact of digital media on journalism outlets. “A 400-year-old business model was destroyed in fifteen years by the delusion that quality contents come for free,” said Scientific American’s new editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina, quoting from a report (pdf) titled “The Sense of Crisis Among Science Journalists,” based on a survey which was conducted at the World Conference of Science Journalism in 2009. “That delusion only applies to things that people see as commodities. Are we producing commodity content?”

Journalists must move beyond slavish coverage of breaking news and packaged press releases and “focus on things that inspire wonder,” said DiChristina, the current president of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). For instance, a recent report found that the theme of New York Times online stories that visitors e-mail to their friends “wasn’t all about ‘Do I drink wine for resveratrol,” she said.

The BBC’s Ghosh, a past president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, agreed that new media has driven down the cost of content, and hence editorial budgets are more stretched for all media. “We start to become the victims of what is in our inbox,” he said. “We start doing what everyone else is doing because it’s easier, and we can get more stories out this way. We lose the awe and wonder. And we lose the important role of being the trusted guides our audience want us to be.”

Online formats prevail and confuse

In any case, the online era for science news has arrived, and will soon be the dominant way that the public gets its science news and information, said Sharon Dunwoody, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, at a panel on communicating science in the information age. Television news is still the leading source of science information, but not for long, said Dunwoody. She cited the latest data in the recently released National Science Foundation’s “Science & Engineering Indicators: 2010” report. The results show that television and the Internet are the primary ways that people receive science and technology information today. The Internet trumps for topics such as climate change and biotechnology, although some Internet users question the accuracy of information found online.

Panelists at the meeting indicated that some blogs are gaining acceptance and admiration among science journalists at least, although there is no consensus on whether they provide news in the classic sense—or, rather, potentially valuable information, education, or opinion that fails to meet the traditional standards of journalism. Long-time science communicator Dennis Meredith, author of a new book, Explaining Research (Oxford University Press, 2010), noted during his presentation that a handful of blogs that he admires include Blog Around the Clock, Sciencebase, RealClimate, Small Things Considered, and the University of Chicago Medical Center’s Science Life.

“Science journalism is not dying,” said multimedia science journalist Jane Stevens, who sees “the growth of niche online sites” fueling the future of science journalism and perhaps redefining what journalism is. A former newspaper science journalist who went on to teach multimedia journalism at the University of California Berkeley and develop innovative Web sites, such as The Great Turtle Race, Stevens is generally critical of the newspaper industry: “They really haven’t gotten it yet … I want to see more integration of the community with what journalism does.”

She recently became director of online strategies at The World Company in Lawrence, Kansas, and this week is launching a new hyper-local, health-oriented online forum, called Wellcommons, for the daily paper there, the Lawrence Journal-World. In what she hopes will be a model for other community sites, the site mixes the work of trained journalists with social media input from the local community.

“The community is a lot smarter than we give them credit for,” said Stevens. She also spoke at a decidedly upbeat program on “Communicating Science,” broadcast live from the AAAS meeting in San Diego on NPR’s Science Friday and archived online.

Robin Lloyd and Cristine Russell are freelance science writers. Lloyd is currently on contract as the online editor for Scientific American and was previously a senior editor at LiveScience.com and SPACE.com. Russell is a CJR contributing editor, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.