About a year and a half ago, I began reporting on a story about the “state” of science journalism, which may finally see the light of day in an upcoming issue of CJR. But I was flattered to hear it mentioned yesterday by Associated Press science reporter Seth Borenstein during an excellent panel discussion about the future of the field.
I interviewed Borenstein for the story in the summer of 2007, at which time he told me that he disagreed with the notion, shared by many of his colleagues, that science journalism was in a state of crisis. Thursday morning, Borenstein affirmed that he has since changed his mind, citing numerous and seemingly senseless job cuts around the nation over the last year. Among others, he pointed to veteran space writer Craig Covault, recently laid off by Aviation Week & Space Technology when it closed its Cape Canaveral bureau (of all places). “The man covered Apollo!” Borenstein said.
Such dismay was common at the event, which was titled “The Future of Science and Environmental Journalism,” and organized and hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. (I watched via live Webcast.) Borenstein’s co-panelists included former CNN executive producer Peter Dykstra, laid off in December when the network cut its entire science team; Elizabeth Shogren, an environment correspondent for National Public Radio; and Jan Schaffer, the executive director of J-Lab, the successor to the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. Yet the despair applied mostly to the decline of traditional (or “mainstream,” if you prefer) newspapers, magazines, and broadcasts. The other half of the conversation involved reasons to be (guardedly) optimistic about the growth of “niche” science publications based primarily online.
Dykstra is a good example of that tension between so-called old and new media. As he took the podium, he thanked CNN for “allowing” him all the time to participate in the Wilson Center event. Since leaving the network, he has been writing three columns per week for the Mother Nature Network, an environmental news and information Web site launched in January. MNN is among the growing number of small startups that are offsetting, to a limited degree, job losses in traditional media. Because of such outlets, Dykstra is “more hopeful” than he has been in some time, but was nonetheless “astounded” by CNN’s decision to eliminate its seven-member science team.
He suggested three explanations for the “marginalization” of mainstream environmental coverage. The first is “factionalism,” by which many news organizations shy away from polarizing issues such as global warming and evolution. “In the specific case of CNN, whom I still regard as far and away the best of the three competing national cable news networks in this country,” Dykstra said, “if your primary competition is Fox News, it’s a simple business decision. In order to compete with and overtake Fox News, you don’t need science and environment coverage on a regular basis.”
The emergent power of online journalism and blogs is also driving cable networks away from such coverage by changing the norms by which success is measured. Historically, television broadcasters “lived and died” by the Nielsen Ratings , Dykstra explained, but the ratings are slow, imprecise and expensive compared to the analytical tools that are now available for gauging the performance of online content. “More and more, what you see on television is driven by how many clicks on a Web site are given to a specific story,” he said. “And I will ask you the rhetorical question: Does that favor quantum physics or does that favor stories about Paris Hilton?” The answer is clear, of course, but Dykstra added that, to a certain degree, attention to scientific issues also waxes and wanes according to world events. Hurricane Katrina, for instance, galvanized interest in environmental issues, an interest that is now fading because of the global economic crisis.
There will always be committed readerships and audiences that are “hungry” for such information, every panelist agreed, and digital, multi-platform news outlets are doing a good job serving their needs. Many would say that they’re doing an even better job than traditional outlets. In fact, although the prevalence of advocacy online came up briefly, one of the more interesting aspects of yesterday’s conversation was the fact that there was little discussion of the quality of online versus traditional news. The far bigger concern—to use a term that was once often applied weekly to newspaper science sections, mind you—is the “ghettoization” of specialized news among those who already care.