Science Journalism’s Hope and Despair

'Niche' pubs growing as MSM circles the drain

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.

NPR’s Shogren said that she still sees “a lot reporters at global warming hearings on Capitol Hill, but they represent different organizations – fewer newspapers, more online services.” (The Project for Excellence in Journalism has observed the same.) She complimented the quality of their work, but also noted her concern about what that trend means for the public. “There is more information available online, but what about the person who’s not particularly interested? Will they just run across it? If people aren’t informed, that will have an impact on how much politicians care about [these issues]. Cap-and-trade, for example, has huge political stumbling blocks.”

Dykstra said that while he is having a “great time” writing for Mother Nature Network, he is also concerned about the “new dichotomy” of the news media. “A Web site on any specific topic, whether sports or science or the environment, tends to draw those who choose to be engaged, rather than drawing an audience of the general public, which is what institutions like the AP or NPR or CNN have always done.”

Despite such apprehensions, however, everybody agreed the industry is trying hard to figure out the best way forward. Schaffer, the executive director of J-Lab, said that her organization—which, according to its Web site, funds “participatory journalism” projects that “use new technologies to help people actively engage in critical public issues”—has funded about sixty startups around the country over the last four years. “News vacuums will be filled, they just might not all be filled by big-J journalists,” she said. “How that’s going to play out we don’t know yet.”

Schaffer described a number of “random” and “organized” acts of journalism, such as uploading amateur photos and videos of breaking news events, on the one hand, and “civic-media networks” on the other. Professional news outlets are launching their own experiments, as well. In the last few months, content sharing deals have been struck between The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post Gazette, eight top papers in Ohio, three in Florida, and two in Oklahoma. Schaffer did not say how such agreements might affect science coverage. In that department, recent, online news outlets were the focus.

Schaffer showed a clip of the upcoming J-Lab video called New Media Makers, which profiles, among others, one of the more acclaimed startups, the non-profit Voice of San Diego. News editor Andrew Donohue tells J-Lab that his team emphasizes a few core issues—including environment, science, and technology—that are important to the local community. Other online news outlets focus exclusively on such issues. Dykstra’s Mother Nature Network is one example. Another that came up often was the Environment & Energy Publishing group.

As it happened, John Fialka, editor of ClimateWire, E&E’s most recent publication, was sitting in the audience and stood up to ask the first question after the panelists had finished. Having previously worked at The Wall Street Journal, Fialka is another veteran of old media that has transitioned successfully to the Web. ClimateWire has grown from zero to ten reporters in a year, just hired a European bureau chief, and has a readership of 40,000. “Howard Kurtz says we’re a ‘niche’ publication, which big-J journalists tend to dismiss, but we are growing like topsy,” Fialka said. He also noted, however, that ClimateWire serves an educated, engaged audience—a fact that makes some people skeptical about its ability to compensate for the decline of traditional news.

Indeed, subscriptions to E&E Publishing are expensive because the group targets institutional subscribers—government agencies, policy organizations, NGOs, advocacy groups, universities, and the like—rather than individuals. It’s a contentious issue.

“Joe Six-Pack isn’t going to subscribe to ClimateWire because he doesn’t know about it, can’t afford it, or isn’t interested until they read or hear [the issues] in big-Journalism,” the AP’s Borenstein said to Fialka. “That’s our job – to provide him with enough news that he’ll be interested in plumbing in even further depth at places like yours, or Mother Nature Network, or Grist … Like it or not, we’re sort of the first door, and once we get [readers’] interest, then you’re the next door. And I think both doors are important, but don’t go telling us that you can live without us because they’re not going to come to you if they haven’t heard it from one of us.”

Both Schaffer and Fialka, in response, pointed out that ClimateWire may end up striking content distribution deals with places like Google News, Politico, or The New York Times. But the debate goes to show that until some of these projects multiply and mature, the reach of startup projects, whether they focus partially or entirely on science, will remain a contentious issue.

The bottom line, of course, is the need to find a new way (or ways) to finance journalism, which isn’t particular to the science beat. These cannot all be “labors of love,” as Schaffer described a few projects. Indeed, as we reported here on Wednesday, Slate V just shelved its three-month-old weekly science roundup, Grand Unified Weekly, because of cost. Going straight to the heart of the panel’s largest concern, the idea behind the program was to cater to those who have only a few “spare minutes” to keep up with science news. Such is the state of journalism.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.