“The world turns. The universe expands. The stethoscope passes. And we have a new Science editor,” Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, announced in an e-mail to staff last week.
Barbara Strauch, who is now the science department’s health editor, will take the reins from current editor Laura Chang on March 15. Chang, who joined the department in 1998 and has served as its head for the last six years, will direct the paper’s “cross-departmental” coverage of the tenth anniversary this year of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Keller’s e-mail called Chang’s tenure at the science desk “spectacular.”
“Faced with dizzying change as the genome gets decoded, the Hubble telescope pushes further outwards and the Higgs boson remains as elusive as a cure for cancer, her department has provided our readers with smart, sophisticated and understandable coverage,” he wrote. “In her spare time, she managed to get our Health vertical launched on the Web and has proudly presided over its flowering with the talented Tara Parker Pope.”
Keller cited a number of science series from the last few years, which he called “some of the most enterprising, best-read lines of reporting in the newsroom.” They included “Forty Years War,” on the battle against cancer; “Smarter Than You Think,” on artificial intelligence; “The Vanishing Mind,” on the fight against Alzheimer’s; “Diseases on the Brink,” on hard-to-eradicate diseases abroad; and “Six Killers,” on the deadliest diseases in the United States.
Strauch, who joined the science department as assistant editor in 2000 after stints on the national and metro desks, and as media editor, said that she aims to maintain the high-quality science coverage in the newspaper, on the website, and in the weekly Science Times section.
“We want to make sure we’re very timely and very much in the mix, both in print and on the web, and out in front of stories as far as we can be,” she said. “There’s no question that [Times managers] take this seriously. Science is a franchise here, and we want to showcase that as much as we can.”
Indeed, the Times has long dominated American science journalism—and even international science journalism, given the reach of the paper’s website—in terms of the quality, quantity, and impact of its coverage. A health or science story on the paper’s front page reverberates across the science journalism landscape (and within the scientific community, according to a 1991 study in The New England Journal of Medicine, which found that papers covered by the Times received a disproportionate number of citations).
The weekly Science Times, appearing on Tuesdays since 1978, remains the gold standard of newspaper science sections. In fact, it has little competition in this arena; since the science-section heyday in 1989, dedicated print science sections have dramatically declined, replaced by consumer health pages and, more recently, by blogs.
Strauch said that she will usher in some changes in the department, though she wouldn’t go into details. The department allocates resources pretty much evenly between health-medical coverage and other forms of science coverage, and that will probably stay the same.
“Sadly, our competition has become less robust in the health-medical area and in the science area. Unfortunately, other newspapers have cut back in those areas,” she said. “A challenge is to keep ourselves at the top of our game with less competition from traditional newspapers. Of course, other science websites will catch on; this is a very popular area. But we’re a news organization. We look at stuff carefully and independently. I’m not sure you get that anywhere.”
Science Times, with giant photos and graphics, operates almost as a weekly magazine, offering science, medical, and environmental feature coverage beyond the daily news. It continues to track the latest in black holes and dinosaur bones but has also ceded considerable space to popular health and fitness coverage in print and online. This week’s section-front featured a thoughtful, lengthy piece by the versatile Henry Fountain on “The Danger Pent Up Behind Aging Dams,” with a half-page graphic of California’s Lake Isabella Dam; a Doctor’s World column by Lawrence Altman (a licensed M.D.), which examined the controversy surrounding President Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease following the recent publication of his son’s memoir, My Father at 100; and a Findings column, “The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women,” by the contrarian, and often controversial, John Tierney.
Strauch stressed that the science department produces much more than the weekly section, however. One of her goals is to get more science coverage on the front page of the print edition. “People always think of us as a weekly section,” she said. “People are always saying, ‘I love that section.’ I don’t think they realize that out of this department comes the first-rate news that goes into the paper as well.”