The Times, It Is A Changin’

New editors to lead science, environment coverage

“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.”

The science department currently includes twenty-two reporters, editors and producers, according to Chang—not to mention non-staff writers like longtime Personal Health columnist Jane Brody, freelancers like Carl Zimmer, and emeritus reporters like Altman and John Noble Wilford. Strauch also highlighted Pope (whom she called a “force of nature”) and her Well blog (one of the Times’s most popular blogs), Gardiner Harris’s coverage of conflict of interest issues in science, and John Markoff’s coverage of computer science.

“This is an era of science—an era of technology—and we have the expertise here,” she said. “These people have been covering these topics for decades. I feel very lucky, actually. The Times is lucky. I’m not sure anybody in the country or the world has the same expertise. It’s a fabulous staff. For someone like me, you get to continue your graduate school education. There’s not one day where I haven’t learned something new in this department. I think that will continue.”

In an e-mail, Chang wrote that her objectives for science coverage had been, “To enlighten, disturb and entertain. And to do so using all the new tools we can find.”

Asked what she thinks will be some of the big issue stories over the next year, Strauch cited genetics, computer science, and environmental science, in addition to topics that have received less attention in the past, like sociology, demography, geology, and psychology.

Sources familiar with the Times’s situation, who asked not to be named because they were speaking about internal affairs, said the change in science editors has apparently been in the works for some time, but an announcement was held off until a suitable job was found for Chang. Keller, the executive editor, is known for moving editors around, said one source, “in the belief that it’s good to bring new blood into the mix.”

The transition is likely to bring more continuity than change, however. Strauch has been one of Chang’s deputy editors, along with James Gorman. In his e-mail to the staff, Keller said that Strauch had “brilliantly choreographed” health and medical coverage at the Times.

“What was already a major undertaking, discerning and covering the most important stories in a constant stream of medical research, tracking the changing worlds of physicians and pharmaceuticals, has been a gargantuan task as the costs and politics of health care have become a consuming national issue,” he wrote. “Barbara’s deep understanding of the issues, her exquisite sense of timing and her appreciation for good storytelling have enriched every part of this coverage.”

For her part, Strauch said she is particularly proud of the Times’s Health Guide, a medical reference database, which she called “a unique offering that a lot of people don’t know about.”

The Times science, medical, health and environment coverage, lauded for its overall excellence, has not, however, been free of criticism. For example, a front-page August 10, 2010 article on an Alzheimer’s disease screening test—part of the “Vanishing Mind” series cited by Keller—came under scrutiny from science journalism critics (including and the MIT Knight Science Journalism Tracker) as well as advocacy groups for its claim of “100 percent accuracy” in finding early predictive signs of the devastating memory-loss disease. The Times ultimately issued a three-paragraph correction on September 15, 2010.

Keller’s memo did not name a new health editor. Strauch said that she would “probably” hire one, but that there is some flexibility in terms of how the department will be structured.

Also unknown is who will fill the environment editor position left open by the recent departure of veteran Times journalist Erica Goode. Two years ago, Goode, a former Times health editor, became founding editor of a novel “environment pod” to promote more comprehensive coverage of global environmental issues, encompassing not only science, but politics, economics, and culture.

The pod pulled together a highly regarded team of about seven reporters from other desks throughout the paper, including science, business, national, international, and metro, but a year later, it lost two environment veterans, Andrew Revkin and Cornelia Dean, who took buyouts offered as part of a cost-cutting move. Dean continues to work part-time for the paper and teach, and Revkin, who took an academic post, still writes his popular Dot Earth blog, which has moved to the opinion department. Last spring, Justin Gillis left the Business desk to become the national environment reporter. Goode has once again moved back to reporting, as a national correspondent covering criminal justice. Her replacement is expected to be named soon.

Strauch said the science department works closely with the environment pod, and that regardless of who replaces Goode, there’s going to be even more “cross pollination” between the two. There is also an energy team under the business desk. Resources will be the biggest challenge for her going forward, Strauch added. “With the web and the paper, there’s a lot of places for us to be,” she said. “It’s always a balancing act.”

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Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell are CJR contributors. Brainard is the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter. Tags: , ,