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 HealthNewsReview.org 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.