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.”