Though anecdotal evidence suggests that science writing is contracting, two publications recently announced that they’re expanding their coverage to health, medicine, and human behavior.
Last month New York magazine began hiring editors for a new online vertical covering social science. (The magazine was hesitant to describe specific plans, but an announcement describes the blog as “a smart, fun window into the latest science on human behavior.”) In the last few years New York has gained traction with a number of print features dealing with the cultural ramifications of behavioral research: For example, this week’s cover story looks at the psychological effects of adolescence on parents of troubled teens. Since the project hasn’t launched yet, it’s unclear how rigorously Nymag.com will cover the “science” part of “human behavior” (the magazine is also using the space to write about relationships), but it’s an interesting space to watch.
When Atlantic Media launched Quartz, it was branded as a business publication. But the site has quickly expanded past the narrow niche into politics, lifestyle, and environmental coverage. (Quartz now describes itself as a “digitally native news outlet” for a global audience.) In the last few weeks Quartz has shifted a few of its journalists around, moving tech reporter Christopher Mims to be a science and technology editor (a role he describes as “player/coach”) and hiring reporter Rachel Feltman to cover science, health, and medicine full time.
“[Editor in Chief] Kevin [Delaney] just thought, ‘Hey, we need more health and medicine,’” Mims told CJR. Quartz calls its coverage areas “obsessions” rather than “beats,” a distinction that means that their writers’ coverage comes more from personal interest than assigned topics—the theory is that enthusiasm can make any subject go viral.
To make often technical subjects more accessible to a mainstream audience, Quartz attempts to be free of jargon, “although we often fail at that,” says Mims. But regardless of how technical a subject is, Mims believes that, beyond cat GIFs, the Web creates a natural meritocracy for the best content.
“You know right away if someone is responding to your stories or not and if you’re leaving your stories open someone will see that,” he says. “We’re only going to do a story if the writer and the editor things you have something compelling to say about it.”
A quick scan of Quartz’s science coverage so far reveals a mix of slightly misleading stories, aggregated from press releases (Like this description of a correlational study: “If you have a bigger brain, you feel less pain.”) and more thoroughly reported pieces, like this explainer of a Finnish company trying to innovate a breed of extra-smart drones.
According to Mims, though, very technical coverage can receive the same kind of reach as lighter fare. “We’re always trying to get people to share the smart stuff,” he says. “It’s like, how do you get people to eat their vegetables? You put cheese on them,” says Mims. “The vegetables are still in there, it’s just after the first paragraph.”