Will radio save science journalism?

WNYC will soon have a new health unit

In hiring a brand-new health journalism staff, WNYC may be one of the only news outlets in the country that is actually expanding its physical offices to accommodate more reporting muscle.

The flagship station from New York Public Radio is building out a new health unit to house four reporters, an editor, a community projects manager, and the managing editor and host of a soon-to-be-launched health journalism podcast. Their mission is to produce high-quality health and science storytelling for radio, and nearly all will be new hires.

“We’re adding lots of seats in the newsroom,” said Jim Schachter, WNYC’s vice president for news. “I feel charmed to be a news manager who’s expanding, as opposed to shrinking. That doesn’t sound like what happening in journalism.”

The new team will focus on three beats: healthy living and wellness, healthcare economics and policy, and medical science and discovery. The podcast will launch in early 2015, and select segments will air on The Brian Lehrer Show, The Takeaway, and Marketplace.

WNYC also signed on as the radio partner for the Ken Burns-produced documentary, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. The expansive project, based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-winning book, will include in-depth reports broadcasted through NPR’s national newsmagazine shows. On the Media, a WNYC show that airs nationally, will dedicate an episode in March to cancer and the media. And recent major initiatives from the station—”Rx for the Bx,” and “Clock Your Sleep“—gave the nascent health team an opportunity to match innovative methods with classic enterprise reporting.

WNYC’s new push builds on existing momentum. From Radiolab (another WNYC production) to Science Friday to Living on Earth, as well as thoughtful science and healthcare reporting that sometimes airs on shows like The World and Planet Money, there is a renaissance afoot for in-depth health and science journalism in public broadcasting. And it’s happening at a moment when similar coverage struggles to find a footing elsewhere.

Columbia University suspended its environmental journalism program in 2008, citing “weakness in the job market,” and never revived it. Around the same time, CNN got rid of its science team and Scientific American lost 30 percent of its staff. In 2013, the Cleveland Plain Dealer laid off its science writer and Johns Hopkins ended its science writing program. BBC’s Newsnight eliminated the science editor position last December. ScienceOnline announced last month that it’s ceasing operations and canceling the next iteration of its popular conference that brought scientists and science writers together. The Boston Globe killed its health/science section five years ago. Last year, The New York Times got rid of its environment desk and shut down its Green blog; the paper’s public editor tracked climate change coverage in the wake of the changes, and found high-quality journalism on the issue still being published, but less frequently and with less enterprise reporting. Altogether, the number of science sections in major papers dropped from 95 in 1989 to 19 in 2013. The Wall Street Journal still has one, but its editor said in 2012 that the number of people writing for it has decreased by about 40 percent.

“Publications are really struggling to support science, health, and technology journalism,” said Wade Roush, acting director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT. “And it’s really bad timing, because we need it more than ever.” (The program is phasing out its popular Knight Science Tracker blog through the end of the year.) And Roush’s predecessor noted that the fellowship program has seen a dramatic increase in applications from freelancers. Many fellows who were staffers do not return to their former jobs; they too became freelancers.

Without sustained coverage from qualified reporters, today’s major stories—from Ebola to climate change to food policy—are vulnerable to fear-mongering, errors, or being overlooked altogether. CJR has reported before how poor science journalism risks ‘hijacking reality,’ rather than revealing it. Widespread misinformation and false balance make it difficult for the public, as both consumers and voters, to make rational choices.

This can actually be a life or death issue. Fiona Fox, who directs the Science Media Centre in the UK, has written about how misreporting helped fuel the furor about the supposed link between childhood vaccinations and autism—a link that, while heartily debunked, is cited to this day by people who opt out of essential vaccinations.

“There are not a lot of outlets for covering health,” said Cathy Arnst, director of media relations for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She too was once a health writer, for Businessweek, but she accepted a buyout after the publication was sold to Bloomberg in 2009. “It’s heartbreaking how many health journalists got out of the business altogether, like me, or are working at much smaller outlets, or they are so bogged down, they have to cover everything under the sun,” she said.

WNYC is an interesting case study in turning the tide on a specialized beat when it, and the media business as a whole, are struggling.

Two years ago, the station honed in on health coverage as a strategic priority and targeted its fundraising accordingly. Today, it’s seeing results. Grants from a suite of philanthropic foundations are backing WNYC’s health unit, including Robert Wood Johnson, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Iris and Junming Le Foundation.

“What we realized,” Shachter said, “is if we do the right kind of reporting, this is just an incredible sweet spot. There’s so many great stories. There’s so much appetite for these stories, and so much anxiety about all these issues. There’s so much bad information passing around… If we find the middle of the Venn diagram, we really have something.”

Public radio is not the only media venture for these foundations. Robert Wood Johnson also funds The Conversation, a nonprofit online magazine where journalists work with scientists to draw out compelling narratives. It was an early supporter of Vox, which has significant healthcare coverage. The Sloan Foundation funds the PBS shows The American Experience and NOVA Science Now. Indirectly, foundations support coverage that ends up in traditional outlets. One of the top sources for health news is the philanthropically funded Kaiser Health News; The Washington Post runs articles from Kaiser, including the “Insuring Your Health” column.

But public radio appears to be a favorite medium. Nonprofit status makes support seamless, and the stations have an appealing audience. With diminished venues for coverage, the idea is to get more bang for the buck. Arnst said part of the reason for investing in WNYC is “because they have the largest radio market in the public radio market* … Airing nationally on NPR is important to us.” As the station stated in a press release this summer, “WNYC’s health coverage seeks to reach at least 10 million people in New York and across the nation.”

The nature of radio, too, may be especially suited for explanatory reporting on sometimes dense subjects. Doron Weber, Sloan’s vice president for programs, said the medium has an immersive quality that suits this kind of journalism. “Radio is great because it leaves something to the imagination, and it often catches people in between things so they have time for contemplation.”

Radiolab, supported by the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation, uses audio techniques and a questioning narrative style to great effect; it’s become a standard-bearer for how popular science and health storytelling can be. The show has about 1.4 million weekly radio listeners on 507 radio stations, and 5.6 million monthly on-demand listens. “We’re now working with places like PRX to find the next Radiolab and the next-generation voices,” Weber said.

But for some funders of the next big thing, the money comes with strings attached.

“One of the tricky parts of this is that people interested in giving money for things related to healthcare have a cause they care about, whether it’s kidney disease or brain cancer or cardiovascular health,” Schachter said. “So we’ve had to work to say to these people that if we made programming about everyone’s special interest, you wouldn’t want to listen to it. You have to trust us that we know what we’re doing.”

Even if the partnerships work perfectly, Wade Roush believes it wouldn’t be a good idea to depend entirely on philanthropists. “Foundations can’t do this job by themselves,” he said, adding that he wants to see more entrepreneurial imagination in the search for additional revenue sources. Among the possibilities he suggested: live events with charged admission, corporate sponsorships, and “maybe connect directly with readers to get them to pay for some of it.”

In a way, Arnst argues, even though this is specialized field, this is a cause that inherently has buy-in.

“It’s hard to be against health,” she said. “We want to help create a society where it’s easy to make the healthy choice, easy for people to live the healthiest life possible, whether they are just starting out in life, or at the end of their life, or whether they have a chronic illness… Who’s going to be against that?”

*Clarification of which market WNYC tops

Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.