the observatory

Nature’s Artificial Divide

The best hope for science journalism is a marriage of new and old media
March 20, 2009

The illustration is excellent. As Charlie Petit described it: “a crumbling monument topped by a stack of ossified newspapers, overwhelmed by USB and laptop cables.”

Such is the introductory image to Nature’s superb package, published Wednesday, on the troubled state of science journalism. Its central point, described in an editorial and a feature by Geoff Brumfiel, is the decline of science reporting in the “mainstream” media, and concomitant rise of “niche” blogs and Web sites, especially those run by scientists themselves. The reports are buttressed by survey of 493 science reporters, and two other top-notch articles address the challenges faced by science reporters in the developing world and efforts to help them, and scientists’ reluctance to use the Web as an open source platform for communicating and soliciting reviews of their work.

The editorial and Brumfiel’s feature lay out a number of distressing trends that we’ve been tracking at The Observatory as well. At newspapers, newsweeklies, and television stations, science staffs and sections are being cut. Or, as was the case with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this week and the Rocky Mountain News three weeks ago, whole papers that have long supported coverage of science and the environment are closing. The San Francisco Chronicle, which has a similar track record, may be next.

As the number of science reporters in “old media” declines, so does the quality of the science news coverage that’s left. Brumfiel’s piece laments the rise in press-release reporting that inevitably occurs when complicated stories are farmed out to reporters with little to no science training, or when specialized reporters are asked to produce more and more content for a variety of platforms. On the other hand, there has been rapid growth in science blogs and Web sites, many run by researchers themselves, which has helped to fill the vacuum. Brumfiel does a good job rounding up a variety of those, from news and commentary sites like Ars Technica and Yale Environment 360, to independent blogs like In the Pipeline, to popular destinations in Seed magazine’s community such as Pharyngula. The upshot, according to Nature‘s editorial, is that:

In principle, anyone with an Internet connection now has access to more, and better, scientific coverage than ever before. In practice, however, this sort of information reaches only those who seek it out. An average citizen is unlikely to search the Web for the Higgs boson or the proteasome if he or she doesn’t hear about it first on, say, a cable news channel.

The impression one gets from Brumfiel’s piece is that bloggers generally disdain what’s left of mainstream media coverage. He quotes a number of them saying that traditional outlets “peddle crap” that the world would be “better off” without. That may be overstating the situation a bit. The article’s only hedge against that conclusion is Carl Zimmer, a sort of science journalist extraordinaire who, among his numerous gigs, writes books, blogs, and contributes articles and columns to publications such as The New York Times and Discover magazine. Brumfiel does not quote him directly, though, so I gave Zimmer a call to get a better sense of his opinions on all this.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Zimmer points out that people who comment online about the state of science journalism—or any other subject for that matter—tend to be those who are displeased with it. “I can point to lots of mainstream science reporting that’s wonderful stuff and really illuminates very complicated research, but for some reason, it doesn’t trigger that same response,” he says. “And I’d have to say that a lot of bloggers whom I respect, when they criticize science reporting, they’re not making a blanket statement. But they are saying that there are some serious, systemic problems—and they’re right.”

Citing examples such as the Los Angeles Times’s “Altered Oceans” series or the New Orleans Times Picayune’s “Last Chance” series about erosion along the gulf coast, Zimmer said he is worried that the long-form, resource-intensive investigative projects that newspapers used to do so well are particularly endangered. And so far, neither syndicated science news services nor blogs have proven themselves capable of filling that void. Says Zimmer:

At least for the time being, there are just big cultural differences between how the typical blog post about science is written and how the typical article about science is written. If I were to write an article for The New York Times about a particular subject, I’m going to call people up, I’m going to talk to them a lot, and I’m going to tell a story, in part, in the scientist’s own words. I’ll go and visit the scientists. I’ll spend days with them taking in all the details and describing what it’s like for them and all sorts of interesting little details if I can find them. That’s just standard when you’re writing about science for the so-called mainstream media. A typical blog post would be somebody sitting down and reading a paper and describing it. I’d say it’s more of an essay. Or it would be a kind of commentary on how people react to science, whether it’s attacking a politician who doesn’t understand science or attacking a bad article about science. So it’s possible that most of the mainstream science media people will be driven out of work. That’s unfortunately not a total fantasy. But bloggers have not yet, as far as I can tell, started to take over most of what traditional science writers actually do.

Whether or not that will change is anybody’s guess. And perhaps it is too late for newspapers, but there is some evidence that rather than “mainstream” science journalism being “supplanted” (to use Nature’s term) by niche outlets, the two will simply marry—taking the best of the new and the old and creating something more robust and important than either is on its own. Zimmer, for example, recently moved his popular blog, The Loom, from the community to the Web site of Discover magazine.

“The decision was a no-brainer,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Blogging for Discover in particular was attractive for several reasons, including the fact that I would be one of a handful of bloggers, rather than an army, as has become the case at Scienceblogs. Discover does a lot to promote its bloggers, whether in the pages of the magazine or having us moderate panels about science.”

Indeed the trend in mainstream outlets of all varieties—from MSNBC to the Orange County Register—investing in blogs (and the potential for more of that) is one thing that Nature could have stressed more heavily, Zimmer suggests.

When a team of investors, led by Bob Guccione Jr., purchased Discover from the Walt Disney Company in 2005, one of the first things the management team did was build a significant Web presence, according publisher and CEO Henry Donahue. Within the last year, the site has added a feature called 80Beats, which aggregates and analyzes daily science news, and a number of “outside” blogs. In addition to Zimmer’s blog, Discover picked up two others: Cosmic Variance, run by a group of astrophysicists, and Bad Astronomy, run by Phil Plait, a former researcher turned full-time blogger. Both of those were formerly independent, but next week the site will add another “top-ten” blog from the community.

“We have different people with different backgrounds writing about science and topics that our readers are into,” says Discover’s online editor Amos Kenigsberg. “Mainstream media, old media—we don’t really think of it that way. The Web has all these different components, people bring different things to the table—we’re really into it.”

Moreover, Donahue adds, he has never been sold on the “ghettoization” of science news, and a robust Web presence has helped pull Discover out of the science-magazine niche. “I’m not sure that people ever looked much beyond the stuff they were already interested in,” he tells me. “When people read the newspaper, they read the sections they’re interested and don’t read the ones they’re not interested in. I think for us, online has expanded the audience. Many, many more people are reading our content now than read the magazine, certainly, and there’s not much overlap between the print readership and the online readership. I think our subscriber surveys say that it’s like 25 percent-ish.”

And if that’s still not mainstream enough, Discover also began syndicating its online content last year to outlets like MSNBC and Discover is just a “small player” in that business, Donahue admits, but he points to other outlets, such as LiveScience, which are sharing content on a wider scale.

How far any of this will go to halt or turn back the overall decline in the quantity, quality, and reach of science journalism remains to be seen. As Zimmer notes, “It would be great to have more hard numbers” about where readers and viewers are getting their science news, as well as more objective measures of quality in those areas.

The Nature package—despite its either-or tone—is a good step toward sorting it all out. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s survey of 493 science reporters found that nearly 68 percent believe they’ll still be working journalists in five years, compared to only 6 percent who don’t. Unfortunately, Zimmer points out, the “simple economics” of the industry implies that there will be fewer jobs, which is important to bear in mind regardless how happily married old and new media end up.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.