The Profile

Can Undark go where no other online science mag has gone before?

October 27, 2015

Last August, science journalists lost one of their most precious resources when the Knight Science Journalism program shut down its Tracker blog, which had provided sharp, comprehensive coverage of the science press for nearly a decade. But program director Deborah Blum never intended for its disappearance to be permanent. When she put the Tracker on extended hiatus due to what she calls “personnel and budget issues,” she began laying plans for a revamped publication, a kind of Tracker 2.0 that would also publish quality science journalism.

The new magazine, dubbed Undark and edited by former New York Times reporter Tom Zeller Jr., is set to launch at the Cambridge Science Festival in April, with an aim to bring a more critical eye to science journalism. Its creation is the latest in what’s been an almost bewildering surge in online science coverage that’s largely replaced ill-fated science and environment desks at cash-strapped newspapers and general interest news magazines. Aeon Magazine launched in 2012 with a mission to cover science and society through essays and reported features, followed closely by Nautilus in early 2013. Internet behemoths like BuzzFeed, which created a health and science desk last December, have taken up the charge, while research institutions like Audubon, Smithsonian, and National Geographic have ventured beyond their magazines’ glossy pages to cover science news on revamped blogs and websites. The internet, it seems, actually does fucking love science.

A new science magazine, then, is barely newsworthy anymore. But Undark may yet have something to add, not the least of which is the quality suggested by the pedigree of its advisory board. Blum and Zeller have brought together some of the biggest names in the field, including former NYT Science Times editor David Corcoran; powerhouse science journalists David Quammen, Mary Roach, Rebecca Skloot, and Carl Zimmer; and famed physicist-writer Alan Lightman.

Blum and Zeller use words like “laboratory,” “incubator,” and “water cooler” to describe their publication, with plans to use it for experiments on science journalism itself– “We might do a really innovative story, and then analyze if it succeeded,” Blum speculates. For now, the magazine’s basic format is nothing innovative: one well-designed narrative feature a month, supported by shorter stories, essays, op-eds, and the like. (They say they plan to pay freelancers “fairly.”)

One of Blum’s more inventive ambitions is to incorporate both science journalism and criticism of science journalism into the magazine’s content, by restoring some sort of Tracker-like blog and occasionally running media-analysis features. “The tracker has been very valued by people in the community,” Blum says. “We want to bring it back in this more grounded, richer sense, put it into this magazine that allows us to explore both science and science journalism in this more thoughtful, deeper, investigative, and hopefully more beautiful way.”

But most importantly, Blum and Zeller plan for the magazine to look more critically at science and its role in society than the many other publications feeding off a ballooning public enthusiasm for science. “It’s important for a magazine like this, attached to the Knight program, to really draw a clear line between science journalism and what you might call science communication or other forms of science writing,” Zeller says. “It’s a line that I think can often become too blurred, especially in today’s era of shrinking editorial budgets and the slow creep of PR.”

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Despite the glut of new digital science publications, it’s a mission that’s sorely needed. Outside of dedicated investigative newsrooms like InsideClimate News, the science press far too often prioritizes communication and explanatory writing over muck-raking journalism. Even deeply researched, exquisitely written features packed with expert sources are rarely critical of science and its practitioners, a focus that’s routine in beat reporting elsewhere. In April, the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) created an “investigative science journalism fellowship” after submissions to its annual awards proved lacking in gumption, even when submitted to the investigative category.

“Plenty of good science journalism is entered, but too little of it involves controversy,” ABSW president Martin Ince wrote in an editorial announcing the fellowship. “This must mean that important stories are being missed, whether they relate to the content of scientific research, the behaviour [sic] of individual scientists, or the big decisions about policy and funding that set the direction of the scientific enterprise.”

If Undark is to truly make inroads in today’s exuberant science media landscape, tackling such important stories is where its priorities should lie. Its name is a nod to this ambition: Before it was a 21st-century magazine, Undark was a luminous paint that its 1920s creators billed as a revolution in lighting–until scientists finally worked out that its main ingredient, the recently discovered radium, was less than ideal for human health.

“Here you have a perfect example of science bookending a story that had all kinds of ramifications that permeated and percolated throughout culture, society, and the marketplace in ways that were both good and bad, and complicated and ethically fraught,” Zeller says. “We want to create a magazine that isn’t just about, ‘Gee whiz, look at what science is doing.’ ”

Laura Dattaro is a science journalist, writer, and producer based in New York.