The Future of Science Journalism

Matthew Nisbet has an interesting post up today about the future of science journalism. He sees it in things like Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth, or the excellent Yale Forum on Science and the Media. Nisbet wonders whether these sorts of non-traditional approaches are the future of my business:

With fewer and fewer outlets for science coverage at the mainstream news organizations, The Observatory, Dot Earth, and the Yale Forum represent the future of science journalism. The future will be online, in film, and/or multi-media, merging reporting with synthesis, analysis, personal narrative, and opinion. The goals will be to inform but also to persuade and to mobilize. And most importantly, it will be non-profit, sponsored by universities, museums, think tanks, foundations, professional societies such as AAAS, or government affiliated organizations such as NSF or the National Academies.

I strongly disagree.

As I said in the comments on his blog, I love the sites Nisbet cited. I expect a large proportion of you, at least the science wonk part of Inkstain’s modest readership, already read Dot Earth and the like. But Inkstain and Dot Earth have a self-selected readership. I love what Revkin’s doing on the blog, but it does not come close to the importance of what he does in the main paper. This is because the newspaper thrown on readers’ driveways (do New Yorkers have driveways?) reaches a broad audience, not merely the self-selected audience that adds Revkin to their RSS reader. I love reading the New York Times (I read it in paper form) as much for the exposure to ideas I never would have sought out. I love writing for the Albuquerque Journal because I think the issues I cover are important, and working for a broad circulation newspaper allows me to get those issues in front of the eyeballs of people who might not have sought them out, but who I believe will benefit by being exposed to them.

Dot Earths and Flocks of Dodos are great, but in terms of reach they will never replace the opportunity afforded by broad circulation mainstream media.


  1. Good post. I agree with you, too. Newspapers come first. Reach more people with more impact. — Dan

    But on this: “This is because the newspaper thrown on readers’ driveways (do New Yorkers have driveways?) ” — haha, no, the New York Times is too heavy to be thrown on readers’ driveways, they have driveways, sure, but you don’t throw a class A newspaper like the NYTimes down on a driveway, it is delivered gently to the doorstop. Didn’t you know that?


    By the way, sir, there is now a good, ongoing, cartoon caption contest on now here at link below, open to all around the world on glboal warming issues, pro or con, whatever you want to write. Look at the cartoon first and then fill in the balloon. Hank Roberts just wrote a good one, second to last!



  2. I certainly agree with the need and value of newspaper-based science journalism–and I’ll add that the value increases by localizing science and running copy through the j-machine’s less-than-scientifically-sophisticated copy desk and editors. (Pity the writer, but it brings the stories to the general readership.)

    I also find value in newspapers’ neutrality in covering science. They, unlike universities, think tanks and other non-profits don’t have a vested interested in research.

    But I write this minutes after reading of The ABQ Trib’s official demise. Nesbit’s prediction (I’ve only read your breakout quote) may be correct. Not good for science, national science literacy, policy-making and the rest, but a reasoned forecast.

    To end on an up-note: I understand NYT’s Science Page is the best selling weekday paper and I know (anecdotally) that a lot of ABQers read the Journal to read Fleck’s reporting. So maybe good science writing can help save newspapers (and all of us trying to live and learn entirely in the slippery blogosphere).


  3. The problem with relying on “news”papers to report on science is that not all science has the “so what” angle that editors demand. In other words, a lot of really important, cutting-edge science really has no bearing on whether it’ll help Joe Sixpack’s beer stay colder longer or whether it’ll make brussel sprouts taste like a Snicker’s Bar.

    Instead, some of this important science has everything to do with whether particles in the universe behave this way or that, or whether adding X to a certain material makes it reflect light in a certain way.

    Because a lot of science is not “consumer friendly,” it won’t make the pages of the newspaper. But that doesn’t mean the science that gets ignored still isn’t important. Much of it is vitally important to other scientists, who will use these concepts to make a brussel sprout taste like a Snicker’s bar 100 years from now. Or not.

    I suspect a lot of people don’t “care” about science because they aren’t regularly exposed to it. And let’s face it, the way kids in America aren’t excelling in science and math in Grammar School means our society is becoming less and less able to understand science or be captivated by it even if it is exposed to it.

    A retired scientist I know recently quipped to me that all people are born scientists. That is, when we are babies, each of us formulates a hypothesis about a certain thing, tests it through experience with the world, and then comes us up with a validated theory. He said pretty much everyone is a scientist until they are somewhere around two or three years old. After that, some people stop being curious about the world and instead rely upon others to tell them about the nature of the world, taking those assertions as gospel truth. For him, curiosity never stopped (even now he is a voracious consumer of science). He wondered what we can do to keep the innate scientist in all of us going.

    I have no idea how we do this, but I think part of the answer is incumbent on exposing people to all science, not just the consumer-friendly variety. At least that way people can self-filter information, instead of relying on editors to do it for them.

    Frankly, I’ll take any avenue out there that promotes science in a manner that is digestible to the masses. The larger question is how to we entice the masses to go out and visit the sites where it is available?

  4. Jimbo,

    I think your ending question is the point: Newspapers get at least get a sliver of science in front of ‘Joe Six-Pack’ during his morning coffee –in a digestible manner that comes from a familiar source.
    If Joe has vested interest or curiosity based on newsprint copy, he can find more on the subject. Here’s where the dedicated sites can serve the layman, but without a prompt the sites only serve those already educated and involved. (Good journalism outlets extend to blogs and links, more work for the writer/producer, but better ‘product’ and in my view fundamental to sustaining ‘traditional’ media.

    There’s a flip side to the coin: Scientist need to understand the media and ‘sell’ their science to the media to be heard. I relish a memory of Fleck giving a great colloquium at UNM’s P&A. He told about a reader calling him to admonish him for not explaining in a story (about a lunar eclipse I think, nice one tonight, eh?) that the moon rises in the east. The astronomers giggled and the talk moved to questions with a very smart astronomer asking Fleck why the headlines he writes don’t reflect the story very well. That’s when I snickered (Fleck’s too polite and understanding to react as I did.) Copy editors write the headlines, not the reporters. It’s just a silly example of the need for scientist to understand the media and do their own part in advocating for media coverage.

    Sames goes for public presentations of science–like museums and science centers where I’ve spent 17 years trying to entice scientists to give compelling public lectures and support other exhibits and programs. Those that do are brilliant and I believe their efforts pay off in spades.

    The point here (finally) is that both sides–media and the scientific community–need to contribute to the solving our national crisis in science. The specialized and advocacy sites/publications (read Seed?) are a wonderful and important veins for learning, but we’ve got to reach wide and low to get a start.

    NB: I hope this doesn’t read as beating on scientists. I say the same things to artists who lament the loss of innate artistic bent in people and the lack of media coverage of the arts.


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