Rebooting (and Funding) Science Journalism

At the ScienceOnline 2010 conference next month, I'm going to be on a panel about "Rebooting Science Journaiism," in which I'll join Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, and John Timmer in pondering the future of science journalism. God knows what will come of it, as none of us have the sure answers. But that session, as well as the entanglement of my own future with that of science journalism, has me focused on the subject. And two recent online discussions about it have piqued my interest.

One was the reaction, on a science writer's email-list I'm on, to a recent Poynter interview with Times science writer Natalie Angier, in which she said

It's basically going out of existence.

I can't quote directly from the email list, since it's a closed forum and meant to be private. But suffice to say this interview created a bit of stir there and elsewhere among science writers. Some seemed to feel that if so well-placed a colleague as Angier was feeling the heat (as well she might, given the layoffs recently at the Times), then things were bad indeed. A couple wondered if this was news to her, and if so, where she'd been the last ten years or so. (The answer: Busy writing to good effect and pay.) The most common reaction was to lament the layoffs and disappearance of science coverage in so many daily newspapers and elsewhere.

At this point I felt obliged to chime in that while the disappearance of MSM science journalism is a problem, a lot of the kind of content it was providing -- especially simple reporting of studies and explanations of findings -- is being replaced, in a manner, by science writers writing in blogs. As I wrote the email group:

Missing from [the Poynter article] is that much good science reporting (of a sort) is being delivered via blogs. That doesn't get those reports to the mass audience. But it does mean the stuff is out there, so it's not as if this information just disappeared. THere's probably more going on now than there was 10 years ago -- just not in the same places, and produced and disseminated and vetted via different conventions.

David "Where Has All the Science Gone?" Dobbs

it took only a few hours for someone to raise doubts about what the bloggers deliver, given a) the individual perspectives they sometimes bring and b) the lack of reporting (that is, interviewing and research) that often goes along with uncompensated blogging. Valid concerns, variations of which I have expressed myself before. But as I noted in my response,

Wuh-oh. I sense a slide into old trenches here.

No, most bloggers don't do [a lot of reporting] -- then again, fewer msm reporters are doing it these days, because they've been laid off or either don't take or aren't given thebtime to do the job right.

The q is not what's better, present blog approach or increasingly rare msm/trad reporting approach. (God knows, no one values and loves deep, well-financed reporting than I do.) The q is how to come up with new models that allow the best of all these worlds, so that a robust, informed, diverse, well-reported, and well-written examination of science (and the rest of the world) can reach as many readers as possible.

I'm not suggesting the present blogosphere adequately replaces what is being lost. But I did think it important to note that it does replace some of what is being lost while offering some new things as well. That was left out of the story in E&P (the death of which breaks my heart). All I was saying -- tho I'll obviously say more if provoked.

So there I am wondering about such models, and Ketih Kloor, a science writer I admire (and whom I wrote a few stories for when he was an editor at Audubon), wonders aloud at Collide-A-Scape why there's not more talk of organized alternative funding for science journalism:

In recent years, as newspapers have severely downsized and/or gone under, much of the concern has focused on investigative reporting. But the call to action has been taken up by numerous foundations and individual donors, who have helped launch well-funded and well-staffed new media outlets, such as Pro Publica.

There appears to be no such equivalent call to action for science journalism.

He then backlinks to a previous post, in which he wonders:

... why isn't anyone rushing forward to fund new web vehicles for science journalism? Given the enormously complex issues that demand our attention, such as climate change and stem cell research, where are the bold, innovative proposals to keep top-notch (and increasingly unemployed) science journalists on the beat?

As best as I can tell, CJR's The Observatory and Knight's Science Journalism Tracker represent the main web endeavors being underwritten with institutional support. But each focuses on existing coverage, which is growing thinner by the day. I closely follow and value both sites, but the crisis in science journalism cries out for more creative, well funded web-based enterprises.

He has a point. There are a lot of organizations spending money on promoting science and science communications, but so far, if Kloor is right on this, not much aimed at funding high-level science journalism, either of the day-to-day reporting sort of the more in-depth kind that examines not just the findings but the workings of science. Where is our ProScientifica? Or are Kloor and I missing something?

I'd love to hear of any such efforts, or suggestions regarding what organizations might combine efforts to create something like that.

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As a science writer, you are familiar with the concept of "search image" in animals (and us) - a way to quickly scan the environment and be really fast at recognizing salient features of important objects (e.g., predators, prey, etc.).

I think Kloor's search image is traditional. He is looking for a traditional outlet doing traditional journalism, but on the Web instead of on paper. So perhaps he is missing out on the presence of a novel species in his environment.

I think that Andy Revkin, in his exit interview in Nature is onto something. He says:

"I don't think that there will necessarily be what we now call 'journalists'. Increasingly, there will be people more in academic settings ⦠who can serve as the guides to particular issues, not necessarily as what we call journalists, but as communicators.

The lines between what we call 'communication' and 'journalism' are blurring, and the role of journalism is definitely shrinking â but the role of other enterprises is expanding and I don't think anyone really knows where that will place us. I think that there will still be critical enquiry on important issues."

What he is expecting to see evolve in the near future (and I agree) is a new ecosystem in which traditional science journalism will be rare. In its place there will be a combo of various models of communication. One of which is....!

Yes, as more and more scientists are leaking out of the pipeline they get jobs as Press Information Officers at universities and other science institutions. At the same time, those institutions are now in the period when they actually prefer and actively recruit scientists with knack for writing for PIO positions - instead of the past practice of hiring English (or Communnications or Journalism) majors who don't know Jack Smack about science.

Thus, press releases are getting gradually better, and there are more and more aggregators of them (not just Futurity, but also EurekAlert, ScienceDaily, and several others). And this will be the MAIN source of science information for the public.

But that is PR, you say! Yes, which is why there is another layer, or another model: the science bloggers. Those are usually active scientists or ex-active scientists who are capable of fact-checking the press releases by comparing them to the actual papers, then writing their verdicts of accuracy on their blogs.

And it is them who will do investigative science journalism as well. Why? Because they are on the inside. If there is something fishy going on, it is likely to be limited to a very small group of people with no written trace and no oral communication outside of that group, i.e., nothing that journalists on the outside can sniff.

But the insiders will get a wiff of it, and investigate (being trusted as insiders) and will be able to blow the whistles on their blogs (or if afraid to do so themselves, asking other blogging colleagues to do the whistle-blowing for them). Think of Aetogate. Only scientists could have known there was something fishy. It was a story completely opaque to anyone on the outside, including the best science journalists.

How will that information get more broadly disseminated? Blogs are "pull", so how do we build a "push" method? For now, majority of people, out of habit, go to MSM for information. Once MSM is dead or in tatters, most people will learn how to find information and new tools are already being built (using both algorithms and social recommendation patterns) to make sure important stories get pushed onto people who are not actively searching for them.

In the meantime, the remaining presence of MSM actually slows down this development and hinders efforts to turn "pull" into "push". Sooner the dinos evolve or die, sooner we'll be able to build a new ecosystem in which important information gets to people with or without their interest in the topic. Like in school - you have no choice what you'll have to study. Like in traditional media - you have no choice of news apart from what the darn CNN is selling you (and leaves it there).

I've been developing a new method of funding journalism that I think might be appropriate for science journalism. It's called Rapid News Awards; it's a quasi real-time aggregator rooted in an authoritative social network. You can read more about the project at


I didn't talk about this in my recent post, but I've been saying for years to anyone who will listen that J-schools need to be part of the equation.

J-schools really should be in the business of producing journalism these days, not just teaching it (though of course one learns by doing). By this, I mean providing the web platforms and institutional support to enable collaborative partnerships between students and professionals.

Some platforms already exist, such as NYU's Scienceline, but this is really a vehicle for students and I'm not sure of its reach.

On a related note, I really feel that all these 9-month Fellowships (including the one I was fortunate enough to have last year) need to revamp their mission. I'm starting to think that academic immersion should take a backseat to actual reporting and publication. In other words, instead of just taking classes and attending seminars, Fellows at the various programs should also be engaged in actual reporting towards a series of stories. I could go and on...

A couple of more notes....

Very few people get their news of any kind from printed newspapers any more. Superglobal and hyperlocal papers will survive, as well as some of the best magazines. Metros are dead. Unfortunately, it was the metros that were best suited (due to size, resources, and due to the geographical territory covered) for good coverage of science. I am not sure hyperlocals will do a good job (it will be patchy - better in Boston or Triangle or Bay Area than in Kansas), or if USA Today can do it well either.

Books - the readership is actually growing. Of real, paper books (thanks Oprah). Also, those people who use eReaders actually read more books now than they used to.

TV is a lost case as far as science is concerned (or for that matter any kind of serious news or information). The networks are dying - their audience is quickly ageing and diminishing and not being replaced by younger cohorts. The cable has so many channels, but most people watch ESPN, not news (or science) channels. Even the cable news leader, Fox, only gets 700,000 viewers! That's nothing. And what they serve is utter crap. The specialized science/nature channels are not any better - have you read the posts on Sauropod Vertebra of The Week, Tetrapod Zoology, Laelaps and The Loom today?

Hollywood - don't get me started....

Radio is actually doing the best. Science coverage by NPR and PRI is excellent and growing. I just hope their spread and penetrance grows (and it seems it does - NPR is a success story in the gloomy world of traditional media as far as audience size is measured).

And then there is the Web, which is mostly "pull", but people are building "push" mechanisms (Google News, AOL "Toyota model", content factories like Demand Media, etc.). This will be the dominant medium in the near future as more people get online access, the mobile devices get better, and the death of traditional sources forces people to learn new habits of going online for information and news.

An online outlet that does resemble a traditional science journalistic model in many ways and does a very good job of it is Ars Technica/Nobel Intent. Perhaps it will grow in influence, or other similar outlets will get started. I see that as the science equivalent of Pro Publica.

Finally, don't forget that most people get their news and information through the oldest medium - personal communication, from friends, colleagues and neighbors. Those people, the informants, are "the influentials". Those people are naturally curious and "news-hungry" and they increasingly find information online, they go to "pull" sites and then do the "push" in person. So just because a site is read by only 1000 people does not mean it does not affect a much larger population by word of mouth over time.

Just a quick note regards "A couple wondered if this was news to her, and if so, where she'd been the last ten years or so. (The answer: Busy writing to good effect and pay.)".

If you read her introduction to Best American Science Writing 2009, which she edited, you'd know it's not news to her. The full text of the introduction is available at the publisher's website (linked in my blog preview above; I've since got my copy!). The introduction would have been written a year or so I guess and in it she goes on about this at some length (from memory, haven't time to revisit it and check). e.g. "Dear Reader, you want to be a science writer? Have you lost you carbon-based buckeyballs?"

Grant: I assumed this was not news to Angier. I simply reported that in the discussion, people wondered, tongue-in-cheek, whether this was news.

Others: thanks for chiming in. I don't share Bora's confidence that PIOs and bloggers can cover the whole waterfront; but then, I also assume he realizes that, as he acknowledged in an brief email exchange we just had. We seem to agree that the new landscape will be a much more diverse and multifaceted one, with more streams and perspectives flowing for those who seek them ... but some mystery left as to how to have science reach the more passive consumer of news.

Hi David,

I agree that there is an important place for dedicated and well-funded science journalists, but I am interested in the definition of 'reporting' that seems to obsess the MSM. I find myself in the position where I am writing for academic journals, blogs and mainstream media and I am consistently baffled by the insistence of mainstream editors that every story needs a quote.

As far as I can tell, this is one the hallmarks of writing for 'respectable' publications and where the value is thought to lie but it is often a case of clumsily imposing the traditional journalistic model on a field where evidence trumps opinion.

I find this fascinating as there are clearly models of authority implicit in science journalism that conflict with the hierarchies of evidence in science. For example, I have often been sent off by an editor to get a quote which just re-iterates the point already made in the piece based on the published research. Apparently, the piece needs a quote from a neuroscientist to validate it.

The fact that I am a neuroscientist is not enough to validate the piece - the quote must be presented. Moreover, the fact that science explicitly eschews this form of validation (indeed, the motto of the Royal Society is 'on the words of no-one!') is again, immaterial, because the traditional structure must be applied otherwise it's not considered 'real' journalism.

Of course, science journalism is more than reporting the products of science (and many fine articles capture the culture, history and motivations of scientific projects beautifully - Joshua Wolf Shenk's Atlantic piece on the Harvard Study of Adult Development is a great example of this) but the slavish application of this model often fundamentally causes mainstream articles to badly misfire.

There are many examples of big hitting pieces that, to their detriment, are based entirely on traditional reporting and yet mention not a single study directly relevant to the area (e.g. Nicholas Carr's Atlantic piece Is Google Making Us Stupid?).

Blogs are not bound by this restriction and often engage much better with the actual science, even if they often miss the investigative and cultural angles that the best mainstream pieces capture.

So it strikes me that a key skill in science journalism is knowing that the traditional model is nothing but a tool to be applied where appropriate and not a mark of the journalist elite. I think this is both difficult for professionals and editors to accept because the idea of value and tradition are so tightly bound together.

I'm surprised you didn't mention Futurity, ScienceDaily etc. If anyone's doing the job of science journalists anymore, it's the enormous army of university and research institute information officers, who are well aware that their releases are treated as actual news stories by the internet and, increasingly, major outlets. This discussion ties in directly with your other post about paying for quality journalism â it turns out a lot of what we think "only journalists can do" can be done quite well by others. So what remains that "only journalists can do"? Well, I'd point to your work, for one.

Loose thoughts following from some of the comments.

My country (NZ) has just started an award to train someone with a strong science background in media training to aid them working as a science communicator.

Coturnix, it's interesting to see you say that radio does it best. Same in NZ, in fact they're pretty much the only home-grown effort in the country (left). They've got a team of people, all with degrees (or at least for the people I know).

Newspapers here either do local topical things from a "regular" non-science journo, or take their science coverage from feeds. I asked about trying my hand a writing some and the papers pointed out that there's little in it for them as once they've paid the subscriptions for the feeds, the articles are essentially free. At least they're to the point about it.

Natural History NZ did/does very good docos, but are now allied to cable. (I write "did/does" as I haven't seen their stuff in a while as it's no longer on free-to-air in NZ.) Needed to stay alive from what I gather. Business and all that.

I think David's point about there generally being a lack of interviewing in blog coverage is worth noting. (There is sometimes, just not often.) Perhaps this will change with better attitudes to social networking tools (to use as interviewing tools) and to "defending" one's research? Taking up Vaughan's point, it should be about substance, though. In particular, I can see scope for scientists approaching the relevant scientists and asking them appropriate questions, at a level that journalists would be unlikely to be able to, and conveying the essence to a more general audience. (?) This won't generate much in the way of quotes, but it would dig into the story.

I agree with Vaughan that the need for a quote is over-played, but I also think that reflects a particular style or logic to reporting and non-fiction writing that I mean to write about. (I'll try get onto it this weekend if Xmas shopping and my brain co-operate...) I particularly like Vaughan's final paragraph. Good point. Don't confuse the tools and the culture or business.

Christopher, my first article as a blogger tackled what I considered an example of a claim that only journalists can write for the public that I encountered in a science communication book; it seems that this thinking is even present amongst some who promote science communication... as long as it done by journalists...

(Any typos are the fault of listening to Eva Cassidy covers while I write this... Fields of Gold from the Blues Alley is my pick so far. I know she's mainstream, but I've just come off and all-nighter working so I want something mellow...)

David: Thanks for the clarification. I didn't think that you thought it was news to Angier, but rather those you were writing about, but I didn't pick up the you were saying those others thought it in tongue-in-cheek fashion partly as your "where she was" read to me as a serious reply.

Interesting comments, especially Coturnix. As someone in the newspaper biz, I could use the phrase "petard-hoisting" re MSM, especially newspapers, content, and lack of paywalls.

Beyond that, this reflects the atomization, the Balkanization of news coverage that's the flip side of Web 2.0, social media, etc.

Beyond even that, expect more changes in science research. Corporate partnerships with and endowments of university research? What's to stop that from heading to Bangalore?

Newspaper reporting has been outsourced to India by some weekly newspapers; rumor is now that McClatchy is looking at outsourcing most of its print copy editing there. Subject-specific reporting could be next. Insurance and other financial paperwork was outsourced to Ireland; India is probably next. Paralegal stuff is being outsourced, too.

So, why not outsource more funded research science?

And, if more of that is oursourced, will we hear less about it?

Per Chris, if the university is in India, will its PR department get picked up as often? And, America or India, will more PR get run "straight up" without further interviewing?

David, great post. I agree with you that science blogs are picking up some of the slack, but definitely not all of it, and I'm with Keith on the need for funding for good science journalism.

What Coturnix is missing regarding investigative journalism is that it requires professional skills that journalists develop with experience and practice. It's not rocket science, but neither is it something scientists, scientist-turned-PIOs, or scientist-bloggers can just pick up and learn over the weekend.

Do scientists know how to do the shoe-leather reporting to develop inside sources in an organization when the top folks in that organization don't want to talk? Do scientists know how to dig around a courthouse for legal filings that could help them understand how a company misused science to avoid liability for a pollutant, or how a medical school hushed evidence of a botched clinical trial? Do scientists know how to suss out a field of inquiry different from theirs, to figure out the internal politics of the field? Are scientists too invested in their own research to be trusted to write fairly about their rivals?

Over more than a decade of covering science I've learned that scientists, like most other humans, are very often blind to their own ego-driven distortions and biases. Good science journalists see through all that in a heartbeat and home in on the truth.

I've been both a scientist and a science journalist, and I can say with confidence that probing science journalism, including investigative journalism, is essential to keep science and scientists honest, and to maintain an honest, productive discussion about the role of science in society. That's what we lose when the news holes shrinks and publications close, and when experienced science journalists are replaced by scientists.

Pick up and learn over the weekend? No, but nobody is claiming that anyway. Over time, those with the rigth frame of mind will learn how. And it is MUCH easier to learn than what the journos make it out to be.

Investigative science journalism has been and is being done by bloggers, often better than by clueless beat reporters. Is that the only way? Of course not, nobody claims that bloggers will replace journalists. But when we are talking about a new ecosystem that includes bloggers as valuable contributors to the enterprise, please do not put them down due to your own hubris. Journalism is way easier than journalists think it is. And having a) expertise and b) connections with the science world due to being a scientist greatly overcomes any deficiencies one may have for skipping j-school and may have also an advantage of never picking up bad habits from j-school.

It's always fun to provoke a provocateur. Just to reiterate, though, I'm with David that science bloggers, including scientists, do provide some of what's been lost as the science media has imploded. I'm not dismissing that contribution. There are some very smart science blogs out there, and the coverage is often as smart or smarter than that by experienced science journos.

I've known several dozen scientists (usually grad students or postdocs, occasionally those further along) who have made the transition to science writing. I did myself. It was useful to have worked in the field, in that I knew the culture of science, and how the real-life doing of science differed from the way it was often portrayed in the media.

But more interesting to me is what we had to learn. We had to learn that our narrow, focused expertise or our connections in our scientific field had much to do with being good journalist. It's far more important to learn how to be a good reporter. That requires realizing every day how much you don't know--then asking questions of people who know a lot more about it than you do. It also requires having a clear idea what's of interest to a broader audience and what's esoterica.

Science journos cover a far broader swath of science than any working scientist. This is a weakness, as you clearly recognize. But it's also a strength. Over time a generalist science journo gains valuable perspective on the scientific enterprise. It's a perspective that differs from that of an insider, but it's valuable.

Many scientists also underestimate the workâand the craftâthat goes into good writing. I'm not talking about J-101 news stories. I'm talking about pieces that blend probing reporting, insightful analysis, synthesis and great story-telling--such as David's recent piece in the Atlantic on the science of success. (I realize that in some ways we're talking apples and oranges--a blog post is not a narrative feature.)

By the way, I am genuinely curious to read good investigative journalism being done by bloggers. Can you point us to an example or two?

Some good comments here. I hope to follow up with another post, if (doubtful) other work and a house overrun by children allow.

For now, the short version:

Vaughan, I'm with you on the obligatory quote. Good quotes can enrich a story, leaven its texture to provide some variety for the reader, articulate contrasting views, or â perhaps the best use â give an insight into a person's character and thinking via her language (sometimes providing the rope with which the quoted hangs him or herself). But they're often used de riguer, even though writing without quotes (or with few) can (but doesn't always) add some richness of its own. Going quoteless can force the writer to establish his own authority rather than leaning on others'.

One of the pleasures of writing my first piece for Slate was being told I could not use quotes (though I was expected to do all necessary research), precisely because I was to vest my authority (that of informed opinion rather than final-say expertise) in my argument rather than in quoted experts. The judicious writer best serves the reader when he (the writer) uses quotes not because they lend authority or provide a pro forma Proof of Diligent Reporting, but because they truly add something.

As to the rest: I'm with Dan Ferber on his points about the skills involved and the critical distance required to do certain kinds of reporting/writing about science.

As to how easy or hard science journalism is: Bora, I can only ask: If good fact-based writing and reporting, especially deep investigative reporting, is "way easier" than journalists think it is -- if it's easy and something any smart person with a bit of time can do well -- then why do we see so little really good stuff out there? If it were easy, wouldn't we be just choking on it? If it were easy, why would we find the exceptional work -- the work of a Zimmer, a Skloot, a Yong â exceptional? They're exceptions because they're good, and because doing good work is hard, and it requires unusual accumulations of skills and experience.

If it were easy â and I suspect not even Carl Zimmer finds this work "easy" â then we'd be choking on great science writing. Instead, it's rare enough that when we find it, we celebrate it and pass on the links as something especially worth attending.

We need to get past this turf battle and look to the question of how to create the most robust, richest media landscape we can. Neither Ferber nor I are arguing that bloggers and PIOs and scientists-who-write should go home and let the big boys and girls take care of this science communication thing. We both welcome today's richer, more diverse, more lively media landscape. And I think I can speak for Dan too if I say we're quite aware that certain institutional structures of the MSM press have at times worked against quality science journalism of every ilk, discouraging both accurate, unhyped reporting of findings, and deeper investigations into science's institutional and cultural foibles, follies, and frauds.

But I also feel strongly -- "All I'm saying," as they say â that as the media landscape changes, it's important to create some sort of structure that provides funding and other support (legal protection, perhaps, or funding for same) for certain difficult, time-, skill-, and resource-intensive kinds stories. And to do that, we need to recognize that some stories require a skillset that is most commonly though not exclusively) found among reporters/journalists/writers who've learned how to dig in places where others won't or can't dig, either because the digging is too dangerous (as is oft the case with would-be whistleblowers) or because only a few have the tools to pry the rocks apart.

t's not a matter of deifying MSM journos. It's a matter of providing the money required to fund such work, no matter who has the skills to do it.

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I'm late to the party, but in answer to your question, there are plenty of institutions subsidizing great science journalism:

MIT: Technology Review
Yale: e360
Nasa: Nasa Edge (and all the rest of Nasa's websites)
Center for American Progress: Climate Progress

(granted, Climate Progress is very opinionated, but so is the UK press, and in both cases, the result is arguably pretty good coverage)


Even individual institutions' in-house magazines, now available on the web, are getting better and more accessible.

I'm pretty sure that Futurity is just the tip of the iceberg. You really thought all these institutions were going to spend all that money on research and see it not made visible to the public?

Thanks, Chris, for this list. It's especially good to be reminded of technology review, e360, and climate progress.

I've little doubt that other institutions or other organizations will see fit to fund reporting and publications. And we will doubtless see more thinktanks support good writing, including investigative writing, through fellowships of the sort that, say, Shannon Brownlee has via the New America Foundation.

These are all encouraging trends, and it may well be that this very diverse network of support for science writing well generate a lot of good reads. But one element that seems most likely to go missing here is some sort of exposure to science writing to people who don't seek it out. In other words, if, say, the science section disappears altogether from the New York Times, how many of the people who read it -- that is, who read the science section -- because it's there in a paper they are reading anyway will go find those sorts of stories somewhere else if the stories no longer appear in the Times. I think this worry is easy to overblow. But it's a part of the equation that seems squishiest to me at times.

Doubtless I will have more thoughts, and perhaps more confusion, to relay after our panel next Saturday in North Carolina.