As things change rapidly in mass media, the science beat keeps on providing the purest news. At least that’s how I see things. It never has been the most prestigious or glamorous beat in a newsroom, but no one can accuse us of merely plugging new names and places into familiar tales of crime, corruption, political maneuvers, celebrity canoodling, and moments of catastrophe.
When done well, our reporting is about things new to human experience: discoveries about the nature of the universe and of game-changing technologies, the unknown past, and potential treatments for disease. And while there is the occasional scandal or disaster to investigate and report, what the science beat reporter unearths tends to be a tonic to the bad tidings that dominate daily news. Besides, we get to talk to smart people who do their jobs well. Most of our stories are about achievement. They may include peril but not so often failure or crime.
Other than that almost nothing is as it was just a few years ago. Nor were things quite as exciting as they are on this beat today. Never have I observed colleagues who are as collectively innovative, vital, multitalented—performing on multiple platforms—and aggressive as now. But the reason is not jolly.
Desperation motivates action, and the newspaper science writer, once a mainstay of our tribe, is an endangered species. Pay rates at magazines have stagnated. A typical science journalist’s reporting day is fractured by demands to exercise multiple skills—audio, video, photography and text while tweeting and blogging away. There is a dizzying array of opportunities to publish online but few pay a handsome rate. A few independent science writers are doing fabulously. But as a group, we’re running and scrapping along as fast as we can with little idea of a destination.
Graphic by Diane Novetsky.
The Science Gig
Stephen Leahy is an enterprising and crusading Canadian environmental reporter, whose website rises to the top of a Google search with his name and “science writing.” Climate change policy and science energizes much of his writing. He has a regular gig with Inter Press Service and has had pieces in New Scientist, Wired News, Audubon, Maclean’s and other sterling outlets. But contracts are becoming harder to get.
So Leahy is turning to crowdfunding techniques to augment his erratic income through a one-man community-supported journalism shop, which was launched when he asked followers of his website for donations to help him cover the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009. He got enough for airfare and a few nights of lodging. At a subsequent conference he found himself in the company of a platoon of freelancers, not a single one of whom had been able to get his or her usual outlets to foot the bill. “No one had any money,” he recalled. “And I need to feed my family. My hope is that community-supported journalism will fill this gap.”
Now a large share of his articles— the ones not written under standard freelance arrangement—go online at his site. He also sends them directly to registered readers by e-mail. In return, he asks but does not demand of them: Please send money. His site has no ads, just that plea. He suggests a $50 or $100 contribution.
I asked him this fall how the arrangement is working. “Too soon to tell, less than a year in,” he replied. Contributions come from all over but mainly North America and Europe. “At first it was people who sort of know me—met at some meeting—but more now come from out of the blue.” He also gets verbal support, ideas for news stories, and offers of assistance, which he appreciates, such as an offer of “a bed if I am in their city,” he told me, then added that “I have availed myself of that offer many times.” But at times he feels like he’s panhandling and he has had less than $5,000 donated this year, which is only about a third of what he needs to make such direct-access journalism worth his while.
Good luck, Mr. Leahy.
Tracking Science Journalism
I’ve been through my own career crisis. About four and a half years ago I became a different kind of science writer. My beat went from writing about science to writing about other science writers. Monday through Friday I’m up before dawn, blogging by about 7 a.m., and at around noon I send off from my home in California a compilation of impressions of what I’ve found in breaking news and occasionally in feature writing. In the afternoons I do some freelance writing or chase grandchildren.
I am fortunate. It comes with a paycheck and benefits. Former Washington Post reporter Boyce Rensberger made me an offer. We ran into each other in early 2005 at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was then director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I was long ago a fellow in the program. He knew I’d been bought out at the end of 2004 by U.S. News & World Report. Not long after that, the magazine closed down its entire, non-medical science writing group. Rensberger told me he wanted somebody to work for the program part time, surveying the day’s science news online and blogging with links and commentary. “Sort of a Romenesko for science writing,” he said, alluding to the Poynter Institute’s must-read daily journalism blog.
At first, I didn’t want to do it. I felt as though I would be chained to a desk at home. But the lure of benefits was high since the anxiety of a freelancer’s life did not suit me. In April 2006 we launched the Knight Science Journalism Tracker—known as KSJ Tracker online—and today we have an e-mail newsletter option. I assembled a huge list of RSS feeds, heavily focused on traditional outlets including wires, a few online sites, and nearly 200 North American and overseas English-language newspapers and broadcasters. I would churn through as many as possible and chase specific, popular news via search engines. I found I could get in 10 or so posts a day, encompassing dozens of stories, many of them covering the same news.
Since then, I have filed more than 6,000 posts, most of them linked to several stories. In the past year or so the site has added other contract, per-piece part-time trackers to follow medical science, as well as news media that publish in Spanish and German, nearly all of which, like the U.S. press, give their content away for free on the Web.
Several times during the early years I posted about the departure of old standbys in the business as conventional media lost ad revenue. Such attrition helped to force a change in the way I covered my beat. Within two years the systematic searches yielded less and less. I stopped going through the original RSS food line every day, and I took to writing fewer, longer, more analytical items, which often meant rounding up the dozen or (many) more outlets that had jumped to cover the same basic news. Plus, more readers—many and probably most of whom are science journalists—suggested a growing stream of articles to check, sometimes their own.
Now here’s the catch, th
e one I can’t really explain. While I can’t figure out who is paying a lot of these science reporters, the quantity of what they produce does not seem to have fallen off nearly as much as the cratering of traditional U.S. news media would predict. (United Kingdom and Canadian media have not suffered losses quite as big as U.S. news organizations, and in much of the developing world newspapers and science coverage seem to be expanding rapidly.) In fact, what I’ve been witnessing is an explosive increase in the number of websites providing science news worldwide, and that includes those originating in the United States.
The diversity of this news reporting is illuminated by a post I did on September 29, when a team of astronomers said they had discovered another planet circling the small, reddish star Gliese 581. The star is 20 light-years away—close by astronomical standards—and has several offspring, but press releases dubbed this latest one a “Goldilocks planet.” Not too close or too far from its star, it is just right for liquid water. No one could know what its surface is like but the orbital dimensions alone struck a chord with reporters and editors. (Two weeks after this story broke, reports began to surface that perhaps this planet doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s a figment of data analysis—certainly news for another day.)
My initial KSJ Tracker post had a discussion of the artist who did an impression of the planet—catnip to art editors—and links to 28 versions of the news, most of them bylined stories. I could have listed many more. I had found stories by searching the old standbys—outfits that would have covered similar news 20 years ago, including The New York Times, USA Today, Reuters, The Associated Press, Voice of America, Time magazine, BBC, NPR, Maclean’s, The Washington Post, plus a few regional newspapers such as the San Jose Mercury News in the United States, and The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Register, Mirror, and The Independent and Mail in the United Kingdom, as well as outlets in Australia such as The Age.
Then there were the links to what I call the new old media—found online for the most part but affiliated with established news organizations. These digital destinations are now fixtures among science reporters, regarded as places that still practice journalism. There were blogs posted by staff reporters on websites such as The Washington Post’s and on the SeattlePI.com, a newspaper turned website. CNN had a story online, as did the tech outlet CNET. I found more at Discover magazine in the form of the so-named Bad Astronomy site operated by prolix astronomer-bloggista Phil Plait and at Discovery News. The world’s foremost general science journals, Nature and Science, also covered the Goldilocks planet.
In addition, the story was covered by outlets such as Slate, PC Magazine, Wired News, National Geographic, Scientific American, the biweekly Science News magazine in Washington, D.C., which had its story also published on the US News & World Report site, and Popular Science.
I found one story from a sort of mashup called “The Takeaway,” which describes itself as a national morning news program produced in partnership with The New York Times, BBC World Service, WNYC, Public Radio International, and WGBH Boston. What it is exactly, I am still not sure.
Then there is a new category of online news outlets that I can’t begin to classify; it’s an inchoate sea of outlets that I seldom track simply because there are too many of them. Presumably these writers are receiving some sort of pay, and some of them might well be ethical journalism outlets, but I didn’t include them in my post that day. (Here are a few of the sites’ names: Gizmodo, Wikinews, Gossip Jackal, dBTechno, DailyTech, Softpedia, Stop Press! News, eWorld Post, Gather.com, Helium which had at least two bylined accounts, Newsopi, Spreadit, Allvoices, Tonic.com, Ars Technica, First Post, TopNews … I could go on.) Some of these sites merely aggregate others’ work, but some have distinctive pieces that carry bylines.
Press Releases: Reborn as News Stories
Another kind of science writer, if not science journalist, writes the press releases that tumble out of government-funded labs or universities. The Goldilocks planet story was born out of at least five press releases sent by the University of California at Santa Cruz, University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, the Carnegie Institution for Science, NASA and the National Science Foundation. And no longer are press releases targeted exclusively at the press; each of these was written in journalistic style, if not with a journalistic edge, and was piped to the public via in-house websites and through the many “news” outlets that lightly rewrite and on occasion relabel releases as news stories.
When I first started at the KSJ Tracker, I regarded my inclusion of press releases as brilliantly subversive. Have them there for readers and they’d reveal how much spoon feeding goes into the generation of a lot of news and make transparent which writers tend to lift quotes rather than making their own calls. That was when I still thought of them as inside information. Now the work of press agent—and isn’t that an old-time sounding name?—is simply a routine part of the flow of information directly to the public, with the journalist as intermediary regarded as a bit of a quaint notion.
Journalism professors tell me that programs to train science journalists are still seeing their graduates get jobs. Though I live in the territory where the work of the science beat writers resides, I couldn’t tell you where these jobs are. Nor do I know when or whether a business model will come along to provide the competent ones with a reasonable wage. Nor do I know when or whether any more than a small fraction of the reading public will—or still does—include science journalism in its daily diet.
This much I do know when I go to my computer each morning: Something exciting is simmering in the stew of old media, online, smartphone and tablet-borne news streams. And science journalists are stirring the pot.
Charles Petit is the lead writer for the MIT Knight Science Journalism Tracker. He also does freelance reporting and was for 26 years a science writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and spent six years at U.S. News & World Report. He is the past president of the National Association of Science Writers and serves on the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.