Science coverage in New York Times is good because they can afford a whole stable of people, each expert in one field only. If Carl Zimmer was forced to cover, on a daily basis and without time to research, everything from astronomy and physics to archaeology and materials science, he would do a bad job, too. But he is given time to pick his own area – evolution – to study it for years, and to write whatever the heck he wants on any given week. So Carl is an expert on what he is writing.
A small paper with one science beat reporter will have to cover everything and that reporter will thus cover everything poorly. I covered this in the last segment of my radio interview last week – for science reporting, one needs a distributed net of experts, each weak on almost everything and each exceptionally strong on one thing only. And that is: science bloggers, the real experts in their fields. If it’s physics news, you go see what physics bloggers are saying. For evo-devo, you go to PZ, for circadian stuff, you come to me – if I have not blogged it yet, just ask me in the comments what I think of the latest study that is making the round of news.
If a newspaper/magazine and a large net of bloggers could strike a deal, that would benefit everyone. Seed did. Others should do the same.
Another note – every time we bash science journalists, someone comes up in the comments and says: Hey, how about Zimmer, or Olivia Judson, or Chris Mooney, or David Dobbs? They are good, aren’t they? Thus, science journalists are excellent!
My answer is, not just that they are free to write only about their area of expertise, but they also are bloggers (or, like Nicholas Wade, are open-minded and willing to learn from the criticisms by bloggers when he messes up something), and had plenty of time to learn how to behave online and to upgrade their ethics from journalistic so-called ethics to bloggers’ ethics. This is why they are good. As the journalism is moving from print to Web, it is important for journalists to start blogging in order to learn the ethics of the Web and the proper Web etiquette – how to behave online in a way that will bring them respect from the readers.
And the fact that only a handful of such names keep popping up over and over again is a proof that such good science journalists are rare.