The Intersection

The Science Writer’s Lament

My latest Science Progress column just went up…it’s about the decline of science reporting in newspapers, and what we can do to fight back against this trend.

I start out with the story of Peter Calamai, until recently the staff science writer of the Toronto Star:

Peter Calamai describes himself–and only half jokingly–as a “grizzled veteran” of the newspaper industry. Over the course of his forty-year career, he has covered a wide range of subjects, but for the past decade Calamai served as the dedicated science reporter for Canada’s most widely read newspaper, the Toronto Star. That’s until June of this year, anyway, when along with one tenth of the paper’s staff, he took a buyout–an all too common occurrence these days, as newspapers cut back on resources in the face of declining subscriptions and ad revenue thanks to competition from the Internet. Today the Star retains medical and environmental reporters, who of necessity do science-related writing in the course of their work, but has not hired another science-centered journalist since Calamai’s departure.

Indeed, the treatment of science at the Star was shrinking long before 2008. As Calamai explained to me recently in Montreal–where we were both participating in a panel discussion about science and the media at McGill University–up until a few years ago the paper ran pages labeled “Science” in its Saturday and Sunday editions. But when those fell by the wayside, the rest of the paper didn’t make up for it; Calamai could still file science feature stories, but the total column space for science coverage declined noticeably.

And what did readers do when the Star lost the science page? Well, nothing, which is precisely the problem:

It may be understandable that newspapers are cutting back on total coverage in light of the economic challenges they face; it may even be understandable that they see science as one obvious area where they can save dollars and space. But still, one behind-the-scenes detail that Calamai related in Montreal just blew my mind. When the Star got rid of its formal science section, he remembered, almost no one called in to complain. Sure, there were a handful of protests–Calamai estimates about 12 at most–but certainly nothing like the kind of volume that might prompt the paper’s management to reconsider its decision.

It’s a fact which puts a troubling gloss on the not-unfamiliar narrative of declining science content in the media. That it’s happening isn’t in doubt; neither is the cause (economics). But the question of whether there will be anything resembling a concerted response to the phenomenon from the people who most notice and lament it remains very much up in the air.

I then go on to lay out some ideas about what we might do if we really want to halt the trend of shrinking science coverage in the media.

Again, you can read the full column here.

Comments

  1. #1 Kit Stolz
    October 29, 2008

    The problem with American newspapers is so much bigger than the science section that to look at the accelerating decline and collapse of print media through that frame seems short-sighted (at least to me).

    The real question is: How do we save American reporting? By that I don’t mean journalism programs in schools; or bloggers, despite their usefulness, or other offshoots — I mean the real thing, reporters who go out and dig up news and write it up for the general public.

    I don’t know the answer, but I know the question applies not just to science reporting, but also to feature writing, cultural commentary, and investigative reporting.

  2. #2 Eric Berger
    October 29, 2008

    But for my presence on the Gulf coast, and the recent spate of hurricane activity, it’s conceivable the “science” beat at my newspaper might have been entirely done away with. And that’s at a top-10 newspaper, circulation-wise, that has done better than most financially in recent years.

    The Web is a great medium for scientists to share and discuss results through pre-prints, listservs, wikis and the like. But it’s not good at all for engaging a wide segment of the public-at-large in science. The general public, the average member of which is not inclined toward science, is unlikely to stumble upon or patronize Seed or Scienceblogs. They’re busy going to ESPN or Gawker or a host of other Web sites. The great thing about the Internet is that people have absolute choice over the content they consume. The terrible thing about the Internet is that people have absolute choice over the content they consume.

    What do I mean by this?

    Simply that if a science story lands on the front page of a newspaper it’s more likely to be seen by the average Joe and Jane, who might otherwise not search out science news. In other words newspapers bring science news to a broader audience, whether they may like it or not, and they often do so in a meaningful way.

    Obviously, I’m selfish. But if you really want to support science journalism, subscribe to your local newspaper and write the editor a letter about why you’re doing so.

    I’m sorry to see Peter go. I’ve enjoyed his work.

  3. #3 bsci
    October 29, 2008

    It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem, but one of the reasons few people seem to care that science journalism in newspapers is declining is that the quality of most of those articles are terrible. Part of the issue is that good science writing is expensive because you need someone who has devoted the time to become an expert in a range of topics. It’s hard to keep these people as salaried staff.

    My reading of science from newspapers has definitely declined in the past decade because there are better places to learn. The most avid science readers have probably gone elsewhere leaving fewer people to defend science section.

    What can be done? This won’t make the science writers looking for salaried jobs happy, but there seems to be a large pool of good scientist writers. What if newspapers set up a system to pay for articles by experts on commission and has in-house science writing staff more to polish and bias-check articles rather than write about the cutting edge. This would allow papers to cover more fields in more depth for less money. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s one way to get more good science in papers.

  4. #4 Oakden Wolf
    October 30, 2008

    Part of the problem lies with the declining IQ of the average newspaper reader; science articles have to be dumbed down so much that they become muddled where clarity is necessary. Climate change skeptics have exploited apparent uncertainties and inaccuracies expressed in print media where the actual science was much more clear. In many papers, a longer science article from the Washington Post or the New York Times gets truncated, leaving out important information. Wish I had a solution; maybe the solution is better science blogging.

  5. #5 Doug k
    October 30, 2008

    I am entirely of Kit’s mind. The decline of decent science reporting is paralleled by the decline of decent reporting, period. The newspapers are dying and it’s not clear that we have anything to replace them with..

    see David Carr’s article in the NYT,
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/29/business/media/29carr.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

  6. #6 Dark Tent
    October 31, 2008

    Science sections are disappearing without much complaint because most people do not value science.

    In fact, most people do not understand science, so they have no idea what they are losing.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.