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.