The Future of Sci/Art Journalism: Elitism, niches, and loyalty

This week, Nieman Journalism Lab is running a fascinating series of video interviews with the New York Times' R&D group on the possible future face of news media. I know - you're wondering why the supposedly financially moribund NYT is wasting money on nerds who play with Kindles. Who do they think they are, Google? But it might be a good strategy after all.

As Fortune and the Columbia Journalism Review recently pointed out, with outlets all around them slashing premium content (like science), the NYT's best strategy may be to instead become increasingly "elite:"

Meanwhile, the company is looking at everything the pundits are calling for and more: charging for some content via its Web site, embracing Kindle-like devices, publishing a less sprawling and comprehensive paper, maybe even less frequently, written and edited by fewer people and targeted at a narrower, even more elite, audience. Or, as some have proposed, figuring out a way for all or part of its operation to become a not-for-profit. (source)

I was recently interviewed by Peter Cowling of ArtConnect about the future outlook for science journalism and art journalism. My general argument was that while coverage of expensive niche topics may decline across the board, certain premium providers will find it advantageous to continue quality coverage of science and art - it's essential to their brand identity. A venerable outlet like the NYT is like a destitute turn-of-the-century bluebood: her name and reputation are her most valuable commodities.

As I told Peter,

As coverage of niche topics like art and science is being cut right and left, it's tempting to make dire predictions that mainstream media is becoming a wasteland of paparazzi photos and fluff pieces. I certainly don't see mainstream media becoming art-centric anytime soon. But the good news is that for a significant number of media outlets, arts and culture are already part of their identity. If they want to maintain the loyalty of their reader community, arts and culture coverage is non-negotiable. Consider providers like the New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper's, etc. Art may not be their focus, but they have a strong identity as culturally engaged sources. Readers respond to and value that identity.

There's a reason that I've maintained a paid subscription to the New Yorker for ten years, including grad school, when I probably should have used that money for other things. I identify with their philosophy, and am willing to pay a premium to be part of their community of readers. I'm also more likely to seek out their content and be a part of their community online. I stumble across new sources of media content every day via links or search engines, but only those sources for which I feel a real affinity end up on my feed reader. I only go back to the sources that "click" with me as a reader.

That's why I'm not completely pessimistic on the future of the NYT and other providers as they transition to online presences and business models. But on the other hand, mainstream media hasn't exactly excelled at cementing reader loyalty, have they? And online readers balk at paying for content, even specialized content.

One more note: a loaded term like "elitism" is not necessarily the best word to be using here. ("Ghettoization" isn't a great choice either - interesting/bizarre that they are both referring to basically the same trend.) Strong brand loyalty/community identity is enjoyed online by sites that would likely describe themselves as the opposite of l33t (or at least define l33t quite differently than the NYT.) I think we really need to have a dialogue about elitism in media - financial, intellectual, cultural, technological - and whether it can be a constructive force for creating financial opportunities for media outlets, or whether this trend is just going to exacerbate the echo chamber effect described by Cass Sunstein.

Anyway, you can read my entire ArtConnect interview, including how to become a big-time, highly paid blogger (hint: don't follow my example!), why I think mobile media is going to be huge, and where the heck I got the name "bioephemera," here at ArtConnect.

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I think that the root issue here is that homogeneous publications like the NYT are having a hard time adapting to a broader culture that is becoming increasingly fragmented. The trend in online publications seems to be more or less away from homogeneity and toward specialization and narrow focuses. ScienceBlogs itself is an example, covering science and its intersection with culture and politics.

I would also shy away from the term "elite", since what we've seen also in recent times is a gradual shift in who the term is applied to. Instead of meaning either wealth or power, we use the term to deride people who are educated. Perhaps we should use "sophisticated" in its place.


Great post and analysis. What you refer to as "elite," the industry is referring to as "going deep."

"Going deep" and "going broad" (think the new film Earth) are the future of science journalism. There will be little in between. I'm going to have more on this at my blog over the coming weeks as I finish a project on this very topic.


In an only somewhat realted point of interest- I subscribe to several science blogs and at least two that I read regularly, afarensis and a photo-insect one are both being cut-

I am interested to know- and hopeful- that you are not among those who are vacating. You are my favorite thing to read on the internet, and I would be most devastated if you had to stop.
Please alleviate my concern and tell me you're not going anywhere.

Esmeralda, nerdy fan.

Hi Esmeralda,

Nope, I'm not going anywhere. But thanks so much for the support! :) It means a lot to hear that people enjoy the blog.

If I may chime in: My understanding is that photo-insect was not "cut" bur rather, that was a short term blog, and will be replaced with another photo blogger, and so on.

However, I for one would like to see that blogger back on a regular basis, and if you liked it, you should send an email to scienceblogs indicating that!

(Afarensis was not cut either, s/he left for his/her own reasons. People actually leave, fairly frequently, and new blogs come on fairly frequently.)

(PS: I also think Bioephemera one of the best blogs here)

Terrific interview Jessica, it flowed like a conversation. I like that.

Your comments about monetization of blogs were spot-on. It's interesting how science and art are also both areas of human activity that lie outside mainstream news, and each is filled with worries about funding and low appreciation by the public. You intersect the two beautifully on a regular basis.

The interviewer's questions seemed a bit heavy handed, but you come through with your usual perspicuity.

Especially about there being too little time for so many media sources (I'm already 3 days late on this post!).

And a mainstream media emphasis on art and science would be marvelous. I just can't shake the feeling that a heterogeneious culture of 'niches' would be like a kitchen cabinet full of Slap-chops and similar "inventions". A well honed chef's knife and some elbow grease is more than sufficient (I couldn't live without my butter butler though :)

Really, I never thought of art and science as niches, but I guess within the mainstream they are.

By Joe Leasure (not verified) on 14 May 2009 #permalink

I've been catching up on blog reading, Jessica, and I've only just now read the full ArtConnect interview. Unsurprisingly, it's terrific. Keep up the great work.