Science journalism, blogging, and the web

Nature (open access) discusses the decline of science journalism and the rise of blogs. The article profiles John Timmer, whose stuff at Nobel Intent I read almost every day. You can tell Nature doesn't really get blogs yet, because they don't provide a link!

There are two separate stories here, the decline of journalism (including science) and the rise of blogging. I'm not so sure they're related. I'll tell you some of my thoughts, informed by a lot of blogging and a little bit of work in the media.

The decline of science journalism is fairly straightforward:

Science journalism boomed in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the United States where by 1989 some 95 newspapers had dedicated science sections and elsewhere, the field's precipitous rise was supported by buoyant profits in the media sector. "The model of a major paper was that they did really serious science coverage," says Deborah Blum, who won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for her reporting in the Sacramento Bee on the use of animals in research, and who now teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. But there was a problem with the science sections, she says. "They didn't make money."
Most papers were willing to support their sections, even at a loss, because science was the thing to have. Today, in a harsher mass-media landscape, that has changed.

It's tough to be a journalist, period, these days. Papers are shutting down all over the country. You don't see papers taking on the long investigative series nearly so much as they used to do. A lot of the life has gone out of political and sports reporting, and that's both because the people are different than they used to be, and because there are more demands on them.

If you think about it, most journalism is really an impossible task. You're writing stories about things that some of your readers know in great detail -- like the player stats of the local football team -- and other readers have never heard about. If you cater too much to one crowd, you'll lose the other. And that's for topics that are inherently interesting to people, who care why the team won or lost the game.

Now, if you take the average scientific topic, it takes five paragraphs just to explain why anybody should be interested. Writing an interesting newspaper-length article about science is hard. I know because I've done a few.

A writer with great dedication and love for the subject can do the hard job, if she has time to devote to it. A few have the kind of science training that lets them accomplish the near-miracle of making science understandable and interesting, and they gravitate to the few outlets that can still support good science writing economically. A few scientists have the magical ability to write non-clunky prose, and they do some public writing as a sideline. Almost all of these people either write books or have the ambition of doing so, which tells you something about the disadvantages of the magazine or newspaper-length format.

Now what about blogging? There we certainly have lots of people interested in writing about science, and some have the ability to do it well. But if we're going to compare the entire blogosphere with the NY Times, in terms of how much is worth reading for the average non-professional interested in science, the blogosphere is worse by an order of magnitude.

There is one essential ingredient that blogs do well -- probably better than any other format. They have something new. That's the basic recipe of the news: there's always something different to read. That's what makes a blog a much better way to promote your research than a static lab website. No matter how flashy or multimedia your site is, once somebody has seen it, she doesn't need to come back and see it again.

The combination of "always something new," "unpaid" and "no editor" doesn't work out all that often. A news site with a blog format, a little money and an editor, like Timmer's, has a good chance at developing a wide readership. It helps to be associated with a larger website already known for its tech reporting. There's some interesting documentary and multimedia work being done behind paywalls, like those associated with some college textbooks, but these largely defeat the purpose of accessibility. Plus, most of these sites are updated very irregularly, if at all.

Oh, there's lots on the blogs for people who already follow science closely. They're the equivalent of sports fans who know all the player stats. That's certainly been my attitude about writing; I try to make things understandable for my future self if I'm reading my stuff two years from now and have forgotten what I'm writing about.

There's a lot of garbage on the blogs, too. It's sort of like your box scores are interspersed with advertisements for somebody's cat, in the middle of political ad season in a swing state. Yuck.

If we look beyond blogs -- which are really just a particular kind of website -- to other websites not connected with print publications, what do we find lacking?

  1. The big advantage of the web is that it makes it trivial to include photography, color illustrations, and graphic design with a text. In print publications, there are entire branches of people working on these aspects of design. What do we see on blogs, or other science-related websites?

  2. Networks -- a second big advantage of the web is hypertext. What do we see interesting there, other than linking to sites for quotes and reactions? Some networks have sprung up, like the Scienceblogs network, but the net effect has been to suck the life out of their graphic individuality. Sameness has some advantages, but if you want everything to look the same you can always use the feed.

  3. Multimedia -- from broadcast networks, we see some multimedia material in science. And there have been starts, like Science TV. I like to point people to the IHO's site, Becoming Human, as a real standout. It's good multimedia. But so far, the web has not done very well providing compelling and novel science content in these formats.

  4. Interviews. Reporters interview people and find out their views. What we tend to get on websites is a monologue. The multimedia and hyperlinking capabilities of the web are perfect for including a rich documentary interview experience.

  5. Editors help to make things understandable to nonspecialists. Some writers are good at self-editing, but even a great writer benefits from edits. Like multimedia collation and reporting, good editing happens behind the scenes. Few websites have a strong editor. That's great for vanity projects, but not so great for public understanding.

  6. Accessibility. This is the missing element in many online ventures. What to do about people who can't read your text, or who can't see your graphics or hear your podcast? One advantage of the usual bland blog format is that it's probably compatible with text readers. A flashy multimedia presentation is likely to cause accessibility problems. If you want to create something useful in education, it has to be accessible. I have some experience with this -- the cost of good transcription is one of the things holding me back from podcasting interviews.

So are blogs going to evolve into the next step in science journalism? I doubt it. Blogs make one thing easy, but the other things that contribute to effective public communication are still hard. Look at me -- I could use an editor just to find a way to finish this post!

UPDATE(2009-03-28):

Carl Zimmer comments at length on the subject, also pointing to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review by Curtis Brainerd.