My previous encomium to Ed Yong’s initiative in breaking out of the traditional science news box brought a gratifying response, not least of all from Ed himself, whom I might have managed to embarrass. (Success!) It also brought an excellent question from fellow PLos Blogger Travis Saunders of the always-filling, never-fattening Obesity Panacea. Since I burbled at length in response to it in comments and the question may have occurred to others of you who read my Improving Science Journalism screeds, I’m bumping up the exchange as a post here.
—Because that’s what we do in the modern world of publishing, people: we resurface and repurpose the content in new verticals. Sigh. Anyhoo….
Isn’t that a big part of the problem, though? Ed’s work is consistently awesome, and the things that John outlined in his speech also sound good – but is there any financial incentive for newspapers/magazines to pay for that kind of thing? Especially when people are blogging for free?
I can understand the very tangible non-monetary benefits of science-blogging for those of us in research or policy-related fields, but is there any compelling reason (other than awesomeness) for journalists and/or their media overlords to become more Ed-like?
Here was my response:
Good point, Travis, and yes, there are reasons. Think about it this way:
The prevalent “big paper o’ the week” model for commercial science journalism caught on because it was (a) relatively cheap and easy to do on a deadline, (b) satisfied the appetites of the science-interested public, and (c) roughly paralleled the “something important just happened” format of more general news reporting, which allowed it to blend into the rest of news products. We don’t talk about that last point much, but I think it’s an important consideration, nonetheless. Everybody likes variety, but when you buy a particular magazine, watch a program or whatever, you probably want the variety within it to be somewhat predictable.
In the past, lots of us have grumbled about this state of affairs in science journalism but there was little to be done about it, precisely because this low-effort/reasonable-return/consistent-value formula did work so well. But thanks to the rise of digital media, that’s less true. Two realities have tattered the old business models for journalism. First, too much news (and what is really opinion or p.r. but can pass for news) stands revealed as a commodity that the audience wants and expects to get for free. Second, the audience is taking advantage of the diversity of media options out there, so individual media outlets have less of a lock on a share of that audience. Together, those problems chew away at the potential for both circulation and advertising revenue.
So publications now really have to do something different if they’re going to survive. I hope it’s not the case, but the harsh reality might be that even with tremendous innovation, commercial media won’t be able to comfortably support as many writers and others as in the past. But if commercial publications don’t do something different, they’re going to be nibbled to death quickly by smart bloggers, aggressive p.r. writers and others who are willing and able to deliver a form of “big paper o’ the week” news that’s more than satisfactory.
The trick for for publications is that they need to find new ways to deliver good science stories that have those previously mentioned virtues of being (a) cheap and easy, (b) popular and (c) compatible with the rest of their offerings. Without those qualities, they won’t have a formula that can scale up practicably. (Trust me, publications need and want formulas.) But those approaches are out there. If nothing else, simply by taking a more flexible approach to how recent or imminent something must be to qualify as news—which I’d argue is fully merited for most science—the options for opening up journalism that is both affordable and more original increase greatly.
[Note: The quality of comments that you folks leave is routinely great, but this time… extra spiffy! Thank you.]
[Also, take a look at some smart thinking about how to improve science journalism by Caleb Garling over on his site. I don’t quite endorse his specific suggestions but it’s great to see him working on the problem.]