Protecting the Journalism Ecosystem

UPDATE: Here’s an example of first-rate reporting from AAAS, in which Time’s Bryan Walsh places research in the larger context and shows the disconnect between scientific facts and politicized decisionmaking. Read his story “Environmentalists Warn of Natural Debt as Budget Cuts Loom.”

I just returned from the annual meeting of AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science), where I had the huge honor of receiving a AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award for a story I wrote for High Country News. As I said at the ceremony, the award felt to me like a validation of long-form narrative nonfiction. I won for the small newspaper category (circulation under 100,000), which—somewhat unfairly, perhaps—puts HCN, a biweekly that’s more like a magazine in tabloid newspaper format, in competition with scores of small daily newspapers that might be less inclined to devote space to a 4,000-word article because they need to cover local news, politics, sports, and community events.

That said, I don’t think it’s an accident that HCN, a nonprofit based in rural Paonia, Colorado, consistently wins journalism awards. They’re committed to publishing narrative journalism, and to giving writers the space to do it right. My story was about the razorback sucker, an endangered fish native to the Colorado River: about the science being mobilized to save the fish, the complex ecological and sociological causes of its demise, the scientists who toil to rescue it despite the seeming futility, and the crucial larger questions about biodiversity conservation we need to begin to ask. I don’t think many other newspapers would’ve given me 4,000 words in which to tell the story—and it’s a shame, because I think there’s a hunger for long-form narrative journalism that’s only increasing as the outlets for it decline.

At a lunch for the AAAS Kavli award winners, fellow PLoS blogger Steve Silberman, who won the magazine award for his Wired story The Placebo Problem,” mentioned that he’d had the luxury of spending several months on his story—a state of affairs that’s as endangered today as the razorback sucker. (Indeed, William Saletan, who won the online category, pointed out that the razorback sucker was a good metaphor for journalists in general.) That led a journalist in the audience to bemoan the fact that he sometimes had to produce as many as 40 stories in a week. (That sounds even more insane to me now than it did at the time; did I get that right? Please correct me if I’ve overly inflated the number. But regardless, it was astonishingly high.)

That, of course, is the AOL-style churn-it-out-as-quickly-as-possible-for-maximum-hits model that’s been lamented to death everywhere, and which I certainly don’t need to rehash here. The main point I wanted to make is that there’s a place for speedy, quick-turnaround news coverage of science, but when it’s overused you’re left with journalists making mistakes—for instance, as they try to crash out stories pegged to the publication of a journal article, and don’t even have time to make sense of the data. (John Rennie has eloquently railed against this, so you should read him here if you haven’t already.) I saw this over and over again at the Knight Science Journalism Medical Evidence Boot Camp last fall, where several speakers walked through the actual findings of medical journal articles and then showed the news stories that sometimes got it 180 degrees wrong. Leaving the public misunderstanding the outcome of scientific research is worse than not telling them about it in the first place.

In his coverage of the AAAS meeting coverage, Charlie Petit at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker worried about declining numbers of reporters from mainstream news outlets attending and filing daily stories from the conference.

Let’s put a few true but statistically furry numbers on a transition now fully in place. That is the abandonment of daily science reporting. esp. when it requires expense account, by all but a handful of US newspapers. These outlets once had dozens of correspondents in the annual pressrooms of the AAAS meeting. The Wa Post is here, NYTimes has a presence, I saw an LA Times guy yesterday, but all in all, zilch.

I agree about the general trend. But I’m not sure I agree that there’s anything bad about fewer reports from a conference where scientists are often presenting general findings as opposed to new research. Just because a scientist says something at a session or at a news conference doesn’t make it news. (And while I’m not a daily-news kind of journalist, I like to think I still have a sense of what’s newsworthy.)

Science journalism needs a mix of really well-done daily deadline reporting and longer, thought-out, exhaustively reported narrative stories. The two are completely different beasts occupying different niches, and we should make every effort to protect them both, by ensuring that there’s habitat to sustain them. That’s one reason I’m so enthusiastic about The Atavist, a new publishing company that’s producing exceptional long-form journalism—longer than a standard magazine article but much shorter than a book—on an ebook model. Browsing Amazon yesterday, I noticed that Evan Ratliff’s Lifted, one of the first two offerings they published, is number four on the nonfiction bestseller list. Not the ebook list: the whole list. That’s pretty astonishing for a new format. And gives me some hope that perhaps, unlike the poor razorback sucker, narrative journalism will make it off the endangered list someday soon.

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6 Responses to Protecting the Journalism Ecosystem

  1. aidel says:

    Congratulations on the well-deserved award, Hillary! I have a strong preference for (relatively) long, in depth narrative pieces. I worry that news bites aren’t well understood, even by the writer, not to mention the confusion (or worse, false beliefs) for the reader. Thanks for the 411 on The Atavist, too.

  2. Steve Silberman says:

    Hillary, it’s probably worth mentioning the bittersweet fact that, while I had the “luxury” of two months to report and write my placebo story, I was laid off with a ten-second phone call (technically, “non-reupped”) 48 hours after turning it in, after 14 years at the magazine and website (but before my story proved to be a huge hit). I’ve been asked to contribute to Wired as a freelancer, but the whole experience was a vivid demonstration of how tenuous anyone’s position is in the current ecosystem.

  3. Pingback: Kavli Science Journalism Awards: a #AAASmtg 2011 reading list | Kate Travis

  4. Hillary Rosner says:

    I think you’re right about journalists sometimes not understanding what they’re writing about–especially when it’s just a short news item, and more so when it’s a short news item about a very complex topic.

  5. Hillary Rosner says:

    Thanks for the comment, Steve. I’m hoping that we will all turn out to be better off, longer-lived, and more valued than the razorback sucker. But yeah, sometimes it’s hard to hold onto that vision amidst the tumult.

  6. Steve Silberman says:

    I actually feel great after #scio11 and #AAASmtg. I feel like I was with my people. I’m still in the process of financial self-reinvention, but I feel very encouraged and invigorated after hanging out with a bunch of brilliant science writers like you. Community is so important in times like these.