Why Science News Needs to Innovate

Photo by Declan Jewell (DeclanTM) via Flickr

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….

Travis writes:

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.]

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23 Responses to Why Science News Needs to Innovate

  1. Ed says:

    “So publications now really have to do something different if they’re going to survive.”

    I think this is the key point. Online, it’s very very easy to see how much news coverage is completely interchangeable with one another. In answer to Travis’s question, the incentive is to actually have a product that distinguishes yourself from the pack, either by finding stories no one else is reporting, or by covering the stories other people are doing in a much much better way. This is especially pertinent because (a) some people are doing that for free, and (b) many news outlets are increasingly expecting people to – shock, horror – pay for their news. In that ecosystem, does it really make sense to have your dwindling cadre of reporters churning out a less comprehensive version of Eurekalert? No. It makes sense to have them investigate deeper stories, uncover tales that bridge the gap between research, policy, business etc., provide deeper and richer pieces, and basically do all the things that years of journalistic training should place them in a unique position to provide.

    I think the problem is in weighing up the short-term and long-term strategies. Departing from the standard formula might hit traffic/revenue in the short-term but I’d predict that it would have significant long-term benefits. Sticking to that formula is the safer short-term bet, but it’s a shallow gradient to extinction.

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    • Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

      Thanks for the awesome responses, John & Ed & Steve!

      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.

      What are the odds that this is how it will play out? I’m not normally a cynic, but to an uneducated observer (e.g. me) this seems like the most likely option. I would much rather read blog posts, supplemented with the odd magazine or book purchase when the topics looks really good, as opposed to subscribing to any one particular magazine. But take the #arseniclife debacle – I read phenomenal content at Slate, Discover Blogs (nicely done, Ed) and the Guardian – all for free. I would have paid for that type of analysis, but I didn’t have to. Ditto for John’s piece on #pepsigate last summer. And while there are some magazine articles that are worth shelling out money for (e.g. Steve’s placebo article), those seem to be decreasing in the same proportion as the infographics are increasing.

      Even with magazines that I love, 50% of the content isn’t stuff that really gets me excited. But I can almost always find a blog post that will fascinate me for free. I just don’t see how traditional publications can compete with that. That’s not to say that I think professional science journalism isn’t important – I think it’s incredibly important and fills a niche that blogs will never fill. But is it ever going to be financially viable, or do we need to view it as an essential public service that we subsidize through some other means? Or do we need to convince all the professional journalists out there to stop blogging for free and begin selling their content through some sort of iTunes interface, before they destroy the market for everyone?

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      • I think this sums up the problem very nicely. At the end of the day, it’s tough to compete with free, and I’m not optimistic that people are going to pay for online content. I completely agree that the traditional model for science journalism (a less comprehensive version of Eurekalert is a perfect description, LOL!) is an absurd anachronism in the digital age. If journalists just rewrite press releases, they don’t provide any added value; they might as well be RSS feeds. But at the end of the day, if we can’t come up with a financial model to support science journalism, it doesn’t matter how well we write: we’re in trouble.

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  2. Steve Silberman says:

    In that ecosystem, does it really make sense to have your dwindling cadre of reporters churning out a less comprehensive version of Eurekalert? No. It makes sense to have them investigate deeper stories, uncover tales that bridge the gap between research, policy, business etc., provide deeper and richer pieces…

    Fine idea, but “deeper” and “richer” are not the words I keep hearing from editors on Twitter, some of whom I used to work for. Instead hear words like “faster” and “quicker,” and see magazine pages that used to be filled with “deeper” and “richer” instead filled with phony infographics (hey, they’re cheeky!) and lists of Top Ten Most Outrageous Robots in Science Fiction.

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    • John Rennie says:

      True enough. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I think that’s all part of the death spiral that media threw itself into for ad revenue, and that eventually—maybe only after we’re really bottomed out—we’ll see some resurgent interest in depth and thoughtfulness. Or else, something amusing with Muppets or cockatiels wearing little suits.

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  3. John Hawks says:

    But you must admit, some of those robots really *were* outrageous…

    Isn’t the actual test of this idea of “deeper, slower” already at hand? Mainstream science mags have never been able to do “paper o’ the week” reporting, they’ve always depended on the longer, visit the lab, add context kind of articles. My limited exposure to their reporting over the last few years seems to indicate that they’re cutting budgets for stories, doubling-up multiple stories on single reporting “excursions” and adding less and less value in terms of photography.

    Now, it’s clear that they’ve not made an effective transition to the web. In fact, their web “news” offerings seem intent on creating their own versions of the “paper o’ the week” approach. Not sure I have a conclusion, but seems incongruous.

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    • John Rennie says:

      Excellent rejoinder, John, thank you.

      Let me note, I could be just dead wrong. Maybe, the approach to science news I’m talking about won’t succeed: readers might not really like it much after all, or advertising might not want to support it, or whatever. It just seems to me that if science news media keep following this model, they’re going to keep spiraling downward because of their own interchangeability and cheaper competition.

      Your observations about what’s happening at science magazines less vested in the news cycle are good, and they may represent a sound refutation to my argument, but it’s possible the situation is also more complicated than it seems. The problems that science magazine suffer are completely bound up with those of all other print media these days. If larger forces are just crushing all revenue models for all print magazines, then it won’t matter whether science news reinvents itself or not: it will get sucked to the bottom of the sea with the rest.

      So what I’m describing isn’t meant as The Brilliant Plan that Will Save Publishing. (Because if it were, I promise you, I would be dictating this comment from Davos, where Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg and I would be skeet-shooting Fabergé eggs pitched by Victoria’s Secret supermodels.) It’s more of a suggestion that, if there are any business models that will support producing good editorial, or if we simply don’t want to be part of the vast free slurry of rewritten press releases, we need to do something distinctive.

      Or maybe here’s another way to think about it. Let’s assume all legacy media go kaput and we’re left with an online science writing universe of blogs, university information offices, press release farms, etc. If we wanted to create a new science news publication, or if we just wanted to stand out somehow in that landscape as good science news writers, what would we do? My guess is that we wouldn’t all say, “Let’s write about this swell new paper in this week’s Nature, and publish the story as soon as it comes out of embargo—just like everybody else!” It’s lunacy.

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      • Dave Mosher says:

        Really enjoying the discussions here lately.

        John, regarding your point:

        Maybe, the approach to science news I’m talking about won’t succeed: readers might not really like it much after all

        This audience stews in my mind every time I read about the future of media, especially science-centric content. They’re, you know, the audience. Our number-one customer. For all of the great ideas tossed around here and elsewhere, it’s the aspect I feel is discussed the least.

        Not to insinuate this question doesn’t have an answer, but: Do we know our audience?

        Related questions about audiences: How big are they? What do they expect/want/need from a source of science content? Why do they read it to begin with? How committed are they to reading science content vs. other topics? What is their attention span? What, if anything, changes their patterns of dedication to/consumption of science content? And so on.

        From our end: As producers of science content, how much weight should we lend any one of these considerations?

        What gives me pause is the feeling that a majority of science content consumers are headline-skimmers who want to feel informed about science, but don’t necessarily want to do the time-consuming work of, you know, reading/watching/listening/participating in discussions. What gives me hope are the incredibly intelligent people who go to content and buoy its importance/impact/richness by chiming in (often to counter the idiocy they see in threads). People who do read deeply instead of quickly. They are certainly out there.

        My impression is that most science-content producers have taken a “Field of Dreams” approach to spending time on their latest work, i.e. “If you build it, they will come.” I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with that. Taking risks is the only route to success. But maybe it would do us all good to inject more strategic, business-like research before launching new digital efforts — be it a single feature in a post or a never-before-seen, multi-million-dollar platform — in delivering science content.

        Or, perhaps not.

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        • John Rennie says:

          Dave, those are indeed many of the right questions to be asking. The answers are probably complicated because there isn’t a single audience science audience but rather many different overlapping, nonexclusive ones, and individuals probably move among them depending on their circumstances. Having edited a monthly science magazine that commanded a premium price and enjoyed huge audience loyalty, I can attest that there is definitely a sizable audience of consumers with disposable income who are very happy to get in-depth, demanding science outside the news cycle. It’s also probably true, though, that the audience of people who can be happy with a more superficial treatment because they enjoy the illusion of being informed is much bigger. So be it; different strokes and all that. We can decide for ourselves which of those audiences we’d like to serve.

          It’s a safe assumption that the existing science media have collected reams of survey information on all the questions you raised. But in using that information, commercial science media are rarely bent exclusively on giving readers what they want. Instead, they strike a compromise between what readers want and what advertisers are willing to support. Those two are not antithetical to one another but they also aren’t identical—maybe especially for science media. (That’s all material for another, longer discussion.) What will be interesting is to see if, as the old models decay, the established science media get bold or desperate enough to try anything radically different from what they’ve done in the past.

          I couldn’t and wouldn’t argue against doing lots of sound market research before launching new digital products. My only thought is that, as previously noted, the new business solutions that will work for science media are most probably going to be like the ones that work for the rest of media, too. But while everybody is trying to sort out what those business solutions are, I think we’d all be well served playing around with new editorial solutions, too. If nothing else, it will be more fun that way.

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  4. Ed says:

    I also think we need to remember John’s point that his suggestions (if I understand it correctly) aren’t meant as a blanket replacement for the current science news model. They’re more a call for greater diversity.

    This echoes something I said at Scio11. Mainstream science news is largely a monoculture, characterised by largely uniform choices of style and content. And as any good biologist knows, monocultures suck at resisting big environmental change. What we need is a more diverse ecosystem. That way, John’s model may prove to be better, or it might prove to be worse. But at the very least, we’ll have given selection something to act upon.

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  5. Steve Silberman says:

    What we need is a more diverse ecosystem.

    I totally agree. I’m actually trying to walk that talk with my own blog, which is a conscious attempt to cultivate a new life form in the journalistic ecosystem. Alexis Madrigal at TheAtlantic.com, bless him, recognized that right away (my first post!) and called it slow-form blogging, which he described as “It feels like a blog, that is to say, approachable and personal, but it also has the polish of a mag feature. ” Just what I was trying for.

    It makes me feel like a total slacker compared to, say, Ed (!!!), who can inhale a few studies after a day in the lab and breathe out diamond-sharp prose that is the way to think about the research, and always very fair. But returning to blogging in 2010 after a long hiatus, I was surprised how many sci-blogs seemed happily constrained by the same model of what a blog is supposed to feel like.

    Hey, I love that model. But I figured, what PLoS was offering me (thanks to the brilliant and sweet Brian Mossop, was a warm soupy tidepool where weird life-forms could ooze forth from the primordial bits.

    That’s the good part of this crazy broke-ass America right now: exuberant creativity bubbling up everywhere, grinning madly as we leap off the cliff.

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  6. Gaythia says:

    I realize that this doesn’t help much with individual career paths or fairly short term decision making, but in discussing the “more diverse ecosystem” above, I think it is useful to realize that there is a greater ecosystem involved here than just that of science journalists. Chemjobber, and others, are describing similar employment struggles for chemists. Professional scientists and engineers have been struggling with job off-shoring for years. We can’t all be hedge fund operators. Somehow all of us in the science sub-region of the greater economic ecosystem need to realize that we share this ecosystem together. We share a desire to explain the importance of science to others. I believe that science readers, and less science connected members of the public, have gotten very cynical of the headline approach, in which in today’s headline scientists say this, and tomorrow’s they seemingly contradict it. Scientists are similarly annoyed with a public aura that makes the process of scientific discovery seem like a series of wavering opinions. With online, interactive media, can informed, and semi-informed, readers play a role in promoting improved science communication?
    I think John Rennie is off to a great start here in beginning this conversation. We need to harness the creativity, and public desire for information, in constructive ways so that we don’t all end up leaping off the cliff described by Steve Silberman above.

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  7. The last paragraph of your last comment seems like another interesting gedanke experiment. Let’s then assume it. Every printed media has died. All that is left is online media. How would *your* ideal science publication be, and, more to the point, how would it live? Now, that does need some thinking!

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  8. Ed Yong says:

    Dave is right that audiences are paramount. Re: headline skimmers, there are two ways of looking at that: you could argue that the short-para, inverted-pyramid, just-the-facts-maam style is the norm because that’s what audiences want; or you could argue that this is what audiences want because that’s the only material that’s been available to them for years.

    I go back to my point about monoculture. If you try diverse mould-breaking stuff, you might find that (as Slate did) that long-form pieces are actually quite popular.

    On Twitter, Mark Henderson responded to John’s point by saying that there’s still a need for short, punchy, traditional news writing. Getting context into short word counts is the big challenge. I’d agree, and we’re back to diversity. But I also think you don’t necessarily need to choose between these approaches – I try and structure my pieces so that people get a decent story if they stop reading after the first few paras, but those who stick around get more rewards. I think the traditional style is good at the former; not so much at the latter.

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  9. Steve Silberman says:

    so that we don’t all end up leaping off the cliff described by Steve Silberman above

    Just want to clarify that I meant “leaping off the cliff of the known and familiar into the unknown,” not diving into death or obscurity.

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  10. Gaythia says:

    An optimist! That’s ok, I think. To what extent do we look before we leap?

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  11. Jonathan Parkinson says:

    This whole discussion raises a lot of really interesting questions.

    Again, I completely agree the “big paper of the week” model is absurd — no one could possibly come to a fuller understanding of science or current scientific research just by following the day-to-day articles you see published on, say, the BBC . My favorite example is the awesome TRIM21 paper in PNAS last year (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/11/01/1014074107.abstract). It was a fascinating discovery — an intracellular antibody-mediated immune response. Who knew we HAD this defense mechanism? But it didn’t make for a great headline, unfortunately, because in order to understand why these results were fascinating you have to know a little biology. Rather than trying to explain the background and put the study in context, the MSM ran headlines like “Cure for the Common Cold?”

    The paper had nothing to DO with a cure for the common cold, nor was there anything in the paper to suggest that it did. And it’s this kind of reporting that earns the MSM a bad name.

    So what’s the alternative to the “big paper of the week”? Speaking, admittedly, as a novice — and one who is a part-time freelancer/soon-to-graduate biology student at that — I agree, more in-depth reporting would be a wonderful thing. It’s got to be better than stories like the example I mentioned above. But do editors want more in-depth reporting on science? Does the public want more in-depth reporting on science? At the end of the day, demand is the important question, because increasing supply in the absence of demand is not the way to make a successful commodity. This comes back to the comment about the audience — who IS the audience, and do we know what they want? Unfortunately, I don’t really have a solid answer to that either.

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    • John Rennie says:

      My suspicion is that it’s a mistake for us to start off by thinking in terms of how much science to report, etc.—because that’s definitely not what editors or readers are basing their decisions on. Readers want appealing, rewarding stories. Some stories can be big, some can be small, some can be hugely entertaining, some can be heartbreaking, some can be scary, and on down the line. What we on the writing end need to figure out is how to find and tell stories that meet those various criteria as well as others that matter: that the science we explain be accurate, that the science be sufficient to satisfy some readers’ curiosity, that we be journalistically fair to different sides, etc. The problems with the “monoculture” of science writing, to use Ed’s phrase, tare that the media end up offering too restricted a set of science stories and that their lack of variation makes them extra vulnerable.

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  12. gaythia says:

    Personally, I would enter some comments to the effect that the “monoculture” works in support of large financial interests in which short term entertainment is far and away more crucial than focusing the public on the long term issues that face us.
    Also, the devaluation of science reporting is only a segment of devaluing all sorts of actual work as opposed to financial manipulation.
    A substantial part of the goal should be getting the public to realize that a knowledge of science and support of scientific discoveries are needed to provide all of us with a constructive path forward.
    All of us need to realize that we are part of a united and linked community.

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  13. Here’s another reason science news needs to innovate: the process of rote reporting from new papers is so automate-able, someone is trying to do just that:

    Can This Journalist Be Replaced By Software and Mechanical Turk?
    http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/mimssbits/26354/?p1=A4

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    • John Rennie says:

      Yes! Thanks, Chris. I was getting ready to write more about this Mechanical Turk project for another post, but I’m glad you’ve mentioned it here, too. The bottom line is, lots of forces are all looking to take over the job of providing science news as we’ve done it. So… what else are we going to do?

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  14. Charles Choi says:

    An innovation I mentioned at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker that might be relevant here:

    There’s an interesting project called Salubrious Nation (http://salubriousnation.com/) that presents health data in the form of a guessing game. It feels very much like an advanced interactive graphic. It’s part of a new genre called a “newsgame” where gaming is used as a new way of presenting journalistic information. One can easily imagine this being used in the context of science journalism — by using medical data, Salubrious Nation is already a health newsgame.

    And yes, I did write a story about Salubrious Nation and other newsgames: http://www.technewsdaily.com/newsgames-latest-trend-online-gaming-2109/)

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