Science Writers and Science Bloggers: Is it "War," or is it "Marriage"?

By Chris Mooney | March 25, 2009 11:58 am

Yesterday over at Cosmic Variance, I left a comment promising I’d have more to say on the whole question of science communication amid the current upheaval in the media industry. And today I do–my latest Science Progress column just went up, and it wades into a new debate in this area that has been sparked by recent articles in Nature, Columbia Journalism Review, and elsewhere.

Let’s just say I got a little fired up in this column. I’m kind of upset that in all this discussion of traditional science journalism declining, and science blogging booming, nobody is thinking about the people who are suffering. So I kind of teed off, as follows:

For the most part, blogging isn’t a career. As matters currently stand, most bloggers can’t expect to support a family, get health insurance, a retirement plan, etc, simply through blogging alone. At best they’re the equivalent of faculty adjuncts, never destined for the tenure track.

That’s why the science journalists who you find blogging tend to be freelance or unattached science journalists, and also book authors. We’re entrepreneurs and hacks of all trades; we do a whole bunch of different kinds of things; blogging is just one more to add on the pile. (And we’d be glad to take adjunct work too!)

In other words, our economic models are individualistic and entrepreneurial. One can scarcely doubt that there will always be people in the media willing—or crazy enough—to roll this way. We’re the types to to cry “Freedom!” at the top of our lungs while the media industry removes our entrails. But the question is, what happens to everybody else? The death of traditional science journalism is a death of pensions, healthcare, and childbearing leave. It is a harsh exposure of science journalism to the elements.

That’s why it was so beyond the pale to find a university faculty scientist and science blogger, University of Toronto biochemistry professor Larry Moran, commenting on my blog (quoted by Nature) that “Seriously, most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of without it…Science journalists have let us down. I say good riddance.” In other words, send them out into the cold.

The point is that we can’t just discuss the “death of science journalism,” and the potential replacement thereof by blogging, in the abstract. There’s a ton of pain out there right now. I close the column by suggesting the real problem is the lack of solidarity among people who cover science in the media, new or old. They care about scientific knowledge, but do they care about each other?

You can read the full column here.

Comments (9)

  1. Tuatara

    I wonder whether the paper industry need to be completely wiped out before there can be a rise of good journalism that lives exclusively on the web. From what I hear, the main reason that good journalism cannot get going on the internet is because the ad dollars are not there. But what if everyone had to go to the internet for their written media. Would the advert dollars follow? If so, then I say lets get rid of the tree consuming high carbon footprint paper media ASAP. My gut feeling is that as our generation gets older, the phoenix of print good print journalism will arise on the web. It is going to be a hard next 5-10 years for journalists, but media transitions rooted in technological innovation are nothing new.

  2. That’s a nice piece and I agree with you. I have some ideas about science journalists possibly teaming up with consultant scientists to hammer out their articles before they are published by the MSM. But it would be best to email you separately.

  3. Linda

    Your final question is a good one, and should be explored honestly.

  4. I think part of the problem with science journalists, is that most are journalists, with no schooling or training is science. I could be wrong, but I think you and Sheril are exceptions to the rule. “I’m kind of upset that in all this discussion of traditional science journalism declining, and science blogging booming, nobody is thinking about the people who are suffering. ” It isn’t just science journalism that is suffering. It is “traditional” journalism also. Soon, I believe, no one will being reading printed media (newspaper, magazines, etc.) anymore. The problem is traditional print media has not been able to find a viable business model that is sustainable. Most people are not willing to pay to read a newspaper online and ad revenue just does not cut it.

  5. That it is possible to get the science highly accurate in spite of not having a background in it is illustrated by several wonderful books; my personal favourite example is Richard Rhodes’s magnificent “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”. Chris himself has demonstrated it well in “Storm World”.

    Also, I am not sure how the world would be if people stop reading printed media; after all most people still don’t get their staple diet of information from the Internet. It could be a very disturbing and dangerous situation if the printed media dies, because then we would have a striking discrepancy in the world, with 90% of people reading virtually nothing for staying abreast of current events. As you indicated, we all need to help the printed media find a viable business model.

  6. Dr. R.

    Just some random thoughts: I don’t think blogging could ever replace journalism. Blogging doesn’t really have any sort of professional or ethical standard. I get the sense that most blogs are filled with mostly opinions, even blogs by scientists who think that their understanding or perspective on something is the right or “best” way to look at whatever it is they are blogging about. A journalist would, or should, take into account that view and other views. And I’m not talking about science vs. non-science views (e.g., what ID folks think about evolutionary biology findings or what politicians think about global warming data). I mean just the stuff that goes on in science – no one scientist has all the answers about anything or the right opinion. And most blogs, sorry to say, are sort of preaching to the choir. So people who are really adamant about one or another particular scientific topic tend to read and comment on blogs written by people who have the same interests or views. I mean, I don’t know if that’s true but I’d be surprised if it weren’t. For the most part. I’ve seen a couple bloggers who really pounce, not just pounce, but pummel other scientists (or science writers writing about the science) with different perspectives on issues. Again, I’m not talking about science vs. non-science issues. I mean, within the world of science. Scientists vs. scientists. Scientists vs. science writers. Scientists vs. science journalists. I don’t think all scientists who blog have as their goal the communication of science, not really. There’s too much ego and other stuff wrapped up in what a lot of them are putting in their blogs.

  7. Dr. R.

    I should have said “especially blogs by scientists” (ironically, or maybe not) …

  8. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    I agree that scientists and science writers/journalists/communicators should be sympathetic to folks losing their jobs/benefits, and I agree that science is definitely better off with professional science journalists plying their trade.

    But I’m not sure how that will materially help the traditional science journalists — it would certainly be nice to be understood and appreciated, but goodwill ain’t gonna protect their jobs. There’s still this underlying problem of the increasing failure of traditional media’s business models [see: demise of newspapers as a whole]; that’s what’s really making big trouble for many science journalists.

  9. Arthur Kipps

    Kind of full of yourself aren’t you?

    Nothing in the torrent of guff emanating from this place shows signs of intimate knowledge of science or science journalism.

    Someone who spends their time writing about what they write really needs to get out more often.

    This is why blogging is no substitute for paid work.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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