As part of a course I’m auditing at the Harvard Kennedy School, I have been reading the teacher’s book: veteran newsman Alex Jones’ Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy. It is quite an amazing, saddening read. The problems with the news industry are not new to me–in fact, they comprise a central component of Unscientific America–but the ways in which they are documented here, in unforgettable narrative (the stories of the decline of papers like the L.A. Times) and ironclad analysis (of the economics of why newspapers are suffering so badly), are superb.
Jones’ central motif is that there is an “iron core” of real news, reported news, produced by expert journalists each day. It is expensive to produce, it requires long-trained journalists, travel and research budgets, libel insurance, and much else. It has strong standards: objectivity, balance, and so on. It has never been more than, say, 15 percent of the total content of a newspaper, and always surrounded and adorned by softer stuff: opinion, commentary, film reviews, sports, horoscopes, crosswords, etc. But when newspapers were highly profitable, the revenue they generated effectively subsidized this public service aspect of the newspaper business, and the “iron core” was strong.
Now, though, the “iron core” is no longer so protected, or assured of being subsidized as it once was. Its total size is shrinking, and it is not being replaced, for the most part, on the web–where the content generated is largely commentary and opinion, rather than real news itself, and indeed, feeds off of what’s left of the “iron core.”
Such is Jones’ thesis, and I found myself wondering exactly where science journalism fits into the “core” argument. I would guess that part of science journalism fits, or would have fit, into the iron core; indeed, it is probably among the parts of the core that is vanishing fastest. But at the same time, science journalism is perhaps a different form of highly subsidized coverage, one that fares even worse than hard news. Call it the “science core.” It is even less protected, I would argue, in the new media context; and it is certainly being no better replaced by the science blogosphere or science on the web.
What do we do about this situation, either to save the “iron core” or the “science core”? Maybe that’s a topic for another post…or something Jones will get to later in the book. Certainly, the situation does not look good out there, and solutions are few, or maybe nonexistent, for restoring these forms of journalism as they once existed.