By now the trend is obvious and not much news. Traditional newspapers are losing readership and advertising. They are laying off staff, cutting costs, and consolidating news offices.
This has been a very bad thing for science journalism, which has always been a mixed bag even in the best of times. Now newspapers are letting go their specialty reporters, like science journalists, and handing over science news to general reporters. The result has been an overall decrease in the quality of science journalism.
The culprit is what you are reading right now – blogs and the internet in general. The public now is used to getting their news for free online. Online news is also more timely, more interactive, it’s hyperlinked to references – it’s a web of information. I dare say it’s a better, more useful, more timely, and more cost effective venue for information.
The problem is that the internet is killing traditional media before it is fully settled itself. It is not clear how to monetize internet journalism. How will journalists and journalism survive the transition? This has lead some to be pessimistic about the future of journalism.
Steven Johnson, however, is optimistic. Johnson is a science writer who, at a recent lecture, stated that he thinks journalism is not dead, it’s just in transition. The solution, he says, is the same as the problem – the internet. Newspapers need to find a new business model, and part of that will be ditching the printing costs of putting out dead-tree newspapers. Going all digital is the way to go, and many journals and papers have already done so.
I agree with Johnson – partly. I do think we are seeing the inevitable stampede to online content, for all the advantages I outlined above. The role of print publications is also certainly shrinking, but I don’t think they will vanish completely anytime soon. The real trick will be sorting out which kind of content is best online, and which still works in print – and how to combine the two in a way that optimizes news delivery and creates an effective business model.
I don’t pretend to know how to do this, but I have some thoughts as it pertains to science journalism.
First, I am obviously a big supporter of blogs – I contribute to four separate blogs, including this one and my personal blog, NeuroLogica. The advantage of blogs is that working scientists and educators can communicate science to the public in their spare time. There doesn’t have to be a business model – because I and other scientist bloggers don’t have to make a living off of blogs.
But there are also those who are experimenting with business models for blogs. One I think has a future is print science journals, like Discover and Scientific American, supplementing their print content with science blogs. Our own Phil Plait, for example, now blogs for Discover Magazine.
But I also have an appreciation for what blogs are not. Blogs tend to be quickly written, down and dirty articles. They are not the kind of feature articles that one would spend days or weeks writing. I have written those as well, often combining the work of many blog entries into a single longer article that is much more carefully written and referenced.
What this means is that the immediacy and accessibility of blogs are great, but there is still a role for more thorough works, and perhaps there is room for those longer articles in print – at least for a while.
Another legitimate concern is that we still need full-time professional journalists, which means that there needs to be a business model that allows journalists to live off their reporting. I cannot, in my spare time, do much primary journalistic investigation. I provide mostly analysis of news, not primary investigation. Without professional investigative journalists digging up the facts and telling the story, what news stories will bloggers analyze?
Science bloggers will always have the published literature to review. I also occasionally interview scientists about their research. But I cannot do a long-term in depth investigation.
That, in my opinion, is the real risk, and why, though I share some of Johnson’s optimism, I think there is a real risk to the transition. If journalism as a profession, especially science journalism, cannot be financially sustained through the transition, much may be lost.
In the end I think we will have a blend of online and print news. Experimentation will explore various models and in the end we will have something much better.