Why science journalism is suffering

Posted on September 30, 2010


There are a number of problems with science journalism today, and they tend to feed on each other. Decades ago, when the newspaper industry had advertising-driven profit margins in the 10-25% range, newspaper companies were bought by conglomerates that wanted those sky-high profits. Advertising revenues have since plummeted largely as a result of web advertising, especially sites like Craig’s List. But those same conglomerates continue to expect sky high margins even though revenues have fallen. Because the conglomerates are unwilling to accept lower short-term profits, corporate managers instead force editors to lay off journalists.

In every business, the first people laid off are those who just plain suck at their job, cost the most, and are the least flexible. In the case of newspapers, the most expensive and least flexible people tend to be the oldest journalists and editors with the highest salaries, the specialists who produce little day-to-day volume but cost a lot, and those who are unwilling or unable to transition from one beat to another.

Generally speaking, the older journalists are the ones who have the most contacts and experience. When the older, more expensive journalists are laid off, the newspaper loses the access that journalist had to people in positions of power and people who can be counted on for good information. The newspaper also loses both professional and institutional experience as the older journalists disappear, and as a result younger journalists have less mentoring in their craft and produce less honed stories that are based on superficial information instead of deep sourcing. In addition, older journalists develop keen intuition about when someone is feeding them a line of bologna and so they are less easily manipulated by political operatives and corporate PR mavens than are younger journalists.

One type of specialist journalist, the investigative journalist, produces a good series maybe every few months but costs a the newspaper a great deal in the interim. Furthermore, the occasional series tend not to bring in the big advertisers and may in fact drive away some advertisers if the investigation was focused on some aspect of business or industry. Environmental journalists are even less friendly to the bottom line because they tend to target advertisers and can earn the newspaper more enemies than friends in the process of their reporting.

In the process of learning their specialization, science journalists tend to make themselves less skilled (mostly through disuse) at some forms of journalism just as they become more skilled at science journalism – some can make the transition back, but many cannot. This means that not only are science journalists more expensive as specialists, they’re also often less flexible too, making them newsroom targets.

All of these factors mean that the quality and variety of articles produced by the newspaper drops, and as they drop the newspaper’s distribution shrinks as people lose interest. And with fewer subscribers, the newspaper reaches fewer potential customers and advertising revenue shrinks ever further. This creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop that eats newspapers alive.

And while the focus has been on newspapers, the same basic dynamic is also occurring in broadcast news.

There are other issues as well, but they’re not necessarily as obvious as what I described above. The US is no longer as well educated as we used to be, and as our collective educational level has sagged over the last 30+ years so too has interest in science. This understandably leads to news outlets placing a lower priority on subjects of low interest, and as a result many news outlets have abandoned science sections in favor of wider sports and technology coverage. And specialist journalists who cover low-interest areas are even more likely to be considered expendable when the layoffs inevitably come.

Similarly, there is some public perception that environmentalism “won,” and that the big problems of environmentalism have been solved (CFCs, acid rain, deforestation in the US). So there’s less interest in environmental issues if they’re not specifically local to the community.

There are a huge number of science and environmental journalists blogging who used to be professionals on staff at major newspapers and broadcast news outlets (CNN, ABC, etc.) because of all the reasons I described above. And nearly every one of them I’ve talked to or listened to has complained about how their profession (science or environmental journalism) was dying because of the things I mentioned above.

Personal note: Thanks to all the discussions on the Society of Environmental Journalists email groups about how and why environmental journalism is shrinking, and to S&R’s own Dr. Denny who has written more about the changing media landscape than anyone else here. Click on Denny’s name to read all his articles.

Image Credit: Science Progress

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