Is science journalism dead? Can blogging replace it?

Traditional science journalism is certainly dying (see “CNN fires staff covering science and environment, hires psychic to cover climate change” and “NBC nixes TV’s only global climate change show during ‘Green Week’.” and below). This is part of an overall trend in the death of serious reporting and major newspapers.I have mixed feelings, since, on the one hand, both of my parents were award-winning journalists/editors, but, on the other hand, the state of science journalism and climate reporting today in the traditional media just ain’t good — as I have blogged on many times (see CNN, ABC, WashPost, AP, blow Australian wildfire, drought, heatwave “Hell (and High Water) on Earth” story — never mention climate change and “NYT’s Revkin seems shocked by media’s own failure to explain climate threat” and links below). As a professional blogger, I certainly don’t have the reach of the traditional media with my 10,000 visits and 50,000 page views each day — but I and many others provide what I believe is a far superior picture of the harsh reality of climate science than the soft-pedaling scribes of the MSM. Indeed, if homo “sapiens” sapiens fail to act in time to avert the worst global warming impacts: Hell and High Water, then science journalism will certainly deserve some of the blame for having delivered such a muddied message. I’d be interested in your answers to the two headline questions. But first, science journalist and science blogger Chris Mooney has some thoughts of his own in a post first published by Science Progress.

Amid all the layoffs in the traditional science journalism field, which I’ve been writing about here for some time, the focus of chatter has quite naturally shifted to an inevitable question: Do science blogs serve as any real replacement?

As it happens, I stand in a rather interesting place to discuss this, having just moved my own co-authored science blog, “The Intersection,” to Discover Blogs on Monday, and for this reason finding myself hailed by Columbia Journalism Review as part of a trend of mainstream media outlets (the dreaded “MSM”) acquiring science-centered blogs and blog content.

A recent cover feature in the magazine Nature by writer Geoff Brumfiel stirred all this up. “Supplanting the old media?” it reads. “Science journalism is in decline; science blogging is growing fast. But can the one replace the other?” In reply, Curtis Brainard at Columbia Journalism Review’s “The Observatory” pointed out that Brumfiel and Nature might be constructing an artificial dichotomy. Brainard highlighted Discover’s burgeoning blog collection as an example of a marriage of old and new media in the science arena, and added: “next week the site will add another ‘top-ten’ blog from the community.”

I don’t know about “top ten,” but that was us.

I feel very conflicted about all this. As both a science journalist and also a science blogger, I would be one messed up dude if I loathed either activity. Clearly there is no sharp dichotomy between blogging and journalism in the science field if the two merge in a person like myself, or in many others, like Carl Zimmer or Rebecca Skloot or Jennifer Ouellette.


Yet while I certainly enjoy blogging and feel it has many benefits — and we’re psyched to be at Discover — I actually side more with Nature and Brumfield than with Brainard in this dialogue. I don’t really see how blogging works as a substitute for traditional science journalism, and I question talk of “marriage” between the two when so many traditional science journalists are losing the jobs — and also, sad to say, when many science bloggers seem to have an adversarial stance toward their science journalist peers (and perhaps vice-versa).

So all the problems during this time of transition that Nature describes (and that many others have highlighted) resonate with me: Blogs have smaller, more specialized audiences. Most of the time, bloggers don’t have journalistic training and don’t “report.” And so on.

But there’s a deeper, and indeed, fundamental difference here that seems to me to have been elided, especially by Brainard. 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 deepest problem here, in my mind, is moral: We lack the shared sense that people who cover science in the media — blogger, reporter, or otherwise — are part of the same team and need to be supported in bad times. We rarely take the time to look out for each other. We lack a sense of solidarity.

And now, many of our friends are going down alone.

JR: So what do you think? Is professor Larry Moran right — good riddance to traditional science journalists? Or is Mooney right that Moran’s comments are beyond the pale and we should mourn the loss?

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