Is media coverage of science dying on the vine? Last weekend’s sold-out U.S. convocation of science writers would indicate otherwise. People are interested in science, and science interpreters are serving their interests.
Twice a year, American science writers congregate to assess their profession and its changing position in the greater society, and to learn something about innovations in science and technology straight from the scientists’ mouths.
Every February science writers from the U.S. and elsewhere meet in large numbers to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, . A week ago, as in every October, the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) met in conjunction with the Council for the Advancement of Science Writers for an annual meeting created by and for them, this time in Raleigh, North Carolina, at the time that hurricane Sandy was prowling America’s northeastern shores before making its catastrophic landfall in New Jersey. Raleigh itself suffered little or nothing from the proximity of the storm. Temperatures were moderate for the time of year; some rain fell, wind frisked harmlessly through autumnal trees, skittering their leaves along city pavements.
As the NASW part of ScienceWriters2012 got under way, writers from America’s media hub, New York City, became increasingly worried as it became evident that they would be cut off from their homes and offices. Some had cancelled their trips, some left early while they could; others opted to stay put. Among the last-named was a handful of Scientific American journalists who during the grim days operated a virtual bureau in Raleigh with an online offering dubbed “The Science of Hurricane Sandy Liveblog.”
While keeping a weather eye on Sandy, nearly 500 science writers – from the worlds of print, video, the Internet, academia and public relations – were treated to a wide variety of sessions that ranged from the coverage of science during an election to the nature of dark matter. Individuals who were frustrated by the appearance of two interesting discussions at the same time, or who stayed at home, were treated to articles written on the spot and posted on the public portion of the NASW website. Two reporters, for example, wrote about “Unearthing Narrative,” a topic tackled by four outstanding journalists who shared views and experiences on the challenge of word-sculpting a difficult but significant story into a readable, interesting “narrative arc” that will appeal to a relatively large readership.
The first discussion I attended was possibly the most helpful personally and professionally, since it delved into the subject of books and ebooks, or perhaps books v. ebooks – ebooks being media that could be a Kindle or Nook version of a full-sized book or an offering characterized by short texts and small pricetags. My autobiographical book Wonderment is available in paperback and ebook versions, but another, which came out a few years ago in hardback and paperback, did not. However, I managed to regain full rights to the text, and now I’m wondering whether I should update and republish as a traditional book or rewrite and restructure the chapters as short, inexpensive ebooks. Author David Dobbs told us that after multiple rejections his book My Mother’s Lover became a Kindle Single (no paper version available) that promises to be more successful than his experiences with print. Speaking of ebooks in general, writer Laura Bell concluded that “ebooks are growing in popularity partly because readers have an easier time committing to a $3 ebook than a $26 hardback.” It sounds worth trying, and the panelists have produced a long list of resource information to help me launch a new venture..
Unfortunately I was still en route to Raleigh and unable to be present for another session of special personal interest, titled “Not dead yet: How science journalism is evolving at traditional news organizations.” For years I have fretted over the decline of traditional print media and the pruning of science writers and other specialists from newspaper staffs. But now, writer Sarah Zielinski reported, science-writer positions are coming to life, albeit in a form that is considerably changed by the confluence of print with electronic media. Weekly publications such as Science News no longer are driven by weekly deadlines – deadlines come at a hectic rate in order that blogs and daily editions can be produced and kept rigorously up to date. Staffers at the Christian Science Monitor learned this some time ago when their newspaper went all-electronic; today even the iconic, member-supported Physics Today has its daily ezine, news-hungry enough even to find enough electronic ink to feature yours truly. In science writing overall, director Philip Hilts of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program says, “The jobs are out there, and they’re increasing.” And that makes me glad. As did seeing my friend Adam Aston, a onetime editor at Business Week who successfully converted from staff work to freelancer.
That said, we still have to reckon with the Pew Research measurement of a steady decline of interest in science subjects, reported by Knight Tracker in 2007, when war, terrorism, and other disasters easily topped the popularity poll. CERN and the Higgs boson, climate change, and the Curiosity Mars lander probably caused an uptick since then, but I haven’t seen the data.
Attendees also took a close look at Wikipedia, the living encyclopedia to which virtually anyone (even this blogger) can offer contributions. Among many journalists there is a nagging suspicion that Wikipedia is neither sufficiently comprehensive nor sufficiently accurate to meet the standards of serious journalism. Blogs in which writers post frustrated cries such as “I hate Wikipedia” are not by any means unknown. But while audience members were shy about admitting their use of the service, the discussion tended to support a Wikipedia that is thorough and stays up to date. Writer Colin Weatherby ended his article on a sanguine note, pronouncing “further evidence that the website may one day be embraced by science writers with open arms and a clear conscience.”
More on this fine meeting, which included a great deal more about science itself than the previous paragraphs indicate, is available at https://www.nasw.org/events/past.