Survival of the fittest science journalists

Hammersley: a bleak future for science journalism?

Hammersley: a bleak future for science journalism?

The word on everybody’s lips at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists opening plenary this afternoon was ‘crisis’.

With newspapers around the world migrating online or ceasing publication altogether, science journalists are right to be worried. Nick Higham, BBC correspondent and chair of the plenary, attributed the crisis in part to the rise of new media. He hit the nail on the head when he said “but how can we make it [new media] pay? And where do traditional, professional, properly-paid journalists fit in?”

Three speakers offered their perspectives on “New media for new journalism?”

Krishna Bharat, GoogleNews founder, simply suggested that we must become “smarter about getting the right material to the right people”. This means working in “cooperation, not competition”; using experts to create “living stories” a bit like wikipedia articles; and “packaging up” individual articles with branding and advertising for people to post on their own websites.

Jeff Nesbit, from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States, which traditionally supports science itself rather than science journalism, highlighted a variety of strategies that blend old and new media and, according to Nesbit, are proving crucial in the fight to keep science journalism alive. These range from underwriting the costs of science desks in traditional newspapers, to aggregating news online, to creating new content for radio, television and new media.

Poor Nesbit was given a hard time by the audience who questioned both the quality and objectivity of government-funded science communication — several delegates argued that the NSF’s efforts fall into public relations rather than science journalism.

Ben Hammersley, associate editor of Wired Magazine, painted a bleak future for science journalism, suggesting that the next WCSJ might see just half today’s number of working science journalists. The key to survival, he said, is to specialise in a single medium and create “extraordinarily good products”. Audiences go to “where the good stuff is, not where the shiny stuff is”. It’s survival of the fittest.

But we should remember that new media has been on the table for at least ten years. Arguing that it is causing a crisis in science journalism is, said Hammersley, like “being chased down the street by a snail”. If you haven’t got your head around new media by now, he added, you’re in serious trouble.

Sian Lewis, SciDev.Net

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