From London to NY to Copenhagen: Optimism about Science Journalism

Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, Cristine Russell is back from the World Federation of Science Journalists conference and reports on a panel of leading editors who are generally optimistic about the future of science coverage at their respective news organizations.

Editors at the Times of London and the BBC reported that their organizations were actually expanding their science beat. On the US front, the NY Times' science editor Laura Chang recognized the need to diversify their readership by "going broad," thinking specifically about what topics and dimensions of science are relevant to their readers and using new technologies to engage audiences. As Chang put it the biggest challenge is to:

...broaden traditional science coverage and "meet readers wherever they happen to be," both in medium (print, online, Twitter) and interest (such as a popular new health and running blog). "We want to engage the muscles as well as minds of readers."

It's encouraging to hear that editors at the elite media outlets are investing in building global brands around deep, Web-based interactive science coverage.

Another place where optimism about science journalism still exists is in Copenhagen, Denmark. Last month when I attended the Danish Association of Science Journalists meetings, a featured speaker was Anne Knudsen, editor of the weekly broadsheet Weekendavisen.

In contrast to the NY Times' Chang, Knudsen was stalwart in emphasizing a traditional print format for her content. I'm not sure of the wisdom of this position, but for now, Knudsen reports that Weekendavisen continues to turn a profit with readership holding at roughly 300,000.

Also of interest, Knudsen recognized the importance of framing and source credibility. In this, she was pessimistic about new models of science journalism that might be government funded.

Below are my notes on her talk and remarks:

It's not true that young people don't read...books that are selling are non-fiction, reading about history, geography, foreign lands, but first and foremost they read about history and science.

Reading is universal, everyone reads, People are keen on getting perspective, context, and stories, but they don't need any old story, young people are very different from previous generations, and that they are enormously suspicious about truth of what they are reading.

What you need to communicate with them is trustworthiness...everyone is trying to sell something, people are getting better and better and veiling their intent in entertainment, but the reading public knows that this is going on, so they always look after the framing of the message and the sender, who is the presumed sender, what is the presumed intent of any message.

No one has figured out how to make money off of the Internet, yes can with services, but no one has figured out how to make money providing news content.

A lot of the good science content online are government funded Web sites.

This picture of government funding for electronic content means that the public looks at science communication as something that the government does and that it can get for free, first and foremost they see it as sent out of government channels, not everyone trusts the government, as you know, not everyone thinks that if the government funds it, that it is good and healthy and reliable, so it is not quite sure if it is good to communicate research results with the State behind you, the public is very suspicious, believing it is intended to make them do something.

An example is social marketing run more, eat less fat, turn down the heat etc.

As editor I wanted to convey this feeling that it is really fun and entertaining to get knowledge...
Wanted the ideas, the questions, the discussion, the breaking news and the knowledge.

Wasn't easy to create this [science] section, while everyone knows what the book review looks like, there was really no tradition of writing good research articles, the specific idea I had that was supposed to be entertaining. General tradition has been you are scaring the shit out of people or you are applying for funding.

[Knudsen reported that 27% of Weekendvisen readers are younger than 30.]

They find it interesting that doesn't try to manipulate one way or another...

Not optimistic about use of Internet. People mainly go on the Internet during working hours, most people are stealing time from their employers. Reading of the Internet becomes interrupted and short, can't assimilate a prolonged argument of any kind.

Traffic on the Internet drops dramatically after work hours, slight peak after 10pm...which means that reading things that requires concentration for any length of time, is not what is taking place on the Net.

Blogs which are the big thing, have become already marginalized activity, if you don't already blog, don't start now. Twitter and Facebook are the new thing.

The newspaper is still good and there is a public that wants disinterested, entertaining news about research, they are out there, you just have to reach them.

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