Remember Newspaper Science Sections? They’re Almost All Gone

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Newspapers Few newspapers have sections dedicated to science now, even as science journalism is becoming more valuable than ever.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the newspaper business is hurting these days, but for science journalists -- ordinary people tasked with communicating extraordinarily complex ideas to a mass audience -- the challenges faced within this waning industry are particularly exigent.   

In 1989, the number of newspapers with weekly science sections was 95. Today, that number is down to 19, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. That’s a big drop, even for one of the fastest declining industries in the country. Figures from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the newspaper industry as a whole has shrunk by 40 percent over the last decade, so clearly newspaper companies have tough choices to make when it comes to which sections get the ax. But few people agree on where that ax should fall.  

Like arts and culture journalism, science writing is a specialty, and the more specialized the field, the more highly skilled a writer has to be. (How much do you know about astrophysics?) It’s for just that reason, insiders say, that newspaper executives sometimes come to the conclusion that their science sections should be sacrificed in lieu of more general-interest reporting.

“I think newspaper editors wrongly assume that readers don’t understand science or aren’t interested in it,” Ron Winslow, deputy bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal’s health and science section said. “It’s a huge waste. Science is going to have a huge impact in our lives over the next 30 years, even more than it has in the past. And readers are hungry for information about science.”   

Winslow, who also serves as president of the National Association of Science Writers, said the fact that newspapers are cutting science sections at a higher rate probably has more to do with simple economics than anything else. Following the personal-computer boom of the 1980s, science reporting enjoyed a kind of heyday, one fueled by computer companies with money to spend on newspaper ads. For years, those ads supported robust science sections in the nation’s newspapers, but by the 1990s, as ad revenue migrated from print to the Web, newspaper companies began to funnel their dwindling resources into more broadly accessible sections.   

“If you’re a newspaper publisher and you’re looking for places to cut, you’re going to ask, ‘Well, why are we still running this four-page science section when there are no ads in it?” Winslow said.

Over the years, many science sections have folded into sections that include reporting on health, medicine and general wellness -- all topics with a broader reader base than, say, physics or astronomy. The ramifications of that shift are that older reporters trained in specialized scientific areas were pressured to take buyouts from newspapers looking to trim their staffs. That’s a shame, according to Cristine Russell, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, who worries that consumers miss out when science journalism is placed in the hands of nonscientists.

“There is a concern that more science reporting is being done by writers who don’t have a solid background in science,” Russell said. “Specialized science reporting has been cut back, similar to the trend with specialized arts coverage.”  

Russell has been writing about science, health and the environment for more than three decades, starting at the Washington Star and Washington Post. She added that, while newspaper science sections may be fewer in numbers these days, science writers are more plentiful than ever. As a senior fellow for the Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, she sees more young scientists showing an interest in journalism and in communicating scientific ideas to a wider audience. And while print newspapers might not be knocking down their doors, websites, science blogs and specialty publications such as Wired magazine are picking up the slack.

That trend is only likely to continue, she said, as many of the biggest issues facing humanity in the 21st century can only be tackled by trained scientists. “It’s ironic that newspapers are cutting science sections now,” she added. “More than ever, people have an interest in science-based topics. Issues like climate change, technology and health care are affecting everybody, and people understand that.”

As a science journalist trained in print media, Russell said she no longer lies awake at night lamenting the imminent demise of a bygone era. The future of science reporting, she said, is far more exciting, and young writers looking to pursue this field have more opportunities now than ever. “After a lot of hand wringing about the newspaper industry about six years ago, I take a more optimistic view these days,” she said. “The world is online. Science writers today have the opportunity to communicate not just with their audience but globally.”

In terms of how to solve the broader challenges facing the newspaper industry, neither Russell nor Winslow has figured it out. But to be fair, nobody else has either. That will probably take a rocket scientist.

Correction 1/11/12: An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited the number of newspapers with science sections as 14, according to CJR. The number CJR cited is actually 19.

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