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SCIENCE, CULTURED

Science Writers and Science Bloggers

Is It "War," or Is It "Marriage"?

elements Sw and Sb SOURCE: SP Having just moved his blog from one mainstream outlet to another, our Contributing Editor considers the many hats science bloggers now wear in an era of struggling science journalism.

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?

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)

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 Scienceblogs.com 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.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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