Annual Meeting Reports

Plenary Address: The Future of Science Journalism

Michael Lemonick, the final plenary speaker at the 2010 CSE annual meeting, is an experienced science writer whose presentation focused on new models of science journalism. After many years at Time magazine, he now writes for Climate Central, a nonprofit organization of scientists and communicators dedicated to providing the public with sound scientific information for informed decision making on climate and energy issues. His presentation was an enlightening and entertaining tour of the field of scientific writing in the United States in recent decades, reflected through the prism of his own experience.

Lemonick cited the late 1970s as the time when science journalism “opened up” with more publications appearing to rival the position of Scientific American. They included such magazines as Omni, a mix of science and science fiction; Discover, which aimed to make science interesting to the public; and Science Digest, whose reputation Lemonick characterized as questionable although working there had launched his own career. His career breakthrough came with a Timecover story on climate change (published in 1987!)—an ideal link to the theme of the conference and now a major topic of concern far beyond science journalism.

Lemonick further charted the change in the nature of science journalism since the advent of the World Wide Web. Webbased news, starting in the late 1990s, marked the beginning of a crisis for traditional news outlets. Science journalism too is now heavily Web based; numerous online services focus in one way or another on science. He cited Inside Science, a science news service that uses Web-based and other forms of distribution; Scienceline, a student-produced effort; and ScienceBlog, an online forum in which a collection of scientists blog on various topics. Individual bloggers are now a characteristic feature of science writing. Concerning Science Daily, another online feature, Lemonick cautioned that it is not true science journalism but a collection of university press releases. Informed choice clearly is important, in that the range of science writing and reporting is now quite broad.

Although strongly convinced that journalism is crucial to democracy, Lemonick, citing the current newspaper crisis that is a result primarily of the rise of the Web, said that there is no final guarantee that it will continue to exist. Nevertheless, he believes that major publications—such as Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times—will survive as Web sites. Climate Central, for which he now writes, certainly will play a role in that respect: it was founded to counteract inaccuracies and provide nonprofit journalism funded by donors that can be fed to the traditional media. Looking to the future, Lemonick cited a prognosis made by Google that there will eventually be a settling of the conflict between print and online services, with people continuing to pay to some extent for good science content. In conclusion, he expressed his own belief that we are in an experimental phase that makes firm predictions impossible but that eventually will determine future models of content delivery.

Lemonick’s talk was a good, concise survey of the current state of science journalism. His approach of integrating reminiscences about his own career with his analysis of the science-writing landscape made for a presentation that was both informative and entertaining for science editors.