The Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT, a unique nine-month sabbatical for science writers, celebrated its 25th anniversary this week with a symposium examining journalism’s future. Nearly 200 people attended, many past fellows as well as freelancers, editors and students, all curious (and slightly anxious) to know where the field is heading. The surprise verdict: The future is already here.
For nearly a decade, the Internet has been viewed by print journalists as television was once seen by radio folk – the beginning of the end. We learned from television that multiple mediums can coexist, but the Internet poses the historically unique possibility of convergence, since print, audio, video and more can be accessed in a single space. The intense competition for readers became the least of print media’s worries with the onset of Web. 2.0 whe bloggers and other news aggregators-like Google-have made it impossible for a story to end after it is filed. News today is discussed, dissected and corrected.
This “Digital Age,” as named by Boyce Rensberger, a veteran science journalist and current director of the Knight Fellowship, is an epoch where the journalist is no longer a gatekeeper for scientific information. Now all sorts of facts and fictions are seeping through to a knowledge-hungry public, from the scientist with his own blog, the pharmaceutical-funded documentary or a politician’s book. It is now the role of the science journalist to be an authenticator.
Dianne Lynch, an expert in independent media and dean of journalism at Ithaca College, tried to calm a room of traditional journalists by arguing that journalism is not changing, just the medium “Journalism does not equal newspapers,” she said. “Journalism has never been more dynamic or exciting-it is being conflated with dying business models.” This means the same quality, standards, and dedication to one’s audience will subsist, but the move online requires journalists to frame their work in new ways. This could mean through visuals, graphs, video, podcasts, or 51 other ways to accompany print.
Mindy McAdams, a digital media professor at the University of Florida seconded this train of thought by arguing the 5,000-word piece just does not get read on the Internet. Although there is no data to support this statement, it makes sense. People who go online are looking for specific kinds of information, in particular, entertainment. A science video featuring talking heads does not reach audiences the way an animation or puzzle would.
Not all journalists are ready to accept this news. Carl Zimmer, a freelance writer and widely known blogger, as well as Michael Balter, a contributing writer for Science, expressed concerns that at least one victim of this movement will be writing. They question whether or not the Millenium generation (those 22 and under) are going to absorb the style and content of good writing if they only rely on blogs or short online articles.
Tom Rosensteil, co-author of The Elements of Journalism, was also skeptical. “There is a lot of experimentation going on,” he said. “Lot of risk taking and faddism and some of it is a mistake, overkill or overreaction.” While this may be true, the advocates for new media, those journalists who blog, twitter, Facebook and YouTube are able to earn a decent living, and the explosion of the more successful fads are now defining the Web experience.
To be prepared for what’s to come, science journalism students must be trained not necessarily to produce online content, but to learn how to think digital. They should be able to have a conversation with a graphic artist for a Flash Animation and know the difference between a video for a television broadcast and a video for the Web. Maintaining a blog and developing an online presence is the equivalent to writing obituaries 25 years ago.
Journalism students don’t have anything to fear if they can make this conversion now. Even if newspapers and books are replaced by e-ink and magazines go extinct, there will always be a place for good reporting. Besides, we need journalists for something to blog about.