Beat-sculpting, money-making and science journalism

Money is not always just money but also economic relevance. Mr. Benjamin Franklin likely agrees.

Today, my class had two guests. Malcolm Ritter, whose Twitter profile reads “Associated Press science reporter”, is not just any science reporter. He’s been covering science for AP for over 30 years now. While Dan Fagin said Ritter’s journey through journalism might not be relevant to our class considering he made a name for himself before the new media wave swept through, Ritter’s answers to our questions revealed a skills set brilliantly honed by three decades of reporting.

Our second guest was Andrea Thompson, a senior science writer at Climate Central and an alumnus of the program she was now addressing, from 2005. Until recently, Andrea was with Live Science before switching to CC.

With Dan “compering”, my classmates and I had many questions for the duo. I had two the answers to which revealed some informative differences between newsrooms in India and the United States. Here they are.

You’re both beat journalists. Dan also mentioned something about science journalism having become very competitive recently. In this setting, how protective of your beats have you had to be [within the organization]?

This question may have mildly startled our guests, neither of whom had a specific answer in that they had nothing to say about my concern. Dan jumped in and clarified that when he said ‘competitive’ – whenever he said it – he didn’t mean journalists pushing their colleagues on the same beat out of their way. I said then that, though I wasn’t disputing him, I had worked for a couple years in India in an environment where people often competed to simply retain their beats, and that that’s what prompted my question.

I don’t have to stress on the point that having a beat all to yourself can be very comforting. Apart from working secure in the knowledge that only you produce the news on whatever your beat is, you also get to sculpt your employer-institution’s attitude toward happenings in that beat, which can be a powerful exercise, as well as your audience’s. But herein lies the rub.

Dan equated the presence of multiple journalists (from the same org.) working on common beats to the organization’s success – which is almost obviously true. If a newspaper puts multiple journalists on the same beat (which The Hindu did; not sure if it does anymore), then

  1. It must enjoy a large and loyal readership for whom so-so beat must be covered in great detail
  2. It must be able to afford putting two, three or four journalists on the same beat

Dan continued, “Here [in the United States], companies are short-staffed.” His choice of words implies that they’re more likely not doing well than that they intend to run a lean organization. By extension, the ‘rub’ is that your opportunity to be ‘beat-sculpting’ is more accessible if you’re writing for a smaller audience – which is kind of ironic. (Remember at this point that I’m writing based on just two experiences: talking to Dan and working with a newspaper publisher in India.)

How do journalists at publications like The New York Times and The Guardian organize their beats? This is what I’d like to know.

My second question:

How much influence does the business model of your employer wield over how you write?

Again, this was a question that didn’t bring forth eager answers. I was disappointed with myself for not being able to ask the “right” questions… but only briefly, recalling that I was among a bunch of people wanting to talk about science writing, not the business that surrounded it. I also think now that I should’ve worded my question differently, and perhaps asked it to someone else.

Earlier, in response to someone else, Malcolm Ritter had recounted that there were a lot of newspapers in the United States in the early 1990s that sported dedicated science pages (similar to what The New York Times and The Hindu continue to publish to this day), and that by the close of the decade, all those sections had either been truncated or assimilated into the rest of the paper. Dan and Malcolm agreed that this was because science news wasn’t bringing in the money.

Next, as the 2000s labored on, publishers began to realize that science writing could be cool as well as impactful when done right, and there were, and continue to be, a lot of people to do it right. At this point: I believe remaining unmindful of the exact reasons why science journalism saw a decline and then an improvement in prospects endangers our ability to keep science journalism always relevant. It seems social forces cannot be entrusted with this task because why else would dedicated science sections disappear and then start from scratch in building a case to reappear?

The economic forces hold the key.

In this context, science journalists shouldn’t be concerned only for the wellbeing of their beats or the people or the trees or whatever but also for the future of their unique profession. They should not be completely insulated from the business side of their work, and this goes far beyond simple populist ideals and toward engendering an entrepreneurial streak of thinking about new forms of publishing and channels of revenue, at least specific to as exacting an enterprise as science journalism.

This is what I expected our guests to talk about when I asked my question. But I think now that I got my audience wrong, not to mention my lousy wording.

What do you think?