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I hear tell that Newsweek is for sale. Not just the latest issue, the whole operation. A modern media icon at a bargain basement price. Can Time be far behind?

May 11, 2010

I hear tell that Newsweek is for sale. Not just the latest issue, the whole operation. A modern media icon at a bargain basement price. Can Time be far behind?

Of course, it's not much of a surprise. The print magazine business, particularly the general-interest slice of it, has been in trouble for a while. There just aren't enough general-interest readers out there, or at least not enough who want to wait for physical paper to plop into their snail-mail in-boxes. Print mags just can't compete in terms of delivery speed, convenience, cost. A magazine devoted to a subject you care enough about to save every copy might be worth getting a print subscription to. Everything else, online is just easier. And quicker. And generally free.

It's that "generally free" part that is killing the special-interest mags, albeit at a slower rate (I think) than the broad-market offerings. There are some exceptions -- online subscriptions worth paying for, PayPal donations made out of enlightened self-interest, that sort of thing. But for most subjects, most customers, most of the time there's quite enough free info out there to fill anybody's personal news hole. And then some.

On a somewhat related note, I was talking recently to a Communications prof at Greenback. The subject was science journalism or, to be more honest, science journalists. And the training thereof. And how we used to have a program (not sure whether it was a major or a minor) to address such need. But now we don't. Because there's no demand. Because there are no jobs.

What I'm told -- and it squares with my experience, although I'm no expert -- is that there are the professional journals like Science and Nature and the like where the articles are written by the actual researchers, and there are a scant handful of remaining, moderately-to-highly technical mags which employ professional communicators (journalists and the like), and that's about it. Science articles in other publications, including most of the online ones, are written by part-timers. For free or the next thing to it.

So, rather than teaching communicators to comprehend (never mind truly understand) science, he's now setting his hopes on teaching scientists to communicate to the general public. I get the impression that it's turning out to be an uphill battle. Given the personal communication styles of a number of Physics and Chem profs I know, I can understand why.

What I'm left with is the realization that there's a chasm here that needs bridging; a large part of the reason the American public has lost faith in science and scientists is that nobody is preaching the gospel to them regularly, enthusiastically, and accessibly. For someone to truly believe in science these days, they almost have to go to the equivalent of theological seminary. There just aren't a lot of other options.

But there don't really need to be a lot of options. There just needs to be at least one good option. And bringing that option to reality shouldn't be too difficult. Nor too expensive. Making it happen is something a consortium of colleges and universities ought to be doing, anyway, for their own benefit.

What the marketplace of ideas needs is a high-quality online publication, written at about a tenth-grade reading level, devoted to scientific advances and the context (both subject and method) necessary to understand them. It's true that some of the most abstruse discoveries can't be explained at a tenth-grade level, but there's a lot of work which can be. And it's the work that can be which has the greatest potential to shift public attitudes toward science in general, which is what we need to accomplish. If the principal can be explained accurately, or the implications (real or potential) can be laid out, then comprehension can occur.

The American media public isn't entirely stupid, they're just treated that way. Too many people care who Jennifer Aniston is dating this week (is Jennifer Aniston dating this week? I have no idea!) because media outlet after media outlet keeps telling them that's important. Nobody's telling them that science is important day in and day out. Most folks took their last science class in high school, a good number took one or two sections as undergrads, and maybe two percent of the US public has seriously engaged any aspect of science in the time since.

No wonder science is in popular disrepute -- we've written off 98% of the market!

So what would it cost to solve this problem? Not a lot. Maybe a million dollars a year, spread across a large number of research universities, polytechnics and teaching colleges. A web-only publication, promoted in large part through public school systems and by word of mouth, presenting information produced by folks (both scientists and communicators) who are already on campus. Profs and grad students originate the stories. Profs and undergrads (remember that bit about the tenth-grade reading level) write them for publication. Students get material for their portfolios, the scientific disciplines get a public more likely to support research funding, the schools get great outreach and a better-prepared applicant pool. Everybody wins.

And heck, you could probably pick up a world-class managing editor for a song. What's the phone number at Newsweek?


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