Dispelling the Gloom: An Open Letter to Science and Technology Journalists

[Originally published on Nov. 14, 2014, at the Knight Science Journalism at MIT blog]

If you’re a journalist and you spend too much time listening to magazine editors talk about falling advertising and subscription revenues, or checking Columbia Journalism Review or Romenesko for updates on the latest newsroom downsizing, it’s easy to get discouraged about your career choice. 

But now is not the time to lose heart—and in this post I’m going to tell you why. 

First, though, a word of congratulations. If you’re reading this blog, that probably means you chose science, health, environment, or technology reporting as your career. So: kudos to you. It’s a noble calling, and one that will only get more and more critical to the health of democratic societies as the century progresses. 

In fact, the Knight Science Journalism program exists specifically to help people like you. Each year we work to introduce our Fellows to people, ideas, and themes that will enrich their work after their Fellowship year. We push them to grow and become even better at what they do. We give them time and space to add to their fund of knowledge, skills, and perspective, so they can better serve their audiences in the tumultuous decades ahead. 

We also bring them into a year-long conversation about the evolution of the news business. The goal is to explore how science and technology journalists can adapt to changing business circumstances and have long, thriving careers even in the face of the collapse of the revenue models that once supported most coverage of science, health, and the environment.

This year, I’ve been telling our 2014-15 Knight Fellows that they need to start thinking of themselves as entrepreneurs—as the CEOs in their own “startup of one.” I’ve been introducing them to a series of journalism thinkers who have made that switch themselves. (Some of them, like Bob BuderiJason Pontin, and Jake Shapiro, lead startups of way more than one.)

Working with and writing about people like this over many years has left me fundamentally optimistic about the future of science and technology journalism, and I hope the Fellows are getting that message. 

Here’s how I would sum it all up:

Yes, the old business models that supported traditional journalism are dying, and yes, that means there probably won’t be as many specialists (of any kind) at publications below the very top tier. More science and technology journalists will have to cobble together a mix of outlets, assignments, and channels to make a living. 

But in a way that’s actually good, because it forces us to think afresh about our product: whom it really serves, what value it creates, and who can be persuaded to pay for it. This means we have to stay closer to our audiences and get a clearer sense of who they are and what they need. 

It also forces you, as an individual, to think more like a businessperson or entrepreneur. If you can’t get used to that, you’re going to be in for a rough ride. It’s a time of distintermediation and fragmentation; that’s just the era we’re living in.

But at this moment of questioning and ferment, there are success stories. There’s a whole new wave of organizations creating high-quality publications that carry great science and technology content. To name just a few: MatterThe AtavistNautilusAeonThe ConversationHippoReadsRadiolab…the list goes on.

And you aren’t alone in your concern for the future: the Knight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and many other funding organizations see an important role for philanthropic support of journalism. People at places like the Center for Civic Media at MIT, the Google Journalism Fellowshipprogram, and the Matter public media startup accelerator in San Francisco are coming up with technologies to support the work of journalists. Traditional publications are getting bolder about their revenue-generating experiments, and some show real promise.

Overall, the number of channels, media, and technologies available to you to tell your stories is multiplying. That means it’s a great moment for specialization of all kinds—you just need to find your 1,000 true fans, as Kevin Kelly put it a number of years ago (though hopefully it’ll be closer to 100,000). 

You might need to master new technical skills in order to reach your true fans the way they want to be reached. Luckily, improvements in software and device usability, ultimately fueled by Moore’s Law, mean it’s easier than it has ever been to become proficient in a new medium.

If you’re a science or technology writer or some other kind of specialist, your subject expertise is a huge comparative advantage, and it’s growing. Many media outlets are still willing to pay a premium for reliability, accuracy, and special knowledge.

The bad news is: you can’t automatically expect a big media organization to pay you forever to do the work you love. The good news is: You’re in control of your own career. The brand you’re building is your own, not that of your employer.

As Clay Shirky and his co-authors put it in their report Post-Industrial Journalism, for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, journalists can’t postpone the future; they can’t opt out. The transition will be uncomfortable and it willl require all of us to learn new skills. But it’s unavoidable, and the profession will come out the other side stronger than if we’d just stuck to the old ways. As the Tow Center report observes:

The fate of journalism in the United States is now far more squarely in the hands of individual journalists than it is of the institutions that support them. To get the kind of journalism that a complex, technocratic democracy requires, we need the individual practitioners to take on the hardest part of the task of working out what constitutes good journalism in a world with no publishing scarcity.

The work is going to be hard, and risky. Fellowship experiences like the one we offer here at the Knight Program can give you more tools, but it’s up to you to put them into action. 

So put aside the gloom and focus on the rare opportunity you’ve been given to apply your talents while making a difference in the world. Entrepreneurs can be realists—but they can’t be pessimists.

Wade Roush

Science and technology journalist