In 2005 I was scrapping to put together a freelance career after being laid off by the struggling US News & World Report magazine. Entrepreneurship and self-branding are not high on my skills list. At a conference I ran into Boyce Rensberger, then director of the MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowships program. He said he had an idea for a blog. He even had a name for it, the science journalism tracker. He needed somebody who could write comments and compile long samplings and links to the day’s science new as reported by various outlets – which back then meant mainly newspapers and wire services.
First I said not me for that job. Too much like hard work chained to a desk rather than easily gallivanting around on freelance stories. But as my COBRA insurance from the USNews job headed for expiration and my freelance career seemed to consume me with long features for classy outlets but not enough scratch to live on, Boyce’s idea looked better. So, on April 4, 2006, with a new website designed and some weeks of shakedown tests under my belt, out came the first post about a Washington Post story on stem cells. I filed 14 posts that day. For the first few years I tried to read every science story published in the US every day and many more overseas.
After Boyce retired, Phil HIlts took over the KSJ leadership and pushed hard to expand the tracker, adding parttime writers and even ones to cover science journalism in German and Spanish. It has not been a cheap operation. That this small if essential fellowship on the sixth floor of a faceless building at MIT’s edge could support it this long is a marvel. But readership grew. The aim to have it be a watering hole resource for the typical science reporter seems to have been realized with gratifying speed.
It now looks like curtains for the KSJ Tracker after more than 10,000 posts, 7815 by me counting this one (with a few more on the way by month’s end) and largely from the years this was a one-man operation. That is, unless it gets reborn under a different banner and sponsor. Deb Blum, to be the new director of the fellowships next year, and interim top man Wade Roush explain it in a post today. It is most gracious in tone and content. Its prime message is that it is time for the fellowship program – aside from the fellowship part – to do new things so thank you very much but the tracker must leave to make room. Comments to that post, so far, have been wonderful to read, satisfying in their support for the service that now-chief tracker Paul Raeburn, Faye Flam, Pere Estupinya, and I (now a part-timer) are providing.
The business has changed a great deal since that first post. Newspaper reporters and others with big media (wires, broadcasters…) may still be the prime providers of originally reported, well-sourced and independent reporting on science, environment, health, and related beats. But if measured by sheer output digital outlets rule. For awhile, I did frequent sad posts on the latest veterans to be ousted from mainline print publications.
These days, professional news operations are often left out of the route by which the public gets the word on recent science. Press releases are posted directly and bloggers from saintly to venal are myriad. We all have learned a new word: Churnalism. Many of the new couriers are superb, many merely rewrite the work of others or of press releases – sometimes with the added spice of reckless exaggeration of importance with a pinch of sheer concoction.
Through it all we have striven not only to keep up with the new ways that news gets reported, but to focus – via praise or the occasional jab – on the sustaining, core qualities of strong science reporting. These include originality and independence in reporting, strong craft including original angles and solid explanations, diligent pursuit of accuracy, and reflection of differing opinions and points of view. To the extent that the tracker has rewarded and encouraged such work, we have been a success.
I cannot begin to name all those in our readership who have enriched my life and the the tracker generally via feedback and tips for news, who have roasted us with deserved criticisms when we screwed up, and who follow us directly at the website or via news feed, tweet, or email newsletter. It has been my privilege to get a view of and immersion into the community and culture of science journalism of unparalleled depth and richness. The tracker may go on, perhaps it will not. I will be 70 fairly soon, but want to keep at it for awhile. I do know that science journalism continues to attract young men and women eager to spend their careers writing up the fuzzy boundary between the known and unknown, out where smart researchers are struggling to push through ignorance to solid theory and something asymptotically close to revelation of truth.
To our readers: Thank you so very much.