So what is next?

A few days ago, talking with a Microsoft officer, he said somewhat surprised that small companies are coping better with the present crisis than middle sized ones. Why? “Small companies live always in such uncertainty, and are always ready to change in a minute, that for them this crisis is hard but not unusual”, he said.

Science journalists, or at least many of the ones I’ve known, may at some times build relations and connections, but in a day to day basis they act as lone wolves. It’s understandable: hunting spaces are scarce and competition is hard; collaboration seems a recipe for disaster, a threat. So in a way I imagine each science journalist, each lone wolf, as a micro-business, a minority of one (remember George Orwell).

If we applied the words of the Microsoft officer to these micro entrepreneurs, we might say this: “Science journalists live always in such uncertainty, and are always ready to change in a minute, that for them this crisis is hard but not unusual”. Does this ring a bell? I think it does, at least as far as Mexico is concerned. Sure, data show more physical spaces for science stories; yes, public awareness is growing; yes, politicians now have a space in their minds for science, at least at the verbal level.

But uncertainty is there. The sword of Damocles. CNN threw out its science team, and in Mexico the Reforma newspaper cancelled its weekly science page, promising there will still be science stories on its pages (I wonder where: the paper also eliminated its books supplement, and the cultural space is now tucked in the back pages of the entertainment section). I can see the future, and it does not have more science journalist jobs: it has less research, more wired news, less analysis, more punch lines; less education, more fun. Oh yeah.

But getting back to the science journalism crisis, I think it’s crucial to keep our cool.

  • It’s a crisis for print journalism in the broadest sense: just yesterday we read about the demise of another important daily in the US, the Rocky Mountain News.
  • This crisis, as has been mentioned elsewhere, is not due to a lack of profitability at the individual level: it’s due to the fact that many media are public now and investors demand more and more returns in ever shorter terms (and of course we can see the results of this in the US-led financial mayhem).
  • All printed media must reinvent themselves to take into account, at heart, that complex variable called the Internet.

A couple of hours ago, while I drove back home after dropping off my kid at school, I heard on the radio some loud anchor telling the audience that because of atmospheric pressure, today the sun’s rays would be particularly dangerous. He wisely advised to wear long sleeves and to avoid going outdoors. Whew!

Why can this happen? Why has some ignoramus the right to spew his badly chewed notions about science publicly? Why don’t we have more smart voices on radio, good science journalism on the air waves? There may be many reasons, of course, and for the time being I’ll just mention a couple of them: first, media niches are occupied by those who fight for them; if we science journalists want to avoid such ignorance to mine the educational process, we have to fight for those spaces. And we have to do it not in our terms, but in the terms of the media owners. I vividly remember the selling motto of an entrepreneur: “In this world you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate”.

Second, journalism in general is having a crisis because, listening to the interests of hurried investors, of political lobbies, of commercial areas or of any other pressure group, it has slowly left out its responsibilities and has served its audiences more and more noisy crap. Exceptions noted, of course.

A most worrying trend in the upcoming scenario is that, for many reasons, cuts have nothing to do with merits. The survivors are there not because they’re the best, but because they are quicker, smarter, more flexible or sometimes more willing to do anything to be kept inside.

Some years back, Pete Hamill wrote in his formidable News is a Verb that the only recipe that might bring journalism back from its ashes would be to fight hard and fast to recover relevance and pertinence. A newspaper that’s deaf and dumb to its own public, that ignores its public’s interest, will hardly survive.

In this context, I’d say this is the time to abandon our sad and dark crevices, our hard-earned little niches, to seek intelligent ways to collaborate and evolve. Africa and Asia are perhaps starting to see the benefits of collective work in our field. But it’s time to build church (so to speak) at a global scale; it will surely be useful to share our experiences, to learn survival skills by being flexible and reinventing ourselves not each day, but each moment. And the more we can enjoy the process, the better.