Who Owns the Future of Science Journalism? (A secret introduction to OpenSciLogs)

A living, breathing approach to science journalism. Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/uY0v6 In his new book ‘Who Owns the Future,’ Jaron Lanier introduces the interesting idea that by expecting our news, our music, our online searches and online information in general to be free, we are undermining the very career prospects of those we look to for news, music and information. In fact, we are undermining our own ability to make careers as creatives; as writers, designers, journalists, artists, musicians.

I can’t see this being any truer elsewhere than it is in the field of science journalism today. The amount of science storytelling and popular science content online is exploding at the same time that career prospects for full-time science journalists are dwindling. By a show of hands, how many science bloggers reading this post get paid for their science storytelling online? How many struggle to make even a little money pitching stories to traditional outlets? I think it’s safe to say the field of online science journalism is growing in new directions, is inspiring, intriguing, fascinating, and is full of amazingly talented people… who are having a hard time making a living solely through science writing.

[The Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast interviewed Lanier about his new book last March.]

So what do we do? How do we reward the wonderful science storytellers for the work that they do? How do we promote open access to science storytelling while at the same time supporting the career prospects of science storytellers?

Some have suggested that we encourage more citizen science journalism and user-generated content – getting readers enthusiastic about science themselves to help produce stories about science. This is great, but we still have the problem of expecting something (high-quality stories about science) for nothing (we aren’t giving back to our readers for helping us produce these stories). Others suggest that more scientists reach out directly to audiences online, in blogs and social media – and hey, that would produce raw science story material that news outlets could use, right? There is actually a lot of good evidence that science storytellers working for traditional media outlets pull story ideas and raw materials right out of science blogs… written for free, in many cases, out of their authors’ passion and love for science.

These ideas aren’t bad – in fact, they are all very good. But at many points along the chain of translating science from the lab to the beautifully written and visual science story online, we have to question whether we are expecting smart, science-oriented, creative people to produce this information for free. So how can we combine science blogging, citizen journalism and in-depth science reporting in such a way that we reward more of the participants in the science storytelling process for their contributions, while at the same time producing and promoting more quality online content about science?

Lanier offers one solution, which is to financially support the creative process from the ground up. For example, science storytellers working outside of the traditional media might turn to alternative funding options, like non-profit science organizations or crowd-funding sites like KickStarter.

I know we’ve explored these options before, but why don’t we re-approach them from innovative new angles? For example, sites like KickStarter and Beacon have allowed audiences to help fund science writers or stand-alone science journalism projects and publications. But those audiences are rarely involved beyond the funding stage, in the actual process of reporting and storytelling.

Supporting science journalism from the ground up. Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/uY0Gq

But what if we could combine crowd-funding of science journalism projects with participation of the funders and other audiences in the storytelling process? And what if we didn’t fund science journalists directly, but instead funded the science bloggers and non-traditional science storytellers who typically produce their content for free, out of their passion for science and education? And what if we crowd-funded not the end product directly – the finished science story in the traditional journalistic medium – but instead the process of producing information that is often otherwise expected for free online? What if we funded the blog posts and social media buzz around science that often provides the story ideas pursued by traditional media outlets; the discussion between scientists and science communicators online and offline that is often the raw material for upstream science news; the open (and free!) discussion and debate between science bloggers and their readers online (including on blogs and on other social media sites) that often turns into investigative science reporting?

The managers and bloggers here at SciLogs, including myself, have some ideas of how we could help make this happen. We have an as yet super-secret idea (ah, to heck with secrecy, it’s called OpenSciLogs!) of how we could crowd-fund an open, participatory, transparent, in-depth science storytelling process that could grow and transform into science journalism content across the web. And this time, we can all help make science writing a better career option for young and up-coming writers… from the ground up.

Tantalizing details on our new OpenSciLogs project to come soon!