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Science journalism: Enter the non-profits

9 Nov, 2012

Crisis in science journalism #scicom21

This weekend we’re running a session at the 2012 Science Online London conference with colleagues from Cancer Research UK. Our title is deliberately provocative:

‘Can multimedia content created by organisations replace traditional science journalism?’

But it’s not entirely without basis. Here’s why.

The digital revolution has transformed the environment in which we communicate. For one, the way people access information is changing. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that more Americans are turning to the Internet in general as their primary source of news – 40 per cent, as opposed to 20 per cent who rely on newspapers. Interestingly, more than a quarter of those surveyed receive news via a mobile device (its been reported that, in the UK, 1 in 3 adults uses a smartphone and just under half of the UK population now owns one (BBC, Guardian). More people are reading the news online and advertisers are spending more money on Internet advertising than ever before. And of course social media use is on the rise – Facebook alone has over 901 million active users globally (around 54 per cent of the world’s online population (Mashable, ZDNet).

This is having a profound effect on media publishers, already feeling the squeeze with print readerships shrinking and advertising revenues dropping as a result of the economic downturn.

But it’s also reducing the costs of distributing content, and it’s this that is blurring the boundaries between traditional media and “source” organisations like us.

Through websites, blogs, podcasts, online video and social media, audiences are increasingly choose their own information sources. This has provided the opportunity for research institutions like Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust to reach large audiences directly.

Importantly, we are now able to do so using the same channels, opportunities and, crucially, authority that was once the preserve of the “traditional media”. Indeed, informal research on the Wellcome Trust’s part indicates that there is great trust in stories from charities and non-profits as experts in their field, over perceived ‘sensationalist’ coverage in the mainstream press.

We are grasping this opportunity with both hands. Cancer Research UK’s award-winning Science Update blog is one of the leading examples of in-depth coverage of cancer stories, sometimes analytical, sometimes investigative, sometimes commentary. We at the Wellcome Trust started our own blog as a way of telling the many biomedical stories we come across that weren’t necessarily ‘newsworthy’ for the mainstream media (or indeed our own press releases) and, with the facility for comments, to discuss them in a more informal, discursive way than the ‘broadcast’ nature of traditional media. Both our organisations also create our own original, high-quality videos, podcasts and infographics to tell these stories different ways. Other institutions, from funders like the British Heart Foundation to universities like Imperial College London, are doing the same.

We at the Trust are lucky in being free of government influence and independently financed, which means that we can put resources into the types of journalism that newspapers and magazines are finding it difficult to finance in tough times. To this end, we’re currently planning a new online publication focusing on in-depth, explanatory features. We’re hoping it will fill the gap left by traditional science journalism, which is increasingly focusing purely on news and investigative (that is, uncovering scandal) pieces rather than valuable explainers or longer works that require more time and resources than newsrooms can spare. Indeed, journalism non-profits like ProPublica already exist to support financially and editorially these neglected types of journalism (usually investigative). A recent article in the Nieman Journalism Lab highlighted this:

In a world where magazine editors are increasingly unwilling to invest in a big, intriguing story before it’s finished, long-form journalists are often turning to non-profits to finance their reporting. Non-profits are the “lifeboats”…. They keep important stories afloat until they’re close enough to publication that editors will take them on.

Despite our provocative session title, it would be silly to suggest that our efforts could ever replace mainstream media completely. We wouldn’t try and replicate the already good science news coverage of the UK press for one thing. And there is a fine line between communication and marketing/PR, even for charities – as a colleague of mine has argued, even if it’s not PR for the Wellcome Trust, it’s still PR for science.

But we do think that non-profits like ourselves can help fill the void left by the contraction of traditional science journalism, and complement it.

What do you think? Take our poll and add your thoughts in the comments below. If you’re attending Science Online London this weekend, come along to our session. You can also follow the whole session on Twitter on the hashtag #Solo12newmedia

Session details

Will multimedia content created by organisations replace traditional science journalism?

When: Sunday 10 November 2012 11.45-12.45

Where: Science Online London

The session will follow the Select Committee/Moral Maze format: three panellists will deliberate the issues, cross-examining evidence from four expert witnesses and a ‘public consultation’ from the audience.

Chair: Kat Arney (Cancer Research UK and freelance journalist)


  • Mark Henderson (Head of Communications, Wellcome Trust and former Science Editor, The Times)
  • Helen Jamison (Science Media Centre and STEMPRA committee member)
  • Connie St Louis (Director, MA Science Journalism, City University)

Expert witnesses

  • Henry Scowcroft (News & multimedia editor, Cancer Research UK)
  • Ed Yong (Freelance journalist and former Head of Health Evidence and Information, Cancer Research UK)
  • Alok Jha (Science reporter, The Guardian)
Image credit: Flickr/keatl
One Comment leave one →
  1. Mark Reidy permalink
    9 Nov, 2012 1:14 pm

    To expand on my ‘no’ answer – the use of multimedia needs to be in addition to the more in-depth science journalism.

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