Change Without Change

New clothes for the modern media climate, but no departure from traditional purpose for Science News

Fourscore and seven years ago, a nonprofit organization called Science Service began providing dispatches to newspapers on news from the world of science. The following year, by popular demand, some of those dispatches were collected and distributed weekly to a wider audience, in the form of typewritten, mimeographed pages carrying the label Science News-Letter.

Four years later — on October 2, 1926 — the news-letter announced its transformation into a magazine. “The Science News-Letter is pleased to appear before you in its new printed dress,” wrote editor Watson Davis. And so its descendant, now Science News, is similarly pleased today. Its “new dress” echoes the pattern of its predecessors: new packages appearing from time to time, all preserving the publication’s original intent — providing the public with timely and accurate reports from the frontiers of scientific research.

From weekly to daily

In many ways, the current repackaging is the most dramatic in the publication’s history, at least since it became a real magazine in 1926. For the first time, Science News (the name adopted in 1966) will not be published weekly — it will now appear every other week, at twice its former size. That change in schedule reflects the 21st century reality that weekly is no longer timely. To survive in today’s competitive media climate, Science News has become a daily science news enterprise, offering each weekday’s top stories online, supplemented by a biweekly summary of the best of them delivered the old-fashioned way.

In merging its print tradition with digital modernity, Science News retains its original commitment: to serve as a bridge between the world of science and society at large. Shortly after World War I, biologist William Ritter persuaded E.W. Scripps, a newspaper-chain owner, to fund an organization for disseminating news about science to the nation’s newspapers. Ritter and Scripps enlisted scientist-journalist Edwin Slosson to manage such a news service, giving birth to the nonprofit institution known as Science Service in 1921.

The mimeographed pages disbursed to newspapers subscribing to the service found their way into other hands, soon leading to a demand for collections of the stories to be made available to libraries, teachers and other interested individuals. From that time on, Science News has remained the most constant source of regular science news for the American public (and many foreign subscribers as well).

Readers over the years could find in its pages accounts of all the advances of science, both small steps and grand leaps. From the discovery of vitamin E in 1922 to the cloning of Dolly the Sheep, reported in 1997, Science News was on the job, writing the history of science in real time, providing comprehensible synopses encapsulating the complexities of new research across the entire spectrum of scientific disciplines.

As cover styles changed, the content within remained true to that mission, keeping subscribers current on events at the forefront of research. In 1932, Science News readers followed reports of a new subatomic particle called the neutron. In 1939, readers learned of the splitting of the atom by Hahn and Strassmann. In 1953, Science News described the recent discovery of DNA’s double helix structure by Watson and Crick.

“This is something new,” the anonymous writer observed. “It may solve a major puzzle.”

Get the truth

Such straightforward talk would have pleased Scripps, whose dream for Science Service was to enhance appreciation for science among the public and to disseminate the knowledge acquired by scientists for the benefit of the entire citizenry.

“Get the truth just as far as possible; write the essence of it so simply and clearly that anybody who can read it at all can understand it” — that was Scripps’ guiding principle when he started his first newspaper, and it was the philosophical foundation for the news service that spawned Science News.

Scripps would no doubt be even happier today to see that his creation, Science Service, has adopted the name of Society for Science & the Public. No label more clearly captures the intimate relationship that Scripps perceived between science and society. And it sums up science journalism’s purpose succinctly — to tell the public about science.

As recounted by Ritter (SN: 12/25/1926, p. 201), Scripps believed that it was “useless to think of making the world safe for democracy without thinking also of making democracy safe for itself.” And the way to make democracy safe, Scripps believed, was by making it more intelligent.

“But since to be intelligent is utterly impossible without having much of the knowledge … of science, the only way to make democracy safe is to make it more scientific,” as Ritter summed up Scripps’ philosophy.

Consequently Scripps perceived a substantial overlap between the tasks of newspapers and science. Journalism and science shared a common purpose, he believed: “To discover the truth about all sorts of things of human concern, and to report it truthfully and in language comprehensible to those whose welfare is involved.”

And so Science News today, in its new dress, rededicates itself to those old principles. New appearance. Same substance. Presented such that all who are interested can partake of science’s advances, its successes and even its foibles and faults, for the sake of enabling a saner society.

Magic and change

For his 60th birthday, some decades ago, friends of the late physicist John A. Wheeler prepared a book of essays, titled Magic Without Magic. That title alluded to Wheeler’s artful way of perceiving nature’s secrets, showing how the apparently magical could emerge from the scientifically understandable. The magic wasn’t really magic, after all.

Today, Science News appears to be changing, but it really isn’t change, after all. While the world changes around it, Science News merely pretends to change in order to enhance its ability to do what it has done all along — aid the public’s understanding of science by reporting on scientists’ explorations along the shorelines of the unknown.

It makes no difference that mimeographed sheets have been replaced by electronic messaging and digital printing presses. Science News remains devoted to science news.

Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

More Stories from Science News on Humans