More Signs of Endangered Journalism

With continuing public attention focused on the national economy and impending presidential inauguration, our readers may have missed some disturbing news over the past few days on science/environmental news — or at least purveyors of such news.
Last Friday, Hearst Corp.’s newspaper division president, Steven Swartz, informed the newsroom of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that this daily newspaper has been put on the auction block. Potential buyers have been given 60 days to step forward. If they don’t, drastic action will be taken: Either the newspaper will be reduced to an online-only publication — produced by a skeleton staff — or the 145-year old newspaper will just close its doors and disappear.

I have particularly appreciated “Dateline Earth,” an environmental blog on the PI’s website. Its postings over the past week alone have included mention of:

— upcoming oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether mining companies should be allowed to dump their waste into lakes — a case that could have national implications, 
— a report that livestock medications, apparently via manure, are finding their way into human food crops. (It was the subject of a Science News cover story in “Pharm Pollution” more than six years ago. Still it’s nice to see the idea continues to be newsworthy.)
— a recycled story (crediting a colleague at the Louisville Courier Journal as its source) about using algae to sop up carbon dioxide emitted by fossil-fuel burning, then burning the algae as fuel. Incinerated protists would again give up the carbon-dioxide ghost, “but only after the energy from the coal had essentially been used twice,”
— discovery of a new Galapagos species: the pink land iguana,
— and Toyota’s quiet experimentation on a solar-powered successor to the Prius.

And these were just blogged nibblets on the paper’s website. The PI has a reputation for scrappy journalism and great investigative reporting. A poignant video of how the paper’s newsroom learned of the PI’s dire prospects is available on the Internet.

Management of the four-year-old Plenty — a roughly 100-page, bi-monthly how-to-green-your life magazine (with daily web items) — didn’t film its announcement of even grimmer news. Last Friday, it just quietly folded. Rumors that Al Gore would rescue the magazine now appear to have been just that. Freelance writers who had stories slated to appear this week or later were told there would be no clippings to collect because there wouldn’t be another issue.

I tried phoning one of the editors this morning to get details, but his line had already been disconnected. I left a voicemail message for another, and just heard back from publisher/editor-in-chief Mark Spellun. He doesn’t credit his publication’s demise to lack of reader interest. “We had a fairly aggressive financing package in place. We were going to transform Plenty into a a global media company. But the [financial backing] was withdrawn at the last minute because of the economic climate, and that left us in a cash crunch.”
Despite what financiers had told him was a good business model for his publication, he says it’s turned out that “it’s just impossible to raise money at this point in time.” His is hardly the only magazine to recently go belly-up. Declining ad revenues sunk CountryHome (circulation 1.25 million), Home (circulation 800,000), and O at Home — once vibrant shelter magazines; all shuttered their proverbial doors in recent weeks. In contrast to Plenty, however, these other magazines had little content that might be termed true news.

People unfamiliar with Plenty can still see what they were missing by checking out the website. Spellun says he has no immediate plans to shut the website down, although it won’t be updated.

Finally, CNN announced last week that its medical reporter, Sanjay Gupta, would soon leave the air. In this case, the reason is anything but bittersweet. The neurosurgeon is an on-air personality renowned for effectively communicating complex medical concepts to a general audience. Barack Obama’s transition team also appreciated Gupta’s communications skills and offered him a more prominent, albeit lower-paying, public-communications gig: Surgeon General of the United States.

Because many news organizations cover only a limited region or topic, subscribers are unlikely to find many  — in some cases any  — alternative sources to what has been lost when a publication folds. And when competition dies, the incentive to strive for ever-greater quality can also wither.

What we have to keep in mind is that true journalism is the closest thing most adults have to formal continuing education. Each newsroom that goes dark, then, amounts to another school closing.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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