What Is Science Journalism Worth? Part I

A person sitting on a tiled floor holding up a placard that reads WILL WRITE FOR FOOD.
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The money in this job sucks. Let’s get that out up front.

Even from my first days of grad school I knew that a majority of my college classmates working in the corporate and finance worlds were making scads more money than I was—and probably ever would. But, as I smugly told myself, I love my job.

And I still do most days.


After 11 years of freelancing, I’ve added a mortgage and two kids to the mix. As science journalism tosses about in the current (everlasting?) economic maelstrom that is publishing, it gets harder and harder to sustain myself financially. And I’m not the only one.

The combination of the collapse of print advertising, declining magazine subscriptions, the enormous availability of free content online, and the rise of the gig economy, has led to pay rates that have stagnated for the last 30 years, says Robin Marantz Henig, freelance writer and 2014-16 president of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). This malaise has writers of all kinds talking and writing about their job security fears and inability to make a living wage in journalism.

The current economic state of science journalism is making it increasingly untenable to do serious and thoughtful work. Low and even declining pay rates are also pushing many of us to become what we’ve always feared—the harried reporter who turns in subpar copy that rests on thin reporting and shaky fact-checking because we literally can’t afford to spend one more minute on it. It’s also keeping the gates closed to more diverse perspectives from those who are less privileged—those would-be writers who must choose a career track with a real paycheck over a writing internship or a newsroom job.

“There is the disappearance of the idea that you can live the life of the mind and actually make a living at that,” says Henig. “None of us got into this profession for the money, but we did expect to make a living wage.”

It’s good that writers are talking about the problem with each other, in the halls at conferences, in online private forums, and on blogs. While much of that may be intended as venting, sharing knowledge also increases our collective power. We need to continue to shine a light on this issue. Barring a miraculous influx of cash to the system, this is the reality that freelance science writers and editors must work within. The challenge for all of us will be finding ways to continue to produce quality work under these financial constraints.


Quality Suffers

“Both editors and freelancers are caught in the gigantic economic mess,” says Dan Vergano, senior writer-editor at National Geographic. “But we’re not willing to talk about economics enough in our business. We’re caught in a big economic moment, and yet people continue to pretend that it isn’t what’s driving everything.”

Although he’s only been assigning and editing stories for a year, Vergano says he notices major differences in how articles are carried out compared with when he worked as a freelancer 20 years ago. “The pitches I get are much less well-developed, in general,” he says, lacking the five or six meaty paragraphs that lay out the lede and nut graphs, a proposed structure, potential sources, a timeline for completion, and expected compensation. “In the gig economy, nobody has time for that,” he says. “Writers gotta get a sense right away if you are going to bite or not, so they send one-sentence descriptions.”

Such hurried pitching inevitably leads to editorial headaches. “Commissioning a piece [based on weak pitching] is not fair to the writer or you—especially if it comes in and it’s not what you expected.”

Writers’ time for reporting and writing has also been compressed. Features that used to be written over the course of, say, four weeks are now given perhaps eight days. Writers are constantly calculating just how much—or how little—time they can spend on a story, often juggling multiple deadlines in a week. One area where that time compression becomes visible, Vergano says, is news stories filed in what he sees as a blog format—without proper sourcing, clear ledes, nut graphs, or structure, and sometimes in first-person voice.

It’s not just the quality of initial drafts that suffers. The same forces that have suppressed freelance rates have also slashed the size of the editorial staff at most publications, while also increasing the amount of time needed on each story. Rosie Mestel, chief magazine editor at Nature and former science and health editor at the Los Angeles Times, remembers that when her freelance budget at the newspaper was slashed, it became “tricky, as an editor paying crappy rates, to get really good writers.” Although she assigned stories strategically—choosing writers she knew would want a certain story, selecting articles that were contained and easily executed, or offering a piece of ownership, such as a weekly column—those strategies only partly compensated for the paper’s low pay. Some writers, Mestel says, were (rightly) business-like with their time. “You could tell when the copy came in, and as editors we had to spend more time honing and polishing.” But it was a trade-off Mestel was willing to make for writers whose reporting she trusted.

But as Vergano notes, lack of time on writers’ and editors’ parts means relationship-building and mentoring fall off, too. “The chance to coach people is so much less,” Vergano notes. All too often, “we fillet their copy and publish it, and don’t even explain [the edits],” he says. “And they don’t get a chance to improve.”

Apoorva Mandavilli, editor-in-chief of Spectrum, a foundation-backed journalism website that reports on autism research, says the gig economy poses an additional problem for her. The current economic atmosphere, she says, creates a tension for writers who feel that career success depends on publishing shorter pieces at the online versions of marquee publications, which usually pay less than their print counterparts. “I’m not at one of those high-profile, prestige publications,” Mandavilli says. “It’s frustrating for me that we pay well—$1.50 per word—but I can’t always get the good writers to turn away from the high-profile bylines. They have to stay in the Twitterstream.”

This tension keeps all of us, myself included, beholden to unbelievably low rates when we want a flashy byline. And it allows those publications’ low offerings to suppress rates across the entire field.


Pennies for Your Words

It’s not just magazine articles (both print and online) that suffer as a result of miserly pay rates. Books are equally endangered. Florida science writer Mark Schrope, a 15-year veteran, was offered a book advance that amounted to about one-fifth of what he calculated he could afford, for a book that would require a year of full-time work and extensive travel. In a recent discussion among the science writers of the SciLance community, Schrope asked, “Are there that many full-time writers who would go for this kind of deal?”

Others in the group noted that many writers might take such a deal if they can spread the work out and supplement it heavily with other writing work, if such a deal could be seen as an “opportunity cost” that leads to sharpened expertise and more work down the line, or if they are writing books for reasons other than the up-front money.

Emma Marris, whose first book, Rambunctious Garden, was published in 2011, and who is working on a second, shared her own reasons for writing books even though doing so is financially precarious at best: following her passion, being taken more seriously by editors, and wanting to land speaking gigs as another form of income. She also hoped that if her first book did well, she might earn higher advances on future books.

As a primary breadwinner with the first of three children about to head to college, Schrope couldn’t take such an income hit, he told the SciLance group. So for the moment, his successful book proposal sits on the shelf. In the past, he said, “I’ve taken huge financial risks to become a writer and to take on big projects. But now’s not the time.”

Marris punctuated the listserv discussion with a comment on the struggle we all live in our writing careers: “It is a shame that something that is so widely appreciated by society is so very badly paid. Some of our books really change people’s opinions and touch people’s lives. And yet, [writing books] can only be done by those who are either spousally subsidized, bad at math, or just very stubborn.”

While that does accurately describe me and many of my colleagues, there is more to this argument than “starving artist” lamentations. There is a greater good behind pushing for higher rates—namely, achieving an end product that serves the public well with more in-depth, well-reported, high-quality science journalism. Just as high-risk, high-payoff scientific research requires heftier investments of cash, so too does the kind of influential or investigative journalism many science journalists would like to practice. In next week’s post [UPDATE: see it here], I’ll explore what freelance science writers can do to fight their way back toward that ideal.


Kendall Powell
Kendall Powell Courtesy of Kendall Powell

Kendall Powell is a freelance science writer based in Lafayette, Colorado. She covers the realm of biology, from molecules to maternity, and is a contributor to The Science Writers’ Handbook.

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