30 December 2014

Science communication in 2015: adapt or die, Part 1

Scientific American recently made some changes to its blog network that many people saw coming.  A number of blogs were removed and some added. While some cancellations raised some eyebrows, many of the discontinued blogs were either dormant or not drawing enough traffic to justify the spot.  What struck me most, however, was this statement from the editors:
people expect a higher level of accuracy, integrity, transparency and quality from media organizations...
Actually, no.  The way people consume information - and the way people view credibility - has evolved, and the number of credible experts moving to blogs and social media has increased dramatically over the past few years.  SCOTUSblog has consistently operated at a higher level than any "brand name" media outlet covering the Supreme Court.  If the topic is sports, it's easier to question the motives of the reporter whose salary is drawn almost directly from the sports league he covers than it is the kid who reports trades on Twitter before they're announced.

It has become fashionable for many in the science communication ecosphere to criticize Scientific American (and their parent company, Nature Publishing Group) as stodgy and out of touch.  So when Scientific American applies the rules of "Branding 101" and removes those blogs that don't align closest to their core offering, some rightly suggest they also risk limiting their reach.

This doesn't mean, however, that SciAm has written off growing its readership.  In fact, the blog network still offers a great opportunity to do just that - if they take the right actions.

For example, they can provide meaningful financial incentives to their bloggers to grow and diversify their audience - and bring those readers in from their blogs to the main site. They can actively market their bloggers as thought leaders to other outlets. They can provide media and outreach training to their bloggers.  They can forge partnerships with unlikely allies that would love targeted content - online portals dedicated to other topics.  My guess is they're already considering a lot of this.  

If Scientific American (or another major name in science writing) demonstrates leadership with this, they can help address a desperate need.

Science communication is critically linked to support for science itself.  Right now support for "science" is soft.  People generally like it, but not enough to push back when it contradicts someone's ideology or business interests.  This makes it easier to cut public funding for science, build marketing plans based on ignorance, or deny science altogether.

If science is to win the day on policy and business decisions, scientists and science communicators must resist looking inward so much and start exploring and getting to know other audiences. They must stop complaining about what isn't possible and start doing what is. 

In short, they must embrace a new sense of entrepreneurship, a willingness to work with new partners under new (yet fair) rules, and a passion for growing and knowing an audience as much as possible.

In the coming days and weeks I will be discussing these ideas in more detail, and I welcome input of all kinds.


Anonymous said...

In political discourse, when I see references to what the "people" (and especially "the American people") want, I have come to expect an opinion, not a fact. I doubt "the people" have any unified expectation: some want media that provides news consistent with their beliefs, some want information that challenges their beliefs, and some (I suspect most) are largely indifferent, unless and until they focus on an issue of personal importance. Communication is not education, and the challenge for science educators is understanding that difference.

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