Science journalism: no crisis after all

The world’s science journalists gathered in London this week for their biennial conference. All the talk in the run-up to the meeting was gloomy – science journalism in decline at best or crisis at worst, as the well-known pressures on traditional printed and broadcast media lead to cuts in specialist coverage.

As the recession deepened over the winter and then swine flu emerged, the organisers (and I should declare an interest, as a member of the conference steering committee) even considered cancelling the event because too few people would attend to make it viable. Thank God we didn’t.

Journalists being journalists, most people left registration to the last minute and there was a torrent of applications over the last two months. In the end the venerable venue, Westminster Central Hall, could take no more and registration was closed at 950 delegates – 60 per cent more than the previous conference in Melbourne two years ago and far more than anyone had dared hope.

It seems amazing that the world has 950 science journalists. And, yes, some of the attendees were “science communications” or PR people. But as far as I could tell from attending sessions (and parties) most delegates were real journalists writing for papers, periodicals and websites – general and specialist – and broadcasting on radio and television.

Certainly there was no sense of science journalism in global crisis at the conference. Yes, jobs have been cut in large news organisations from the BBC to the New York Times but these cuts seem to have been balanced by growth elsewhere. In the developing world, from Asia through Africa to Latin America, science writing is just emerging as a recognised and valued branch of journalism.

Appropriately, the next World Conference of Science Journalists will be held in Cairo in 2011. I can’t wait…

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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