A debate for the World Conference of Science Journalists: How can we make our profession sustainable?

This is my first year as a freelance science writer and journalist, and I’m excited to meet colleagues and peers converging on San Francisco for the World Conference of Science Journalists this weekend. We’re working in a continually evolving profession though, especially as news keeps shifting from print to online. I hope that we journalists, especially freelancers, find a way to make our profession sustainable. Maybe a writers union would help, and I’m curious to hear other ideas too.

Many people read and watch the news on various platforms every day, and a decent fraction of them seek out science news, too. Even those who don’t seek it out come across science-related coverage pretty often. It’s our duty to all our readers to provide engaging stories, accurate news, and thorough investigations. I love this job, but it’s hard for writers and reporters to do it well when they’re underpaid and overworked. (We’re not the only underpaid workers though, which in my opinion include elementary school teachers and childcare workers.)

Our society values journalism, even in these fractious times with divided public opinion about the press. (That’s another story.) Freelancers and interns are at the lowest levels of the industry, but they’re the foundation. They’re also future staff writers and editors, but as newsrooms continue to cut staff and consolidate job duties, they don’t necessarily have the stablest job security either. That also goes for copy editors and photographers. Let’s support all workers in our industry.

Too many magazines and news outlets pay poorly or late. We have deadlines and expectations to meet, and so should our publishers. I’m heartened to see so many new science- and environment-related news outlets popping up, so we have more options, but as we’ve seen with Nautilus magazine, they’re not all the best for writers. Some of them also unfortunately turn out to be short-lived, such as when a supporting foundation or philanthropist gets a new hobby. You’d think that more established magazines with bigger budgets and circulations, like The Atlantic and The New Yorker, could afford to pay better, but I haven’t seen evidence of that yet. It’s disappointing.

So where do we go from here? Should we form a science writer union, so that we can work together to earn better pay and put pressure on publishers? Should we encourage magazines, newspapers and online sites to have more paywalls, so that online news becomes more highly (appropriately) valued? Every industry in the “gig economy” seems to undervalue its workers, but if we unite and develop common goals, maybe we can find ways to improve the situation.

These are just my thoughts as I arrive in San Francisco this morning. I’m happy to hear your opinions about these huge challenges, too.