How many science stories should local newspapers have?

Scientific Surrey: the county is home to pioneering science firms like SSTL
When, or rather if (given declining circulation), you pick up a copy of your local newspaper, how many articles would you expect to see about science?To a large extent, that depends on the area you live in. If your paper covers a sleepy rural village, chances are that you wouldn’t expect many – maybe some  stories about environmental issues or, if there’s a lot of agriculture in the vicinity, a few on vaccines for livestock diseases perhaps.

But if your local paper’s patch covers at least one university with a strong science department, and maybe a technology park, then you’d be right in expecting considerably more coverage. But how much more? How many stories should local newspapers be devoting to science?

Case study: science in the Surrey Advertiser

 

I recently read a blog post by an MSc science communication student, Julie Gould, in which she had analysed the amount of science coverage in a weekly local paper, the Surrey Advertiser, where I used to work as a reporter until December 2011. I was actually its science reporter, which I did alongside reporting on business and anything else which happened in Guildford, be it council goings-on, missing pets, or a notorious dogging hotspot near a primary school (that last story, perhaps unsurprisingly, generated quite a lot of hits on the newspaper’s website!)

I read the post with interest to see what she made of the coverage – according to Gould, there were 34 articles relating to science in the Surrey Advertiser during a five-month period, from May-September 2012. However, according to the author, this was a poor showing for a newspaper that covered an area with such a wealth of science and technology firms such as Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), not to mention a university with a well-renowned science department.

“As science is such an integral part of the Guildford community in terms of employment and economic value, I believe it should be reported within the local newspapers,” said Gould on her blog.

“Turns out, very little science actually is. In my study I found that from May 2012 until end September 2012, only 34 articles alluded to science. And only 15 of those reported on scientific research of any kind.”

How much science is enough?

 

While it’s true that Guildford, and Surrey generally, is very well served by science, I actually think that 34 articles is fairly good for a local weekly newspaper.

Chemistry: so much more than coloured liquids in bottles, though

Also, although it isn’t specified*, I presume that Gould looked at articles that appeared on the Surrey Ad’s website, www.getsurrey.co.uk, rather than the print editions. Although she might not necessarily have known to take this into account, the Surrey Ad – along with several other local papers, I’d imagine – don’t put every single story that appears in the print version on their website. 

I remember a number of my stories, including science ones, not going online, and this was for a few reasons, one of which was that some stories were held back from going online in order to add value to the printed version – after all, if you just put all your stories online, there’s not such an incentive to buy the printed product, which is where the bulk of the Surrey Ad’s revenue comes from.

But if we ignore the fact that there were probably more science articles in the printed paper during that five-month period, 34 articles during that time still averages out at 1.5 a week. That’s not bad going, especially when you consider that a local newspaper has to try to cover all news going on in the local area, and there’s only so much space on the page.

During those weeks, there will be council news that needs to be reported, stories on how the local hospitals and police are faring, court news, human interest stories and many, many others, so page space is at a premium within the newspaper. The editors and reporters have to try to provide its readership with as wide a range of news as possible, to give a comprehensive picture of what’s been happening in the area that week.

Dedicated science reporters on local papers – is it feasible? 

 

Gould makes a number of interesting points, noting that the Surrey Ad does not have a specific science reporter “which may be part of the problem. It could mean that the reporter has difficulty in establishing what scientific research is worth reporting.”

Although I don’t know whether there was a designated science reporter at the paper during the period she analysed, as I had left the Surrey Ad several months earlier, reporters at the paper are generally listed on the website only by the geographic regions they covered, and not by the subject patches they did at the same time, such as science, health, transport, education etc. So, looking at reporters’ job titles on the website wouldn’t have given any indication of whether or not there was someone specifically covering science at the paper.

However, I imagine the Surrey Ad is probably fairly rare among local papers in terms of having had a dedicated science reporter keeping tabs on research and developments (alongside covering Guildford news, of course). But I think it’d be difficult, in some cases impractical, for most local papers to have a ‘science reporter’ per se – with most newsrooms being understaffed, many local reporters have to be generalists, writing on anything and everything that happens, and not all papers have enough science outlets in their area (universities, technology firms etc) to make it worth their while to have a designated science reporter.

Science minister David Willetts (right) at the IAH in Surrey

Gould also suggests that the reason why there aren’t as many physics or space industry research articles in the Surrey Ad is because “It may be that the technology being developed is too difficult to communicate in layman terms. It may also be too abstract to be of interest. A lot of space technology is initially only applicable to space research. It is only afterwards that further applications of the technology are identified.”

I agree that without a certain level of knowledge about science, it can be difficult to distinguish what research is newsworthy, and what only merits a passing mention, and as Gould says, some of it would have been too abstract to have meant much to the average reader.

Although she says in the comments below her blog post that she compared the Surrey Ad’s science coverage with the Kingston Guardian, which only had one science story within the same period, that probably wouldn’t have been the best comparison because Kingston isn’t a major science and technology hub like Guildford, and it also covers a much smaller area than the Surrey Ad, which covers a sizeable chunk of Surrey.

So by way of comparison, I thought I’d do my own little analysis of another paper. I looked at Oxford, because it too has universities (University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University), technology companies and a science park. I looked at the website belonging to the Oxford Mail, a daily newspaper, which also includes news from its sister publications, including the weekly Oxford Times. The Surrey Ad’s website includes news from both the weekly Surrey Ad and its sister paper the Surrey Times, also weekly, although given that the Oxford Mail is a daily, you’d expect there to be more news stories.

I found 39 articles about science, such as pieces on new research (excluding articles with only a cursory mention of science), within the same five month period as the Surrey Ad’s analysis, from May-September 2012. Given that the Oxford Mail is a daily paper, I expected there to be more science stories, but then again, it may only put up a fraction of its print stories online, like with the Surrey Ad.

I found it interesting, therefore, that both the Oxford and Surrey papers, which both have universities with good science departments, a hive of technology companies and science parks, appear to have a similar number of articles about science.

How to get more science into newspapers

 

I’m of course all for getting as much science into the local media as possible, although obviously if the paper doesn’t cover a particularly science-orientated area, that may prove tricky. And lack of time caused by understaffed newsrooms, and the need to try and report on other local stories, also mean that it isn’t possible to feature as many stories as perhaps some would like.

However, if you’re living in an area without obvious science outlets like universities, there are other ways to try and get stories in – if there are scientists living in the area, an interview with them could make a good feature, exploring their research. Any link between science and the local area should certainly be explored – for instance, are there any local astronomy groups? Perhaps you could go along to a stargazing session.

During my time at the Surrey Ad, I interviewed a pub landlord who had set up a science discussion group, Café Scientifique, a materials scientist at the University of Surrey who liked to be known more as a “breaker of things”, and had a chat with Professor Brian Cox before he did a public Q and A with Professor Jim Al-Khalili at the university, among other science features and stories. I loved being a reporter in an area so richly served by science, and the more science stories that appear in local papers, helping to educate their readers about science, the better  – the more, the merrier!Update (October 28, 2012): Julie Gould has since let me know that she looked at the print versions of the Surrey Advertiser, not the website, so it therefore takes into account all the stories published by the Surrey Ad. Thanks for letting me know, Julie!

  1. Julie Gould

    Hi Melanie,

    This is great! And extremely interesting to read your point of view on my work considering you are a science reporter.

    In my blog I only put a snippet of the work up, which maybe is where I went wrong as some of it may be taken out of context. Does that make a difference to your analysis?

    I actually looked at the print papers during that time, and the same for the Kingston Guardian. I would have liked to look at a paper like one from Oxford, but getting to the print archives would have been a challenge.

    Compared to one story in the KG, I think 34 is great, but as you said, they are different towns with different employment strengths. The Univeristy in Kingston did state on its website that it was one of the largest employers in the town, which is why I chose to compare it to the SA.

    It's intersting to see that Oxford had the same sort of coverage, but you a (although unknowingly at the time) comparing print to online. I wonder if there would be a difference is you compared the print stories?

  2. Melanie Hall

    Thanks Julie! I was going to tweet you to let you know that I'd written a post in response to your blog – I really enjoyed reading your piece, was very interesting!

    Ah I see, I wasn't sure if you'd looked at the print or just online versions, so that's good to know. I imagined you hadn't put up all your analysis (that would've been too long for the internet!), but it made for a good read – although some pieces have been done analysing the number of science stories in the nationals, I'm not aware of there being many analysing science in local papers.

    Yeah I totally agree, it would've been tricky getting the Oxford papers' archives. It'd be interesting to see how they compared in print – yep, I imagine it would probably have a considerably larger number of science stories compared to its online edition.

    I'll add an update to my post to say that you looked at print stories, not the website – thanks for letting me know, and I look forward to reading your future posts!

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