Saying Goodbye to the KSJ Tracker

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In April 2006, the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT, then under the direction of Washington Post veteran Boyce Rensberger, unveiled something new and wonderful in the world of science writing: a daily blog devoted to highlighting and critiquing the best (and sometimes worst) examples of journalism about science, technology, health, and the environment.

Today, more than eight years and 10,000 posts later, the Tracker is an international resource for science journalists and others following science news. Thanks are due not only to Boyce but all of the dedicated journalists and commentators who have made the Tracker such a useful and comprehensive resource, including Charlie Petit, who has been with the program from the beginning, current lead Tracker Paul Raeburn, Pere Estupinyà, Faye Flam, Sascha Karberg, Boyce’s successor Phil Hilts, and Knight staffer Patrick Wellever, who was behind a couple of big redesigns for the Tracker pages.

But it is also time to consider ways that both the Tracker and the KSJ program can be made even stronger as we move forward.

In anticipation of new initiatives taking shape here at MIT, we’d like to announce that we’ll be phasing out Tracker operations in their current form, in two stages. First, we’re downsizing a bit: after August 31, 2014, chief Tracker Paul Raeburn will be our sole contributor. After December 31, we’ll stop publishing new posts, at least until we complete a further review.

Also, in the Tracker’s final months, we’ll be running things a little less like a group blog and a little more like a newspaper or a magazine. That means we’ll be coordinating closely with Paul to identify the topics and trends that merit his attention, and his pitches and stories will go through a traditional vetting and editing process.

Even after we stop publishing, the full archive of Tracker posts will remain available here at the KSJ website as a resource for the community.

What’s behind these changes? Readers of the Tracker may know that there’s a leadership transition underway here at the Knight program. Phil Hilts announced his retirement as director earlier this year. To fill his place and build on his accomplishments, MIT has hired the two of us. Deborah will arrive as the new director of the program in July 2015. Meanwhile Wade is serving as acting director in 2014-15, while simultaneously planning a new MIT initiative designed to boost public engagement in technology and science through new forms of storytelling.

As part of this transition, we’re evaluating many aspects of the existing Knight program. We’re asking how each piece fits with our plans for improving the experience of the Knight Fellows and enhancing the program’s impact on the journalism profession and the wider world. We’re also thinking about how we might weave elements of the planned public engagement initiative back into the core fellowship program and the KSJ website. 

It will take time to flesh out those ideas. Meanwhile, we feel it’s important to clear some space for experimentation by phasing out the Tracker in its current form.

We’re not backing away one bit from our commitment to promoting excellence in science and technology journalism. We think it’s a smart idea to provide a space for media criticism in the science, technology, health, and environmental fields, and it’s not a concept we want to give up.

But as we expand the Knight program to encompass new ways of thinking about telling science and technology stories, we want to be smart about how we choose and highlight examples of effective (or ineffective) engagement between scientists, engineers, innovators, journalists, and the public. We know this will be one of the key activities we tackle under the new initiative. But as we figure out what forms that might take, we want to reserve plenty of time to brainstorm and gather input from the journalism community and other stakeholders inside and outside MIT. We certainly welcome your ideas, by the way: please send your own thoughts to Wade at wroush@mit.edu.

Winding down the Tracker is the most visible indicator so far of the changes we’re planning over the coming year. There will be many more—and we promise they’ll all be exciting.

See What Others Are Saying

55 comments / Join the Discussion

    Of course change is unsettling, but I think that I will really miss the Tracker unless. I’m a press officer, and I have learned a lot from the Tracker, which has helped me improve what I do. This kind of resource is just not easy to find.

    You know one of the reasons an announcement such as this hits so hard? That each of us can compare the Tracker with initiatives like the potato salad or the ice bucket challenge. To think that there’s resources and bandwidth for those things and not for a constructive and succesful endeavour gives more weight to my musing about putting more of my life offline. Sigh.

    The Tracker, both in English and Spanish, has been a most valuable tool for my work as a writer and editor, as well as a teacher of science journalism. I really wish you would reconsider taking it down. Along with many colleagues, I too wonder why kill something that is working so, so well. Please!

    The Tracker, both in English and Spanish, has been a most valuable tool for my work as a writer and editor, as well as a teacher of science journalism in Mexico. I really wish you would reconsider taking it down. Along with many colleagues, I too wonder why kill something that is working so well. Please!

    As a couple of have others have said, this is — now soon to be “was” — the only science journalism site I would look at day in, day out. At a time when science journalism and writing are suffering from sub-standard stuff produced solely to provoke or to garner clicks, KSJ came through by reminding us all, usually with style and wit, that writing about science deserves to be done better than that. Whatever direction the Knight program goes, eliminating the Tracker will leave a big gap. I want to add that the last posts from Faye and Charlie come across as caring about science writing and its people, and they leave with undiminished style and grace.

    I too wish you would reconsider. I agree it is a bad decision to discontinue this valuable service
    journalists, educators and others use as part of their own outreach – including to engage the public.

    I read the Tracker regularly, and feel it has added greatly to the science journalism community, as everyone else here has pointed out. Certainly many if not all of the science journalists I know read it. For the vast majority of science journalists who never actually get a KSJ Fellowship, the Tracker is the most public face of KSJ at MIT. The move to eliminate the Tracker would for me be very much as if KSJ at MIT had sheared its face off. I can’t see how anything KSJ at MIT would seek to replace the Tracker with would be more popular and successful at reaching what I imagine to be its constituency.

    I find this announcement as a very sad one. The Tracker is an extremely useful tool which I use constantly to learn and I`ve also used to teach students in science journalism courses. I hope there is a way to keep The Tracker alive.

    I agree with all the concerns raised in these comments, and I know none of the back-story of this decision, but I do want to raise the possibility that it could be incredibly easy to continue much of the functionality of the Tracker for cheap by turning it into something like a curated Facebook page. That could also allow a wider array of contributors to share recent bests and worsts.
    While I’ve much admired the quality of the wisdom and writing on the Tracker, I’ve also thought, “I’d rather have journalists of this caliber spend their time on adding more great original reporting to the world than on aggregating others’ work.”
    The Tracker is unique in its meta-level take on science journalism and I deeply hope it will continue in some form as part of the KSJF, ideally in conjunction with Gary Schwitzer’s great Health News Review. Wade and Deborah, are you thinking about anything like that? Also, I really hope this backlash will persuade you to consider gathering more input and feedback from former fellows and the broader science journalism community as you contemplate shifts in the program’s direction. It’s so close to our hearts, for many of us…

    A real shame. Why do people feel the need to destroy a good thing to make their own mark? Whatever comes out of this experimentation, it will still end a valuable and successful thing that would be of great benefit to carry on with. The Tracker was by no means perfect, but it was super useful.

    Also, it’s a real shame to see a move away from journalism to public engagement: the Tracker was one place where the value of proper journalism and journalists was held in highest esteem. To see it go from that to ‘engagement’, ‘telling stories about science’ and gathering input from ‘stakeholders’ is a sad thing indeed.

    I’ve been following the comments here carefully, and I wanted to jump back in and offer a few more thoughts.

    It’s really gratifying to see so much evidence that the Tracker has a devoted core of users and fans. That’s a testament to our talented Tracker contributors, and a sign that we were doing something right.

    The opinions you’re sharing carry a lot of weight. They confirm in my own mind that there’s a need for an operation like the Tracker that provides a place for honest appraisals of the work of people publishing stories about science and technology.

    We’re going to provide such a place in the future. It will be different. We hope some of you will like it.

    Sometimes you can build the new thing before you tear down the old thing. I think of the beautiful new suspension bridge that makes up the eastern half of San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which sprouted up alongside the old seismically unsound truss bridge.

    Sometimes there’s no way to provide a substitute and you just have to close the old thing in order to make improvements—the way the National Park Service had to close the Washington Monument for a while after the 2011 earthquake.

    A lot of careful thinking went into the decision that Deborah and I reached to shut down the Tracker a few months from now. We’ve outlined parts of that thinking. There’s always more to the story, especially inside a large organization like MIT. It’s part of my job now to know what can and can’t be shared publicly.

    One thing I can say: keeping the Tracker going is expensive. A lot more expensive than any of the previous comments here might lead you to believe.

    Deborah and I are being asked by our new employers here at MIT to look at the big picture—meaning, all of the activities the Knight program spends money on—and keep the ones that have the most impact, while also inventing a few new ones that might have even more impact.

    We hope some of you will enjoy, and want to contribute to, the new things we build. Meanwhile, during the upcoming renovations, thanks for your patience and please pardon our dust.

    This is yet another loss for environmental journalism, already suffering from a near-continual series of cuts. More disturbing, however, is the New Agey tone of the article announcing KSJ’s demise, loaded with platitudes and promises and utterly lacking in specifics. I suspect strongly that some form of budget cut or expiration of a grant is the root cause of this project’s end, and will be very surprised if anything even half as substantive takes its place. If this was a budget move, could KSJ please be upfront about that?

    I can only add my voice to the others who think this move extremely wrongheaded and the announcement of it filled with corporate-suite obsfucation. It is a sign of strength and leadership to reverse bad decisions–especially when they are your own. Be strong. Show some leadership.

    Think of the human hours that will be lost wasted on reading bad science journalism. And how many writers will be decoupled from and de-focused on a superb professional resource. What are you saving the village from, exactly, that you must destroy it?

    Just who is the “we” of all this? And while you puzzle that one out, why do something else as yet undefined instead of the Tracker, which is tested, proven, and successful? Have you news of even one of the “changes we’re planning over the coming year”? If so, excite us with it, please. Otherwise, heed the many voices saying that it ain’t broke and needn’t be fixed.

    I agree with what everyone has said and to it add one thing. This should not be a one-sided discussion with the commenters interacting with one another and not with the authors. In 2014 it is absolutely incumbent upon Deborah and Wade to respond to what people are saying. Now.

    It’s what happens when we all become “content providers.” Get a hold of yourselves up there, people. I use Trackers when I teach science writing, I read it and learn from it, even in my dotage. I think some explanation that does not owe allegiance to George Orwell would be useful. What your message says, in English, is that you are killing the Tracker and haven’t the faintest idea what to replace it with. If that is so, say so. If that is not so, try again. And don’t kill Tracker.

    Two phrases come to mind:
    ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ …
    ‘Simply stated, it is sagacious to eschew obfuscation’
    The community deserves a clear explanation of what the new directors see as the problem with the current approach by KSJ. This statement is not at all clear.

    I also am weighing in to say I read the Tracker every day and find it quite valuable. Not sure what you will replace it with, Deb, that will have as much reach -and I look forward to seeing those new ideas.

    The reasons why the tracker should stay have been thoroughly discussed, an I agree, although changes of course can be a good thing. What troubles me deeply and profoundly, and I am unable to frame this in friendly ways others have done, is the speak of this announcement. I find it abhorrent, so profoundly that I am unable to re-read it, actually. It is not what I associate with the Knight Program, of which I am a thankful alumnus and for the future of which I care deeply, it is not what it has until now stood for, it is far removed from the idea of communication and indeed journalism the Knight Program has until now stood for, and I am now concerned about the other changes ahead. (I wrote a similar post before, which somehow did not appear until now, so if it will still come up and make this double here, I do apologize)

    At the risk of being redundant, but in solidarity with those colleagues who have expressed dismay at this decision: It is indeed inexplicable and the language of the announcement was definitely of the “I’m quitting to spend more time with my family” variety. This is not intended as an insult to our colleagues who made the announcement, but were they speaking for themselves or some powers on high who do not realize how valuable the Tracker has been to so many people? What parameters/numbers/criteria are being used to make this decision? Not only do I get a huge amount out of the site myself, but it is mandatory reading for my NYU students, whose journalism skills have been greatly sharpened by this early and intense exposure to the wit and words of wisdom of some of the best in the business. Please, please reconsider!!

    A great loss. We will miss this great tool. Specially the focus on latin american science issues. Greetings from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

    As a former Knight Fellow turned science/health/medical journalism professor, I have to be on serious vacation or sick as a dog to skip reading the Tracker. I require students to read it, too, and it helps them get up to speed with what separates smart writing from the rest. Sure, I haven’t always agreed with everything the Tracker bloggers say. But no matter. And the decision to add a Spanish blog was genius. Reporters for ethnic news organizations too often feel dissed by sources, including those at major agencies, and expanding the conversation about science reporting bucked that trend.

    I agree with other commenters who note that with CJR pulling back, the Tracker stood alone as a place where science writers would be praised for excellence and held accountable of brain cramps and lapses. I’m not against change, not by a long shot. But I hate the idea of losing a unique resource.

    I find this decision troubling and inexplicable. Allowing the Tracker to continue would take no more time from the program director than it does now–which is almost no time at all. Paul, Charlie, Faye and Pere do all the work. Killing the Tracker will not give the director any more time to develop an alternative. What it will do is encourage its thousands of followers to drift away.

    Killing the Tracker will save some money–roughly the equivalent of the cost of one nine-month fellow— but the last time I checked, the program’s endowment was substantial and growing apace with the stock market.

    What comes through to me from the statement above–as I try to read behind the corporatespeak–is that the overall Knight program is moving away from a strict commitment to journalism for the general public and toward new forms of “story telling,” perhaps even toward “science communication.” I fear something worse–a move toward brand journalism (which is not journalism at all) with MIT as the brand. That was something I had to fight when I ran the program for ten years.

    Good science journalism stands apart from science. It serves the general public–the readers, viewers and listeners–not the scientific community, not even one of science’s and technology’s greatest institutions of research. It does not exist to “communicate” to the public whatever the scientists and engineers want communicated. That’s the job of a different breed of science writer–the public relations person who stands with the scientists and serves their interests.

    Good science journalism is journalism first and must retain an arms-length relationship to science. Its goal is not to increase public “engagement” with science. Its goal is to keep the public informed of what scientists are doing and to give enough explanation so that the public can understand at some level what is being learned.

    My fears about the program’s future may be unfounded. I hope they are.

    Eloquently put:

    “Good science journalism stands apart from science. It serves the general public–the readers, viewers and listeners–not the scientific community, not even one of science’s and technology’s greatest institutions of research. It does not exist to “communicate” to the public whatever the scientists and engineers want communicated. That’s the job of a different breed of science writer–the public relations person who stands with the scientists and serves their interests.

    “Good science journalism is journalism first and must retain an arms-length relationship to science. Its goal is not to increase public “engagement” with science. Its goal is to keep the public informed of what scientists are doing and to give enough explanation so that the public can understand at some level what is being learned.”

    Exactly, Boyce, the Knight Fellowship/Tracker directors should LISTEN TO YOU, OF ALL PEOPLE.

    An additional thought. I came across the news about the Tracker as I was about to send Charlie a note about some chemo-noia coverage of a risk story by Bloomberg, on triclosan in toothpaste, that had the obligatory alarms about suspected carcinogenicity and endocrine disruption but left out huge chunks of critical information a reader would need to know to make an informed judgment about the risk (like, say, dose). And today Bloomberg is reporting (crowing) about how people are now scared out buying that toothpaste. Without something like the Tracker challenging “if it scares it airs” journalism, not at occasional conferences six months later but on a real time platform that can respond to breaking events and maybe keep journalists honest, even if just a little…then who will? In that sense an actual public service is being lost.

    From a Knight Fellow 94-95;
    The Tracker has established itself as a place where responsible and professional praise or criticism can be offered, in a constructive way, where the goal is not to troll and carp but to improve science journalism. And it is a place where the recipients of such reviews know their peers are also watching. It has precisely the impact the Knight Program itself hopes to have on the Fellows each year…to improve science journalism.
    And it works. I know from personal feedback in several cases that the criticisms or commendations I offered via Charlie or Paul were received and taken seriously by the journalist, and sometimes their editor(s).
    That said, as a former fellow who has stayed connected to and occasionally even gives talks in the Knight program, a change in leadership is a great time for assessing new directions, as Boyce did, and Phil after him. So while we all lament the loss of the Tracker, it’s also fair to try to see things not as outside devotees of this one important site, but also from the perspective of those inside the program running not just the Tracker but the entire program.
    However, even from that perspective, the demise of the Tracker will hurt the Knight Fellowship Program in important ways. It may be the fellowship’s most effective marketing tool. It certainly gives the program cache as more than just a sabbatical-for-journalists. It makes the program more of a player in the larger community. It has severed as role model for journalism about journalism, as was Gary Schwitzer’s site. In fact, the Tracker and Gary’s site inspired a German university to set up a similar site to track environmental journalism.
    But these costs, which were certainly considered by Wayne and Deb, have to be weighed against their needs and goals and visions for making the overall Knight program a continued success. I would like to think that anyone who has chimed in here is ready to contribute to that effort (and maybe even trying to keep the Tracker going!)

    The wording of your explanation why you are doing this is so corporate new-speak that it doesn’t come off as real. Journalists, as you know, see obfuscation and
    call it out. Now I’m sure you didn’t mean that but I don’t think your posting
    did what you wanted. If KSJ is being cut because of funding, say it and be honest.
    If it isn’t and you just want to try something new because you didn’t think it
    was working, say that. If it is with Phil
    leaving and Deb not coming till 2015 and Wade doing something else, you don’t
    have time for this, say that. But frankly none of us know what you said. So we
    suspect the worst, it comes off like the happy speak from big wigs who are
    handing you a pink slip. And frankly your audience is too smart to be fooled by
    that. There are two ways to remedy this. 1. Reinstate the tracker. 2. Explain
    again in real terms the real reason minus the jargon and happy-talk.

    Please don’t get rid of the Tracker! it’s one of the few sites I check all of the time.

    I get nervous when journalists use terms such as “stakeholders” or “committees.” Haven’t we had our fill of that in our beleaguered corporatized media?

    I had never heard of Knight Science Journalism before I discovered this excellent KSJ Tracker and its superb contributors. As far as I can tell, this blog has put the program on the map for many people online.

    Moreover, it has provided an invaluable public service and, I am sure, an excellent outlet for your Knight Fellows.

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    I think that part of the reaction this announcement is getting from science writers comes from the announcement’s corporate-sounding language. When we hear that language from corporations, we know to look between and behind the words. We don’t expect to hear it from colleagues. I should speak for myself and quit saying “we.” Anyway, I’ll miss the Tracker’s straightforwardness.

    I strongly agree with Michael Casey: “There is nothing wrong with reassessing what KSJ does well but I would strongly argue that you keep the Tracker going until Deborah comes in and has a chance to give everything a look”. I´m not sure if the Tracker in spanish has problems, I’ll rather think that it should be connected with other experiments and initiatives.

    Like the other commenters, I have found the Tracker to be a unique and useful resource. Today, critical oversight is needed more than ever, so the decision to shut down the Tracker without any clear idea of what might replace it seems a questionable one. Clearly, there must be some behind-the-scenes factors at work that are not obvious to outsiders like us. However, I hope that those factors are not strong enough to keep you from reconsidering your decision.

    This is a terrible shame. The Tracker has taught me more on a daily basis about science writing than just about any other resource I could name. I’m very dissapointed, and very skeptical of the real value of the “exciting” activities that sound as though they are yet to be brainstormed.

    I have learned a lot about science writing through the Tracker and often accessed stories, and learned of ways of telling stories, through the Tracker site. Public engagement is a popular journalism buzzword right now. but I find it a lot less meaningful than a site used by journalists daily to learn more about improving their craft.

    The Tracker has been a daily must-read, even for this culture reporter.
    Don’t kill it.

    Hi Deborah! Well, wow…this is a bit of a shocker. I use this tracker a LOT during my science writing and science journalism conferences and seminars in Latin America.This year alone I have taught 8 in Colombia and Mexico, and have plans to do so in Peru and Chile as well. This is a superb tool, both in English and Spanish because I can log online with my students (not just journalists but also faculty and researchers in LatAm’s main universities) and go over stories in both languages that the Tracker so professionally reviews. We learn together what works and what doesn’t in terms of communicating science, and I can tell researchers really like going through this step. They “get it”. They see both the mistakes and the cool stuff we journalists deliver, and they learn. I do hope you guys reconsider, while you come up with wonderful things, to leave the Tracker as is for a while. In any case, I wish you the best in the new generation of the fellowship and its associated products. For us former fellows it is a vital link when ding our job…at least for me it is so. Abrazos desde Miami Beach.

    Downsizing dressed up as ‘expanding the program’?
    ‘Clear some space for experimentation’?
    Pretty unconvincing that this is the real story of why the Tracker’s being axed.
    What a shame.

    I have been an enthusiastic supporter, reader and contributor of ideas to the Tracker from the start, and it has been invaluable as a research tool, teaching aid, gossip source, story generator (and story killer), as well as an endless source of cautionary tales for myself and my colleagues. There is really nothing else like it on the web. So the idea of killing it seems absurd, premature and perhaps not thoroughly thought through. Can it be better? Of course. But surely this is a prime example of throwing out the baby because you want to redecorate the nursery. Please reconsider this hasty decision.

    Looking in from the outside, I have no idea what the overhead for the Tracker may be in time, money, or personnel. But I suspect it can’t be much. The pages already are designed and running. The “peer reviewers” are in their groove. It’s hard to see how this takes up so much space that it leaves little for experimentation. Given Seth’s eloquent points, especially the global reach and daily utility of what you already have, I’d suggest treating this like weather-forecasting models. Don’t ditch the current operational one until you’re satisfied, after feedback from users, that the next great thing truly is the next great thing.

    There is nothing wrong with reassessing what KSJ does well but I would strongly argue that you keep the Tracker going until Deborah comes in and has a chance to give everything a look. I agree with Seth that many of your efforts have benefit but there is nothing that sells the KSJ brand better than the Tracker and, more importantly, provides a critical voice on science reporting at a time when more and more of those reporters doing it are not experienced and can easily be hoodwinked by bad science and scientists

    I’m with the others. Very sad to be losing Tracker as a resource, an inspiration and a voice over my shoulder encouraging me to be a better writer. The tone of Tracker could certainly be acid at times but no more than some of the egregious writing it highlighted deserved. Re-organise, re-group and experiment by all means, but whatever comes out of that process needs to match the strength and vision of what we have now.

    Many groups do “public engagement” whatever the heck that is besides management speak trying to look 21st century. AAAS and NAS and NSF and others try to “engage” the public in science, as do the Science and Engineering Festival and numerous STEM groups. KSJ will just be another voice in that little-paid attention to crowd instead of standing alone as they go to place within science journalism for peer review. The way to “engage” the public is through the professionals who translate, explain and break science news: the science writers. Better science writers mean science gets out better to the public. We are the pipeline of science from researchers to public because researchers in general aren’t good at explaining and the public isn’t that good at understanding. Improving either end of the information flow doesnt work if there isnt a functioning pipeline in between.

    Yes, Seth! Especially on this part:

    The way to “engage” the public is through the professionals who
    translate, explain and break science news: the science writers. Better
    science writers mean science gets out better to the public. We are the
    pipeline of science from researchers to public because researchers in
    general aren’t good at explaining and the public isn’t that good at
    understanding. Improving either end of the information flow doesn’t work
    if there isn’t a functioning pipeline in between

    This also strikes me as a strange and wrongheaded way to proceed. Seth Borenstein expresses the reasons well.

    While KSJ does wonderful work with boot camps and the
    nine-month fellowships, your reach is quite limited that way. A daily tracker
    with criticism reaches far more science journalists than the fellowships. Any
    science writer worth his or her salt checks the tracker daily to see what’s
    being covered, how it should be covered, what mistakes are made and how they
    should be avoided. You reach everyone interested this way. And it works. We can’t cover everything,
    reading tracker helps us realize what others are doing, what we should be
    doing and what we shouldn’t. Especially with CJR’s downsizing of The
    Observatory, there is nothing out there that serves the day-to-day science
    writer except for the tracker. Now you leave us adrift.

    No one likes change I know. I trust given your experience
    and skill whatever will replace Tracker will be useful and helpful. But in my
    limited imagination I do not see how in the world anything can match Tracker
    for its usefulness to everyday science writers. Please reconsider.

    You say all the planned changes will be exciting, but you’re definitely starting off on the wrong foot, by taking away something that exists and that many of us find useful and valuable. I fully agree with John’s comment.

    The Tracker is a going, successful operation. Leave it alone until/unless you have something better to take its place. (And from the discussion above, you don’t yet.)

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