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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.