The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

NSRC 2023

Ares 1
Coverage of critical topics in the space field, like the development of NASA’s Constellation program, may be seriously hurt by the wave of media layoffs. (credit: NASA)

The last one out can turn off the lights…

Mark Carreau, the veteran space reporter for the Houston Chronicle, was let go this past week. He follows several other senior space reporters who have been let go from their jobs—Miles O’Brien at CNN and Craig Covault at Aviation Week. All of them have produced excellent work and represent something vital in space reporting: accumulated knowledge. Just like you feel better when the doctor setting your broken arm has done the procedure a thousand times, you should want a space reporter who knows what he is doing. We’re losing that experience, and it’s a reason to worry.

There’s nothing unique about what happened to them. Although we don’t know the circumstances behind each situation, they undoubtedly share the same underlying cause, the decline of the mainstream media amidst the Internet explosion. Newspapers are currently in freefall. The New York Times is reportedly broke, the Washington Post is hemorrhaging money, and other major papers are closing. All of them are dismissing staff, reducing the size of their print editions, and eliminating coverage. Many of these institutions brought this upon themselves by making dumb financial decisions. None of them have been able so far to adapt to the Internet age—if such adaptation is even possible. The public expects information on the net to be free, but we cannot escape the old adage that you get what you pay for, and free news is often low quality news.

Certainly there are some people who are laughing gleefully at this situation. They consider the majority of the media biased—not in their favor—and would not mind seeing liberal-leaning newspapers disappear. It’s less likely that these same people would applaud the disappearance of, say, Aviation Week or Space News. But many of the same factors rocking major newspapers are impacting those publications as well. Nobody should be happy about the decline of professional media.

Space journalism has never had much of an investigative bent, but space journalism does have competent professionals. They are having a harder time surviving in this newly evolving world.

Here’s why: for all its energy and immediacy, the space blogosphere remains relatively devoid of actual facts. It is filled with opinion and attitude, but mostly it consists of links to news content generated by others. Maybe not a lot of those links were to Covault or O’Brien or Carreau, but usually the most important links somehow end up at an article produced by somebody who gets paid to report on what is happening in the space field. The system that supports those reporters is collapsing. What this means is that increasingly those links are going to lead to press releases and propaganda. NASA, the Department of Defense, and big corporations all put out their own stories, filled with butterflies and rainbows. Sometimes it takes a veteran reporter to cut through the smoke, or to provide context.

There are other reasons why professional space reporting remains important. Professional media can pay to send reporters to get the story, or pay a reporter to operate in places—Houston, Cape Canaveral—where the stories are generated. Yes, the space blogosphere can operate from anywhere, but people won’t do certain things, like call up sources or knock on office doors on a weekday, unless they’re getting paid.

Finally, professional space journalists are supposed to be objective. They are supposed to report on NASA and NASA’s critics in the NewSpace field without taking sides and certainly without cheerleading.

Space journalism has never had much of an investigative bent—nobody reported on NASA’s flawed safety culture before Columbia, for instance—but space journalism does have competent professionals. They are having a harder time surviving in this newly evolving world. The people who continue to get paid to report on space issues are now likely to be younger and less experienced. They are also more likely to be generalists who cover whatever story an editor tosses to them and space will be one of multiple beats. Generalists tend to resort to checkmark journalism—one quote from a NASA official followed by one quote from a longtime NASA critic, like Alex Roland, in order to achieve “balance.” They do not understand the underlying issues and are never given the time to develop that expertise.

What is the future of space media? There’s no clear answer to that, both because we’re in the midst of the turmoil and because it’s not possible to evaluate the financial stability for many of the companies that focus on space. Even if media that rely heavily upon subscriptions rather than advertising revenue to cover their costs are still bringing in money, we do not know about the drain on their balance sheets caused by the costs of paper, and ink, and personnel. They may have to transition to something new, like subscription Internet sites. They may have to consolidate. We can only hope that they make the transition smoothly and don’t collapse before they can do it. Space news is not all butterflies and rainbows, and we are going to need professional reporters who can see the reality and tell the rest of us what is there.