The hardest-working press critic in the country is Charles Petit, the lead writer at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker blog. If Petit isn’t the hardest-working press critic, he’s easily the most productive, writing a half-dozen to a dozen entries each weekday critiquing the most noteworthy science news stories. KSJ Tracker, which launched in April 2006, scans the dailies, magazines, the wires, Web sites, and even does broadcasts.
Billing itself as “Peer review within science journalism,” KSJ Tracker sifts the Web for the day’s newsiest science stories, summarizes the topic, and assesses the work of one or two of the reporters before linking to the other takes on the story. When Petit gets the URL to the press releases behind the science news, he links to them, and he charts his favorite stories on the “Petit’s Picks” page. Think of KSJ Tracker as a Romenesko for science scribes.
The site’s ambition is to improve science journalism by making it easy for reporters and editors to read and judge the competition. It makes the site sound hopelessly pedagogic, but it isn’t. KSJ Tracker’s target audience is science journalists, but its creator, Boyce Rensberger, doesn’t mind if you use the site as a science-news service.
Rensberger labored in the science journalism trenches for three decades, working at the Detroit Free Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Science 81-84 magazine. In 1998, he took over the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships program at MIT. When an endowment-payouts error in the program’s favor was discovered, Rensberger funneled some of the cash to hire Petit, another veteran science reporter, to start Tracker.
“Science journalists are a tiny minority at any given newsroom,” Rensberger says, numbering as few as one or two if the beat exists, and he hopes Tracker can create a virtual community in which science journalists look over one another’s shoulders. Judging from Tracker’s 500 daily hits, the community is big enough to fill a rock club but not a high-school auditorium. Tracker’s readers are a silent lot, rarely accepting the invitation to talk back in the site’s comments section, a deficiency Rensberger acknowledges.
I exploited KSJ Tracker three months ago after reading its skeptical take on press coverage of new tobacco findings by the state of Massachusetts. The item, written by Rensberger, who occasionally substitutes for Petit, prompted me to do additional reporting and write my own press critique about how the AP, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS News, and ABC News covered the story.
KSJ Tracker is such a good idea that other foundations and universities should pinch the idea. The Shorenstein Center could track and critique political coverage and the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship could blog about the best and worst financial journalism. Additionally, we could assign Morehouse College to do the same for sports journalism, the Nieman Watchdog for muckraking, and Johns Hopkins for international news coverage.
Finally, what better way to spend down the Annenberg Foundation billions than order it to start a Web site that collects all the stories about wicked publishing tycoons who attempt, by philanthropic means from the grave, to rehabilitate their rotten images?
Addendum, Dec. 14: Yesterday I called for the establishment of Web sites to examine other press beats the way KSJ Tracker does the science beat, and lo, it turns out that some already exist.
Watching the business journalists we find Chris Rouch, professor of journalism at University of North Carolina. Allow me to recommend his Talking Biz News.
Mark Obbie, director of Syracuse University’s Carnegie Legal Reporting Program at Newhouse, cites KSJ Tracker as the inspiration for LawBeat, which he launched six weeks ago. It’s excellent.
The John Jay College of Criminal Justice supports Crime & Justice News, a five days a week blog produced by Criminal Justice Journalists.
Reader Jim Charles suggests that the University of Southern California Graduate School of Film could analyze journalism about the film industry, the Robert Tisch Graduate School of Theatre and Drama at New York University could walk the beat in the theater journalism, and any one of the hundreds of med schools in the country could to monitor the medical press.
Keep those recommendations coming. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclosure: This time 22 years ago, when Boyce Rensberger was an editor at Science 84 magazine, he assigned a feature story to me. He had the supreme good sense to leave the magazine as I turned in my copy. Have I missed an obvious foundation or university that should be producing a KSJ Tracker rip-off? Send your nominations to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)