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©David J. Rhees, Chapel Hill - 1979
Please consult the author for permission to republish any part of the thesis.

A NEW VOICE FOR SCIENCE, 1926-29 (CHAPTER II - PART III)


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While the conversion of Science News-Letter to magazine form in 1926 marks the watershed in the first decade of Science Service, its annus mirabilis was 1928. In that year a weekly illustrated feature page was placed in the new Sunday magazine of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, the Scripps syndicate which in 1921 had tried and rejected Science Service material. A still greater success, however, was an arrangement to serve the twenty-six newspapers and three million readers of the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance with the Daily Science News Bulletin and a telegraphic wire service. 100 Edwin Slosson was especially gratified to gain the Scripps papers because it was a "voluntary recognition of the practical value of the Science Service output. 101 At the founding of Science Service, E. W. Scripps had strongly emphasized that his newspapers were not to grant, and Science Service was not to accept, special favors owing to their mutual connection with himself. "It is only now at the end of seven years," Slosson triumphantly announced, "that the national Scripps-Howard organizations have thought it worthwhile to take on our leading syndicate material as a whole." 102

By the end of the decade, Science Service features had made tremendous gains in popularity. Science Service material was serving over one hundred newspapers with a daily circulation averaging over seven million, nearly one-fifth the total circulation of the American press. Special wire service was providing on-the-spot coverage of all the major scientific conventions, from the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to a conference on "race betterment." The Science News-Letter had developed a circulation of nearly ten thousand, had won a prestigious reputation, and was beginning to pay for itself. New features were multiplying as fast as Slosson and Davis could dream them up. Some of their brainstorms included the following: "Building and Flying Model Airplanes," a response to the airplane craze prompted by Lindbergh's famous 1927 flight; "Star Story Map," a monthly constellation feature; "Science Shorts," fillers about science; "How Bright Is Your Baby," exploiting the popularity of intelligence testing; "Ask Yourself," which capitalized on the question-and-answer vogue; "Make Your Own Radiovisor," on how to make a television; "Make Your Own Telescope"; and dozens of other features, many of which used the popularity of current fads and fancies to get across scientific information. Reports on "Science News of the Week," begun in 1924, were being mailed to twenty-six radio stations with a potential audience of five million by the end of the decade, and a series of interviews by Watson Davis with leading scientists was inaugurated with the CBS radio network which would run for over thirty years. In 1926 a special service was initiated which collected data from seismological observatories around the world to help locate earthquakes and estimate their severity, with the result that Science Service often reported earthquakes days and sometimes weeks in advance of other sources. 103

Another special service was underway by the end of the decade that illustrates Science Service's commitment to reforming popular science writing. This was a project for reporting archeological and anthropological discoveries. In cooperation with the National Research Council, Science Service enlisted the aid of archeologists all over the country to act as "scientific minute men" who, on short notice, could rush to the site of a discovery and report to Washington on its authenticity. Edwin Slosson thought that such a service could prevent sensational stories or stories on faked relics from receiving public currency, for "it is our. job to see that exaggerated and misleading reports do not get the start of authentic news." 104   Science Service often acted as watchdog of the press, advising editors and publishers on questionable stories, and, said Slosson, "we have often been able to nip a sensational story in the bud by private remonstrance or public exposure." 105

In 1929 Watson Davis began sending out to editors and correspondents an annual list entitled "Stories to Be Careful Of," warning that articles on subjects such as telepathy, cancer "cures," and man-eating trees should be, if not rejected, at least checked with a specialist or Science Service. In arbitrating such controversies, Science Service could invoke the authority of its trustees, advertising that "the leading scientists of the nation cooperate in its work and are in effect its consulting editors." 106

Science Service thus pioneered new standards for science journalism, establishing a reputation for interest and accuracy that was a prime factor in winning it the patronage of American newspapers. Edwin Slosson, for instance, issued guidelines for would-be writers of science which emphasized the need for human interest without irrelevant padding, simplicity without "baby talk," information without obscurity, and, perhaps most important, the need for writing for a general audience. He advised writers to

look out your window and note the first person coming down the street. Imagine yourself stopping this man or woman on the sidewalk, and, like the Ancient Mariner, holding his or her interest till you have told your tale to the end. 107

Watson Davis composed his own rules of science writing, laying down the fundamental principle that "Science Service material must have the approval of the scientific world . . . ." 108 While Davis preferred correspondents with scientific training, all material was in any case to be submitted for correction to the scientist whose work was being reported (or checked by some other authority), and authors' sources of information were to be indicated on their manuscripts. 109

While Science Service relied for many years on a scattered corps of freelancers to round out its science coverage, it was quite successful in assembling a regular staff of writers, most of whom had science degrees and specialized in reporting on their own fields of training. Three such reporters were Frank Thone, James Stokely, and Jane Stafford. Thone, who joined the staff in 1924, had a doctorate in botany from the University of Chicago.

After brief stints as a biology instructor and naturalist at Yellowstone National Park, Thone came to Science Service, where he covered biological sciences and wrote the long-running column, "Nature Ramblings." 110 James Stokely came to Washington in 1925 with graduate and undergraduate training in biology, psychology, and physics, after several years experience as a high school biology teacher and press photographer. At Science Service, Stokely covered psychology and astronomy (in which he was only an amateur), writing a monthly astronomy column that ran for over fifty years. 111 In 1928 Jane Stafford left the staff of Hygeia, the popular journal of the American Medical Association, to come to Science Service. Stafford held a B. A. from Smith College where she had studied chemistry and bacteriology, which aided her as medical writer at Science Service for nearly thirty years. 112 With these and other reporters (in addition to Edwin Slosson, who covered chemistry, and Watson Davis, who covered radio and engineering), Science Service commanded a staff with a broad range of expertise spanning most of the sciences.

There were a number of other reporters who left Science Service after being trained by Slosson and Davis. Slosson, in fact, claimed the Service had become a school of journalism, training six science writers during the 1920s who went on to careers elsewhere. 113 Indeed, competition in science reporting had increased dramatically by the end of the decade. In 1927, for example, the Associated Press hired two of its own science correspondents; the same year, Waldemar Kaempffert became science editor for the New York Times. Also by this time, most of the major scientific associations had already established public relations offices. In 1929 Slosson noted that "the increased interest in scientific events brings out to all the major meetings a swarm of paid press agents, national press associations, local reporters and free-lance writers, all scrambling for news and newspaper space." 114    While the increased competition made it more difficult for Science Service to sell its materials, Edwin Slosson was gratified by the increased attention for science. He felt that

it is one of the most encouraging signs of the times that newspapers from year to year are giving more attention to scientific subjects and on the whole taking more pains to get them straight. Whereas formerly the average newspaper man would shy off from any science stuff, now the editors do not hesitate to tackle the most recondite subjects. 115
Watson Davis also rejoiced in their new competition, for "we have always sold science rather than Science Service copy to editors." 116 After all, E. W. Scripps had made clear that "our purpose is only to secure in every way possible the spread of science, [and] we should rather congratulate ourselves when we find others doing better than we do." 117 By the end of the decade, Science Service had fulfilled this altruistic purpose in participating as one of the principal agents in the revival and reform of popularization and the awakening of public interest in science. E. W. Scripps' idea had matured into an effective institution.

Chapter Two -    Part I    Part II    Part III    Table of Contents
 


Copyright David J. Rhees, 1979



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