Last Friday, nearly 60 people huddled in the Lang Performing Arts Center Cinema. Some were there to hide from Winter Storm Riley and the accompanying blackout afflicting other parts of campus. Others were there for the free dinner and complimentary copy of “The New York Times Book of Science.” Everyone, however, was eagerly awaiting a presentation by David Corcoran.
Corcoran was the editor of Science Times, the weekly science section of The New York Times, from 1988 to 2014. He is currently associate director of the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A graduate of Amherst College, Corcoran’s foray into journalism appeals to aspiring journalists at Swarthmore eager to start their career after a liberal arts education.
Witty and engaging, Corcoran captured the audience’s attention with humorous anecdotes about his humble beginnings.
“When I was younger, most people thought Superman was their hero. My hero was Clark Kent,” he said.
Growing up in a family of avid New York Times readers, Corcoran wanted his articles delivered to and read by households across the country. He started writing his first stories in high school, covering basketball games for his small local paper in New Jersey.
After college, he worked at The Record, a paper based in North Jersey. At The Record, he was an editorial page editor for 10 years.
“A lot of my tasks as a journalist involved answering e-mails and complaints from readers. As you can imagine, we got a lot of them,” he said.
Throughout the 1970s, Corcoran became interested in science-related news, from the burgeoning environmentalist movement to the lives of endangered whales.
“The environmentalist movement was a big deal, and people cared about that. We had no trouble publishing those stories,” he said.
Corcoran cites John McPhee, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and prolific author, as one of his sources of inspiration. McPhee writes about a diverse range of topics, from plate tectonics to the Alaskan wilderness.
At The New York Times, Corcoran began as a copy editor, and eventually moved to the Science Times because of his his deep passion for science. Apart from editing and writing articles, Corcoran also hosted the Science Times podcast, which he worked on with a fellow producer. He is currently hosting “Undark: Truth, Beauty, Science,” a podcast exploring how science interacts with broader society, and discusses a broad range of topics, including hydroelectricity and ancient civilizations in Nubia.
When asked about how he chose topics to cover in his articles, Corcoran replied, “I think it’s a matter of instinct. Something seems important because it affects a lot of people’s lives, or maybe scientists discovered something that nobody knew. Anybody who works in news develops an instinct for it. That’s why we work in news — because we feel like we know what’s important and want to communicate that.”
Although Corcoran has retired from the Science Times, he edited “The New York Times Book of Science,” a collection of the top science stories in the past 150 years, published in 2015.
“Science is as important as it ever was, maybe even more so because of climate change. I think that climate change is the biggest story of our time, and if you are a responsible citizen, you care about climate change. And people do, if you look at the comments sections of news. People are really engaged. Some people are wilfully ignorant, but I think that has always been the case,” he said.
Over the years, Corcoran observed that things have changed at a dizzying pace, especially the business models of major newspapers.
“Classified ads used to be huge profit centers for newspapers, but they vanished overnight when Craigslist came along. You woke up one morning and they were gone. Display ads, such as those for Bloomingdale’s, slowly dropped away. Revenue and money that were used to pay our salaries was going away,” Corcoran explained.
“The New York Times is doing quite well, but since 2004, the US has lost 50 daily newspapers and hundreds of weekly newspapers. The number of people employed in the newspaper business was half of that in the 1990s,” he said.
Despite the looming economic uncertainty over journalism, Corcoran remains optimistic about its quality.
“I don’t see a big collapse in the quality of journalism. You’d think that if the money wasn’t there, there wouldn’t be good journalism. In some sense, that’s true, for example when news outlets close down. But for the national news and things we care about, I don’t see this decline,” he said.
Corcoran also thinks highly of specific news sites which continue to uphold journalistic excellence.
“The New York Times is different from the way it was when I was there, but I think it’s good, if not better. The Washington Post is a lot better. Along comes a couple of outlets that didn’t exist before, such as Vox, and they all do quality journalism, not to mention nonprofit news sites. I’m encouraged by that,” he said.
Upon reflecting on his experiences, Corcoran offers some pragmatic advice for Swarthmore students intending to follow in his footsteps.
“I hope you will do what I do, which is to follow your interest. I was passionate about news at a young age. I became a journalist and have never been sorry that I did. I would probably make more money and have more regular hours in another profession, but wouldn’t have been as happy,” he said.
Although he encourages students to pursue their passion, Corcoran also cautions them about the potential difficulty of finding a job.
“But it’s not so easy now. It was easy for me to get hired and get my first full-time job, but it isn’t easy anymore. Most of you are going to graduate from this elite school and that is not going to hurt you, but it’s not easy to find gainful employment which puts food on the table, especially in this business.”
Aside from job searching, Corcoran highlights student debt as a possible concern.
“If you’re interested in science journalism, you can go to science graduate programs, but you must be careful to not be saddled with too much student debt. You need to pay off debt, rent, and food. All of a sudden, you have to do work that you don’t want to do, which stands in the way of serious journalism.”
Editor’s Note: This event was organized by Keton Kakkar, with the help of the Forum for Free Speech.
Attendance at the event was said to be around a 100 people when published and has been changed to more accurately reflect event attendance. (March 9th 2018)