When the Wall Street Journal released the "Best and Worst Jobs of 2013," newspaper reporter came in at No. 200, trailing garbage collectors (ranked 160), janitors (153) and dishwashers (187).
But as a newspaper reporter himself, Ron Winslow doesn't believe the outlook for journalism is as bleak as the Journal, his own employer, suggests.
"Every day can be an adventure," Winslow said during his lecture Tuesday night in the McClung Auditorium. "Science writing is a front-row seat on the edge of knowledge creation."
The award-winning medical writer came to campus to deliver the 22nd annual Hill Lecture, a series established in 1989 by Tom Hill and his sister Mary Frances Hill Holton, which discusses science, society and the mass media.
Winslow's talk – entitled "Covering Science: Worst of Times, Best of Times" – outlined the current state of journalism in general and science writing in particular. Citing the Journal's rankings, the widespread abandonment of science sections in newspapers and the prevalence of "click-bait" articles, he opened with the worst of times.
By contrast, Winslow pointed to the rise of enterprise journalism offered by online platforms. Even more exciting for science journalism, Winslow said the field itself is expanding.
"Science is exploding," he said, going on to list the advances in genetics research, neuroscience, Immuno-Oncology, astronomy, climate studies and even veterinary surgery.
"A few years ago, I talked to a researcher at University of Pittsburgh," Winslow continued. "Earlier in his career, he had taken a piece of a dog's intestine and used it to construct a new aorta for the dog.
"He fully expected the next morning to find the dog dead in the cage. He came in the next morning – the dog stood up and wagged its tail. That research has spawned many products that are already used to help regenerate tissue in people."
Similarly poignant stories are littered throughout the more than 1,400 articles Winslow has written for the Journal. He supplied five of those articles to students that attended a master class before his lecture, using them to explain some of his favorite methods for covering science.
After describing his work at the Journal, Winslow launched into an anecdote about Jerry Bishop, a science writer whom Winslow worked with when he first got started.
"He wore a cowboy hat; he had a ponytail; he wore a bolo tie," Winslow said. "And boots, cowboy boots. Working in the office of the Wall Street Journal."
Lecturing to an audience of about 50 people in attendance for the class, Winslow explained how Bishop essentially predicted the Internet in 1966 and, in the early 1980s, gathered the initial scoop on the AIDS virus. These stories, Winslow later said, were told to honor an important person in his life and provide background color to life at the Journal.
But, more centrally to the class' interests, the stories were an illustration of Winslow's top science writing advice.
"How well do you think you know Jerry?" he asked the room. "A little bit of a sense of him, a few details? Maybe if you had to write a story about a science writer, you'd have a pretty good start.
"The ability to find good characters to help illustrate complex stories is a skill that's important for journalists – science journalists in particular."
The Hill Lecture Series is organized by Mark Littmann, a professor of journalism who holds the Julia G. and Alfred G. Hill Chair of Excellence in Science, Technology, and Medical Writing. Alfred and Julia founded The Oak Ridger in 1949, and their children Tom and Mary Frances established both the lecture and the chair in honor and memory of their parents.
Tom Hill attended Tuesday's lecture and expressed disappointment at the turnout. Approximately 70 people were in the auditorium, and he lamented the steady decline in attendance during the last few years.
"That's been a bit of a disappointment," Hill said. "But I don't know what more to do. Mark could not possibly do a better job getting speakers than he does, and he undertakes publicity.
"Getting Mark Littmann, that's been maybe the most important thing we've done."