Eric Rosenthal Reports

Thoughts and observations about issues, trends, and controversies in the cancer community.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

NCI Cancer Bulletin Suddenly Suspends Publication

On Tuesday more than 53,000 subscribers to the NCI Cancer Bulletin received a surprising email apprising them that the online newsletter that proclaimed itself “a trusted source for cancer research news” would no longer be published.


The decision was made, the message said, “as part of the National Cancer Institute’s ongoing efforts to examine how best to apportion its limited cancer research resources. Our final issue, published January 8, will remain live until the end of the month. Our searchable archive of more than 5,000 news and feature stories published since 2004 will remain on NCI’s website,”


The message also said that NCI would continue to publish cancer research news and information on the website as well as via the Institute’s social media channels on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.


Coincidentally, the day following the NCI announcement I also received an email from “Newswise NCI Cancer Research Wire” noting that it was a joint project of Newswise (a long-time news release and public relations information distribution service) and NCI “to promote cancer research news to the public and news media,” and so wondered if this might be a new collaboration related to the Bulletin’s cessation.


Rick Borchelt, Special Assistant for Public Affairs in the NCI Office of the Director, who oversees media relations, explained in an interview that the NCI NewsCenter and the collaboration with Newswise were not intended to replace the Bulletin, which he described as a broad educational resource and a complementary activity to his operation, which has a much narrower focus: “to help reporters find stories about cancer research, provide context for why they were funded or are important, and develop background for stories already in the news cycle.”


He said the timing was completely coincidental and that discussions with Newswise had begun early last year, and that it was launched this month. It is completely independent of the Bulletin, he said, which was developed and maintained by NCI’s Office of Communications and Education (OCE), headed by Lenora E. Johnson, DrPH.


Johnson told me during a subsequent interview that Bulletin subscribers had included a mix of health professionals (48%); cancer survivors, loved ones, and people touched by cancer (24%),  

researchers and scientists (20%); and other professionals, advocates, and the general public (8%). In addition, the Spanish version had nearly 3,000 readers from both the United States and abroad.


She confirmed that there had not been a lot of notice about the decision to discontinue publication -- indeed the Dec. 21 issue had noted, “Next month, we will begin our tenth year of bringing you news about cancer research, whether supported by NCI or other institutions from across the nation and the world.”


Johnson said that a National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) subcommittee on communications had been looking at reducing expenses within her office, which has an annual budget of approximately $40 million. “Putting it in context, these have been very trying times considering the budget and fiscal situation, and the director [Harold Varmus, MD] was looking at every penny across the institution that went to fulfilling our mission to fund research,” she said.


“With limited resources, he started by scrutinizing the activities in his office first, and Communications and Education has the largest budget of administrative [non-research] functions within the Office of the Director.”


Johnson said there were indications in December that cuts would be coming, but because it was the holiday season she waited until January 10, two days after what was to be the final edition of the every-other-week Bulletin, to inform the staff of the publication’s suspension through a letter that read:


“As some of you may have heard through your managers, the NCI OD has directed that the NCI Cancer Bulletin -- both English and Spanish versions -- suspend production until further notice so that its personnel can be reallocated to other communications activities and priorities within OCE. This decision was made as part of NCI’s ongoing efforts to examine how best to apportion its limited resources. Those staff currently assigned to the NCI Cancer Bulletin will, in the short term, continue to work and develop content in OCE/OPIRM while we determine how best to utilize their invaluable skill and experience toward meeting OCE’s evolving role within the Institute.”


She said that although all of the publications staff would be retained, some contractors might no longer be needed, and that there were also plans to consolidate OCE’s website with other NCI offices. She also expressed concern about reaching Spanish-speaking readers.


Johnson said that she would be preparing for the NCAB meeting on February 7 and presenting an assessment of which programs and projects are mandatory and essential; which have value but are not essential; which can be archived and gotten rid of; and what could be done with additional resources.


It is still not clear how much money will be saved through suspension of an online publication without much production overhead other than staff members who will not be cut, but I will continue monitoring further developments as they unfold.