Rebooting science journalism – on blurring boundaries, money, audiences and duck sex

View Images

   No, this doesn’t have Flash or a camera either. Nice text resolution, though…This post is long overdue. It has now been over two weeks since ScienceOnline’10 and the withdrawal symptoms (along with the SciPlague and jet-lag) have now subsided. I’ve already talked about how much I enjoyed attending the conference, catching up with old new friends, and moderating a panel on rebooting science journalism with three excellent gents – Carl Zimmer, John Timmer and David Dobbs. The session video still isn’t up, but many of the key points have been ably captured through Twitter by Janet Stemwedel and others. In true online fashion, the panel didn’t end when our hour was up, and much discussion spilled over into other blogs. This is a retrospective piece looking at some of the issues raised during the session and beyond.

Journaggers vs bloggalists

I started the session by laying down a simple rule – we weren’t going to descend into a debate about journalists versus bloggers. That debate is sterile and unhelpful. If you are still having it, you are stuck somewhere in 2006 and I’d recommend you catch up with us in 2010. In a few months time, there will be something called an iPhone that you should check out.

Many of the ideas that I laid out during the session followed on from more thorough explorations developed on this blog. In brief, we are going through a Cambrian explosion of science journalism where more and more people are practicing the craft and taking up its values, outside of mainstream media venues. Science journalism will be increasingly defined by its values (accuracy, truth, independence, scrutiny, and so on) rather than by things as trivial as job titles or place of employment. Carl Zimmer crafted a similar metaphor of a “journalistic ecosystem of large and small organizations interacting with each other”.  He said that we love to put labels on things – journalism, blogging, etc. – but we shouldn’t get hung up on definitions. It’s good science writing, or it’s not.


Yes, I am actually British

To clarify, neither I nor my panellists were arguing that everyone is suddenly a journalist (as our discussion about Futurity quickly made clear). Jennifer Ouellette argues that there is still a distinction and it matters. I’d agree. Having the ability to say something isn’t enough; you need the skill to say it well. As David Dobbs said, it’s about learning how to write in different tones, structure a story and master form of informational storytelling. And, going back to what I intimated earlier, it’s about values.

The point is not that everyone is a journalist in the online age, but that anyone has the potential to practice journalism. Many amateurs do. Rather than seeing them as interlopers, mainstream media outlets would benefit from finding ways of encouraging this new wave of knowledgeable, enthusiastic communicators.  John Timmer from Ars Technica is doing just that. The site, bought recently by Conde Nast, gives grad students and postdocs a chance to get some writing experience and invaluable experience of working with an editor. He says, “We’ve got all these researchers who are now interested in writing for a popular audience, and a lot of sites that are like Ars, with a large readership that might be open to reading more quality science journalism. We need to do more to try to get the two together.”

Over at the Science in the Triangle blog, Alan Burdick also chipped in with some differences between “journalists” and “bloggers” (I use quote marks because Alan, quite rightly, does so too). There is much to like about his take but I wanted to point to a few areas where we don’t quite align. Alan cites the use of interviews and conversations as a key aspect of journalism that’s missing from much of blogging. To an extent, I agree, but I don’t think it’s very useful to belabour the point. I’ll illustrate with an anecdote (scientists, try not to faint).

About a year ago, if I was doing a “professional” piece, I would indeed call up some scientists, talk through their work, call others to check the interpretation and so on. If I was writing for my own blog, I never bothered. Stir me, a computer and a paper together, simmer for two hours, and serve. And that started to bother me. Why not apply the same principles to both forms? For a start, I don’t think that the process always adds something to the final piece, especially if the story isn’t very controversial. But mainly, there was just a vague sensation in the back of my head that there was a difference between ‘professional’ writing and ‘amateur’ blogging. It was an artificial distinction and one that I’ve tried to jettison, time allowing. Look at these two posts. By Alan’s definition, there is nothing here that doesn’t fit the description of journalism – there are interviews, contrasting opinions and (I’d like to think) well-structured stories.

In his comment, Alan also said that the process of getting a quote from a scientist is harder if you aren’t already a Zimmer-esque legend or if you don’t work for an clout-wielding publication. I disagree. I’ve had much success with getting answers from scientists, even without mentioning an affiliation. I suspect that if you have specialist knowledge, you can ask a different sort of question to the type that media-plagued scientists normally get. I’ve done this deliberately before, adding a detailed opening question that essentially says, “I’ve read your paper, I’m one of you, and I know enough to not screw up this piece in a way that you’ll later regret.” I appreciate Alan’s wider point that interviewing and asking the right questions is an art, but it’s worth noting that there are different sorts of “right questions”. Again, specialist amateurs have something to add.

To summarise, it is less useful to me to repeatedly point out where the line exists between journalists and bloggers than to point out examples where it has been crossed. Re-drawing the line corrals people into boxes defined by social norms and ingrained habits – professional journalists report and interview, while amateur bloggers opine and navel-gaze. We need to encourage people to step out of those boxes and try new things. I actively want to lines to blur. Amusingly, I’ve just learned of a fascinating new example of this just as I finished that last sentence. Dave Munger’s new project, The Daily Monthly, is a new blog where Dave will write about a new topic every month, “conducting interviews and visiting the people and places I describe, just like a real reporter” as well as “reading and explaining… technical research papers”. Blurring lines, indeed.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

When we four panellists gathered in the bar the day before to machinate about our session, Carl decided that he was going to spend his five minutes tolling the bells of doom. Instead, he took the stage as if possessed by a Disney film and proceeded to tell us about how duck sex will save science journalism. Perhaps dark magic was at work. Towards the end of last year, Carl and I covered a story on the sexual conflicts of ducks, where scientists studied the massive, corkscrew-shaped penises of drakes by getting them to unfurl said mighty organs into a variety of glass tubes. The videos became an internet sensation and the story was linked to from Boing Boing, Metafilter, Reddit, Digg and all manner of forums. Tens of thousands of people watched ducks penetrating flasks, and perhaps a fraction of them even picked up some science while they were at it. As Carl said, “Duck fetishists can learn about sexual selection.”

Of course, sex has always sold, but this case study highlights the ability of the web to find massive audiences, if the right story is presented in the right way. It also shows how science stories can automatically find their way to people who aren’t necessarily interested in science. “Be a virus and infect people’s minds,” urged Carl, and there are many examples of people taking up his advice. Because of his science tattoo series, Carl got to talk about science in an interview with a tattoo magazine. A story I wrote about nanotechnology in 17th century swordsnanotechnology in 17th century swordsnanotechnology in 17th century swords turned up in all sorts of places, from Reddit to role-playing forums to online blacksmithing communities. Ars Technica itself uses an interest in technology as a hook to get people from gamers to IT specialists to read science stories.

Bora just had to get the last word in, didn’t he?

During the session, Michael Specter also reminded us of the value of reaching broad audiences through generalist publications, so that we don’t just end up “talking to each other in hotel rooms”. Writing for popular science magazines like New Scientist or Discover is all well and good, but Specter rightly says that these publications preach to the converted. It’s just as important to get science stories into places like Slate or the Atlantic. John Timmer also argues that we could do more to infiltrate other influential sites such as Slashdot. He says:

 “We’ve got a ton of quality people interested in communicating science, and a lot of sites that are staffed by people with only the vaguest familiarity with what constitutes good science. If someone with a good science background went to the people responsible for one of those sites and offered to help provide a degree of credibility to the science section, would those managers respond positively? I’d bet some of them would, though I’d be interested in hearing whether anybody’s actually tried and been turned down.”

This echoes what I said in a previous post and during the session itself. For all the global reach of the Internet and the potential of new social media, not everyone has access to high-speed broadband or the savvy to use new-fangled interactive software. If we aren’t to exacerbate information inequalities, for the moment, we still have to rely on mainstream media, and not just for the audiences. As David notes in his excellent retrospective, the traditional science press have bankrolled many examples of the “Smells Funny” stories, which often take “many weeks of time and thousands of dollars of travel”. Once written, the mainstream media also help such stories to find an audience.

I can haz money?

At the Science in the Triangle blog, DeLene Beeland and Sabine Vollmer both noted that we didn’t really touch on the critical question of money. In all the pontificating about the changing ecosystem of science journalist, Beeland asked, “Whither the science journalists?” It’s a valid point and as I noted in the comments, I was a bit surprised that no one really pushed us on it during the 40 minute Q&A session. To be honest, if I or any of my fellow panellists knew the magical answer to making money of online journalism, we wouldn’t be discussing the topic at panels. We’d be sitting at home while Rupert Murdoch fans us with palm fronds and feeds us grapes.

If solutions are found, I suspect that they will come in droves, each having a small individual impact. David talks about the quick rise of several new funding models, including ProPublica, spot.us, fellowships and so on. As I’ve said elsewhere, I was struck by the number of people at ScienceOnline who are ratcheting up the broadest of CVs. They work as freelance or fulltime journalists, they write books, they speak at lecture circuits and conferences, they work with Hollywood, they teach, they leap tall buildings in a single bound, and so on. Perhaps some will even run zoos

From my own experience, I have two careers, both intimately linked to science and both driven by a need for truth, accuracy and good communication. My day-career in science communication at a cancer charity is rewarding in itself, but it also funds my ability to devote my spare time to blogging and freelancing. This ties in with David’s point about ‘many efforts, rising fast’ – I suspect that part of the solution to making this stuff pay will be to add many strings to one’s bow.

I end with a final thought on the economics of blogging and “hobbyist journalism”. It’s no secret that ScienceBlogs pays its bloggers. More secretive is the amount. Put it this way – I recently calculated that after three years of building traffic, if you divide the amount I earn by the amount of time I spend on the blog, it work out to just over minimum wage. So why do it? If I channelled the same amount of time into freelancing, I could earn many times that amount. Or I could rename the blog Not Exactly Duck Sex and be done with it. 

There are two reasons. Firstly, it’s a labour of love. I’m trying to make this blog the equal of any news reporting you would find in the mainstream media. Secondly, this blog has a value that goes far beyond the actual currency I earn from it. I now have an expansive portfolio of work for people to see, a growing community of readers, increasing attention from mainstream media, and plenty of offers to do cool things. I’m not convinced that any of these benefits would have come about if I had tried to enter the world of science writing through traditional routes, at least not within a brief three year burst. These are things whose worth is difficult to measure in currency. Not everything that counts can be counted.

Photo by Elia aka smallpkg; Videos shot by kerstinh100

More on journalism: 

View Images
View Images
View Images
View Images