Monthly Archives: March 2013

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Sci4Hels Question Time #1 Recap – Beats and Corn Gods

The corn god Tlaloc. This will only make sense to you if you read the post. Image: Baggis

So on Monday we kicked off the #sci4hels Question Time! Which I explained here but is not hard to understand. Basically, once in a while, I’ll ask a question on Twitter and hope that people jump in and respond and have an interesting discussion. That did happen on Monday, although not quite  the way I expected. Let’s review.

The question:

Oh man question time! #sci4hels wants to know: Is science a specific enough beat, or do you have to specialize more?

— Rose Eveleth (@roseveleth) March 11, 2013

On Twitter (and elsewhere), there’s been a lot of conversation about beats. Quartz has switched to “obsessions” but no one really knows what that means.

There were some interesting, and conflicting answers to be had.

People consume all sorts of science writing, which requires all sorts of types of science writers.#sci4hels

— Shaun Hotchkiss (@just_shaun) March 11, 2013

Surely there is a market for both. i.e. science writers who are very general and active researchers who focus on their field. #sci4hels — Shaun Hotchkiss (@just_shaun) March 11, 2013

#sci4hels Power is with science writers who are able to link science to specific causes (eg mix science with advocacy to elicit change) 1/2 — Khalil A. Cassimally (@notscientific) March 11, 2013

#sci4hels To do so, need to understand more than just the science. Hence more specific perhaps not as useful. 2/2 — Khalil A. Cassimally (@notscientific) March 11, 2013

People like Lou Woodley, Laura Wheeler and David Manly pointed out that beats can help writers develop expertise and contacts. Having a beat helps someone know who to ask when they’re working on a story, or understand the latest finding in the context of the broader field. Then I went and said something controversial, as I am often prone to doing: that the internet makes finding sources and background information easy enough that beats aren’t required anymore. To find the right source for something, as a science reporter, you just find the paper, and email the authors. Google Scholar and email have made finding sources a breeze, and the internet has archived all the background you could possibly want on every topic. Not everyone agreed:

@roseveleth @boraz @davidmanly @just_shaun internet can also make it harder – there is so much to sift through! Need to know *where* to look — Laura Wheeler (@laurawheelers) March 11, 2013

@roseveleth @laurawheelers @boraz @just_shaun If you know what to look for — David Manly (@davidmanly) March 11, 2013

Ed Yong came up with an apt analogy:

@roseveleth As in wild, specialists exploit niches well but vulnerable to extinct’n. Generalists more resilient, but some are rats #sci4hels — Ed Yong(@edyong209) March 11, 2013

And then, well, I’m not really sure what happened. But the conversation started to get away from me. At which point I was like:   And then finally gave up. Elsewhere on Twitter, Erin Podolak was actually having a constructive discussion of the question at hand.

Re: beats/specialties I write about cancer, but in such a broad context with so many connections that I don’t find it limiting #sci4hels — Erin Podolak (@ErinPodolak) March 11, 2013

Okay, so what did we learn here. First, that having a guided conversation on Twitter is HARD. It felt kind of like playing this cat piano.

Okay really I just want to use this cat piano GIF, because LOOK AT IT. Second, I should have used a hashtag so I could just Storify this rather than combing through a bunch of Tweets. Next time we’ll be Tweeting with the #helsinkiquestions hashtag. Third, beats are useful if you want to have one. Obviously, lots of people are quite successful at their beats because they’re the experts. Look at Emily Willingham on autism, Maryn McKenna on MRSA and Maia Szalavitz on addiction. Other science journalists have more broad beats. Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer have a loosely defined biology beat on lockdown. Colin Schultz covers all things Canada. Some of us are searching for a beat, and others of us are willfully ignoring the question. Basically, Ed Yong sums it up pretty well here:

@roseveleth @boraz @davidmanly @laurawheelers @just_shaun “The right level of specialisation is the exact level I have” <- All the answers

— Ed Yong(@edyong209) March 11, 2013

So what should we cover next time? Coding? Freelancing vs. full time jobs? The impending threat of computer reporters? Ask us a question!


Science Studio Kickstarter – The Recap

It’s been about a month since our Kickstarter campaign ended, and what a month it’s been. But now, Bora, Ben and I finally have some time to take a look back and see just how it all went down. So here are some statistics provided by Kickstarter, and some more information about what the heck we’re doing with all this money.

First, the statistics! 

We set out asking for $5,000 to help us cover things like prizes for the judges, and our own time. All told, 234 people backed our project and wound up handing over a grand total of $8,160, over $3,000 more than our goal. Which is, in a word, awesome, and also means that we can include video this year rather than just audio. Combined with the grant we got from NASW, we’re pretty confident that we can put something together that’s really great.

Here’s what the Kickstarter campaign looked like over time:

Okay, so, where did all you generous donors come from? Well, most of you came from Twitter. Here’s a breakdown of the top few referring sites:

So, thanks Twitter! You’re the best!

When we were talking about doing a Kickstarter, someone mentioned that we really had to make a video. Now, I’m glad we did, because 2,000 people watched it, and about 40% of you watched it all the way to the end.

Nothing was incredibly surprising here, in terms of trends. Twitter was a powerhouse, but it was also the place we promoted the most. You all love hearing our dulcet tones in the video, no surprise there. What we’d really like to say, most of all, is thank you. And you. And you. And my mom. And you too. We promise we’ll spend your money wisely and make something awesome.

Oh and if you missed out on the Kickstarter somehow, it’s not too late to give us your money! Here’s a handy dandy donate button.


Okay, what’s next?

The three of us are busy doing a couple of things. First, we’re building the website for Science Studio – the place where all this awesome audio and video will live. Second, we’re corralling all the swag to send to you. Third, we’re trying to spread the word about our nomination form – do you know any audio or video that’s really awesome? Nominate it!

Okay, I think that about sums it up? Questions? Comments? Concerns? Email us, or Tweet us at @science_studio.

Happy interneting everybody!

Rose, Bora and Ben

Being a New Journalist and Mixed Messages

I’m not going to talk about Nate Thayer, because I think that case is dumb. Olga Khazan made a mistake in her first two weeks of a job (Olga, I don’t know you, but if I ever do meet you I will buy you a drink because damn the internet sucks some times) and Nate Thayer feels the need to turn everything into an investigative take-down. Whatever. I’m over it. What I want to talk about is being a new journalist. Because I have some confessions. I am a professional journalist. I am also brand new at being one. And, most shockingly, I have worked for free.

So what I want to talk about is mixed messages. Should you ever work for free? There is obviously no single answer. Hello, this is the world, things are complicated, sorry. But let’s pretend for a second that you’re a spritely young/early career/newb journalist. Here are some of the messages you’re getting:

Message #1. Just do your thing, and if it’s good someone will notice.

Robert Krulwich probably has one of the best versions of this message. He gave a talk to the Berkeley School of Journalism in which he said:

But there are some people, who don’t wait.

I don’t know exactly what going on inside them; but they have this… hunger. It’s almost like an ache.

and then he said:

Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something. No one will pay you. No one will care, No one will notice, except of course you and the people you’re doing it with. But then you publish, you put it on line, which these days is totally doable, and then… you do it again.

After they wrote, they tweeted and facebooked and flogged their blogs, and because they were good, and worked hard, within a year or two, magazines asked them to affiliate (on financial terms that were insulting), but they did that, and their blogs got an audience, and then they got magazine assignments, then agents, then book deals, and now, three, four years after they began, these folks, five or six of them, are beginning to break through. They are becoming not just science writers with jobs, they are becoming THE science writers, the ones people read, and look to… they’re going places. And they’re doing it on their own terms! In their own voice, they’re free to be themselves AND they’re paid for it!

Lots and lots of other people have said this sort of thing. A lot. I can’t link to them all because I’m a newb freelance journalist and I’m kind of supposed to be working right now.

The message is that the internet is the great democratizer. On the internet, you can just publish your own work. You can tell the stories you think need to be told and you can tell them your way. And anyone in the whole world can read them. That’s how some really big names started – look at Alexis Madrigal and Ed Yong. They wrote for nothing, or peanuts and they’re now some of the most respected writers and editors around. The message is that if your work is good enough, and you put it somewhere on the internet, you will get noticed. You will get hired and become the next Jad Abumrad or something.

I was once at a talk where a New Yorker editor was a guest. An early career journalist asked him whether he had advice for breaking into the vaulted halls of the New Yorker. His answer (I’m paraphrasing): “Just go out there and report the story. If you really believe in it, just do it. And then publish it on your blog.” Her response (again, paraphrasing): “So I’m supposed to go report a 30,000 word deep dive into something, and then publish it on my blog and hope people notice?” Obviously that’s ridiculous, but that was his actual answer and I’m a reporter so I reported it. Bam.

Message #2. DEAR GOD WHATEVER YOU DO DO NOT WORK FOR FREE. If you do you are betraying every one of your colleagues, friends, coworkers and their children and their children’s children.

But the idea that anyone should work for free garners strong reactions. From one comment on an Atlantic piece: “Ask any other professional, such as a doctor, auto mechanic, plumber, accountant to do a job for free and sit back and wait for the swearing or the laughter, followed by “get out.” Why should a professional writer be expected to work for free, especially for a national publication?”

And there’s a lot of “if you work for free you’re destroying the careers of everyone around you” that happens on the internet. I have been personally told that projects I’ve done for free were directly hurting my friends.

So, you’re supposed to write for yourself because PASSION, PEOPLE but you’re not supposed to give that writing away. Even though the whole point of you writing on your dinky blog is so that some place, like, say, The Atlantic, notices it and says “hey that’s good we should put it on our website.”

So look. Like I said before, it’s complicated. Obviously you should not report at 30,000 word piece for yourself on your blog unless you have some other income stream. And obviously those who blog for free aren’t evil. What I’m saying is that young writers get mixed messages and we’re sort of confused? Nate Thayer is an amazing professional journalist. It’s easy for him to say no to doing anything for free ever. But for a lot of us, it’s not. So let’s all play nice and try to agree on a few things:

  1. Writing for money is better than writing for free. Okay, cool, glad we cleared that up.
  2. Sometimes it’s okay to write for free without being the actual worst person in the entire world.
  3. If an editor can pay for something, they should pay for it.

That’s all I’m going to say because I am actually supposed to be working for money right now and I agree with Christopher Mims that no one actually cares but I just had these THOUGHTS and the world really needed to know them.

Are journalists aware that hardly anything is less interesting to the general public than debates about journalism? Who do we serve, again?

— Christopher Mims (@mims) March 7, 2013

Top image: mikeschilli 

Welcome to Question Time With Sci4Hels – Ask Us Something!

Hello world! Wow, it’s March. How is it March? That means in just a few months, science journalists of the world will unite at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki, to face the forces of evil and figure out all of journalism’s problems in one fell swoop. Or just to hang out and try to chip away at them one by one because that’s kind of a lot to ask.

One of those sessions is the “The ‘killer’ science journalists of the future” in which three lovely panelists (Lena Groeger, Erin Podolak and Kathleen Raven) will share their thoughts on what it takes to make it as a newcomer in journalism today, and what that means for the journalism of tomorrow. Can I tell you that I’m excited? This excited:

In the run up to that panel discussion, we’re going to pose a few questions to the Twitter world and try to drum up some discussion that will be extended into the session. Why yes, I am outsourcing my work as a moderator to you, fine Twitterverse, and you are going to fall for my little plan. So here’s what we’ll do. Every so often we’ll pose a question on Twitter with the #sci4hels hashtag and hope that you’ll join our discussion. And! If you have a question you want us to ask to the world, leave it for me here in the comments. The future of our panel is in your hands, so speak up.

Our first question will be revealed on Monday of next week, so get ready.

If you’re asking yourself “what the heck are you talking about you crazy woman?” here are some background links.

Here’s a blog about our panel at Scientific American, introducing everyone.

Here’s the Sci4Hels blog. 

Get it now? Good.

 (Top photograph by Russ Creech, other photographs by the internet)