When he addressed the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1870, Thomas Henry Huxley mused on a simultaneously frustrating and wonderful facet of scientific discovery. “The great tragedy of science” Huxley said, was “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” As prolific a science communicator as Huxley was, he probably recognized a parallel in writing. There are few things more frustrating than the death of a detailed piece of writing by fortuitous events.
Until now, I explicitly avoided writing about this year’s ScienceOnline conference. Taking a modified version of John Rennie’s exhortation that context – not speed – is central to good science writing, I decided to wait a few months to let my euphoria ebb and see what lessons stuck with me. When I realized that I was only a few days away from quitting my day job for the catch-as-catch-can life of a freelancer, though, I finally started to put my reflections together. Then it all went to hell.
Even though I am rarely satisfied with my own writing, I actually liked the original post. I thought I did an adequate job tying the concept of Stephen Jay Gould as a science-blogging forerunner to my personal efforts to improve as a writer in a constantly-shifting science communication ecosystem. But now I can’t finish it. Had I quickly dashed off the essay, maybe it could have worked, but too much has happened in the past week for me to incorporate the new information without destroying the original.
I thought the journalist vs. blogger kerfuffle was over. The tension was a near-constant presence on science blogs as I made my way into the community – between 2006 and 2007 – yet had almost entirely disappeared by the time of this year’s last ScienceOnline. Hybrids were everywhere at the event. Ask someone what they did, and they were likely to come up with some combination of scientist, blogger, journalist, and/or filmmaker, and most everyone seemed to be on board with a deceivingly simple concept that Carl Zimmer stressed at the same event the previous year – blogs are software. Rather than being a direct threat to traditional journalism and science writing, science blogs offered a platform that nourished communication and collaboration. Cooperation, rather than direct competition, between science communicators was one of the conference’s underlying themes.
Some of the exchanges at this past Saturday’s D.C. Science Writers Association Professional Development Day made me feel as if I had been transported back to 2007. (I had been invited to attend as a speaker about building an audience for a popular science book, and I arrived in the middle of a session on maintaining journalistic standards on the web.) The crowd that attends ScienceOnline might agree that the bloggers vs. journalists spat is over, but the feeling during the first DCSWA session I walked into was decidedly different. Traditionally-trained journalists seemed to want a way to cordon off science blogging from journalism. Among the proposed metrics was the idea that science blogs are not edited. When I pointed out that my Smithsonian blog – Dinosaur Tracking – is edited, and that my editor was actually sitting in the front row, another attendee suggested that I was not actually blogging, or that my edited efforts were being mislabeled.
Not everyone in the room appeared to suffer from an allergic reaction to science blogs. Along with blogging guru Bora Zivkovic, the brilliant science journalist Mary Knudson moderated the session I stumbled into, and she pointed out that “When you’re blogging, you’re still a journalist.” Journalists can maintain their professional standards on the web, and bloggers can also engage in journalism. There is no barrier that prevents journalism from appearing on blogs.
Comparing science blogs to traditional journalism is like comparing apples to orangutans. It doesn’t make very much sense. Blogs are tools. They are bits of software that allow writers to communicate – they do not come with built-in values, expectations, or traditions. Scicurious uses her blog to write up hilarious summaries of research, Kate Clancy mixes in-depth science with observations from her life as a scientist, and, as he demonstrated by winning a 2010 National Academies Communication Award, Ed Yong uses his blog to publish top-quality science journalism. (And those examples are just a handful of the diversity present in the science blogohedron.) Anyone can start a blog and develop their platform in any way they choose. There are scientists who wish to communicate with colleagues, journalists who want some space to toy with ideas, and, of course, people like myself who are practicing to become professional science writers.
Journalism is not a writing tool. Depending on how you define it, journalism can be a form of writing or a professional institution with peculiar organizations, standards, traditions, and the like. (I prefer the broader view of journalism as a writing form, particularly since this places the emphasis on the writing itself and not institutions that require authors to go through the standard channels.) If we treat science blogs as a threat to journalism, we end up turning a useful tool into a web-based bogeyman. Science blogs are not going to drive traditional science writing and journalism into extinction. If anything, the rapid growth of the science blogohedron has fostered the development of new science writers while simultaneously bringing established journalists – like Deborah Blum, David Dobbs, and many others – into the community.
What I perceive as fruitful cross-overs, however, others may perceive as the degradation of standards. I have never taken a college-level journalism course. Everything I have done, I have done out of an irresistible urge to educate myself about nature and share my enthusiasm. I learned to write by practicing on a daily basis, and blogging provided me with an alternate route to becoming a science writer. To someone who has taken a traditional path, however, my career trajectory may be infuriating rather than encouraging. I am now competing in the same crowded marketplace for work, and scientists can now communicate directly with the public. In this media ecosystem, readers will have to pay attention to who’s writing and whether they are doing so as a scientist, journalist, interested amateur, or something else. It is little wonder that traditionally-minded gatekeepers are feeling uneasy.
Despite some of the cranky reactions I observed at DCSWA on Saturday morning, though, I remain optimistic about productive co-existence between various forms of science blogging and traditional media platforms. Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, blogger, and author of absolutely stunning books such as The Monkey Wars and The Poisoner’s Handbook, offered this appraisal earlier this year:
[W]hat I’ve come realize, despite my print background, despite my abiding love for the science journalism I practiced at a traditional newspaper, is that science blogs offer some of the best, most illuminating, most intelligent communication of science out there today. I’m not telling you that I admire all blogs any more than I would claim to admire all newspapers. I am telling you that it’s a mistake to let a newspaper background blind one to the sometimes amazing work being done online.
Online science writing – including science blogs – is an essential part of science communication. Especially as new science blogging networks have flowered, there are more opportunities than ever for online science writers to collaborate with newspapers and magazines in their efforts to reach wider audiences. But, as John Rennie explained at the outset of his plenary talk at DCSWA, we are working during a paradoxical time. Science writing is very popular and blogs have fostered a growing pool of talented science communicators, but funding remains difficult to acquire. Subscriptions to magazines and newspapers on tablets have not provided the windfalls that were hoped for, and advertisers seem reluctant to pay for ad placement on science articles. In terms of quality and general interest, science writing is performing well, but things don’t look exactly rosy for those who are trying to make a living by writing about science.
In fact, science writers may even be making things worse for themselves. Riffing on a Guardian guest post he wrote earlier this year, Rennie explained that much of modern science journalism is akin to sports writing – almost everyone covers the same big events in more or less the same way. More specifically, science writers and journalists regularly cover the major Nature and Science papers that debut each week, and these reports are typically little different from the press releases they were based on. In an age of high-quality press releases created by skilled press information officers, especially, professional science writers run the risk of turning their work into a cheap commodity that can be easily replaced.
Covering new papers and using press releases as the basis for news reports are not, by themselves, bad things. Communicating how new discoveries fit into what we thought we knew is an important part of a science writer’s job, and, as pointed out in a comment thread on Martin Robbins’ post on churnalism, adapting press releases can free up a journalist to pursue other stories in-depth. And, as mentioned by Alice Bell at DCSWA and Martin’s post, news desks have a thirst for breaking science stories, and many experienced writers would rather tackle a silly or pointless story than have it passed down to someone who doesn’t care a whit about science. The trick is going to be maintaining this staple of science news without letting it become the core of science journalism. New papers and press releases have their uses, but I think Rennie is correct to point out that we have become too reliant on them.
The question that remains for science writers, then, is “What should we do to ensure our survival?” There is no single answer, especially since each writer has their own particular constraints. Adding video or audio slideshows is one way to bring added value to science stories, for example, but they take large chunks of time to plan and execute. At a multimedia session at DCSWA, one speaker said it took her about 30 hours to create a video that only ran about two minutes, and Ed Yong said it took about seven hours to create his Dipity timeline of stem cell research. On top of that, science communicators may have to contend with software issues – whereas Discover blogs support beautiful, user-friendly slideshows, a desire for more pageviews means that slideshows on this blog require refreshing the entire page with each click (a policy I think hinders the enjoyment of slideshows, and undercuts the point of creating them).
Science writers cannot keep issuing short reports on new journal papers and expect readers to buy subscriptions as the same material is reissued in new formats. Those interested in communicating to the public should be on the lookout for new tools to reach their intended audience. (I know I have linked to Ed a lot in this post, but he done an excellent job in seeking out and utilizing online communication tools. His interactive storyboard in yesterday’s fire ants post is just the latest example.) But even something as simple as writing a profile of a scientist or a lab would contribute toward creating a more diverse science writing ecosystem. Writers should inject humor into stories, catch up on hyped discoveries from a few years back, take their reporting upstream, and finding other ways to add depth to their writing. We can’t all be generalists, nor can we all master to full variety of tools available, but it is about time that we make a push to expand science writing beyond missives focused on new research.
I don’t know for certain what will work and what won’t. Another science writer called me last week to ask where I thought science writing was headed. I could not think of a specific answer. I don’t think anyone knows. We are all struggling together (though the exact meaning of that sentence may depend on your perspective).
So here I am, about three days away from becoming a full-time freelancer. I have no idea whether I will be successful or not. It does not seem to be an auspicious time to become a professional science writer, but, then again, when has it ever been? Making a living by expressing the beautiful and puzzling intricacy of the natural world has always been a challenging enterprise.
How I am going to adapt my own science communication efforts is something I have frequently thought about after ScienceOnline. Let me tell you, it is a humbling experience to go to the conference and have someone like Robert Krulwich tell you that your writing is good, but could be so much better with the oversight of a slightly more selective internal editor. This was a compliment, not a put down, and he was right. (Though I should point out that Krulwich has said some very kind things about my writing on his NPR blog.) I had not made much of an effort to kill my darlings – cherished bits of information that are unnecessary to the main story thread – and my writing was cluttered as a result. In more general terms, I was not keeping my audience in mind. I was writing for myself. That’s fine in terms of motivation, but it hindered my ability to keep readers moving through the stories I wanted to tell. What good is spending hours composing a post if no one finishes it? (Of course, I say this towards the tail end of a 2,500+ word post.)
Just as the DCSWA conference reminded me that I need to seek out new ways to tell stories, ScienceOnline reinforced the basic point that I need to take great care in constructing narratives. Storytelling is vital to good science writing, and I had not worked diligently enough to become a good storyteller. My passion for paleontology had taken me pretty far, but, in order to level up, I had to start thinking more strategically about who I am writing for and what techniques I can use to hook readers. I have toyed with this a bit – from blogging about my third nipple to my efforts to find out why maned wolf pee smells like marijuana – and made more of an effort to use my blog as what Jennifer Ouellette once called a “writing laboratory.”
Opportunities to practice are plentiful. I am very fortunate to be blogging for both WIRED Science and Smithsonian magazine, and these platforms have opened up other writing opportunities. When Christopher Shea mentioned the news about my next book on the Wall Street Journal’s Ideas Market blog, for example, the newspaper emailed me a few days later asking me to write a story about the tension between modern images of dinosaurs and the monsters of Jurassic Park, and the Guardian’s Alok Jha has been very supportive of my pitches for that newspaper’s guest blog. Legacy media companies are paying more attention to science blogs than ever before.
I wonder if this is at least partially the result of last summer’s PepsiGate fiasco. Several newspapers and magazines scrambled to snatch up science bloggers that evacuated the Sb mothership, and, in turn, at least two of these outlets set up guest blogs where a diverse array of writers can share their views. (Correction: Bora points out that the SciAm guest blog predates the Sb breakup by a few years. I was thinking of it in terms of its increased popularity and activity since last November. The guest blog was around for a while, but has been more prominent in the past few months.) The break-up of Sb ended up opening new niches for a variety of writers. Perhaps it’s still too early to know how everything will shake out – especially as National Geographic takes control of ScienceBlogs and everyone awaits the launch of the Scientific American collective – but science blogs have never been as prominent or influential as they are right now.
I have prattled on for far too long, though. A long list of observations, questions, and ideas is tacked above my desk. “Why don’t penguins live their whole lives at sea?” “Giant swimming sloths once shuffled along the Peruvian coast.” “What the hell is Nectocaris?” There are more scribbled notes than I have time for, and I had better get to work.
Top Image: The skeleton of an orangutan at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.