Erin Podolak (blog, Twitter) was interviewed at The SA Incubator a few weeks ago. Then she decided to turn the tables on me and interview me about The SA Incubator – why and how did I conceive of that blog, what is it for and how it works.
Below is the full “transcript” of what I told Erin – I thought some of you may find it interesting:
1. Scientific American’s blog network is extensive. Why have a blog dedicated specifically to the work of young science journalists?
There are several reasons for it. Let me try to cover all the main points.
Limit on the network size.
Scientific American’s blog network is relatively big as networks go, but still limited in size for a number of reasons. There is a limited budget, for starters.
Second, a network any larger than this would be a strain on time and effort for me and developers to manage. At this point, it is at least possible for an interested reader to read all the posts on the network (I do!). If it gets any bigger, this becomes impossible and the readers’ habits change: instead of at least occasionally checking out all the bloggers they only focus on their favorites (some readers always will, but at least some don’t) – thus the ‘network effect’ for bloggers is diminished.
Finally, a blog network is not a simple, additive collection of writers – it is a community of people who work together, write together, read each other, comment on each other’s posts, coordinate their blogging, socialize in the backforums (and in real life when opportunities arise through travel), help each other as needed, etc. If the network gets too big, this feeling of belonging to a “family” evaporates, and there is even a danger of the community splitting into warring factions.
It is important for a network to have a mix of seasoned bloggers and fresh voices on the network, for a variety of reasons (for example, veterans serve as role-models, cheerleaders, advisers and troll-beaters for the newbies). While it is important for the network to have as much diversity as possible, so each blogger can tap into and bring in a different audience, it is also important for the community to be coherent and friendly so one blogger’s audience also checks out the other bloggers.
As a natural rotation occurs – some bloggers leave and new ones get invited in their place – both the diversity and coherence need to stay in place. That would be impossible to pull off if the network was too large. We have space for perhaps 2-3 more blogs to reach that maximum.
Being left out.
When there is a limit on the network’s size, this means new people cannot easily get in. And there may be many of them and quite deserving of spotlight. Many of the youngest writers are still in school, too busy with class assignments, or are in internships, or are too busy breaking into freelancing to be able to blog with regular frequency. Some of them do most or all of their writing in more traditional venues, for pay, and do not have blogging experience at all. Some may want to write but do not want to blog. I don’t want to force them to do what they cannot or will not do, yet feel I should highlight their work elsewhere anyway.
Thus SA Incubator interviews and linkfests. And thus open invitation to young writers to submit pitches for the Guest Blog.
Push vs pull media.
Writers and journalists who specialize in science, health and envirionmental reporting tend to write for specialized news outlets – science magazines, New York Times Science every Tuesday, NPR Science Friday, science cable channels, science blogs – places that are easy to avoid if one is not interested in science. They have the requisite background (often in science as well as journalism), training and knowledge to do it right. But they tend to be hired to write for outlets mostly visited by audiences who actively seek science content – that is the “pull” method. Readers pulled into specialized science media tend to already have sufficient background and interest in science.
How do we reach the unsuspecting audiences, those that do not actively seek science content? How do we grab and bring in people who don’t even know that science is fun? They may be looking for politics, or celebrity gossip, or sports, not science. How do we “push” science on them, show them it is fun, important and relevant for them?
One way is for each one of us to push the science stories to our non-sciency friends on social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, etc). But even better method is by having cool science stories appear in outlets where they congregate – the “mass” media outlets, from New York Times to Huffington Post, to public radio, to cable TV, to Hollywood.
Specialized vs. mass media.
Unfortunately, science stories in the mass media tend not to be written by specialized science writers, and are thus often wrong. I do not intend to pick specifically on Larry Moran but this link to his blog I have handy and is fresh in my mind – his is just a recent example of a very frequently seen category error – blaming bad mass media reporting on science journalists. Larry saw a really bad science story on the cover of USA Today and blamed it on science journalists. The problem is: that story was not written by a science journalist! There is nothing science journalists (e.g., NASW members) can do about it – it is not in their power to “police” people who are not part of their cohort.
Vast proportion of science stories in mass media are not written by science journalists. They are written by beat reporters who are required to turn in, let’s say, 7 articles per day (that is an hour of research and writing for each) only tiny proportion of which have anything to do with science. They do not have the background, expertise and experience in science reporting to get it right. They are not given sufficient time to do the research necessary to get it right. They are incapable of accessing, reading and understanding a jargony scientific paper (or even know they are supposed to at least try to read it) in order to get it right. So they submit bad copy. And their editors, not knowing anything about science reporting either, run with it.
Shaming the MSM (Main-Stream Media).
Much of what science bloggers do – and do very well – is critique the science coverage by the mass media. They fisk the bad articles, often several per day, sometimes as systematically as going line by line to show where the articles got the science wrong. This is actually a great educational method – by showing how and why each sentence is wrong, it allows the science blogger to teach the readers the correct version of science in question, as well as how to think critically about science coverage.
Believe me – the authors of these articles and their editors know when this happens to them. Their knee-jerk response is to get very defensive and dismissive (“dirty, hippy bloggers covered by cheeto dust, blogging in their pyjamas in their parents’ basements” is the stereotype they may use or imply), but they get burned and subconsciously learn the lesson to be more careful and at least not repeat the same mistakes in the future.
If a particular mass media outlet (Daily Mail comes to mind) consistently publishes bad science articles, and gets snarkily yet devastatingly criticized for it by knowledgeable expert bloggers almost every day, there is only so long they can remain dismissive of those criticisms. They may not publicly say anything, but they will think, and they will have internal meetings discussing what to do to improve their science coverage as to avoid future criticism.
If this happens, and if they have sufficient budget, the obvious solution is to hire a specialist science reporter. Where do you find one? Google it. What do you find? Hopefully, Scientific American, its articles written by freelancers, its blogs, its weekly Scienceblogging linkfests, or ScienceOnline interviews, or amazing posts on the Guest Blog, or the interviews and weekly linkfests on The SA Incubator. Hire away! Let the good young writers infiltrate the media giants and transform them from within.
Friends in Low Places.
I tell all the young, upcoming science writers to carefully read every word of the transcript of the commencement speech to Berkeley Journalism School’s Class of 2011 given by Robert Krulwich after his mind-blowing experience at ScienceOnline2011. Friends in Low Places. Helping each other. Going Places. Becoming a New Paradigm.
I am one of those. I started blogging on a whim, back in 2004. I got invited to a blog network early on – in 2006. I got a job in the comments section of my blog post in 2007. I got my current job in 2010 because of my blogging. This is a success story.
I never had the Impostor Syndrome when I was doing research. I still have Impostor Syndrome as a writer. English is my second language. I was not trained to write. I don’t know how to turn a pretty phrase. I know nothing about structure and composition of an article. I have difficulty writing on deadline. Why would anyone want to read what I write – my over-long, convoluted, stream-of-consciousness blog posts? I don’t know!
But obviously some people do. And they became my community, my second family. It is that community that helped me every step of the way. They cheered me on. They hit my PayPal button when I was jobless. They pushed for me to get hired. They keep coming to ScienceOnline, they hug me at tweetups, they submit posts to Open Laboratory, they say Yes when I invite them to join the SciAm blog network, they were there for me all along and helped me climb over that wall that Krulwich talks about.
It’s payback time. It is now my turn to help others climb that wall, too.
It was easier to get noticed back when I started. Veteran bloggers or veteran science writers do not need much promotion. But there are many great new voices in the science writing world. This world is now big and growing fast, so it is getting harder and harder to get heard over the din. I find it my duty to seek out and hear those voices, discover talent, promote them, help them climb over the wall.
I’ve been doing it all along – nothing makes me happier than when someone I discovered, encouraged and promoted “makes it” in the real world, gets recognition, hopefully a paid gig! That’s what I see as my main mission in life. I guess that’s why they call me the Blogfather.
This is another phrase from the Krulwich’s talk:
So for this age, for your time, I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.
Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy. Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.
And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.
This is really the key reason why I started The SA Incubator. And why I invite young writers to write for the Guest Blog. And why we always try to get ample travel grants for students to attend ScienceOnline. And why I always (not successfully yet) submit a “young writers” panel for the NASW and WCSJ and AAAS meetings.
It is not so much about helping new writers get jobs in old media companies (though that helps pay bills for a little while). It is about helping them find each other, build relationships, build friendships, build start-ups, build a whole new science writing ecosystem that will automatically do both “push” and “pull” and reach everyone and displace bad science reporting from the most visible areas of the media, while providing them with a living. This requires a lot of them, but they need to know each other and work together toward that goal. The SA Incubator is one of those “meeting places” for them. And Khalil and I are planning some features in the future that will make this aspect even more visible.
2. In general, how does the blog do in terms of activity (comments, hits, etc) compared to others in the Scientific American network?
Unlike most of the other blogs on the network, The SA Incubator had to start from zero. No old subscribers to bring on over from “the old blog”. No fascinating blogger author to lure his or her fans. And no clear and obvious clue at the outset what the blog was going to be about. It also did not get all of the needed attention at the beginning as I had to focus on bigger priorities in getting the network built, launched, started and promoted.
It took some time to figure out how the blog should really look like – and certainly to make it clearer to the readers what to expect there if they keep coming back. But over the last few weeks, as the frequency of posting has increased, as Khalil Cassimally joined me as a co-blogger, and already profiled writers spread the links to the interviews around their own networks, I can see that the traffic is starting to grow quite nicely. Too early to tell, though.
What is more important than the immediate traffic to each post is the longevity – Scientific American has, as you can expect, quite a lot of “google juice”, so future searches for the names of writers should bring one to the Incubator interviews. I see it more as a lasting repository than as a source of daily hits gone viral.
3. When deciding to profile a journalist or include their work in the Incubator, what qualities or characteristics are you looking for? If someone wanted to be included how should they go about that?
This first period of interviews is, naturally, populated by people whose work I am already very familiar with. I may have even met them in person, e.g., at Science Writers or ScienceOnline conferences, local tweetups etc. I have followed their work for a year or two and I like what they do. Perhaps they pitched me a story or two for the Guest Blog. Or I may be a regular reader of their personal science blogs.
As a Visiting Faculty at the NYU program for science, health and environmental reporting, and a member of the advisory board of the equivalent UNC program, I am familiar with students from these two schools. And I also try to familarize myself with the work of students at other schools as much as I can.
As the series progresses, Khalil and I will need to get familiar with the work of others, perhaps new people just coming into the field.
There are many ways to do that – follow/subscribe/friend us on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and elsewhere. Become a regular commenter on our network’s blogs (yes, I read all the comments). Pitch me a story for the Guest Blog. Email us a little introduction to yourself. When you write a good blog post, or make a video, podcast or infographic, or have an article published somewhere, let me know – just DM me the link on Twitter. If I like it, I will promote it. If I like your stuff in general, I am likely to ask you for a SA Incubator interview as well.