Tag Archives: media

Why the NYTimes “Green Blog” Is Now Essential

A few days ago we woke up to the news that the New York Times is eliminating their environment desk.

Predictably, the immediate reaction of many was “oh, noooo!”.

After all, whenever we hear such news, about a science or health or environmental desk being eliminated at a media organization, this means the reporters and editors of that beat have been fired.

But New York Times did not fire anyone. Instead, they will disperse the environmental reporters around the building. Instead of all of them sitting together, chatting with each other, they will sit next to other people, chatting with political, economic, science, health, education and other reporters.

The concern also arose as this piece of news came as a part of broader news of cost-cutting at the New York Times and actual impending layoffs of high-level editors.

And concern is certainly warranted. But there is potential for this to be a good thing. It all depends on the implementation.

My first reaction, quoted here, was that this may be a way to modernize environmental reporting at the Times. After all, reporters were not fired, the senior editors may be. All the environmental expertise is still at the Times, but now outside of its own ghetto, able to cross-fertilize with other beats, and to collaborate with reporters with other domains of expertise.

My cautiously positive reaction to this news probably comes from my recent thinking (and blogging) about three aspects of modern media. One is about the distinction between beats and obsessions. The other one is about the importance of expertise in today’s journalism. And the other one is the distinction between push and pull models of science (and other) communication.

Let me parse these a little bit more….

Beats vs. Obsessions

I wrote at length about this before, but let me restate it briefly, the part that is the most relevant to this situation.

….But another way the difference is explained is that an obsession is actually broader, not narrower, by being multidisciplinary. Instead of looking at many stories from one angle, it focuses on a single story from many angles. This may be a way to solve some Wicked Problems….

By dispersing environmental reporters from a dedicated desk to other desks, New York Times eliminated the environmental beat. Now environmental reporters are free to follow their own obsessions – whatever aspect of the environment they most care about at any given time. In essence, The New York Times is starting to quartzify itself (did I just invent a new word? I bet Quartz folks will be pleased). Instead of the environmental vertical, The New York Times will now have an environmental horizontal – environmental angle permeating a lot of other stories, as environmental reporters talk to and influence their new office neighbors.

Importance of Expertise

I have argued many times before, and most recently and forcefully here, that having or building expertise on the topic one covers is an essential aspect of modern journalism. Being a generalist will become harder and harder to do successfully. Specialization rules. And there are many kinds of expertise and ways of being a specialist.

It is much easier to turn an expert into a journalist than a journalist into an expert (though that is certainly not impossible), and there have been many calls lately (here is just the latest one) for journalism schools to insist on science, and even more importantly on math and statistics classes as requirements for their students.

I will now make an assumption that all NYTimes environmental reporters actually have sufficient expertise to report on the environment. They are now bringing that expertise to other desks. And they are now forced to discuss this with people whose expertise lies elsewhere. They will get into debates and discussions. They will teach each other. They will change each others minds on various things. They will be prompted by those discussions to dig in deep and do some research. That will inspire them to write the next piece and next piece, possibly in collaboration with each other. By forcing cross-fertilization between people with different specialties, NYTimes will force them all to learn from each other, become more sophisticated, to tackle more complex and nuanced stories, and to produce better articles. That’s the theory… We’ll see if that happens in practice. It all depends on implementation.

Push vs. Pull

You may have seen this excellent post that Danielle re-posted the other day.

I know I talk a lot about push vs. pull methods for science communication, but the earliest appearance of the concept on my blog is this brief but cool video clip. Soon after, I described and explained the concept in much more detail here and here. I have since applied it to a bunch of other topics, from the role of new/upcoming journalists to the different reporting strategies for different areas of science to strategies for gaining trust in the broader population to differences between science reporting on blogs vs traditional media to narrative storytelling in science.

I have argued many times that, despite the proliferation of many new outlets that may do reporting better, traditional big venues, like The New York Times (and just a few other ‘biggies’, like BBC, Guardian, Washington Post, The Economist, PBS, NPR and not many more), will continue to play an important role in the media ecosystem for quite some time. These are trusted brands for far too many people who grew up in that world. And they generally do a good job, even if nobody can be perfect, and expert bloggers are quick to point out errors as they appear.

But, nobody but a few crazy news junkies, all of whom are probably in the business anyway so not the target audience, reads any newspaper, including The New York Times, every day, every page, every article. I’ll tell you a secret – print edition of The New York Times lands on my front porch every night. My wife reads some of it sometimes. It is there mostly in case something I see online is so long that I want to sit back and read it on paper rather than on screen. Or if a friend of mine publishes something so I want to cut it out. Or my name appears in it, and I want to cut it out and save it, to show my Mom.

But back in the old times, when I actually read newspapers on paper, how did I do it? I pick up the paper. I open it up. I take out all the sections I am not interested in – Sports, Auto, Business, Real Estate, Classifieds, etc. – and throw them directly into the recycling bin. Then I read the parts I am interested in (front sections, domestic and world news, opinion, Sunday Magazine, Week In Review, Book Review). When I was a kid, I read the comics first, then TV and movie listings, then Kids section, perhaps some nature/science, perhaps some sports.

Other people have their own preferences. If there is such a thing as “Environment” section, or “Health” section, or “Science” section, how many people do you think automatically recycle them and go straight to Sports instead?

A dedicated Environment section is a pull method. It pulls in readers who are already interested in the topic. Others never see it. And being online doesn’t change a thing – it works the same way as on paper, in its own ghetto, isolated from the stuff people actually read.

The ‘push’ method inserts science/health/environment stories everywhere, in all sections of the paper, linked from all the pages of the website. It includes science/health/environment angles into many other stories. People interested in politics, economics, education, art, culture, comic strips, whatever, get a steady diet of relevant information mixed into their breakfast. They can’t avoid it any more. It is pushed onto them without their explicit request.

Let’s hope that The New York Times is thinking this way, as that would be the best possible outcome.

Central importance of the Green Blog

The managing editor Dean Baquet was reported to say this about the Green Blog: “If it has impact and audience it will survive”.

That is disappointing. Green Blog’s destiny is not, and especially now should not, be decided by the vagaries of traffic. It has suddenly become much more essential to the Times than they know, or so it seems. Let me try to explain…

Dispersing all the environmental reporting all around New York Times is a potentially great “push” strategy – feeding the unsuspecting readers a steady diet of environmental thinking.

But dispersing all the environmental reporting all around New York Times also makes it very difficult for the “pull” audience, the readers who are interested in environment, to find everything. People who are interested in environment, people like me, will be forced to look into automatically recyclable sections, like Business or Real Estate for articles with potentially environmental angles. That takes time and energy we don’t have, so we’ll rather miss those articles.

Now, some tech-savvy know-it-all is likely to post a comment “Use Tags”. Sure, you are a programmer, you know what tags are. Can you explain that to your grandma? Can you teach her how to use them?

No, the answer is Green Blog.

Green Blog should now become not just a cool place for interns to build their reporting chops, but also:

– place where all environmental reporters link to, explain, describe and quote from all their articles that appear elsewhere in the Times,
– place where someone puts together, every week, a summary and round-up of all environment-related Times articles of the previous week,
– place where all environmental reporters come to crowdsource their stories, get feedback and expert information from readers as they are working on their more and more complex stories
– place where all environmental reporters come to see each others work, now that they are not sitting next to each other,
– a central place where people like me can come and at a single glance see all of the Times environmental reporting in one place, and
– a central place where someone like Andy Revkin can check each day to see what else is going on in the Times regarding environment, so he can blog about it on Dot Earth.

This is like what ethologists call the “central foraging place”, like a beehive. Honeybees (readers) get information (blog posts) from other foragers where the flowers (NYT articles) are, so they go there (following links) to get nectar. They then return to the hive (Green Blog) to deposit the nectar (their comments), to tell others where else the flowers are good (e.g., on other sites beyond NYT) and to get new information so they can go for another run, again and again.

Now that there is no Environment desk and no Environment editor, the Green Blog should assume those two roles.

Now, if only higher ups at the Times get to read this post. If you know them, can you share the link to this post with them?

Image: Everystockphoto.com

Can We Ask Presidential Candidates about Science?


Back in December 2011, The Guardian USA and New York University’s Studio20 (see their Tumblr – note: I am associated with the program) announced a new joint project – US presidential election 2012: the citizens agenda. Here is some background information from that time:

The Guardian USA:

The citizens agenda: making election coverage more useful: We invite you to help refresh the media’s tired templates of campaign coverage to address issues people really care about

Studio 20:

Studio 20 Will Collaborate With The Guardian on How to Improve Election Coverage: On Dec. 8, Studio 20 and The Guardian US jointly announced that they will collaborate in the development of a “citizens agenda” approach to election coverage during the 2012 campaign for president.

Nieman Journalism Lab:

Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012: Jay Rosen and Amanda Michel reunite for a project that aims to inject citizen voices into campaign coverage.


The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage: The idea is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision. So you go out and ask them: “what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”

Nadja Popovich:

Re-thinking Elections 2012: As part of the Studio 20 graduate program at NYU, we’re partnering with the Guardian on a big question: how do we make election coverage more useful to the average user? So, today we launch the “Citizens Agenda”, an attempt to do just that.

What does that all mean?

The idea is for a media organization with a strong reputation, large audience, and necessary resources to team up with a group of smart, dedicated, innovative, tech-savvy and Web-savvy students of journalism to explore and analyze the questions posed by the media to the presidential candidates (most notably during the presidential debates), to see what questions are asked frequently, what questions rarely, and what questions not at all – and then to provide the citizens with the opportunity to have their own voices heard, adding questions they want to ask, inquiring about topics they care about the most:

Have the 839 GOP debate questions reflected the ‘citizens agenda’?: By studying the 20 Republican presidential debates of this election season, we can better see if the questions being asked correspond with the issues voters actually care about.

Some questions that may be of great interest or importance to the voters may be tip-toed around or completely ignored by the media, while other questions that are asked often may not be as informative to the public. For example:

Don’t ask, don’t tell: Mormonism mentions scant at GOP debates: Despite being the religion of two candidates, only three questions over 20 debates have dared to utter the M-word.

There have been 20 presidential debates so far this season, generating a total of 839 questions. The students have analyzed the questions, classified them and are starting to publish the details of the analysis – this is the first one, with more to come over the next several days:

The GOP debates: what questions do journalists like to ask? We looked at all the questions that have been posed to the Republican candidates in the 20 debates since May 5, 2011.

Interestingly, most of the questions were quite serious and substantial, but a small percentage could be characterized as “fluff” questions, designed primarily to entertain the audience, and secondarily hoping that a candidate may trip up or say something unusual or revealing:

The nine quirkiest questions from the Republican debates: There have been some strange moments over the last 20 debates involving the GOP candidates. Here are our favourites.

Interestingly, in some of the debates, the candidates were asked questions posed by the public, either by the members of the audience in the room, or from Twitter. Those questions were much different – they covered different topics, were often quite tough, and usually had a personal story as a starting point. By posing problems, the audience questions forced the candidates to abandon the talking points and put themselves in a “problem-solving mode”, which may be potentially much more useful to the television viewers at home:

At the GOP debates, ‘regular people’ didn’t shy away from tough questions: When the mic was handed over to audience members, they framed their questions around personal stories – and big issues

What was asked so far?

According to the first analysis (and more is upcoming), there are certain topics or types of questions that were asked at the debates very frequently. For example: on the economy and jobs (227 questions), the candidates’ lives and records (223 questions), fixing government and reducing the debt (188 questions), foreign policy and national security (160 questions), strategy and maneuvering among the candidates – the “horse-race journalism” focused on polls, electability and mutual criticisms of candidates, attempting to provoke a fight between them on the stage (113 questions), and the “How conservative are you?” type of question (104 questions).

Interestingly, concerning foreign policy questions, out of 200+ countries of the world, only a handful were mentioned in the questions, most frequently Iran and China, while many other countries, regions and entire continents were completely ignored (including very rare mentions of Iraq).

On the other end of the spectrum, restoring American greatness (“Are we still as powerful as we once were?” – 9 questions), human interest fluff (12 questions), education (12 questions) and religion (24 questions, but see above for lack of questions on Mormonism), were not often asked. There was nothing about, for example, women’s issues (apart from abortion), or about small-business owners.

In the middle are: immigration (61 questions to multiple candidates, 16 to Gingrich, nine to Romney, six to Santorum, six to Paul), healthcare (53 questions), social issues: abortion and gay rights (46 questions), and social spending: Medicaid, Medicare, social security and unemployment (42 questions).

Science and technology questions, including space and climate, were in the middle of the pack, with a total of 44 questions asked to date. Here are some examples:

On climate change:

John Harris (Politico): Governor Perry — Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

And a follow up: John Harris (Politico): Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you’ve done that. [applause] Are there specific — specific scientists or specific theories that you’ve found especially compelling, as you? (both from September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On stem cell research:

Shannon BREAM: Alright, Governor Pawlenty, just days ago a Federal court struck down the ban on using Federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. You identify yourself as strongly pro life, but you don’t oppose government funding for research on existing stem cell lines already derived from embryos, but is that still spending tax payer money on elements that were generated by, at some point destroying an embryo. (MAY 5, 2011 | FOX SOUTH CAROLINA DEBATE)

On energy and environment:

Brian Williams (NBC News): Governor, time. Congresswoman Bachmann, a question about energy, back to that subject for a moment. Were you quoted correctly — and do you stand by it — as wanting to drill in the Everglades in Florida? (September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On green energy:

Bret Baier (Fox News): Governor Perry, you — you have railed against the special treatment of Ford and Solyndra as have the other candidates here tonight. And particularly the tax code incentives for green technologies and allowances that have been made for this industry. But it’s nexus, governor you have afforded the same attention to the oil industry. Back in 2003, you signed a bill that reduced the tax paid by some natural gas companies that have helped them reap since, better than $7 billion in tax savings. So I — I guess what I’m saying is, are you guilty of the same behavior as governor, favoring an industry, that you claim this president has, favoring the green industry? (December 15, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Sioux City, Iowa)

On the EPA:

John DISTASO: Speaker Gingrich, what exactly is an Environmental Solutions Agency? I don’t — I think a lot of people might not know or understand that — why you want to disband the EPA and set up — set up something that kind of looks like the EPA? (Republican Candidates debate in Concord, Hampshire January 8, 2012)

On nuclear energy and the Yucca Mountain:

Q from audience: QUESTION: My question for you is, do you support opening the national nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain? ANDERSON COOPER: Speaker Gingrich, we’ll start with you. [crosstalk] ANDERSON COOPER: Sorry, go ahead. ANDERSON COOPER: Is Yucca Mountain that place? ANDERSON COOPER: You were for opening it in Congress, right? (Republican Candidates debate, Las Vegas, Nevada October 18, 2011)

On the space program:

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: We have a question. I want to speaker to weigh in as well. [applause]This question is related from — we got it from Twitter. Speaker Gingrich, how do you plan to create a base on the moon while keeping taxes down in eight years? [laughter] (January 26th, 2012 | Republican Candidates Debate in Jacksonville, Florida)

How to build a citizen’s agenda?

Next presidential debate will be on Wednesday, February 22nd, moderated by John King of CNN. Another four debates have been scheduled in case no clear candidate emerges in the meantime. After that, there will be general election debates between the candidates of the two major parties. As the year progresses, the program will evolve, adapting to the circumstances on the ground.

In this first phase, between today and the next debate, the citizens (both of the USA and other countries) will be encouraged to post their questions – what they would like to see the candidates asked – in the comment sections of this post. Alternatively, people can tweet their suggested questions at @JohnKingCNN using the hashtag #unasked. The students will also do a quick classification of all the questions to send to John King’s producer just before the debate.

Will there be many questions? Will they be much different from what the media asks anyway (after all, the mass media shapes the public opinion)? Will a few of those questions emerge as strong contenders by being asked repeatedly by many people? Will John King actually ask one or more of these questions? Will moderators of future debates ask the citizens’ questions? Will other media outlets pick up these questions and ask the candidates whenever they have the opportunity to do so? That is still to be seen.

Asking about science?

Many important policy questions are in some way related to science or rely on scientific information. The same can be said of medicine, environment and technology.

While many science publications collect candidates’ quotes on scientific matters every four years (including us, just a couple of weeks ago), attempts to get presidential candidates to answer science questions have been made in the past without much success. Most notably, ScienceDebate.org managed to get some answers from both Obama and McCain four years ago, and intends to try to do the same this year. Occasionally a very lucky blogger may get an exclusive interview with one of the candidates specifically about science (I was that lucky four years ago, interviewing then presidential candidate John Edwards).

But questions posed by a large number of citizens are harder to ignore than questions posed by an organization, be it a specialized science media organization, or an organization of scientists (which can be dismissed as an “interest group” by the politicians). Also, questions about science, when placed in the mix with other questions of interest to the public, may have a better chance to get answered than if science is kept in isolation and treated as a special topic.

I am confident that the readers of Scientific American would love to ask science-related questions of the candidates, and can come up with good, well-informed questions that can lead to important and informative answers. This is your chance to influence the Citizen’s Agenda, by posting science-based questions on the Guardian site or on Twitter. Let’s see if we can influence the Citizen’s Agenda, and if that, in turn, may affect what questions get asked of the candidates in the mass media.


Image: Nadja Popovich

#sci4hels – the ‘killer’ science journalists of the future want your feedback

If you are a really regular, diligent reader of this blog, you may remember back in September when I announced a panel I have organized for the next year’s WCSJ2013. The eighth World Conference of Science Journalists, organized by World Federation of Science Journalists will be held in Helsinki, Finland on June 24-28th, 2013, and in that post I explained in great detail what the panel will be all about, what was my initial motivation for proposing that panel, and the systematic method I used to pick, out of dozens and dozens of excellent potential candidates, the four people who will travel to Finland and dazzle everyone there.

The session is:

The ‘killer’ science journalists of the future

The science media ecosystem has never been as big, as good or as vibrant as it is today. Many young writers are joining the ranks of veterans each year – and they are good! Many of them have science backgrounds. They all write really well. And they are digital natives, effortlessly navigating today’s online world and using all the tools available to them. But some of them are going beyond being well adapted to the new media ecosystem – they are actively creating it. They experiment with new forms and formats to tell stories online, and if the appropriate tool is missing – they build it themselves. Not only can they write well, they can also code, design for the web, produce all types of multimedia, and do all of this with seemingly more fun than effort, seeing each other as collaborators rather than competitors. I’d like to see the best of them tell us what they do, how they do it, and what they envision for the media ecosystem they are currently building.

The panel will explore skills and attitudes needed to succeed in the emerging science media ecosystem and in building that ecosystem to be even better, more efficient, and having a broader reach. It will explore how to make the world better both for science journalism and for science journalists. We will explore what skills and attitudes are important for new, up-and-coming science writers to become successful and to help bring in a better science media world into being.

Different people have different goals. Some will be hired as staff writers or editors in specialized science media organizations, others in general-purpose media organizations, be it online, print, radio, television, or other types of media. Some will pool resources with friends and start new media organizations. Some want to become successful Public Information Officers for universities, institutes, companies, organizations of governmental entities. Others want to become successful as freelance writers. And yet others may want to become respected, popular science bloggers while keeping their other daytime jobs.

We will explore issues related to necessary technical skills, attitudes toward tasteful self-promotion, required levels and types of expertise, and more, both as advice to individuals, and as advice to science writing programs and journalism schools on how to upgrade their teaching philosophies to adapt to the 21st century.

The panelists are not waiting till June, though. They have already started, and will use the next seven or so months to discuss all of these issues in various ways. It’s not just what they will say during the 60 minutes of the panel, but also how they will do it – show, not tell. This will not be a traditional series of droning talks with dreaded PowerPoints. As veterans of ScienceOnline conferences, they know how to make a panel dynamic, interactive and exciting. The panel itself is not all, it will be just the final highlight of months of discussion, and hopefully the discussions will continue after the panel as well, provoked by the panel.

First, make sure you visit, bookmark and regularly check the updates on the panel’s Homepage! The website will be active, continuously adding resources, tools, important links (including to the blog posts by all of us and reactions by others), and hoping to foster discussions of the topic. They may have other ideas as well, perhaps a Question Of The Week, some Google Hangouts, we’ll see.

If you are going to be in Helsinki at the WCSJ2013, we hope the website/blog will motivate you to attend our panel. It should also help you come prepared, so you can join in the discussion.

If you cannot be there, the discussions will occur – and are already occurring – online: before, during and after the panel, so please join in.

For now, follow our discussions on the website and our blogs, as well as on Twitter by searching for the hashtag #sci4hels. Also follow us on Twitter at @sci4hels and subscribe to our Twitter List. Also check out our Facebook page and our Google Plus page.

We’d like to hear from you. Science journalism students and professors. Editors at specialized science media outlets and at general media outlets. Founders of new media start-ups. Freelancers. PIOs and directors of internal communications. Bloggers. Researchers. People who entered the science journalism profession “horizontally”, bypassing schools of journalism and going straight from science, perhaps via blogging, into the business. And most importantly the audience, the users of science content – what do you like, what do you want, what do you expect?

We have already published several blog posts on the topic, gearing up toward the event. And we will collect those, as well as other relevant articles, on the Essential Readings page. These can be a good starting point for the discussion. See, for now:

Erin Podolak:

The Question of Code

Kathleen Raven:

Generalists and specialists can coexist

Erin Podolak and Bora Zivkovic:

The SA Incubator: Helping Hatch Science Writers Since July 2011
The SA Incubator, or, why promote young science writers?

Bora Zivkovic:

#sci4hels – ‘Killer’ science journalists of the future ready to take over the world!
Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins
Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise
The other kinds of expertise

Finally, in case you missed it back in September, let me introduce the panel again:


Bora Zivkovic

Bora Zivkovic was born in former Yugoslavia where he studied veterinary medicine and trained horses. He moved to the USA in 1991 and did his graduate research on circadian rhythms in birds at North Carolina State University. He is currently Blogs Editor at the Scientific American, where he manages a network of almost 60 top-notch science bloggers. He is also a Co-Founder and Director of ScienceOnline.com and the series editor of the annual anthology ‘Best Science Writing Online’ (formerly known as “Open Laboratory”). In his spare time, Bora teaches Introductory Biology to non-traditional students at N.C.Wesleyan College. Homepage, blog, Twitter, ScienceOnline, Open Laboratory.


Rose Eveleth:

Rose Eveleth is a producer, designer, writer and animator based in Brooklyn. She switched from studying krill as a scientist to studying scientists who study krill as a journalist. Now she tries to explain sciencey stuff for places like The New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed, BBC Future, Smart Planet and OnEarth. She’s a regular blogger for Smithsonian Magazine’s newest online endeavor – Smart News, and a part time editor of all things animated at TED Education. In her spare time she makes weird collages, bikes, and day dreams about hanging out with a pack of foxes. Homepage, blog, Twitter, Facebook page, The SA Incubator interview, Scientific American articles, Scienceline posts


Lena Groeger:

Lena Groeger is a journalist-designer-developer who builds data driven interactive web applications and graphics at ProPublica, an investigative news organization in New York City. She has a masters degree from NYU in science journalism, and is particularly interested in psychology and neuroscience. Homepage, blog, Twitter, ProPublica articles, new job announcement, Scientific American articles and blog posts, Scienceline posts.


Kathleen Raven:

Kathleen Raven is a freelance science and health writer based in Athens, Ga. She recently wrapped up a science writing internship at Nature Medicine in New York City. In May 2013, she will graduate from the University of Georgia’s Health & Medical Journalism M.A. program. Last year, she earned her M.S. degree there in conservation ecology. Homepage, blog, Twitter, Reuters Health articles, Spoonfull of Medicine articles, Scientific American articles, Scientific American blog posts, The SA Incubator interview, ScienceOnline2011 interview.

Erin Podolak:

Erin is a member of the narrative reporting team at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA in the United States. At Dana-Farber she concentrates on writing about basic science, clinical research and new technologies for several different types of cancer. Erin recently completed her Master’s degree in Journalism with a specialty concentration in science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also studied science writing at Lehigh University where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in 2009. Erin has held a variety of internships in journalism and communications, including a year of writing science news for the website of the journal BioTechniques. In addition Erin writes and manages her own blog Science Decoded – one woman’s adventures navigating science and the media. Homepage, blog, Twitter, Incubator interview.

The other kinds of expertise

If you read my old and new posts about the media, science journalism, etc., you know I come down strongly on the side of specialists and against generalists. But it is a caricature, a simplification I have to use to make my posts clearer, and to cut my posts down to a semi-manageable length 😉

Yes, people are hungry for information. They are asking to be educated, not served content. And education requires expertise.

If people were not hungry to be educated, and if there was no inherent trust in experts, there would be no interest in either editing or using Wikipedia, there would be no interest in TED talks, and there would be no interest in either producing or using MOOCs and other forms of online education. I am far from being the only one who sees an article in a newspaper and, before sharing the link anywhere, first double-checks it with an expert blogger. Which is why expert bloggers are so popular.

We used to read a newspaper, nodding along, assuming they got it all right, until we get to an article that covers a topic on which we actually know something, an article within the domain of our own expertise. Then we scream bloody murder: “Why can’t they ever cover X correctly, idiots!”. The assumption everyone had was that media covered everything well except the domain of our expertise.

The emergence of the Web, especially the expert blogs (and expert commenters), opened our eyes. We saw that every expert is complaining about (and skillfully dissecting) the coverage of their own area of expertise, leading to the conclusion that the traditional media covers everything poorly. We started losing trust in the media and consuming it less. The way media reacted to economic consequences of lost trust was to fire experts and hire generalists who were asked to cover seven different topics per day, not covering anything well. Audience asked for expertise and for education that could only be provided by specialists, yet the media responded by offering more and shorter articles all written by diluted generalists.

But these are extremes I needed to use in my past writing in order to make a point clearly and strongly. So, here is the missing piece, about varieties of expertise that exist between the two extremes of super-expertise of hyper-specialists and the super-diluted non-expertise of hyper-generalists.

Temporary Expertise

If you work for one of those media mills, expected to churn out several articles per day, good luck with that. The work will, inevitably, be shallow, superficial, formulaic and sprinkled with inaccuracies.

But if you have the luxury of having time to write something longer, perhaps a feature, or a series of articles or blog posts on the same topic, then you have time to become a temporary expert. You have time to read books and articles on the topic, to study, to interview many experts, to take a class, to go to a meeting or conference or a series of public lectures, to think about it, process it, digest it, internalize all of that knowledge. You have time to learn enough to be able to write a piece that is accurate.

Expanding into new Expertise

Every one of us is an expert on something, at least one thing, probably several things.

This also means that each one of us is completely non-expert on many other things.

One can argue that each one of us is the expert on our own personal experiences. And if one writes about that, this can certainly be wonderful, riveting reading. But it’s fiction, and entertainment, even if it hints at some bigger generalities about human condition. It is not expertise, and it does not educate or inform.

And then there are topics we all think we are experts on and like to pontificate about. For example: politics. But even there, there are people who know the arcane rules of the Senate, or details of how Electoral College works, or actually sit down and read through thousands of pages of the bill going through the House. Such people have a much more deserved reputation of being experts than the rest of us cheering for our side.

My personal rule: never write about topics I am not at least somewhat expert on. And if I write about politics, to make it clear it is personal opinion, colored by my own background – from comparing USA to ex-Yugoslavia, to having studied some psychology of voter behavior.

There is no money you can pay me to write about exoplanets (or baseball!!!). I find the topic fascinating, but I have zero background. It would take me months of intense, focused, time-consuming study to even reach the level of “temporary expert” (and several years to become a real expert). Thus, I’d run my draft of the article by real experts…who should have written the piece themselves anyway, right?

My narrowest expertise is in “role of gonadal steroid hormones in the development of individual, strain, age and sex differences in circadian and photoperiodic time-measurement in Japanese quail”. While doing my own research on this, I also read a lot and thought a lot about related topics. I know quite a lot about sex hormones, brain and behavior, about circadian rhythms, and about bird physiology and behavior. Even more broadly, I studied quite a lot about animal physiology, animal behavior, and evolution. I took several graduate courses in history and philosophy of science. I have written blog posts about biological clocks in non-bird organisms, from bacteria, protists, fungi and plants, to arthropods, mammals and even humans (although I systematically avoided the literature on humans throughout grad school). I have written blog posts about other aspects of bird behavior. I have written about evolution and ecology and hormones.

So, a few weeks ago, when a bunch of people started asking if NYC subway rats would drown or survive Sandy, I decided I had enough background to be able to extend my area of expertise to rats. This is not my area of expertise, but I knew enough to know where to look, how to evaluate information, and how to quickly get up to speed. So I wrote a blog post about it (and a follow-up) and ended up linked and quoted all over the media. I was a ‘temporary expert’ on rat behavior during floods, but this expertise was not isolated from my other expertise – it is tangential to it, quite closely related.

When I write about human clocks, that is expanding my expertise. When I write about sleep, that is expanding my expertise. Those are not the cores of my expertise, but they are related enough, close enough that I can figure it out pretty fast.

The worst situation is when one is not even aware that a topic requires expertise and pontificates anyway. Remember a few years ago when old-skool, curmudgeon journalists wrote op-eds making fun of blogs (and later Twitter), each one of them instantly revealing they have never actually seen a blog?

Or today’s example – this one – which appears totally ignorant of a decade of writing, studies, companies, software and other stuff related to Open Access publishing (and scientific publishing in general, and alternative methods of peer-review). How does one even start critiquing such a piece? Where does one start, when so much has happened in the decades since the last time those arguments may have appeared valid? With the definition of “publishing”? Or “what is publishing for?”. Or “at what point in the timeline of scientific process does publication fall (hint: not at the end)?” Or “when did pre-publication, publisher-driven peer-review become accepted (hint: around 1960 or so, before which science worked perfectly fine for a few centuries)?”

So, better to stick to one’s own expertise, and then slowly expand to neighboring topics. Don’t jump head first into a topic you know nothing about. People will know. And they will point and laugh.

Technical Expertise

There are many more ways to tell a story than just a block of text. There is art and illustration. There are comic strips and cartoons. There is data journalism and infographics. There are talk podcasts and non-talk sound files. There are photography and slide-shows. There are animations and videos. And there is interactive stuff – “move the sliders!” – where users can change inputs to see how it changes the output.

Just like long articles (and blog posts) have a much longer staying power than short ones, good multimedia packages also are treated differently by users, regarded as valuable resources, something to save, bookmark and share with friends.

People who make that stuff are not topical experts. They have other kinds of expertise. They have technical skills needed to make that. They may have heightened sense of visual aesthetics. A really good ear for rhythm and timing. They may be really good at math. And as this kind of work usually takes more time, they may become ‘temporary experts’ on the topic as well.

Just like we, as users, run to topical experts, our “Go To” people to learn about the topics that are in the news, so producers of media run to their own “Go To” people when they want to produce videos, or infographics, or multimedia packages.

Many people produce videos, but not all have the same appeal. There are many good cartoonists out there, but there is a reason why we all flock to XKCD, PhD Comics and The Oatmeal – they are really, really good. For data journalism, infographics and interactive stuff, some big old organizations are really good at that, e.g., The Guardian and The New York Times, but we also check out ProPublica which really specializes in that format and sets the standard for everyone else.

For a multimedia package to work both short-term and long-term, it has to be appealing, inviting, intuituve to explore, entertaining, informational, educational, beautifully and clearly written (the text parts of it), and 100% factually accurate. Thus such a package is usually done by a team, at least two people: a topical expert, and a multimedia expert. Both are experts, both are specialists, both are journalists, and both can become hot commodities in the media market.

Amazing Writing

Let’s go back to the wild days of those silly “bloggers vs. journalists” op-eds a few years ago. It is interesting how they all had the same pattern, using some of the same arguments.

“But who will report the news as it happens, from the scene?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did exactly that.

“But who will do in-depth, investigative reporting?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who do that every week.

“But who will cover local town councils and school boards?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who are doing an amazing job with that.

“But who will speak truth to the power?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did just that.

“But who will effect positive change, affect legislation, diplomatic efforts?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples when bloggers did exactly that.

“But the word Blog is funny!”

Eh? That’s an argument? Well, “nut graf” is funny, too. And so is “lede”. And “word limit” is a funny concept.

“B-b-b-but at least we can write! So there!”

To which the only appropriate response is a throaty laughter.

I don’t think you mean what we mean when you say “writing”….

Writing is not just the ability to compose grammatically correct sentences. Writing is not the ability to put together sentences really fast in order to turn in the copy on deadline. Writing is not the ability to follow the formula of the 500-word inverted pyramid news piece that is just like all such pieces everywhere, including all the tired old metaphors, topped by over-hyped headlines. Though all of those skills can be useful sometimes. And writing is not keeping readers’ attention because they cannot avert their eyes from the train-wreck of an op-ed you just wrote.

Writing is the ability to get the reader who finished your first sentence to decide to read your second sentence. And third. And then fourth. And all the way to the end. And then say “Wow, this was good, let me share with all my friends”. Topic, length, form, format – those do not matter. It can be a tweet, it can be a book. It can be about duck penises, it can be about cancer. A good writer writes riveting, beautiful prose. Not convoluted, Victorian-style prose, but clear, exciting prose imbued with one’s personality.

Writing is also the ability to write riveting, can’t-put-down prose without giving up one inch of factual accuracy.

People who write riveting prose but what they say is BS are not good writers, they are what I like to call ‘seductive’ writers. I already mentioned David Brooks last week as a good example of a ‘seductive’ writer.

The way he invented stuff out of thin air about neuroscience and psychology was much worse error by Jonah Lehrer, another ‘seductive’ writer, than any plagiarism, “self” or “non-self” (non-responsiveness to expert criticisms in comments was his #2 error, and complete lack of interest in being a part of the science blogging community from which he could have learned both neuroscience and ethics was his #3).

There is a reason why we all stop whatever we are doing and go read long new pieces by the likes of Deborah Blum, Steve Silberman or David Dobbs. They do beautiful writing, their writing is assuredly 100% factually accurate, it is always interesting, and we always learn something new.

What I am trying to say is that good writing is a form of expertise. Many can quickly put together a formulaic news piece. Relatively few are really good writers in the sense I am trying to convey here. Media organizations that want to be successful have to try to lure in and hire some of those good writers, no matter what their area of topical expertise, or how much they explore neighboring topics to extend their expertise, or how much they tend to hit new topics and become temporary experts on those (and how much time they need for this). Some topical experts are also good writers. Some technical experts are also good writers. Mix and match, combine the different types, give them freedom and incentives to collaborate with each other, and you can have an awesome newsroom.

Expertise: the next generation

You are probably aware that one of the things I most like to do is “scouting” for talent, discovering new, up-and-coming science writers, bloggers and journalists, giving them opportunities, mentoring them, promoting their work, helping them become visible and successful.

Several science writing programs in the USA are churning out small armies of such amazing new writers each year (unfortunately, most other US schools and all the rest of the world are yet to catch up).

Many of them have background in science, thus have real scientific expertise to draw from. Others have always been fascinated by a topic and explored it in great detail over the years. So they are topical experts, always working on expanding their expertise, but being careful not to jump into something they don’t know anything about.

Many of them are skillful with a variety of modern tools, can troubleshoot them, modify them, and generally get them to work the way they want. Many experiment with a variety of other, non-textual forms of communication. Many can code and thus make their own tools if needed. Thus many of them are also technical experts.

They tend to be sticklers for accuracy. They do triple fact-checks on every word, number, symbol and punctuation point before turning in the piece. This also makes them good temporary experts whenever the assignments calls for it.

And many of them are beautiful writers as well, keeping my attention all the way to the end.

So, the new generation seems to combine all kinds of expertise. And working with them is a pleasure. They are so…professional!

Working with one of them, e.g., for a Guest Blog post, is so easy! We do not exchange 500 emails, half of which are irrelevant, half of which are CCd to irrelevant other people, half of which contain bits and pieces of the assignment (and I am the one who needs to track the most recent versions and patch them all together?), half of which contain images in wrong formats I cannot use, etc. No, the usual exchange is about six emails:

Email #1: Hey Bora, here is my pitch.
Email #2: That sounds great. Do it. When do you think you can have it done?
Email #3: How about April 15th?
Email #4: Deal. April 15th at 12 noon EDT it is.
Email #5 (on April 15th at noon): Here it is (attached), let me know if you want any changes.
Email #6: Perfect. Published. Thank you so much. The URL is: http…. ”

What I get is perfectly formatted text (not for Word, for WordPress), perfectly sized images with links and credits, author bios, and perfect embed codes that render multimedia exactly the way they should look. Publish-ready.

I sit down ready to edit and realize, fifteen minutes later, that I have come to the end without having to make a single change, not even to fix any typos as there were none. And I really enjoyed reading it. And that is not easy – I am a jaded, old blogger with ADHD, so keeping my attention all the way to the end is hard, and making me enjoy it even harder.

Yet these new generations keep doing this to me! Over and over again (sure, some of the veterans are also extremely good, but there the experience varies). Just the latest example – this post was due at 1:00pm. I received it (including images, embed code, etc) at 1:00pm. It was published at 1:16pm. It came in perfect. All I needed to do was read, copy, paste and click “Publish”, then spend a couple of minutes promoting it on social media and my work for the day was done. Easy. How nice for me. More time for me to read something else, or write a post of my own. Or take a long weekend.

They are really good, which makes me hopeful for the future. Now go ahead and hire them (you can find many of them in the archives here)! If you don’t, they’ll start their own media empires and vanquish the competition that still hires generalists 😉


Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise
Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins
#sci4hels – ‘Killer’ science journalists of the future ready to take over the world!
The SA Incubator, or, why promote young science writers?
Science Blogs – definition, and a history
#scio12: Multitudes of Sciences, Multitudes of Journalisms, and the Disappearance of the Quote.
Blogs: face the conversation
Is education what journalists do?
Telling science stories…wait, what’s a “story”?
The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again

Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise

Nate Silver is now a meme (also source of the image on the left).

I usually pepper my posts with links, but today I feel lazy, so I listed a bunch of links at the bottom – hours of fascinating reading you can have after you read my post!

Who is Nate Silver?

Nate Silver likes to play with numbers. He started out with sports, then burritos, then politics. He, using statistics, correctly predicted most (not all, but almost all) presidential and congressional races in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Back in 2010, he came to ScienceOnline and moderated a session (together with Arikia Millikan) on using math to study human behavior online – the Web Science.

What does Nate Silver do?

Twenty years ago, there were only a few pollsters out there and they did relatively few polls. Today, there are many polling organizations and they, especially in the home stretch of an election, poll incessantly, every day. They do national polls, state-wide polls, even local polls. Over the years, they refine their methodology. Some predict outcomes better than others, for a variety of reasons.

Nate Silver averages all the polls, weights each poll according to the statistics of past performances, and produces a daily-changing set of numbers predicting outcomes of various electoral races. For the Presidental elections, unlike pundits focusing on national polls, he rightly focuses on state polls, especially in swing states, in order to predict the winner of the Electoral College – the only thing that really counts (we can discuss if that is right or wrong, but that is how the game is played now, so that it what he measures).

What did Nate Silver not do?

As a couple of bloggers (see links at the bottom) pointed out, Nate Silver did not do Big Data. These are pretty small and limited data-sets he has at his disposal. In aggregate, they are powerfully predictive, but that is not Big Data, though the motivations and methodologies are similar.

As Silver started in sports statistics, being a part of the Moneyball movement in baseball, people assume that what he is doing now is the same thing. But it is not. It is also not the same as what he did with burritos, though that comes closer.

In baseball (and later in basketball, though horse racing and betting industry has been doing this for a century at least), there are hard data. Player hit the ball or did not. Caught the ball or did not. The ball ended in a spot X or did not. It was a home-run or it wasn’t. Empirical data. Are two players good buddies or not does not matter that much at that level – they are both professionals and will do their best regardless of interpersonal relationships, body language and other subjective parameters. Thus, stats in sports work well, as they are based on clearly measurable things. From such stats, one can rank players and teams, and predict with quite a high degree of accuraccy which teams will win and which will lose. Or which horses have which odds for winning a race.

So again, What did Nate Silver do?

People focus on numbers, imagining they are hard data. But remember that the numbers come from polls. Polls are questionnaires. What Nate Silver did was social science.

Polls ask questions. People answer them differently. They may have conscious or unconscious biases. They will have different backgrounds and different levels of being informed. Some will lie on purpose, to skew the polls, as part of their activism. Some will lie unconsciously because they are afraid to tell what they really think. People respond differently if they are polled over their land-line phones (public) and differently if called on their cell-phones (private), and differently in online polls versus being asked in person, face to face (e.g., in exit polls). Some people put a lot of thought into their answers. Others want to do it as fast as possible and go with gut feeling, or even almost-random responses.

Different pollsters will ask similar questions, but with slightly different wording. And we know that wording affects the responses. The order of questions also affects responses.

Each pollster can only reach a limited number of people, so the small sample size results in a pretty large error.

But when Nate (and others) averages the polls, he increases the sample size, thus reducing the error. When he takes into account the past accuracy of pollsters and weights them accordingly, he further reduces the error. People who lie in opposite directions cancel each other. Pollsters who are biased in opposite directions cancel each other. A well-balanced, weighted average can take care of all of that, and produce a much more accurate prediction.

But importantly, it is still not numbers from physical measurements. It is statistics (and yes, Statistics is a sub-discipline of Mathematics) applied to messy human minds and brains and emotions and moods.

It’s people!

Why Nate Silver now?

A lot of it has to do with the current political climate. I wrote my thoughts about it on my Tumblr as I did not think it was appropriate to post it here, but go take a look.

In short, it is a backlash to alternative reality, alternative facts, alternative science, alternative math. It is a backlash to the self-perpetuating cycles of mutual lying between rightwing media, rightwing politicians, rightwing donors and rightwing voters, each preventing the others from straying one millimeter away from this alternative fantasy world. It is a backlash against anti-empiricism, anti-science, anti-facts, head-in-the-sand, “we make reality now” mindset. Practical solutions require dealing with the world as it is, not the world one imagines to be or wants it to be.

And when postmodernism in public life reaches a point of saturation, and when people have had enough of it, and when there is a backlash, people will go for as extreme opposite as they can find. In this case: math. Numbers. Hard, cold numbers. Unbiased analysis. No “gut feelings”. Which is why they go for Nate. Which is why they tend to ignore that Silver’s numbers are people.

Why Nate Silver and not other numbers guys?

Because Nate is a blogger. Really. Others put data out there as well (see links at the bottom). Nice graphs and charts and tables. Great numbers, essentially the same as Nate’s. But they don’t tell a story about the data. He does. He’s been doing it for years. He has regular readership. He has a recognizable voice. He has earned trust not just by the strength of his predictions, but also by the strength of his writing, his personality that shines in his blog posts, his transparency about his thinking and about his methodology.

People focus on Nate and trust Nate because he is an expert, but more importantly because he is an expert who can tell the story. An expert who can explain stuff in ways that people understand. He narrates his work and his numbers.

Why Nate Silver’s blog?

A number of people, some unhappy that other number-crunchers did not reach Nate’s fame (or rightwing wreath), explain his prominence by the fact that his blog is hosted by New York Times (see links at the bottom). Even the NYTimes public editor suggested that his fame is due to the association with the NYTimes brand.

This is upside down. And she got instant and strong backlash. It is Nate who is the brand. NYTimes profits more from having Nate on their site (the traffic to his blog just before and during the election day dwarfed all the traffic to everything else on their site) than he does from being associated with them. He is strengthening their brand, by being an expert on site, rather than the other way round.

NYTimes reported on Nate’s traffic in a pretty vague way – number of site visits that included visits to Nate Silver’s blog. But we know that very few people go to sites via homepages. Older people and people within the news business may still have that habit. But most people do not. I bet that at least 90% (and more likely 99.99%) of the traffic to Silver’s blog on the election day did not come from the NYTimes homepage, or any other page on the site. It came from direct links, social media, “dark social”, emails, bookmarks, RSS feed readers, searches, etc.

Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise

What New York Times does smartly, to enhance its brand, is to hire people with real expertise, people like Nate Silver (and Paul Krugman etc.) and give them a prominent spot on the site (and even sometimes in the paper version). Washington Post does the same with Ezra Klein. Many media outlets, including the one you are on right now, have set up blogging networks specifically in order to attract and host writers with real expertise.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago:

Landing on the New York Times page after you followed a link tells you something about it, to a certain extent. You still have to figure out if you trust the article you are about to read. Your expectations are higher than if it was Daily Mail, but you are still on guard. How do you decide in advance? By the name in the byline. If it is Maureen Dowd, you expect entertainment, but not much depth. If it’s David Brooks, you expect seductively beautiful writing that is based on pseudo-sociology he picked out of thin air to conform to his ideology. But if it’s Paul Krugman, you know you will get a better understanding of some aspect of economics because the guy knows his stuff – he is an expert.

And you know exactly what you’ll get if you see the byline of Nate Silver.

Expertise engenders trust. When I write about biology, my readers trust me as I am an expert. When I write about media, people trust me a little bit less because my expertise in this came later, was not “official” (i.e., no graduate school degrees), and is mostly based on my own impressions and experience, though my track record so far has been pretty good. When I write about politics…why would anyone trust me? Everyone has a political opinion, right?

What is important to note is that there is hunger out there for expertise. I started as a political blogger. Back in 2003/2004 there was a bunch of us starting political blogging. We each tried to add a particular angle, or bring in our other expertise (I focused on psychology of ideology, a nascent field now called ‘political psychology’), but mainly we pontificated about politics and performed acts of media criticism and of political activism. After the 2004 election, many of us specialized. Ezra Klein focused on health care and became a “Go To” person for it, resulting in his hire by the Washington Post. Many others did something like that and got hired as campaign managers, or writers, or consultants, etc.

I focused on science and ended up at Scientific American. In January 2005 I started a science blog, separate from my political blog. And instantly, with my very first post, the new blog reached the same traffic levels as the old blog. There were comments, questions. In science, I was an expert, and people trusted me and were hungry for information.

I said and wrote this many times, but long posts that do not shy away from nitty-gritty details (including numbers, formulae, technical terms if explained first, even Latin names for animals – see super-successful Tetrapod Zoology blog right here on the network) do extremely well. They may not get an instand surge of low-quality traffic from Slashdot, Digg, Reddit, Stumbleupon or Fark, but they accrue tons of traffic over time. Such pieces are not seen as entertainment, but as resources – something to be saved, bookmarked and shared with friends. Such pieces keep getting re-discovered and re-shared for years after initial publication. They provide value that a one-hit wonder, entertaining piece does not. They provide value that standard, short, news pieces do not – they provide context and detail and quality of explanation that comes from expertise, something that a 400-word piece cannot possibly contain, as there is not enough space for it. Longform writing works.

What is expertise?

How does one become an expert?

There are two ways. There is the 20th century method (yes, 20th century is an outlier on everything), in which one does hands-on research on a very narrow project while, hopefully, reading a little bit more broadly, resulting in an official badge of expertise – an MS or PhD or MD or some such degree.

And then there is the historically traditional method that is making a big come-back now – having a deep interest in the topic and doing it yourself, reading, discussing with others, doing own research, blogging about it, writing and reporting on it for years, establishing oneself as an expert on the topic. This is how the most respected journalists became most respected – by becoming the Go To experts on a particular topic.

The generalists and pundits – or, if you want, foxes as opposed to hedgehogs – are the reason why the audience is losing trust in the traditional media. They have seen expertise, and they are not going back.

There is something importantly different about l’affaire Silver, though. Most of the cases in the past were impressionistic. We used our own ‘gut feelings’ to say that a particular blog post by an expert X was better than a traditional news article by a journalist Y. But now we can back up our gut feelings with numbers. This case is empirical. Expert blogger Nate Silver was correct, while pundits and traditional bloviators were not…and here are the numbers.

How does expertise fit inside the new media ecosystem?

It is easy here at Scientific American. We are an expert publication almost by definition. When news breaks, and there is a science component to it, others come to our site to get the reliable scoop on it. Generalist news organizations link to our articles on the scientific aspects of news stories. All our editors are experts on the topics they write about (and some even have the 20th century badges of expertise, i.e., PhDs and such). And then we have the blog network, where we have about 50 additional experts in other fields.

Being on, or regularly reading, Scienceblogs.com over several years, where science bloggers were treated as ‘media’, taught us a lot. We learned from one another, learned from our own mistakes, and learned by analyzing mistakes of traditional media. We encountered and studied the traditional journalistic ethics and best practices and incorporated the best of it into our blogging. The Pepsigate scandal was a particularly useful teaching moment for all of us. We became better writers, better journalists, and better bloggers. The distinctions between these blurred.

But we remained experts in our domains. And we resisted some of the traditional media trappings. Being Web natives, we vehemently resist the alien concept of “word count”. No blogger I know ever counts words in their posts (if they do, they are too ashamed to say it publicly). The post is done when it’s done, when all the historical, philosophical, social and methodological context is included, all details hashed out, all conclusions finalized. And we know that #longform works best. And we resist detached “objectivity”. We know we gain rapport and trust with our readers if we insert ourselves into our stories, explain what is the personal connection, where does our expertise on the topic come from, what are our potential biases on the topic, why are we particularly excited about this topic and decided to write about that and not about something else.

As I said yesterday, the traditional and new forms are fusing, learning from each other, getting better as a result, and we are all better off because of it. The line between blogs and columns, and between beats and obsessions is getting fuzzy, and that’s a good thing. Many traditional journalists are now also blogging, experimenting with forms and formats, and then transferring those into their more traditional writing.

This is why forward-looking media organizations are hiring experts. And why the pundits and bloviators, once their contracts expire or they retire, will gradually disappear from the media ecosystem (this will take many years, especially on TV which is the most resistant to change). This is why journalism schools are training experts. This is why media organizations are hiring bloggers. And then some of those bloggers get desks in the office, salaries equal to staff, benefits, etc. One day, that will be the norm. Let’s hope.


Nate Silver: the verdict.
Under Attack, Nate Silver Picks the Wrong Defense
The Times’s Washington Bureau Chief, and Legions of Others, in Defense of Nate Silver
New York Times wants to hold Nate Silver to newsroom standards
Sorry, Margaret, You Need to Get Out More
Your Employee Is an Online Celebrity. Now What Do You Do?
Nate Silver probability map vs. Actual map
Three Lessons From The Nate Silver Controversy
Here’s What the New York Times’ Nate Silver Traffic Boom Looks Like
In defense of Nate Silver: Pundits bare their misunderstanding.
‘How Can That Be?’ More on the ‘They Can’t Both Be Right’ Saga
Wrath of the Math: Obama Wins Nerdiest Election Ever
Silver Medal
In Defense of Nate Silver, Election Pollsters, and Statistical Predictions
The Nate Silver backlash
Data, uncertainty, and specialization: What journalism can learn from FiveThirtyEight’s election coverage
Nate Silver gets a big boost from the election
Why Math is Like the Honey Badger: Nate Silver Ascendant
Nate Silver of 538.com and his critics in the press corps. Get your literacy up.
Nate Silver’s Braying Idiot Detractors Show That Being Ignorant About Politics Is Like Being Ignorant About Sports
In defense of Nate Silver — and basic math
Today’s War on Nate SIlver: Quiet Flows the Don Edition
The Passion of Nate Silver (Sort Of)
Pundits versus probabilities
What’s FiveThirtyEight Good For?: The Inevitable Nate Silver Backlash
How did Nate Silver Get the Election Odds so Wrong?
Math and Discipline — Why Nate Silver’s Accuracy Isn’t About “Big Data”
Nate Silver the Real Winner of Election 2012
How did Nate Silver predict the US election?
Among the top election quants, Nate Silver reigns supreme
Drew Linzer: The stats man who predicted Obama’s win
Was Nate Silver the Most Accurate 2012 Election Pundit?
Climate science is Nate Silver and U.S. politics is Karl Rove
Debunking Two Nate Silver Myths
Whatever Nate Silver Does, Isn’t Science
How a nerd named Nate Silver changed political reporting forever.
Nate Silver: Why I Started FiveThirtyEight
Pundit Forecasts All Wrong, Silver Perfectly Right. Is Punditry Dead?
Can Nate Silver’s example save political journalism?
Gallup is very upset at Nate Silver
Nate Silver on the Election, Pundits, and His Drunk Alter Ego
Foxy Nate Silver and why old-media hedgehogs could soon be old news

#2012SVP – what do Vertebrate Paleontologists talk about?

If you are not a vertebrate paleontologist, or play one on TV, what do you think vertebrate paleontologists do?

If you were a kid who knew all dinosaur names, but now only remember that period occasionally when paleontology appears in the media, what would you expect you’d hear if you suddenly appeared at the annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology?

You may have missed it, but I was there, so I will tell you. I am not that different from most of you. Childhood fascination with dinosaurs, graduate studies in physiology and behavior of perfectly living animals, a brief burst of intense study during one semester taking ‘Dinosaur Osteology’ course with Dale Russell, followed by getting my paleo news from media and blogs.

My colleage Kate Wong will cover several stories from the meeting (here is the first) and we’ll have some syndications from Nature (here’s the first)

My assignment? “Blog it!”, said the Editor-In-Chief.

Big Questions

If your paleo diet depends entirely on mainstream media, you may be excused if you think that all paleontologists do is dig fossils and announce discoveries of new species. Sure, a few new fossils were presented at the meeting, and they were interesting. But that was not the centerpiece of the meeting, or topic of most conversations. It is not what you find any more, but what you do with what you find once you found it. Digging it up is just the first step, the interesting science happens later.

If you have not paid attention lately, you may think that some old questions and controversies are still around and unresolved. For example, “were dinosaurs warm-blooded?”. That is a poorly worded question, and it was answered, with some reframing of the question, a decade ago. “Warm-blooded” probably does not mean what you think it means (that would be “endothermic”), but today’s researchers are working out the details of thermoregulation mechanisms, not re-fighting the old wars of decades past.

Likewise, “did birds evolve out of dinosaurs?” has been answered more than a decade or so ago. And the answer is: birds are dinosaurs, the only surviving, living dinosaur lineage. Much more interesting is the current work on details of the origin of flight and feathers.

So, what are the current big questions (and methodological approaches)?

How the animals of the past evolved, developed, looked, lived, made a living, behaved, and died? What information can we extract out of fossils beyond “it belonged to species X”?. And new, often hi-tech approaches are now all the rage.

First, there is math. Lots of math. Math used to analyze taphonomy and what one can infer from the exact position of fossils at the site where they died. Math used to calculate lift and drag and other forces required for powered flight or gliding. Math for computer analysis of evolutionary relationships.

Then, there are machines. Machines that grind teeth against each other to mimic chewing, to see how different kinds of chewing affect the tooth wear, thus enabling us to learn more about the diet of extinct animals. Machines that plop claws into mud to analyze how track fossils are shaped. Different kinds of microscopes that can be used to analyze fine structures of bones, teeth and egg-shells. X-rays, and CAT-scans, and high-speed video. And of course, computers.

Molecular techniques. Combining genetic and anatomical data to build better phylogenetic trees. Using molecular techniques to see if we can find DNA or proteins in dinosaur fossils. A poster from Mary Schweitzer’s group suggests that melanosomes – intercellular packets of pigments we are now using to figure out colors of fossil feathers – may not be melanosomes, after all, but remnants of bacterial films aggregated on the surfaces of feathers.

Eggs. Lots of work on eggs, embryos and development. Especially interesting, to me, was the work by MSU students whose China Paleontology Expedition was documented on our Expeditions blog, using microscopy to explore fine structure of egg shells, then using that structure to figure out relationships between different kinds of extinct animals, including dinosaurs, turtles, etc., and learning some new things about evolution of eggs.

Comparative studies in living animals. And not just dissection of an ostrich (although that, too). Dissections of many species (and individuals) to study the variability, relationship between anatomy and function, between anatomy and ecology, and between anatomy and behavior. There is no such thing as a “model animal” when one studies evolution – good inference from fossils requires understanding of anatomy in a wide variety of related organisms.

If you want to figure out from fossil record if extinct horse species at a particular locality were under strong or weak selection for a particular level of performance, you compare the anatomies of a bunch of tightly selected modern horses (eventers) and a bunch of protected, semi-wild horses where selection is now relaxed (mustangs).

If you want to know if ichtyosaurs bit or sucked their prey, you observe and dissect a lot of aquatic organisms that do one or the other and make a comparison. Ichtyosaurs did not suck, some turtles do:

If you want to know how extinct reptiles, mosasaurs and dinosaurs moved, you put a bunch of different species of alligators and crocodyles in a tunnel, motivate them to run as fast as they can, film them and analyze the videos:

And if you are interested in origin and evolution of flight, you take an X-ray video of a guinea fowl during flight, then scare it to force it to turn in mid-air. And you discover stuff about anatomy and function of living birds that it never occurred to zoologists, veterinarians or poultry scientists to ask, yet it may be useful knowledge to them as well:


I was pleasantly surprised by how evenly different groups of animals were represented. I expected much more primates, especially those fossils interesting for human evolution, but there were not that many talks and posters about them – I guess those folks go to their own meetings.

While there was a lot of dinosaur stuff – and yes, that is very exciting! – they did not dominate the meeting nearly as much as I expected. There was a lot of work on birds, mammals, extinct and living reptiles, including aquatic and flying reptiles, some work on amphibians, and quite a lot on fish.

Perhaps it is only my own biased perception, but it seemed to me that fish people are somewhat a world of their own – unless it’s an absolutely terrifying shark or bone-plated fish with enormous jaws, I did not detect much interest in fish work by researchers who study more terrestrial organisms. Which is a pity – I saw some interesting posters about fish. Or, if we think phylogenetically, everyone was interested in fish:


One of the beauties of paleontology is that the rewards are mainly intrinsic. It is hard to find a job, and if you snag one, it’s unlikely to be at Harvard. No matter how much of a superstar you become, you cannot just hire an army of students, postdocs and technicians to do the work for you while you sit in the office writing grant proposals or travel around the world giving talks – you still have to go out in the field, suffer the heat and dust, and wield the hammer, then come back to the lab and do some manual work yourself. You can become famous, but are unlikely to get rich. No patents, no Nobel Prizes. And importantly, the findings are unlikely to directly affect lives or livelihoods of millions of people (as in medicine, for example), which allows one to follow one’s curiosities wherever they may lead.

Thus, paleontologists are a really fun bunch to be around. They are not secretive about their work, instead they want to tell you everything about it. No fear of scooping, as this is a small, tightly knit community where everyone knows what the others are doing, where they are digging, etc. I asked a bunch of people “Where will this work be published?” and in nine out of ten cases the answer was PLOS ONE (and in one case “PLOS ONE, or perhaps PeerJ”). Only once I heard “so, so sorry, but this will be behind a paywall, ugh”. Openess rules.

Controversies are big and loud, people disagree, but in the end everyone’s a friend, have beer together at the end of the day, and let the scientific process work its charm and come up with the resolution in the end. Was Torosaurus a species or just a juvenile Triceratops? They can argue in a really heated way, yet in the end they are not enemies, they do not hate each other.

I am not much of a star-seeker or fanboy. And I did not really have much to ask of the big stars of the field. I think, in any field, the most interesting work is done by junior researchers and students, and what they say (and the enthusiasm by which they say it) may be more revealing about the future of a field. Which is why I focused on the posters.

Yes, I did see a bunch of talks (and it seems all the talks of greatest interest to me were happening simultaneously on the last afternoon of the event, on Saturday). But I went to see the posters every day during lunch break when the posters are already up, but people are not there yet. I checked out every single poster, in order to get a feel for the field as a whole. Then I would focus on, and completely read, 4-5 posters each day. In the afternoon, when the poster sessions starts, I homed in on those 4-5 posters and talked to the authors, asked more questions. A number of those posters will end up here on our site, written by authors on the Guest Blog, over the next several weeks and months.

One more observation. It appeared to me that the sex-ratio of the meeting was roughly fifty-fifty. But the age distribution was different between the sexes. Males were of all ages. Most veterans are male. Females were mostly younger, usually students. As I have not been to a SPV meeting before and cannot observe trends over time – this is just a snap-shot – I cannot make a good explanation for this. It can mean two things. First, a traditionally male-dominated field is getting a healthy influx of women, and what we see if a transitional period toward equity. Second possibility, there are always young women entering the field, but they exit from the leaky pipeline around the postdoc/job transition, leaving only men to achive seniority in the field. Perhaps long-time members of the society can chime in, in the comments, about this.


Twitterfall in the hallway
Twitterfall in the hallway

I attended the ‘Paleontology and the Media’ workshop on the first day. Dana Ehret explained how to work with a PIO to craft a good press release. Matt Kaplan gave good advice on how to work with a journalist. And Brian Switek explained the ways researchers can now bypass the PIO and the journalist, and communicate directly to the audience via blogs and social media.

Apart from Matt Kaplan, Brian Switek, Kate Wong, Michael Balter and myself, I am not sure if there were any other representatives of the traditional media at the event. Thus Brian’s advice appears to be most important: not so much about bypassing traditional media, but getting your work out in the vacuum where there is no media. Which is why I wish more people attended the workshop to hear what Brian had to say.

In 2012, the notion that shameless self-promotion is a dirty word is anachronistic, dangerously so.

The number of paleontology bloggers and twitterers is pretty small – though a great bunch!

#2012SVP tweetup

#2012SVP tweetup

Being active on Twitter certainly has some advantages:

But what I was most careful about was always asking people what is and what is not OK for me to blog about. There is still so much misunderstanding about the way publishing works these days, and especially about the notorious Ingelfinger Rule (see this Embargo Watch post specifically about SPV policy, and Tony’s post about the utter illogic of not making the meeting’s abstracts public, which is also why I cannot link to individual abstracts in this and future posts). People don’t seem to understand it, and assume much harsher rule than it really is. Much of the communication stuff they are afraid of doing is actually perfectly acceptable (and not considered as “prior publication”) by the major publishers like Nature, Science and PLOS.

Society meetings used to be semi-private events. They certainly felt private. A bunch of friends and colleagues get together, exchange data, results, ideas, have a beer and assume nobody else will know anything about it. If there is media at the event, it is carefully corralled away and spoon-fed information under harsh embargo rules.

But today, meetings are truly public events. When the means of production of media change hands, and is now cheap and easy to own by anyone, there is no such thing as media any more. Everyone is potentially “the media”. Researchers are now their own media. Thus, the media cannot be controlled. Thus, the researchers (and scientific publishers) need to adapt to the new world.

Reminder: “to publish” means “make public”.

No, your paper in a journal is not the only “publication” of your work.

If you give a talk or poster, that’s a publication. If you tweet or blog about your work, it’s publication. If others livetweet your talk, it’s publication. If others discuss your work on their blogs, it’s publication. When your paper appears in a journal (typeset and formatted in traditional ways to appeal to traditionalists), that is also publication, one snapshot of it. Media and blog coverage of your paper is publication. TV and radio appearances are publication. Your own blog post detailing the background information and context of your research is also publication. People who tweet out links to your blog post are also publishing it. Every blog post and comment in the back-and-forth you may have with colleagues on blogs (or social media, from Twitter to Facebook to Google Plus) about your work is an item of publication. Your next paper is also a part of the publication cycle of your previous paper (unless you suddenly switch your research interests from Hadrosaurs to particle physics).

Just like science, publishing is not a singular event – one piece, one date, one time. It is a continuous work and continuous conversation. It is not a single paper-bound broadcast by just one lab. It is a discussion between a number of players, continuously, in various venues, and in different forms and formats. My bugging SVP (several tweets, a blog post, an email, and saying it out loud during the media workshop, especially about the availability of free wifi as an essential element of a modern conference) are not bugging, not angry criticism – they are intended to help the society move faster into modern media times. Those things help publication, in all of the forms I noted above – researchers’ presentations, livetweeting/blogging, traditional media coverage, everything. And publishers are quickly adapting to the new world as well, gradually diminishing the scope of Ingelfinger Rule, hopefully to abandon it entirely in the near future. And as a result, science will do better. Don’t we all want that?

What 3 Science Questions Do You Think the Presidential Candidates Need to Answer before November 6th?


As you may remember from back in February, the Guardian U.S. and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism lab teamed up to learn what all citizens think about the upcoming election, not just those who care about politics with a capital P.

Back then, the questions were posed to the candidates in the GOP primary race. Now that this race is effectively over, it is time to shift focus to the general election.

Now we want to ask the science-loving Scientific American community to voice their questions, ideas and concerns with what’s been missing from the national conversation so far. What do you want to know before you cast your vote this November?

Other (media) organizations will tap into their own communities to identify questions relevant to their interests. We want to her you, the STEM community, as to which science, engineering, technology, medicine, environment and technology-related questions you want to see asked of the two major party candidates.

So tell us: if you could pose a question to both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, what would it be?

Give us your own question and “like” your favorites from fellow Scientific Americans on our Facebook page, and we’ll publish the top three both on our site and The Guardian’s Citizens Agenda.

Add your three suggestions to our Facebook page by Tuesday at noon.

Image Source

The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again


Human #1: “Hello, nice weather today, isn’t it?”

Human #2: “Ummm…actually not. It’s a gray, cold, windy, rainy kind of day!”

Many a joke depends on confusion about the meaning of language, as in the example above. But understanding the sources of such confusion is important in realms other than stand-up comedy, including in the attempts to convey facts about the world to one’s target audience.

In the example above, Human #1 is using Phatic language, sometimes referred to as ‘small talk‘ and usually exemplified, at least in the British Isles, with the talk about the highly unpredictable weather. (image: by striatic on Flickr)

Phatic language

Phatic discourse is just one of several functions of language. Its role is not to impart any factual information, but to establish a relationship between the people. It conveys things like emotional state, relative social status, alliance, intentions and limits to further conversation (i.e., where the speaker “draws the line”).

If a stranger rides into a small town, a carefully chosen yet meaningless phrase establishes a state of mind that goes something like this: “I come in peace, mean no harm, I hope you accept me in the same way”. The response of the local conveys how the town looks at strangers riding in, for example: “You are welcome…for a little while – we’ll feed you and put you up for the night, but then we hope you leave”. (image: Clint Eastwood in ‘Fistful of Dollars’ from Squidoo)

An important component of phatic discourse is non-verbal communication, as the tone, volume and pitch of the voice, facial expression and body posture modify the language itself and confirm the emotional and intentional state of the speaker.

It does not seem that linguistics has an official term for the opposite – the language that conveys only pure facts – but the term usually seen in such discussions (including the domain of politics and campaigning) is “Conceptual language” so this is what I will use here. Conceptual language is what Human #2 in the joke above was assuming and using – just the facts, ma’am.

Rise of the earliest science and journalism

For the sake of this article, I will use two simplified definitions of science and journalism.

Journalism is communication of ‘what’s new’. A journalist is anyone who can say “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”

Science is communication of ‘how the world works’. A scientist is anyone who can say “I understand something about the world, you don’t, let me explain it to you”.

Neither definition necessitates that what they say is True, just what they know to the best of their ability and understanding.

Note that I wrote “science is communication”. Yes, science is the process of discovery of facts about the way the world works, but the communication of that discovery is the essential last step of the scientific process, and the discoverer is likely to be the person who understands the discovery the best and is thus likely to be the person with the greatest expertise and authority (and hopefully ability) to do the explaining.

For the greatest part of human history, none of those distinctions made any sense. Most of communication contained information about what is new, some information about the way the world works, and a phatic component. Knowing how the world works, knowing what is happening in that world right now, and knowing if you should trust the messenger, were all important for survival.

For the most part, the information was local, and the messengers were local. A sentry runs back into the village alerting that a neighboring tribe, painted with war-paints, is approaching. Is that person a member of your tribe, or a stranger, or the well-known Boy Who Cried Wolf? What do you know about the meaning of war-paint? What do you know about the neighboring tribe? Does all this information fit with your understanding of the world? Is information coming from this person to be taken seriously? How are village elders responding to the news? Is this piece of news something that can aid in your personal survival?

For the longest time, information was exchanged between people who knew each other to some degree – family, neighbors, friends, business-partners. Like in a fishing village, the news about the state of fishing stocks coming from the ships at sea is important information exchanged at the local tavern. But is that fish-catch information ‘journalism’ (what’s new) or ‘science’ (how the world works)? It’s a little bit of both. And you learn which sailors to trust by observing who is trusted by the locals you have already learned to trust. Trust is transitive.

Someone in the “in-group” is trusted more than a stranger – kids learned from parents, the community elders had the authority: the trust was earned through a combination of who you are, how old you are, and how trustworthy you tended to be in the past. New messengers are harder to pin down on all those criteria, so their information is taken with a degree of skepticism. The art of critical thinking (again, not necessarily meaning that you will always pick the Truth) is an ancient one, as it was essential for day-to-day survival. You trust your parents (or priests or teachers) almost uncritically, but you put up your BS filters when hearing a stranger.

Emergence of science and of journalism

The invention of the printing press precipitated the development of both journalism and science. But that took a very long time – almost two centuries (image: 1851, printing press that produced early issues of Scientific American). After Gutenberg printed the Bible, most of what people printed were political pamphlets, church fliers and what for that time and sensibilities went for porn.

London Gazette of 1666 is thought to be the first newspaper in the modern sense of the word. (image: from DavidCo) Until then, newspapers were mostly irregular printings by individuals, combining news, opinion, fiction and entertainment. After this, newspapers gradually became regular (daily, weekly, monthly) collections of writings by numerous people writing in the same issue.

The first English scientific journal was published a year before – the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665 (image: Royal Society of London).

Until then, science was communicated by letters – those letters were often read at the meetings of scientists. Those meetings got formalized into scientific societies and the letters read at such meetings started getting printed. The first scientific journals were collections of such letters, which explains why so many journals have the words “Letters”, “Annals” or “Proceedings” in their titles.

Also, before as well as for a quite a long time after the inception of first journals, much of science was communicated via books – a naturalist would spend many years collecting data and ideas before putting it all in long-form, leather-bound form. Those books were then discussed at meetings of other naturalists who would often respond by writing books of their own. Scientists at the time did not think that Darwin’s twenty-year wait to publish The Origin was notable (William Kimler, personal communication) – that was the normal timeline for research and publishing at the time, unusual only to us from a modern perspective of 5-year NIH grants and the ‘publish or perish’ culture.

As previously oral communication gradually moved to print over the centuries, both journalistic and scientific communication occured in formats – printed with ink on paper – very similar to blogging (that link leads to the post that served as a seed from which this article grew). If born today, many of the old writers, like Montaigne, would be Natural Born Bloggers (‘NBBs’ – term coined by protoblogger Dave Winer). A lot of ship captains’ logs were essentially tweets with geolocation tags.

People who wanted to inform other people printed fliers and pamphlets and books. Personal letters and diaries were meant to be public: they were as widely shared as was possible, they were publicly read, saved, then eventually collected and published in book-form (at least posthumously). Just like blogs, tweets and Facebook updates today….

The 18th century ‘Republic of Letters’ (see the amazing visualization of their correspondence) was a social network of intellectual leaders of Europe who exchanged and publicly read their deep philosophical thoughts, scientific ideas, poetry and prose.

Many people during those centuries wrote their letters in duplicate: one copy to send, one to keep for publishing Collected Letters later in life. Charles Darwin did that, for example (well, if I remember correctly, his wife made copies from his illegible originals into something that recipients could actually read), which is why we have such a complete understanding of his work and thought – it is all well preserved and the availability of such voluminouos correspondence gave rise to a small industry of Darwinian historical scholarship.

What is important to note is that, both in journalism and in science, communication could be done by anyone – there was no official seal of approval, or licence, to practice either of the two arts. At the same time, communication in print was limited to those who were literate and who could afford to have a book printed – people who, for the most part, were just the wealthy elites. Entry into that intellectual elite from a lower social class was possible but very difficult and required a lot of hard work and time (see, for example, a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace). Membership in the worlds of arts, science and letters was automatic for those belonging to the small group of literate aristocracy. They had no need to establish formalized gatekeeping as bloodlines, personal sponsorship and money did the gatekeeping job quite well on their own.

As communication has moved from local to global, due to print, trust had to be gained over time – by one’s age, stature in society, track record, and by recommendation – who the people you trust say you should trust. Trust is transitive.

Another thing to note is that each written dispatch contained both ‘what’s new’ and ‘how the world works’ as well as a degree of phatic discourse: “This is what happened. This is what I think it means. And this is who I am so you know why you should trust me.” It is often hard to tell, from today’s perspective, what was scientific communication and what was journalism.

Personal – and thus potentially phatic – communication was a norm in the early scientific publishing. For example, see “A Letter from Mr J. Breintal to Peter Collinfoxl, F. RXS. contairnng an Account of what he felt after being bit by a Rattle-fnake” in Philosophical Transactions, 1747. – a great account of it can be found at Neurotic Physiology. It is a story of a personal interaction with a rattlesnake and the discovery leading from it. It contained “I was there, you were not, let me tell you what happened” and “I understand something, you don’t, let me explain that to you” and “Let me tell you who I am so you can know you can trust me”.

Apparently, quite a lot of scientific literature of old involved exciting narratives of people getting bitten by snakes – see this one from 1852 as well.

The anomalous 20th century – effects of technology

The gradual changes in society – invention of printing, rise of science, rise of capitalism, industrial revolution, mass migration from rural to urban areas, improvements in transportation and communication technologies, to name just a few – led to a very different world in the 20th century.

Technology often leads societal changes. If you were ever on a horse, you understand why armies that used stirrups defeated the armies that rode horses without this nifty invention.

Earlier, the speed of spreading news was much slower (see image: Maps of rates of travel in the 19th century – click on the link to see bigger and more). By 1860 Telegraph reached to St. Louis. During its short run the Pony Express could go the rest of the way to San Francisco in 10 days. After that, telegraph followed the rails. First transcontinental line was in 1869. Except for semaphores (1794) information before the telegraph (1843) could only travel as fast as a rider or boat (Thanks to John McKay for this brief primer on the history of speed of communication in Northern America. I am assuming that Europe was slightly ahead and the rest of the world somewhat behind).

The 20th century saw invention or improvement of numerous technologies in transportation – cars, fast trains, airplanes, helicopters, space shuttles – and in communication – telephone, radio, and television. Information could now travel almost instantly.

But those new technologies came with a price – literally. While everyone could write letters and send them by stagecoach, very few people could afford to buy, run and serve printing presses, radio stations and television studios. These things needed capital, and increasingly became owned by rich people and corporations.

Each inch of print or minute of broadcast costs serious money. Thus, people were employed to become official filters of information, the gatekeepers – the editors who decided who will get access to that expensive real estate. As the editors liked some people’s work better than others, those people got employed to work in the nascent newsrooms. Journalism became professionalized. Later, universities started journalism programs and codified instruction for new journalists, professionalizing it even more.

Instead of people informing each other, now the few professionals informed everyone else. And the technology did not allow for everyone else to talk back in the same medium.

The broadcast media, a few large corporations employing professional writers informing millions – with no ability for the receivers of information to fact-check, talk back, ask questions, be a part of the conversation – is an exception in history, something that lasted for just a few decades of the 20th century.

The anomalous 20th century – industrialization

Industrial Revolution brought about massive migration of people into big cities. The new type of work required a new type of workforce, one that was literate and more educated. This led to the invention of public schools and foundation of public universities.

In the area of science, many more people became educated enough (and science still not complex and expensive yet) to start their own surveys, experiments and tinkering. The explosion of research led to an explosion of new journals. Those too became expensive to produce and started requiring professional filters – editors. Thus scientific publishing also became professionalized. Not every personal anecdote could make it past the editors any more. Not everyone could call oneself a scientist either – a formal path emerged, ending with a PhD at a university, that ensured that science was done and published by qualified persons only.

By the 1960s, we got a mass adoption of peer-review by scientific journals that was experimentally done by some journals a little earlier. Yes, it is that recent! See for example this letter to Physical Review in 1936:


Dear Sir,

We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the — in any case erroneous — comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.


Albert Einstein

Or this one:


John Maddox, former editor of Nature: The Watson and Crick paper was not peer-reviewed by Nature… the paper could not have been refereed: its correctness is self-evident. No referee working in the field … could have kept his mouth shut once he saw the structure…

Migration from small towns into big cities also meant that most people one would meet during the day were strangers. Meeting a stranger was not something extraordinary any more, so emergence and enforcement of proper proscribed conduct in cities replaced the need for one-to-one encounters and sizing up strangers using phatic language. Which is why even today phatic language is much more important and prevalent in rural areas where it aids personal survival than in urban centers where more general rules of behavior among strangers emerged (which may partially explain why phatic language is generally associated with conservative ideology and conceptual language with politicial liberalism, aka, the “reality-based community“).

People moving from small hometowns into big cities also led to breaking up of families and communities of trust. One needed to come up with new methods for figuring out who to trust. One obvious place to go was local media. They were stand-ins for village elders, parents, teachers and priests.

If there were many newspapers in town, one would try them all for a while and settle on one that best fit one’s prior worldview. Or one would just continue reading the paper one’s parents read.

But other people read other newspapers and brought their own worldviews into the conversation. This continuous presence of a plurality of views kept everyone’s BS filters in high gear – it was necessary to constantly question and filter all the incoming information in order to choose what to believe and what to dismiss.

The unease with the exposure to so many strangers with strange ideas also changed our notions of privacy. Suddenly we craved it. Our letters are now meant for one recepient only, with the understanding it will not be shared. Personal diaries now have lockets. After a century of such craving for privacy, we are again returning to a more historically traditional notions, by much more freely sharing our lives with strangers online.

The anomalous 20th century – cleansing of conceptual language in science and journalism

Until the 20th century we did not see the consolidation of media into large conglomerates, and of course, there were no mass radio or TV until mid-20th century. Not until later in the century did we see the monopolization of local media markets by a single newspaper (competitors going belly-up) which, then, had to serve everyone, so it had to invent the fake “objective” HeSaidSheSaid timid style of reporting in order not to lose customers of various ideological stripes and thus lose advertising revenue.

Professionalising of journalism, coupled with the growth of media giants serving very broad audiences, led to institutionalization of a type of writing that was very much limited to “what’s new”.

The “let me explain” component of journalism fell out of favor as there was always a faction of the audience that had a problem with the empirical facts – a faction that the company’s finances could not afford to lose. The personal – including phatic – was carefully eliminated as it was perceived as unobjective and inviting the criticism of bias. The way for a reporter to inject one’s opinion into the article was to find a person who thinks the same in order to get the target quote. A defensive (perhaps cowardly) move that became the norm. And, once the audience caught on, led to the loss of trust in traditional media.

Reduction of local media to a single newspaper, a couple of local radio stations and a handful of broadcast TV channels (that said esentially the same thing), left little choice for the audience. With only one source in town, there was no opportunity to filter among a variety of news sources. Thus, many people started unquestioningly accepting what 20th-century style broadcast media served them.

Just because articles were under the banners of big companies did not make them any more trustworthy by definition, but with no alternative it is still better to be poorly informed than not informed at all. Thus, in the 20th century we gradually lost the ability to read everything critically, awed by the big names like NYT and BBC and CBS and CNN. Those became the new parents, teachers, tribal elders and priests, the authority figures whose words are taken unquestioningly.

In science, explosion in funding not matched by explosion of job positions, led to overproduction of PhDs and a rise of hyper-competitive culture in academia. Writing books became unproductive. The only way to succeed is to keep getting grants and the only way to do that is to publish very frequently. Everything else had to fall by the wayside.

False measures of journal quality – like the infamous Impact Factor – were used to determine who gets a job and tenure and who falls out of the pipeline. The progress of science led inevitably to specialization and to the development of specialized jargon. Proliferation of expensive journals ensured that nobody but people in highest-level research institutions had access to the literature, so scientists started writing only for each other.

Scientific papers became dense, but also narrowed themselves to only “this is how the world works”. The “this is new” became left out as the audience already knew this, and it became obvious that a paper would not be published if it did not produce something new, almost by definition.

And the personal was so carefully excised for the purpose of seeming unbiased by human beings that it sometimes seems like the laboratory equipment did all the experiments of its own volition.

So, at the close of the 20th century, we had a situation in which journalism and science, for the first time in history, completely separated from each other. Journalism covered what’s new without providing the explanation and context for new readers just joining the topic. Science covered only explanation and only to one’s peers.

In order to bridge that gap, a whole new profession needed to arise. As scientists understood the last step of the scientific method – communication – to mean only ‘communication to colleagues’, and as regular press was too scared to put truth-values on any statements of fact, the solution was the invention of the science journalist – someone who can read what scientists write and explain that to the lay audience. With mixed success. Science is hard. It takes years to learn enough to be able to report it well. Only a few science journalists gathered that much expertise over the years of writing (and making mistakes on the way).

So, many science journalists fell back on reporting science as news, leaving the explanation out. Their editors helped in that by severely restricting the space – and good science coverage requires ample space.

A good science story should explain what is known by now (science), what the new study brings that is new (news) and why does that matter to you (phatic discourse). The lack of space usually led to omission of context (science), shortening of what is new (news) and thus leaving only the emotional story intact. Thus, the audience did not learn much, Certainly not enough to be able to evaluate next day’s and next week’s news.

This format also led to the choice of stories. It is easy to report in this way if the news is relevant to the audience anyway, e.g., concerning health (the “relevant” stories). It is also easy to report on misconduct of scientists (the “fishy” stories) – which is not strictly science reporting. But it was hard to report on science that is interesting for its own sake (the “cool” stories).

What did the audience get out of this? Scientists are always up to some mischief. And every week they change the story as to what is good or bad for my health. And it is not very fun, entertaining and exciting. No surprise that science as endeavour slowly started losing trust with the (American) population, and that it was easy for groups with financial, political or religious interests to push anti-science rhetoric on topics from hazards of smoking to stem-cell research to evolution to climate change.

At the end of the 20th century, thus, we had a situation in which journalism and science were completely separate endeavors, and the bridge between them – science journalism – was unfortunately operating under the rules of journalism and not science, messing up the popular trust in both.

Back to the Future

It is 2010. The Internet has been around for 30 years, the World Wide Web for 20. It took some time for the tools to develop and spread, but we are obviously undergoing a revolution in communication. I use the word “revolution” because it is so almost by definition – when the means of production change hands, this is a revolution.

The means of production, in this case the technology for easy, cheap and fast dissemination of information, are now potentially in the hands of everyone. When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that ‘citizen journalism.’ And some of those citizens possess much greater expertise on the topics they cover than the journalists that cover that same beat. This applies to science as well.

In other words, after the deviation that was the 20th century, we are going back to the way we have evolved as a species to communicate – one-to-one and few-to-few instead of one-to-many. Apart from technology (software instead of talking/handwriting/printing), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image above) and the number of people reached (potentially – but rarely – millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging, social networking and other forms of online writing are nothing new – this is how people have always communicated. Like Montaigne. And the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. And Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

All we are doing now is returning to a more natural, straightforward and honest way of sharing information, just using much more efficient ways of doing it. (Images from Cody Brown)

And not even that – where technology is scarce, the analog blogging is live and well (image: Analog blogger, from AfriGadget).

What about trustworthiness of all that online stuff? Some is and some isn’t to be trusted. It’s up to you to figure out your own filters and criteria, and to look for additional sources, just like our grandparents did when they had a choice of dozens of newspapers published in each of their little towns.

With the gradual return of a more natural system of communication, we got to see additional opinions, the regular fact-checks on the media by experts on the topic, and realized that the mainstream media is not to be trusted.

With the return of a more natural system of communication, we will all have to re-learn how to read critically, find second opinions, evaluate sources. Nothing new is there either – that is what people have been doing for millennia – the 20th century is the exception. We will figure out who to trust by trusting the judgment of people we already trust. Trust is transitive.

Return of the phatic language

What does this all mean for the future of journalism, including science journalism?

The growing number of Web-savvy citizens have developed new methods of establishing trustworthiness of the sources. It is actually the old one, pre-20th century method – relying on individuals, not institutions. Instead of treating WaPo, Fox, MSNBC and NPR as the proxies for the father, teacher, preacher and the medicine man, we now once again evaulate individuals.

As nobody enters a news site via the front page and looks around, but we all get to individual articles via links and searches, we are relying on bylines under the titles, not on the logos up on top. Just like we were not born trusting NYTimes but learned to trust it because our parents and neighbors did (and then perhaps we read it for some time), we are also not born knowing which individuals to trust. We use the same method – we start with recommendations from people we already trust, then make our own decisions over time.

If you don’t link to your sources, including to scientific papers, you lose trust. If you quote out of context without providing that context, you lose trust. If you hide who you are and where you are coming from – that is cagey and breeds mistrust. Transparency is the new objectivity.

And transparency is necessarily personal, thus often phatic. It shows who you are as a person, your background, your intentions, your mood, your alliances, your social status.

There are many reasons sciencebloggers are more trusted than journalists covering science.

First, they have the scientific expertise that journalists lack – they really know what they are talking about on the topic of their expertise and the audience understands this.

Second, they link out to more, more diverse and more reliable sources.

Third, being digital natives, they are not familiar with the concept of word-limits. They start writing, they explain it as it needs to be explained and when they are done explaining they end the post. Whatever length it takes to give the subject what it’s due.

Finally, not being trained by j-schools, they never learned not to let their personality shine through their writing. So they gain trust by connecting to their readers – the phatic component of communication.

Much of our communication, both offline and online, is phatic. But that is necessary for building trust. Once the trust is there, the conceptual communication can work. If I follow people I trust on Twitter, I will trust that they trust the sources they link to so I am likely to click on them. Which is why more and more scientists use Twitter to exchage information (PDF). Trust is transitive.

Scientists, becoming journalists

Good science journalists are rare. Cuts in newsrooms, allocation of too little space for science stories, assigning science stories to non-science journalists – all of these factors have resulted in a loss of quantity and quality of science reporting in the mainstream media.

But being a good science journalist is not impossible. People who take the task seriously can become experts on the topic they cover (and get to a position where they can refuse to cover astronomy if their expertise is evolution) over time. They can become temporary experts if they are given sufficient time to study instead of a task of writing ten stories per day.

With the overproduction of PhDs, many scientists are choosing alternative careers, including many of them becoming science writers and journalists, or Press Information Officers. They thus come into the profession with the expertise already there.

There is not much difference between a research scientist who blogs and thus is an expert on the topic s/he blogs about, and a research scientist who leaves the lab in order to write as a full-time job. They both have scientific expertise and they both love to write or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Blog is software. A medium. One of many. No medium has a higher coefficient of trustworthiness than any other. Despite never going to j-school and writing everything on blogs, I consider myself to be a science writer.

Many science journalists, usually younger though some of the old ones caught on quickly and became good at it (generation is mindset, not age), grok the new media ecosystem in which online collaboration between scientists and journalists is becoming a norm.

At the same time, many active scientists are now using the new tools (the means of production) to do their own communication. As is usually the case with novelty, different people get to it at different rates. The conflicts between 20th and 21st style thinking inevitably occur. The traditional scientists wish to communicate the old way – in journals, letters to the editor, at conferences. This is the way of gatekeeping they are used to.

But there have been a number of prominent cases of such clashes between old and new models of communication, including the infamous Roosevelts on toilets (the study had nothing to do with either US Presidents or toilets, but it is an instructive case – image by Dr.Isis), and several other smaller cases.

The latest one is the Arsenic Bacteria Saga in which the old-timers do not seem to undestand what a ‘blog’ means, and are seemingly completely unaware of the important distinction between ‘blogs’ and ‘scienceblogs’, the former being online spaces by just about anyone, the latter being blogs written by people who actually know their science and are vetted or peer-reviewed in some way e.g., at ResearchBlogging.org or Scienceblogging.org or by virtue of being hand-picked and invited to join one of the science blogging networks (which are often run by traditional media outlets or scientific publishers or societies) or simply by gaining resepect of peers over time.

Case by case, old-time scientists are learning. Note how both in the case of Roosevelts on toilets and the Arsenic bacteria the initially stunned scientists quickly learned and appreciated the new way of communication.

In other words, scientists are slowly starting to get out of the cocoon. Instead of just communicating to their peers behind the closed doors, now they are trying to reach out to the lay audience as well.

As more and more papers are Open Access and can be read by all, they are becoming more readable (as I predicted some years ago). The traditional format of the paper is changing. So they are covering “let me explain” portion better, both in papers and on their own blogs.

They may still be a little clumsy about the “what’s new” part, over-relying on the traditional media to do it for them via press releases and press conferences (see Darwinius and arsenic bacteria for good examples) instead of doing it themselves or taking control of the message (though they do need to rely on MSM to some extent due to the distinction between push and pull strategies as the media brands are still serving for many people as proxies for trustworthy sources).

But most importantly, they are now again adding the phatic aspect to their communication, revealing a lot of their personality on social networks, on blogs, and even some of them venturing into doing it in scientific papers.

By combining all three aspects of good communication, scientists will once again regain the trust of their audience. And what they are starting to do looks more and more like (pre-20th century) journalism.

Journalists, becoming scientists

On the other side of the divide, there is a renewed interest in journalism expanding from just “this is new” to “let me explain how the world works”. There are now efforts to build a future of context, and to design explainers.

If you are not well informed on an issue (perhaps because you are too young to remember when it first began, or the issue just started being relevant to you), following a stream of ‘what is new’ articles will not enlighten you. There is not sufficient information there. There is a lot of tacit knowledge that the writer assumes the readers possess – but many don’t.

There has to be a way for news items to link to some kind of collection of background information – an ‘explainer’. Such an explainer would be a collection of verifiable facts about the topic. A collection of verifiable facts about the way the world works is….scientific information!

With more and more journalists realizing they need to be transparent about where they are coming from, injecting personality into their work in order to build trust, some of that phatic language is starting to seep in, completing the trio of elements of effective communication.

Data Journalism – isn’t this science?

Some of the best journalism of the past – yes, the abominable 20th century – was done when a reporter was given several months to work on a single story requiring sifting through boxes and boxes of documents. The reporter becomes the expert on the topic, starts noticing patterns and writes a story that brings truly new knowledge to the world. That is practically science! Perhaps it is not the hardest of the hard sciences like physics, but as good as well-done social science like cultural anthropology, sociology or ethnography. There is a system and a method very much like the scientific method.

Unfortunately, most reporters are not given such luxury. They have to take shortcuts – interviewing a few sources to quote for the story. The sources are, of course, a very small and very unrepresentative sample of the relevant population – from a rolodex. Call a couple of climate scientists, and a couple of denialists, grab a quote from each and stick them into a formulaic article. That is Bad Science as well as Bad Journalism. And now that the people formerly known as audience, including people with expertise on the topic, have the tools to communicate to the world, they often swiftly point out how poorly such articles represent reality.

But today, most of the information, data and documents are digital, not in boxes. They are likely to be online and can be accessed without travel and without getting special permissions (though one may have to steal them – as Wikileaks operates: a perfect example of the new data journalism). Those reams of data can be analyzed by computers to find patterns, as well as by small armies of journalists (and other experts) for patterns and pieces of information that computer programs miss.

This is what bioinformaticists do (and have already built tools to do it – contact them, steal their tools!).

Data journalism. This is what a number of forward-thinking journalists and media organizations are starting to do.

This is science.

On the other hand, a lot of distributed, crowdsourced scientific research, usually called Citizen Science, is in the business of collecting massive amounts of data for analysis. How does that differ from data journalism? Not much?

Look at this scientific paper – Coding Early Naturalists’ Accounts into Long-Term Fish Community Changes in the Adriatic Sea (1800–2000) – is this science or data journalism? It is both.

The two domains of communicating about what is new and how the world works – journalism and science – have fused again. Both are now starting to get done by teams that involve both professionals and amateurs. Both are now led by personalities who are getting well-known in the public due to their phatic communication in a variety of old and new media.

It is important to be aware of the shortness of our lives and thus natural tendency for historical myopia. Just because we were born in the 20th century does not mean that the way things were done then are the way things were ‘always done’, or the best ways to do things – the pinnacle of cultural and social development. The 20th century was just a strange and deviant blip in the course of history.

As we are leaving the 20th century behind with all of its unusual historical quirks, we are going back to an older model of communicating facts – but with the new tools we can do it much better than ever, including a much broader swath of society – a more democratic system than ever.

By the way, while it’s still cold, the rain has stopped. And that is Metaphorical language…

This article was commissioned by Science Progress and will also appear on their site in 24 hours.

‘Journalists vs. Blogs’ is bad framing

One of the (many) motivations for writing the epic post about New Journalism last week was to try to end once for all the entire genre of discussing the “bloggers vs. journalists” trope.
I have collected the responses to the piece here and it is quite flattering that the post got hat-tips from people who have studied the topic for a long time, like Ed Cone, Kirk Ross, Michael Tobis, Henry Gee, Dave Winer and Dan Conover, among others.
My SciBling Dave Dobbs wrote a very good post (recommended) in reply – you need to go and read it.
One of Dave’s questions was, to paraphrase, why are there still stories that bloggers ignore?
Short answer – blogging is young and there are not enough bloggers out there with interest and expertise in every topic imaginable. His example of PTSD, while superficially interesting to me, was not exciting enough, or “up my alley” enough, or “within my realm of expertise” enough, for me to do any digging or blogging of my own.
Perhaps at this time in history, there was just not sufficient number of bloggers who know much and care about this topic. But in 10 years or 20 years, when journalism online, including citizen journalism online, becomes a norm, when instead of 1% of people of the world making content online, it is 50% or 80%, then yes, every topic will have sufficient numbers of people with interest and expertise in it to make a splash.
But something in Dave’s post prompted both Jay Rosen and myself to post comments there – the false dichotomy between ‘journalists’ and ‘bloggers’ snuck into Dave’s post. This is, roughly (somewhat expanded and edited from there) what I wrote:
This is an excellent response. I want to follow up on what Jay above wrote about ‘Replacenicks’, i.e., people who warn about the impending doom of ‘newspapers being replaced by blogs’.
This is the matter of framing. I know science bloggers are allergic to the F word, but if you could just for a moment forget Matt Nisbet and his erroneous and dangerous use of the term, and remember Lakoff’s (in ‘Moral Politics’ book) understanding of the phenomenon, as in “eliciting a particular frame of mind in the audience’, then you can try to understand what I am getting at here.
When you say “newspapers will (or will not) be replaced by blogs”, you invoke two demonstrably erroneous frames in readers’ minds:
a) that “newspapers = journalism”, and
b) that “blogs = inane chatter”.
Journalism is medium-neutral. Not just in newspapers. Journalism can and does happen on paper, over radio waves, on TV and online. A lot of other stuff also has its place on all those communication channels as well.
The phrase also elicits the ‘opposition’ frame of mind – there are two terms and they are presented as mutually exclusive and opposite from each other. In other words, journalism is presented as exact opposite and fierce competitor of blogs and vice versa.
This ‘opposition’ frame, by defining newspapers as equating journalism, then leaves only the non-journalistic stuff to the term “blogs”. Thus, the word “blog” in the phrase automatically reminds people of inane navel-gazing, teenage angst, copy-and-paste news and LOLcats found on so many blogs.
But, remember that a blog is software, not a style. Thus the first thought upon hearing the word “blog” in the context of journalism should be TPM, HuffPo, Firedoglake, etc., not Cute Overload.
Guess who planted that framing? The journalistic curmudgeons like Keen, Henry, Mulshine at al, in their endless Luddite op-eds railing against the internet.
So, we need to quit using that ridiculous phrase ‘newspapers being replaced by blogs’ and try to engender much more meaningful discussions by using an alternative framing, e.g., something along the lines of “most paper will be replaced by Web”. Journalism will continue to happen, but it will be less and less on paper and more and more online.
It is not a fight between journalism and blogging, but a technological revolution in which journalism is moving from print to Web.
Switching to a new medium will inevitably change the way journalism is done in many ways – the questions and problems of speed/timeliness, the pre-publication vs. post-publication filters, the echo-chamber formation, the ethics, the privacy concerns, the question of expertise, the he-said-she-said format, the linking to sources and documentation, the multi-media approach, the length constraints of articles, the (in)formality of language, etc. All of those will have to be assessed and experimented with until we settle into a new way of doing journalism right.
The journalistic workflow, i.e., the day-to-day methodology of doing journalism, will inevitably have to change with the new times and the new medium.
Of course, much of the noise on this topic comes from the job uncertainty of today’s journalism – the change in the medium is a real threat to jobs and livelihoods of journalists, as internet requires a smaller total number of paid professionals than newspapers do, thus so much talk about ‘business models’. This is the part that, frankly, interests me the least as I am not personally affected, while I am excited about being the witness of a technological revolution and student of the way this revolution will alter the society.

Defining the Journalism vs. Blogging Debate, with a Science Reporting angle

You know I have been following the “death of newspapers” debate, as well as “bloggers vs. journalists” debate, and “do we need science reporters” debate for a long time now. What I have found – and it is frustrating to watch – is that different people use different definitions for the same set of words and phrases. “News”, “reporting”, “media”, “press”, “journalism”, “Web”, “Internet”, “blog”, “citizen journalist”, “newspapers”, “communication”, etc. are defined differently by different people. Usually they do not explicitly define the terms, but it is possible to grasp their definition from context. Sometimes, people use one definition in their initial article, but once the debate heats up, they switch the definitions. Some define terms too broadly, others too narrowly, depending on their own background, biases or agendas. Some make the error of using several of those terms interchangeably, where a clear distinction exists. Thus, in many of the debates, it is a conversation of the deaf – the opponents do not understand that they actually agree (or allies don’t see that they actually disagree) because they do not use the terms the same way.
This post is my attempt to clear up a lot of that mess, at least for myself, by coming up with my own definitions: the way I think of these terms. Please use the comments thread to point out where I am wrong, or offer better definitions.
This post is also a response to a whole slew of online discussions in the wake of this Clay Shirky post – Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, including some responses by Dave Winer.
And finally, this post is also a response to the big discussion we recently had in the aftermath of the Nature article about science journalism and science blogging.
What I will try to do is define some terms and try to find (and link to if possible – though checking through the links on this post, as well checking what I “Like” on FriendFeed, following Jay Rosen on Twitter, or digging through my Media category) examples of people using the term in the same way as well as in alternative ways. I will also try to explain my thinking; provide a historical context (and again, correct me when I am wrong as I am not a media historian); explain what is happening today and what a possible future may be (feel free to disagree); and finally see how science reporting is similar or different from the rest of reporting. Let’s start….
Breaking News
journalist.gifSomething (Event A) happens at Time X. Nobody could have expected or predicted that A would happen at all, or at least that it would happen at the particular time X. It is a new data point. Not ‘information’ yet, just data. It may be interesting or important enough to notify the world that A happened.
The key to breaking news is speed. It needs to be relayed as close to Real Time as possible.
“A plane just landed on Hudson”
“A plane landed on Hudson, took pic with cellphone, see it here:”
“A plane landed on Hudson, on ferry going to save people”
“A plane landed on Hudson, I am on it, everyone alive”
“I am a pilot. I just landed a plane on Hudson. Bird strike – both engines”
What do the above statements do? They answer just one of the canonical journalistic questions: What? Inevitably, such breaking news reports will contain answers to some other questions, e.g., Where? (Hudson), When? (look at time-stamps of the reports), perhaps Who? (pilot and passengers). It is too early to add answers to the questions How and Why. The premium is on speed, accuracy and fact-checking will have to come later.
Notice something? Each of the statements above is shorter than 140 characters. Perfectly possible to post on Twitter (or a twitter-like platform). From a mobile device. By eye-witnesses, not professional journalists (Note: some of them are paraphrases of actual twitter messages, others are hypotheticals I invented).
About 12 minutes later, the online media sources (AP, Reuters, CNN, etc.) will break the news as well. What info are they going with? What they read on Twitter, or perhaps they got some phone calls. It will take them some time to dispatch professional reporters to the scene.
Once the crews are on the scene, they will have text, audio and video done pretty quickly, so the breaking news can show up on radio and TV. Newspapers? You will read those stale news the next morning. Probably incomplete because it will miss all the new incoming information that happens between the dispatch is filed in the evening and the time you get to read your paper with your morning coffee.
How about accuracy? As the premium is on speed, accuracy check has to come later. How many times have you noticed breaking news on CNN saying there are 6 dead, then 30 minutes later changing that to 9 dead, then another hour later changing that to 15 dead, etc. The mainstream media also have to make corrections if their initial reports were inaccurate. There is nothing new about that.
Is there a potential for abuse, e.g., hoaxes? Yes. The mainstream media has been taken in by hoaxes before, and will be again, and the subsequent accuracy check reveals this and the media retracts and apologizes. Nothing new there, either.
What about the questions of How and Why? That comes later and is not a part of “Breaking News”, it is a part of “News Analysis”. Who will provide those answers? Professional journalists will interview the officials (e.g., from the airline), read the official reports, interview participants (e.g., the pilot, passengers), and the eye-witnesses and will try to put together a more-or-less complete story about the Event A. Some will do this better than others. Some events are easier to report on than others due to, for instance, political sensitivity.
Can Citizen Journalists do the same? Yes and No. The professional reporters will be able to enter a press briefing and interview the officials. This is more difficult for bloggers to do, but that is changing fast – bloggers are getting press passes more and more these days. On the other hand, an eye-witness will be more relaxed and open to a neighbor with a cell phone than with a reporter shoving his/her microphone in your face and shouting questions. When approached by the press, most people recoil, get all their red flags up, get very cautious what they are saying, and generally do not blurt out everything they really know or think. It is much harder for pros to get the information out of regular citizens, even if it is, for now, easier for them to get information out of officials.
Remember when the bridge fell down in Minnesota about a year ago? Who did the best reporting? The guy who lives in the first house next to the bridge. He was there at the moment of the event. He ran down and took pictures. He talked to the passers-by and neighbors. Many knew him and trusted him. He got involved in the rescue and interviewed the people he rescued. And he posted all of that on his blog in as close to Real Time as was humanely possible.
How did the local media do in comparison? Quite poorly. It took them time to get there, it took them time to gather the facts, they could not get honest, personal accounts from eye-witnesses and victims who viewed them with suspicion. It took them even more time to find more information and put together their stories. And then they abandoned the story, while the rescue was still going on.
So, is that blogger a journalist? Yes and No. He was, for a time, an Accidental Journalist. He just happened to be there at the right time and right place and he did his civic duty to find information and report it. He never asked for money for doing it (although, if I remember correctly, readers asked him to put up a PayPal button so they could financially reward him for his service) – he felt it was his obligation as he could do a more thorough job than the pros at this particular story. Did it make him want to become a journalist? I don’t know, but I guess not [oops – I guess he does!]. I think he went back afterwards to his own life, blogging whatever he wanted to blog about, probably satisfied that he did his citizen’s job well and was widely recognized for doing so.
The same goes for many other news events. For instance, a guy tweeted from the Boulder airplane accident (12 minutes before any other news source had anything out) a couple of months ago.
How about news in other countries? How about, for instance, the Mumbai terrorist attack? Lots of eye-witnesses posted on Twitter frantically for a couple of weeks. They were all Accidental Journalists. Do you “trust” each and every individual and each and every tweet? No, but when you look at the entire collection, yes, a pattern emerges, and you can trust them as a group, quite obviously. So, why many journos and readers did not trust them? And waited patiently for US/UK media to send their pros to the scene?
It is a mix of ethnocentrism, racism and anti-democratic sentiments that many still, unfortunately, harbor. There is no reason to trust NYT and WaPo reporters better than the Indian twitterers. But, hey, they are not trained in the NYT newsroom, and they are Indian – ergo, not to be trusted. Excuse: they are biased.
Bias? What bias – all they did was input the data: what, where, when. They did not write 1000-word essays, just information. Also, unlike the Western journalists that later arrived on the scene, the locals were much more familiar with the context: the map of the city, the history, the players, the politics of it all, which made them much more efficient news gatherers as they knew where to go, who to talk to, what to ask and what to do. They were far better informed than the foreign reporters, and thus I trusted them much more than the foreign reporters. In subsequent News Analysis, both the locals and foreign experts could write longer pieces and that is where, perhaps, bias of both sources could show up. But not at the Breaking News stage yet.
So, my definition of Breaking News:
Informing the world about novel, unpredicted data about the world in as close to Real Time as possible.
Professional journalists are almost never going to personally witness the events as they happen (they can’t be everywhere at all times – not enough of them for this to be so). Eye-witnesses are those who will break the news (and pros can work with those data later, for more in-depth coverage). Are we there yet? No, but getting close.
Imagine the Hudson airplane event again, but let’s say it happens five or ten years from now in the future. Let’s say there are 100 people on board. All 100, in that future, will have cell-phones with online access and will be familiar, comfortable and fluent in the use of microblogging services, just like most people today are fluent with using a phone. The plane crashes. 10 are too hurt to do anything. 20 are too scared to think straight. 55 pull out their cellphones and tweet “holy cow – I was just in a plane accident”. Not too informative, but the sheer numbers help spread the news virally faster. The remaining 15 have enough presence of mind and enough understanding of what they are supposed to do, they will tweet much more information. “Crashed on Hudson, nobody dead, 10 hurt”, “Heard explosion, both engines on fire before the crash”, “Saw flock of ducks around the wings just before the accident”, etc. When you take the total output of all of them – that is Breaking News. Sufficient information to put pieces together in real time. Accidental Journalists, who will afterwards go back to their normal lives. Unpaid.
How about science? What would be the equivalent for science journalism?
A famous scientist dies (that is kind-a meta-science, not science itself). An ‘Eureka’ moment from someone’s lab or from the field. Creationists just introduced another stealth legislation to wedge religion into science classes. The last individual of a species dies in a zoo. An observatory detects an asteroid hurling towards Earth. Mars Rover detects water. A revolutionary discovery announced at a hastily-arranged press conference. That’s about it. Again, it is just a data-point, in Real Time, something that every citizen involved or eye-witnessing can competently report: What, Where, When.
Reporting News
journalist2.gifWhat is the difference between Breaking News and Reporting News? I think an important difference is in predictability. If we know that something newsworthy will happen at a particular time and place, we can have whatever infrastructure and equipment is needed in place to capture and broadcast that information in real time. We can send camera crews and reporters to a football game or horse races, or to a meeting of the City Council, or to Congress when it is in session, or to New Orleans as Katrina is approaching, or to an event which started as ‘breaking news’ but is now ‘ongoing news’ (think of the Tsunami in Indonesia a couple of years ago). We can even automate some of that stuff, e.g,. weather, stock market ticker-tape, Racing Form, just off the top of my head. Do we need the Turing test? Who cares, as long as the data are made readily available.
What we’ll get from there is a video or audio of the event. And a quick summary report. Traditional media of all kinds: newspapers, radio, TV have an advantage here, at this point in history, over any kind of non-traditional journalists due to infrastructure – they have the equipment, they have the channels, they have enormous audiences.
Where Internet kills the traditional media is in the lack of limits. Radio or TV will have a 2-minute summary, a newspaper will have a predetermined amount of space for it. This will tell you briefly What, Who, Where, When, How and perhaps even a little bit of Why, but cannot, by definition tell the whole story. If you are not interested, this is enough for you. If you are interested, or if you are suspicious of the source, you are left hanging and unsatisfied. But online, that short summary will provide a link to something that no other medium can afford to have: the entire transcript of the session, the entire video of the whole football game, full uncut interviews instead of brief quotes, further links to additional relevant information.
While traditional media are good and fast at quickly relaying the summaries of the news, the Web can provide a full record of the event far beyond the summary and keep it there, as a record, forever, when all the tapes and paper are already rotten and gone. Smart traditional media are already starting to do exactly that – the radio or TV program or the newspaper are just the vehicles that deliver the audience to the website where the full information can be found.
A good example of this is the Election here in the USA. On November 4th, you can watch the pundits blabber on CNN, but what CNN provided that was really useful was their website where every result of every race in every state, county and precinct was reported as soon as the data became available. There were several such websites on that day, and they were much more useful than any broadcast. Newspapers? Well, a lot of people bought the papers next morning because they wanted to have a cover with a big Obama picture on it as a souvenir. Nobody actually learned the result from the papers.
Again, as bloggers (those who are interested and ambitious about it) are more and more treated as journalists, given press passes and given journalistic privileges, some of them will be able to report news just as well as the traditional media, and since they do not have the space and time limits of radio, TV and papers, they can make both their summaries and their complete reports as short or as long as they want, with as much supporting documentation as they can find, and the audience will pick and choose what to read according to their own levels of interest.
Finally, as many newspapers go belly up, there will be a vaccuum on local reporting. How will that vaccuum get filled, who will report from the City Council meetings? Well, every community will solve that problem differently: some will find a way to pay a blogger or two to do it. Others will require all sessions to be taped and full videos, full transcripts and full texts of documents be placed online immediately after the session is over.
So, my definition of Reporting News:
Informing the world about novel, yet predictable data about the world in as close to Real Time as possible, using either personal or automated reporting systems.
How about science?
These days a predictable event is a publication of a paper. It may come with a press release. It can be covered as news. Science reporters know exactly which journal publishes on which day of the week, subscribe to e-mail announcements, get PDFs in advance, and write short reports that are released at the time embargo is lifted. Fine. Very traditional. It is similar with conferences, where talks can be reported on. Announcing the Nobel Prize winners is another example.
But the new trends in science, as well as new online technologies, allow for something different: data become available for broadcast as soon as they are produced. Folks in the Open Notebook Science movement are posting all of their data online as soon as the data are generated. The information is not just What, but also How (materials and methods), the time-stamps tells us When, the owner of the site is the Who, and the lab where the data originated is the Where. No need to do any Why yet (apart from the initial motivation to do the experiment to begin with – the stated hypothesis).
Moreover, those same folks are now working on ways to automate the process. Instead of typing the new data into the wiki in the evening, they are coaxing their laboratory equipment to automatically post the data on the Web. Likewise, the Mars Rover was tweeting from Mars. That is scientists broadcasting data to the world.
But “citizen scientists” do the same. Christmas bird watch? Species location and identification? Plant phenology data? The Galaxy Zoo project? Live-blogging data from the field research? All the data go online in real time. The NC fishermen will tweet their catch in real time. Just ‘data’. Not ‘information’ yet. Certainly not analysis yet. That’s News Reporting. Straight from the horse’s mouth.
News Analysis
journalist3.jpgNow we are getting to a place where being in the right place at the right time is not enough. Knowledge, expertise, and ability to find and parse through sources, becomes important. News are data. News analysis is information – ‘data made meaningful’. Breaking News and Reporting News just provide the raw data – News Analysis connects the dots, places the new data-set into the context of other related data-sets, and provides historical, philosophical, theoretical, methodological, economic, political, sociological, etc, contexts. It also tries to answer the hardest of the canonical questions of journalism: Why?
This is also a place where access to additional sources of information is important. The sources of information are: a) documents, and b) people.
Documents, which formerly had to be dug up in libraries or various repositories, necessitating travel (which costs) or permission (which journalists could get using their employers’ brand names), are now for the most part freely available online. Full transcripts of interviews, full videos of events, full texts of pieces of legislation – all of this is now easily found on the Web and will be even more so in the near future. Thus, anyone who has the time and passion and expertise to dig out all the information and put it all together, can do so. Who do you trust on economics more: an economist or a journalist? Who has the proper training, knowledge, experience and expertise and is less likely to fall for the sweet-talking, nonsense-speaking PR shills for the special interests?
People are tougher. Pro journalists nurture special relationships with the people in power. They have access to them that you and I don’t (yet). Thus, people in power are more likely to give interviews to pros than to amateurs. There are pros and cons to this, of course. The intimate relationship biases the reporter – just look at The Village in D.C., totally corrupted by the PR that politicos push on them at all those cocktail parties, and thus oblivious to any other views, including the views of most regular people. And as the transparency is the new motto in D.C. and more and more people in power are themselves present online, it is gradually becoming easier for all of us to gain access even to the most reclusive and the most powerful people. Just give it a few more years – the non-responsive will not get re-elected so easily any more (it’s already happening at the local level – if you want to get elected here in Orange County, you better show up at Orange Politics blog, answer questions, and moreover answer the question in a satisfactory way).
On the other hand, as I noted above, an amateur journalist will get a much more honest response from a regular person who is suspicious of the corporate media.
But the greatest advantage of the Web, no matter if the article is written by a professional journalist or an amateur with expertise in the topic as opposed as in journalism, is space. Radio will give you at most an hour for such a big story, if you are very lucky to be picked by editors to say it. Television is even more competitive and hour-long stories are very rare. If you look at New York Times (or any other big daily paper), such an in-depth story of the requiered length happens mainly once a week in the Sunday Magazine – rarely outside of it.
So, the News Analysis stories get cut in length and parade as news reporting. Instead of complete interviews, you get brief quotes. Now, think about it for a minute. You talk to a reporter for an hour. It is because what you have to say requires an hour to explain. You see yourself quoted the next day in the newspapers. Even if the quote is verbatim, it is nonetheless a misquote, or a ‘quote out of context’ because it lacks all of the other stuff you said before and after that sentence – all the context and background and caveats and examples are gone. Even if your quote is verbatim, it may lead the reader to assume that you meant opposite of what you really meant. Or at least, something tangential and certainly not the main point you really wanted to hammer home (for instance, even if those quotes are verbatim and I really said that, this was not what my Main Take Home Message for this article was, not even close).
Online, there are no limits to length. Your story will be as short or as long as it needs to be. When you quote someone, you, right there and then, link to the complete transcript of the interview so the people can go and find the context for themselves and check if you quoted them correctly. You link to all the relevant documents so people can check if you cited them correctly. The ethic of the hyperlink that you use in your online article will always trump the articles by the best and most ethical professional journalists just because of space limitations – their analysis has to be incomplete and they cannot know what pieces of information can be omitted.
Doing News Analysis takes time and effort. Not everyone has the time required and not everyone has the motivation to do this. But if you look around the blogosphere, it becomes obvious that many people find time and have the motivation to do this on a regular basis. If paid, even more of them would do it even more regularly (I know I would). Plus, unlike the journalists, they have the required expertise in the topic, which makes them more reliable and trustworthy than the journalists (or at least most journalists – some got good by covering the topic for decades, an unusual and unofficial way to get an informal ‘social equivalent’ of a PhD on the topic).
As traditional media goes bankrupt and journalists are laid off, some will start doing this online as freelancers. Some bloggers will continue doing this. The line between journalism and blogging will become even more fuzzy. And some traditional media will figure out how to do journalism online and allow their paid journalists to adopt the online form and use the unlimited space, time and hyperlinking that makes online journalism better than the one done on paper.
So, my definition of News Analysis:
Turning a data-set into Information by connecting it to other related data-sets and providing meaningful context and explanation.
How about science?
The ur-example of this is the scientific paper itself: Who, Where and When (authors, affiliations, publication date), Why (Introduction), How (Materials and Methods), What (title, abstract, Results, statistics, graphs, complete data-sets and supplementary data), Context and Analysis (Discussion) and relationship to related data-sets (List of References).
Of course, the data and the context and the analysis are presented by the authors of the data-set themselves, which raises concerns about objectivity. Which is why we insist on having the manuscript pass peer-review and editorial decision to publish in a reputable scientific journal. But as more people move to real-time Open Notebook Science, as talks and posters presented at (formerly assumed to be closed to a small circle) conferences become liveblogged, and as the process of publication become both more dynamic and more collaborative, the peer-review itself will have to become more dynamic and collaborative. Instead of 2-3 people doing it at one point before the publication, now many people will keep doing it throughout the process of publication and afterwards, leaving their commentary/review attached to the paper itself forever. Additional review will happen outside of the paper itself, in an outer circle of the ecosystem: in the media, almost all of it in the online media, aka blogs, and trackbacked to the paper itself for easy discovery.
At this level of communication, speaking good English is nice, but real expertise in that area of science is far more important. Thus, very rarely will this kind of analysis be done by people who are primarily journalists (unless they, over the decades of reporting on that one area of science, have become as expert as working scientists are on that topic – a very rare occasion). This will be done almost entirely by scientists (in the broader sense of the term – not just currently active researchers, but all who are trained in science irrespective of their current job description).
Science bloggers may not cover every new paper, or even every new hot paper, and may not care about timeliness of writing in time for the embargo-lift (I know how hard it is to get them to do it immediately!), but when they write about a study, they will write kick-ass stuff that almost all journalists can only dream of doing. And more importantly, they will rarely focus only on that one paper – they are much more likely to provide a deeper context for it as they already know the relevant literature: they don’t need to dig for it for the first time today. And if they get a fact wrong, the commenters, themselves mainly scientists, will be quick to point that out in the comments.
So, today we have a situation in which authors write papers which get published months or years after the data have been gathered. Their institutions write press releases. Science reporters, those who still have jobs in this economy, are so pressed for time covering so many stories simultaneously, they just regurgitate the press releases. Then bloggers jump on them for sensationalism and for the lack of accuracy, and for missing out the context.
Tomorrow, with jobs in science being so scarce, many people with science degrees, including many with PhDs will want to change their career paths. Instead of doing research, or teaching high-school, they may want to do science journalism. But there are no jobs in traditional media for this – science journalists are getting fired left and right! Well, they can get hired by universities and write press releases, which will thus become better than what we are used to seeing now. Or they can freelance. Or start science blogs.
It’s a new world – it used to be you apply to jobs and once you are hired you start to work. Today, you start working for free and hope that it is good. You accumulate a portfolio that you can show when you apply for jobs. You develop a good reputation that brings you job offers out of the blue. It is nerve-wrecking, but if you are good, something good will happen to you as people will not allow good stuff to remain unrewarded for too long.
With Open Access (and importantly, Historical Open Access), with Open Notebook Science, with scientists writing press releases, with scientists writing blogs, and with all those getting connected by hyperlinks, the audience will get everything: science reporting from authors directly, both in formal (journal papers) and informal (blogs) settings AND via intermediaries who are also trained in science. That kind of information combo can be trusted. A quick hyping report in a newspaper, radio or TV cannot.
Investigative Reporting
DANGERexpectations.jpgThis is what the curmudgeons like to say – bloggers can’t do investigative reporting. Really? But what is it? Going to a press conference and asking Obama a gotcha question is not reporting – it is manufacturing news. You are not trying to find out what Obama is planning or doing or saying, but what he says in response to your question. That’s news? No, without your question, he would not have said anything – you made the news by asking, and reporting his answer is not reporting the news, and certainly not investigative reporting. You inserted yourself into the world and caused news (“what he said”) to happen.
Investigative reporting is uncovering data and information that does not want to be uncovered. Hmm, sounds like a definition, so here it is italicized:
Investigative reporting is uncovering data and information that does not want to be uncovered.
It is hidden, often because someone is purposefully hiding it, i.e., suppresing it and does not want the world to know. That’s tough to do. Go out and ask someone where one can buy a physical newspaper in your town. Then go and buy one. Look at every page. How many pieces of investigative reporting did you find – information that someone tried to suppress but the brave reporter uncovered? If you find one on any given day, your local newspaper is really, really good!
Yes, it happens. Pulitzers are given for a reason to worthy investigative reporters.
But how about blogs? Firedoglake crew did the investigative reporting on the entire Valerie Plame outing and Skooter Libby trial. They dug up documents. They interviewed people. They sat in court every second of the proceedings. They posted bried summaries for people who had just a passing, superficial interest in the story. They posted detailed analyses. They posted lengthy interviews. They posted entire documents. They posted legal analysis (as some of them are lawyers). The entire traditional media on the planet, when put together, did not cover the case as much and as well as that one little blog. And they would have covered even less if they were not pushed and shamed by Firedoglake to do so.
Do I need to remind you of Talking Points Memo? Mudflats digging up the backstory on Sarah Palin? The Durham bloggers and the Lacrosse case? And many, many more. Police beat is tough to do for non-professionals, yet bloggers have been known to uncover and bring to life issues like corruption in their police departments, or cases of anwarranted use of force and abuse by officers.
How about science?
Whose investigative reporting led to resignation of Deutch, the Bush’s NASA censor? Nick Anthis, a (then) small blogger (who also later reported on the Animal Rights demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Oxford in great detail as well).
Who blew up the case of plagiarism in dinosaur palaenthology, the so-calles Aetogate? A bunch of bloggers.
Who blew up, skewered and castrated the PRISM, the astroturf organization designed to lobby the Senate against the NIH Open Access bill? A bunch of bloggers. The bill passed.
Remember the Tripoli 6?
Who pounced on George Will and WaPo when he trotted out the long-debunked lie about global warming? And forced them to squirm, and respond, and publish two counter-editorials? A bunch of bloggers.
Who dug up all the information, including the most incriminating key evidence against Creationists that was used at the Dover trial? A bunch of bloggers.
And so on, and so on, this was just scratching the surface with the most famous stories.
When a person is slighted, or detects some unfairness of foul play, that person is highly motivated to dig deeper and uncover the truth. In earlier times, this required finding and persuading a reporter to do it for you. Today, you can do it yourself and, by recruiting hundreds of other bloggers to your cause, raise enough of a stink that the corporate media cannot ignore the story any more and is forced to report it. Even if that means they have to report on something outside of their ‘sphere‘ of “what is considered normal”, and thus helping, against their best instincts, to move the Overton Window in the direction of reality.
Opinion, Entertainment, Storytelling, etc.
The four aspects of journalism above – Breaking News, Reporting News, News Analysis and Investigative Reporting – are often considered to be ‘journalism proper’. As we saw above, the Web is the best medium for all four due to speed, hyperlinks and limitless space. All four can be and have been done by non-professionals. For some, such non-professionals are already demonstrating they are better. For others, the traditional media still has the upper hand to some extent, though this is changing.
Nobody says that everybody can do it or wants to do it or will do it, but it shows that professional journalistic training is not a necessary pre-requisite for doing it right. It only says something about the medium, not the people or training. Amateurs, by and large, do not have access to the newspapers, radio and television. But both professionals and amateurs have access to the Web, and both can potentially do all four types of journalism online and do it correctly. Amateurs and professionals are on equal footing here and their work and work alone will determine who will gather a following by building trust with the audience, and who will have to find a different day job.
But the above four are not the only parts of journalism, if one thinks of it a little broader. In many minds, journalism is “everything that shows up in newspapers, on the radio, on TV, and online”. Not just news. Also ads, obituaries, sports, nice pictures, drawings and cartoons and comic strips, stories, poems, opinion-pieces, crossword puzzles, quiz shows, commercials, travelogues, diaries, funny videos and so on, and so on….
With paper, radio and TV, editors decide what goes in. With the Internet, everything gets published and the audience fliters the content, buries the bad and promotes the good, so, at least in theory, the best stuff, after a while, rises to the top and becomes very, very “famous”. The technology-based and people-based filters that do this are still imperfect but are in the process of constant tweaking and improvement. Google search is the best known of the technological filters. There are others. For people-based filters, check out Blog Carnivals. For science, there are Google Scholar, CiteULike and Mendeley. We are all Editor now.
And, as Digby and Glenn Greenwald and Amanda Marcotte and Melissa and Hilzoy write better op-eds – in every sense of the term: better use of English, better thinking, more accurate facts – than David Brooks or Maureen Dowd or George Will, soon there will be no reason to pay Brooks or Dowd or Will to produce stuff that most people don’t read and others read for laughs. It is a big cost for the NYT, with nothing to show for it but embarrassment.
The same goes for other stuff: stories, comic strips, art….
It already killed the music industry, it is now killing the newspaper as well.
Journalism is EVERYTHING that appears in the media.
And in this sense, we are all journalists. Even if we never break news or do investigative reporting, if we write poetry on our blogs, we are journalists. And the world is our editor.
How about science?
Thus, in this sense, science bloggers are all science journalists as well. We disseminate cool educational videos, announcements of interesting lectures and meetings, we write opinion pieces, we write educational pieces (e.g., the Basics), we dispel the myths of anti-social dorky stereotypes of scientists by writing personal stories, we connect science to art, literature, politics and culture, and we do something uniquely useful by discussing the trials and tribulations of career paths in science. And we are fun. So people keep coming back for more. Thank you 😉
Newspaper is a bunch of loose pieces of paper with stuff printed on them. It is one of many ways to deliver various kinds of content, including news. It is not the one and only, or even the best ‘defender of Democracy.
Newspapers does not equal news.
Breaking news, reporting news, news analysis, investigative reporting, opinion, storytelling, entertainment, art, sports results, scientific data, advertising – none of that inherently HAS to be printed on paper. All of that can be done and is done daily on the radio, on TV and online.
Paper, ink, printing presses, trucks….all of that is extremely expensive. And that technology is far too slow for the 21st century. And the limited real-estate on the paper forces a system in which content to be printed has to be chosen in advance – by editors – and chopped down to size – by editors – before it sees the light of day, several hours after it ceased to be news.
The newspaper has a very limited scope to deliver content in comparison to technologies that arrived later. Radio and TV are likewise constrained by time. Internet has no space or time constraints, thus there is no need for any editors to make choices as to what goes and what doesn’t, and there is no need for longer pieces to get cut shorter by editors either (heck, I’d love to have an editor to fix my typos, bad grammar, wrong punctuation, and suggest improvements in style, as long as my content remains unbutchered and I have a final say what goes online in the end).
In traditional media, all the filtering is done by editors before the transmission. In online media, all the filtering is done by a collective editorial choice of the readership, after the transmission. In online media, there are no length limits, thus a journalist is at freedom to include all the relevant information. Additional information is linked to. Feedback is instant, in the comments. The best pieces rise to the top, eventually.
Before I go on, I need to be fair. Just like there are many different kinds of blogs, so there are many different kinds of newpapers. If you are in Manhattan right now, go outside and look at the newspaper stand down the street. What do you see? Just New York Times? No, there will be that other rightwingnutospheric rag, the New York Post, there as well. There will be also many other newspapers, with narrower niches, covering art, or underground music scene, or Real Estate listings. And then there are magazines – weekly or monthly or quarterly.
Remember that NYTimes also once published their first ever copy, at the time when nobody suspected they would become the “newspaper of record”. Many New York City newspapers have come and gone over the decades, and who could have guessed that out of all of them it would be the New York Times to survive this long?! And it’s not even that good!
If you are not in Manhattan, go out and buy USA Today and your local metro. Take a good look at both. Which one do you like better? Which one of the two do you think will survive? Which one of the two you wish will survive? I bet that, almost everywhere in the USA you may be (and I guess there are equivalent examples in other countries), the answer to all those questions is: USA Today. Why?
USA Today will have LOTS of news – something for everyone every day. It has excellent reporters and journalists and op-ed writers. There is, in each day’s issue, quality content that you cannot find anywhere else. And furthermore, if the brevity of an article frustrates you, the paper tells you to go to their website. There, you will not just find the copy+paste of the printed article. You will also find more information, and often links to additional information. They are not perfect, but they are slowly getting there.
In contrast, your local metro will consist mostly of advertising, AP stories, syndicated columnists and comic strips, horoscope, a local mouthbreathing op-ed writer spouting rushlimbaughisms and, if you are lucky, a reprint of a two-days-old Krugman editorial. How many locally produced news? Very little. Reports from the meetings of the City Council or School Board? Nope. Investigative reporting? Zero. I hope you have a birdcage that needs lining or own a fish store that needs cheap wrapping paper.
But what if you live in a place like Carrboro, NC? You will go out and pick, of course, Carrboro Citizen. Two years old. Free to pick up anywhere. Increasing their print volume every week. Their problem? So many people outside Carrboro – in Chapel Hill, greater Orange County and northern Chatham County want not just to read it but also for the Citizen to cover their areas. Why are they so successful?
First: it is web-to-print. Pieces written by locals, or by UNC students, are posted online, get comments, and then are edited for printing.
Second: it is hyperlocal, containing advertising for local businesses and covering stories of local interest, including those pesky City Council and School Board meetings – stuff that cannot be found anywhere else in print or on the Web.
Third: it does not pretend to be “objective” or “fair and balanced” – it cares about truth and reality, not the he-said-she-said Broderian journalism. They write it as they see it, and they see it as they uncover the facts. So, if reality has a liberal bias, so be it. After all, Carrboro was one of the few places in which Kucinich won the primaries in 2004, so nobody here complains about liberal bias. A similar paper in a conservative town would probably have a conservative bias, and that is fine (let them live in delusions, I guess). You can disagree, but you cannot complain about dishonesty, or bias or hidden agendas, because nothing is hidden. And that is so refreshing after years of rage-inspiring so-called journalism of the other local papers, e.g., Raleigh News & Observer.
Such newspapers – hyperlocal, community (or even family, club, team, organization) newspapers – will survive. The big, international, good papers like USA Today will survive by becoming “table of contents” for what they offer on their websites. The chain-owned metros will die. And good riddance because they have quit doing quality journalism a long time ago. Not because the reporters were bad, or even because their editors were biased, but because the owners made every wrong move in the book business-wise: cutting away what was unique and locally relevant, while keeping copy+paste syndicated stuff that everyone can find online in a thousand copies. Why would anyone ever pay for that?
How about science?
Both the scientific journals and the popular science magazines are facing a business crisis. The scientific journals are saving themselves by going fully online (and will probably, more and more, completely abandon the print editions) and by going Open Access (as libraries cannot afford their subscription rates any more). Those who are digging in their heels will go extinct. Just like the most heard-headed newspapers.
Popular science magazines are in a different kind of trouble. More and more, people can go directly to the primary sources for information as they become freely available online. More and more, their audience gets captured by science blogs which are both more fun and elicit greater respect, as they are written by scientists.
Those who turn to sensationalism, like The New Scientist, will lose their last customers quickly and will go under. Those that are trying to improve the quality of their magazine, like the American Scientist, hiring the PhDs in science who want to switch to journalism, producing fascinating, scientifically accurate stories that require much more time and effort than your average science blogger is willing to put into a post, getting top class artists to illustrate their stories, providing uniquely good book reviews or news that cannot be found elsewhere, and release all of their articles online soon after the print edition goes out, will persist for a while longer. Those who do science with a twist, like Seed Magazine connects science to culture, art and politics, will also persist.
Science reporting in newspapers? Dead. Because the newspapers are dead. The few mega-big papers that survive
will have good science coverage by a stable of excellent freelance journalists, each covering a different area of science and bringing in decades of expertise on the topic. The hyperlocals, if they have a scientific community locally (as the Triangle does), will have good locally-relevant science coverage. Otherwise, they will have none. Most science beat reporters will, like their colleagues covering other beats, have to find new jobs. It hurts, but it is a fact of life. There is no going back now.
Blogs, bloggers and blogging
As I have said many times before:
Blog is software.
Bloggers are people who use blogging software. Blogging is using the blogging software. Period.
Bloggers are not alien invaders from outer space. Bloggers are humans, citizens, silent majority that never had a voice until now. Bloggers are former and usually current consumers of the media. And re-producers of the media (yup, those guys that drive the traffic to your sites). And commenters on the media (guys who keep you honest and make you better if you are open-minded enough to listen). As well as producers of the media.
When journalistic curmudgeons want to denigrate bloggers, they point to the blogs containing LOLcats and teenage angst. They conveniently forget Talking Point Memo, Huffington Post, Firedoglake, Scienceblogs.com, or for that matter Slate, Salon and Atlantic 😉
It is not what you use, but how you use it. 90% of everything on blogs is crap. 90% of everything in newspapers is also crap. So goes for the radio and TV. If you complain that we should not point out the worst of the newspapers and focus on the best instead, then please reciprocate: point to the best of blogs, not the worst. Then perhaps we can have a discussion.
Same goes for microblogging services like Twitter and FriendFeed, or social networking sites like Facebook. If all you see is boring stuff, you are following the wrong people. If you do not like Livecasting (“what I had for breakfast”) which is actually an important aspect of human communication, then start following people who do Mindcasting instead and you will get more than you bargained for in terms of intellectual nourishment and uncomfortable thought-provocation.
And how do you find quality blogs? Well, how did you find quality newspapers? Someone told you, perhaps your parents when you were a child (or you just saw which newspaper came to your home every morning). Then you checked it out. Then you read it for a while and made up your own mind. You can do the same with blogs. Why do you need instant gratification – do your work and you will find excellent blogs that trounce traditional media in every way. Don’t just sit around and complain how many blogs there are and how all of them must be bad, but you will not waste your time finding out if you are correct about it or not. That’s lazy and dishonest.
Some of the best blogs out there are now becoming true New Media establishments, paying their bloggers to do “real journalism”, including investigative reporting, getting their bloggers press badges for important events (e.g., party conventions in election years). TPM is hiring. Huffington Post just got a nice sum of money to do exactly that – I hope they will ditch their Chopras and Kennedys and other nutcases and do the same for the quality of their science/health reporting which is atrocious.
As newspapers are dying, they leave a vacuum. Most places either have an existing blog, or immediately start a new one, to replace the vanished newspaper. The medium is different, more conducive to quality journalism than any of the previous communication channels, but also requires much fewer people to get the job done. It will be different than the newspaper it replaces. It will try to fulfill the needs of the community that the newspaper did, but also fulfill the needs of the community that the newspaper never could do.
We’ll all be watching those valiant new efforts. Something will come out of them. A single business model? No, of course not – as many business models as there are communities. Some will work better than others, and some will work better in some places than in other places. No need to have an expectation that a single business model will win and be adopted by all. After all, the newspapers never had a single universal business model themselves, so why expect anything else from the New Media?
When a newspaper folds, many people lose their jobs. And it hurts. And in this economy, it is hard for them to find other jobs. Typesetters, printers, packers, truck drivers will have to find new lines of work. Editors, technical editors, copy editors, accountants, lawyers, artists, and yes, reporters, will have to find new jobs. What took thousands of people to produce – a newspaper – now takes a dozen people, and they can do the job better.
There is a lot of pain going around. But it is not the fault of bloggers, or of Blogspot, WordPress and MoveableType. It is these that will do the journalism in the future, and some of the former newspaper journalists will find jobs in the online media if they are open minded and willing to learn how to adopt to the new medium. Quality journalism will survive, in this medium or another, but will require fewer paid professionals to do so. A core professional stuff, plus crowdsourcing, will produce news and entertainment and everything in-between.
But the old journos will suffer in the meantime. And I feel for them. Most of them are good people, and good at what they do. They get flack from readers when some editor slaps a silly headline on top of their work, or when some editor cuts the key paragraph out of the article, or some editor rewrites the article beyond recognition. Many have learned to suffer in silence about such indignities in order to save their jobs. They have learned to play the game. Many of them will feel relieved – oh such a sense of freedom, finally! – when they move online and adapt to its practices. And they will produce great journalism, many of them for the first time in their lives. It is unfortunate that so few of them can get paid to do it. Just an economic reality.
So, the whole “bloggers will replace journalists” trope is silly and wrong. No, journalists will replace journalists. It’s just that there will be fewer of them paid, and more of us unpaid. Some will be ex-newspapermen, others ex-bloggers, but both will be journalists. Instead of on paper, journalism will happen online. Instead of massaging your article to fit into two inches of the paper column, you will make your article’s focus be on information, accuracy and truth. Instead of cringing at the readers’ comments, you will learn how to moderate them and appreciate them and learn from them.
Many sources will speak directly to the audience, instead of via middle-men. From Obama to scientists. But some sources will not speak unless forced to by a journalist. And some sources are not humans, but animals, or machines, or natural phenomena, or old documents, and cannot talk to the audience without a middle-man.
Many of us will be both consumers and producers of media in our spare time. We may become journalists if news fall into our laps – we become Accidental Journalists for a day or a week, and provide information that others cannot but we, due to circumstances, can. That will not eliminate a journalist’s job, but provide a journalist with a source and a story.
Many of us will occasionally commit acts of journalism, or provide information needed for a story, or provide opinion needed for an op-ed, but very few of us will care to do that for a living, every day. We don’t want to take the journalists’ jobs away, we want them to thrive, but it is a reality that there are too many of them, and that many of the aspects of their job descriptions are now better done by machines, or by crowds of people, than by individuals. Let the best of them remain journalists, adapted to the new, better ways of doing things. Let’s hope the others find decent jobs elsewhere so they can feed their families.
A 100 years ago, many horse trainers, saddle-makers and blacksmiths became car repairmen. A much better career decision than just sitting there and complaining how cars will never replace the horses. My father owned a printing press, and worked in the printing business his entire life. I went with him there several times as a kid. I loved the typesetting machines, and the printing presses, and the smells and sounds. I loved printing stuff at home with my letter stamps. I love the feel and smell of a fresh print. Both my brother and I were in some way involved with school newspapers and such when we were young. But that era is now gone.
I also spent most of my life working with horses. I love the feeling of riding a horse, the smell of fresh hay, the sounds of horses munching their oats. But I do not saddle up my horse to go to the grocery store. I don’t even own a horse any more. It is just not a viable method of transportation any more.
But that does not mean that horses are extinct. There are thousands being bred every year for sport and show and leisure. They are pampered and loved much better than when they were just means of transport, when both people who loved them and who hated them had to use them. Horses (or mules or oxen or llamas or camels) are also still a key method of transportation in those places in the world where there is no infrastructure for the cars: roads, gas stations, garages.
Likewise, newspapers will become extinct as a major means of news-delivery. But they will persist in the hands of hobbyists and local communities who love them. And they will persist in places in the world where there is no infrastructure for the Internet: electricity, computers, wifi. Perhaps those who so strongly agitate for saving the newspapers should go there – their services will be useful in such places for a while longer. There, they can be analog bloggers.
Let us get on with the business of building a new journalism, fit for the new century and Millennium. The rest is nostalgia. Counterproductive.
How about science?
Oh, we had many, many discussions about science blogging, and why do we blog, and how we find time to blog, and why scientists and academics should blog, there have been articles and editorials published on this topic and even peer-reviewed articles, not to mention various conferences.
Then, an article came out in Nature a couple of weeks ago after which we all piled up. Read the article itself, the adjoining editorial and the responses by:
Jessica Palmer, Michael Tobis, PZ Myers and commenters, Larry Moran, Janet Raloff, LouScientist , John Timmer, Anthony, Francis Sedgemore, Curtis Brainard, John Wilkins, Derek Lowe, Ed Silverman, WFSJ, Sean Carroll, Kristi Vogel, Philip Davis, David Crotty, Eric Berger, John Hawks, Jennifer Gardy, Bee, Text Technologies, Chris Mooney, Carl Zimmer, Henry Gee, Mr. Gunn, Mark Liberman, Ben Goldacre, Chris Patiland Vivian Siegel, Chris Mooney again, Joseph Romm, Bex Walton, Abel Pharmboy, Mike the Mad Biologist, Phil Plait, Simon Baron-Cohen, Larry Moran again and again and Jessica Palmer again.
One of the major questions that crops up repeatedly in these discussions is the matter of reach. Science blogs, similarly to popular science magazines, are in the “pull” more – attracting readers who are a priori interested in science. But how do we do “push”, i.e., throw science at unsuspected citizens, in hope they will find it interesting or useful?
Sure, having science taught well in schools is the best ‘push’ strategy because it is mandated by the state. When I graduated from high school I had 8 years of physics, 8 years of chemistry and 8 years of biology behind me, instead of one of each as US students get.
But besides that, ‘push’ is very difficult. Back when there were only a couple of TV channels, if there is an hour-long science documentary, everyone watched it because that was on the program. And people liked it. But today, there is none on major TV channels and one has to seek science, nature or medicine on specialized channels. Likewise for radio – there is Ira Flatow every Friday on NPR and that is about it – easy to flip the station or put in a CD instead.
If at any time in the past, newspapers had a lot of (and good) science coverage, that would have been somewhat of a ‘push’ strategy. At that time, people were not inundated with information and were more likely to read the paper cover-to-cover. They could still skip the science section, but on some days a headline might have piqued their curiosity and made them read. Today, newspapers have little to no science, and there is less and less paper anyway.
But, as soon as the newspaper dies in any given market, the people are forced to go online for information. If the local newspaper is replaced by a news website or blog, this is where people will go (and sooner the papers die, sooner their monopoly on information will go away, so online upstarts can move into the void).
Once people are online, they will be there in as great numbers as newspapers ever had. Now, if that local news-site does not hide its science section a click or two away (“pull”), but showcases the science headlines right there on the front page, this will be better push than newspapers could ever do. No need to turn the leaf, or click – the headlines are staring at you.
If a site like Huffington Post, which just got funds to pay reporters, publicly eliminates their pseudoscience, HIV denialist, New Age woo-mongers and hires some real science/nature/medicine reporters instead, it is in a position to do the ‘push strategy’ on science. I bet some of the science bloggers would like to get that gig. And then link to us who are doing the ‘pull’ strategy here on Scienceblogs.com (or Nature Network or Discover).
Update: I have collected the responses to this post here and written, so far, two follow-up posts: New Journalistic Workflow and ‘Journalists vs. Blogs’ is bad framing

You can laugh now….

…but some people knew waaay back then that news will, one day, move from expensive paper to cheap internet:

From here

TechCrunch surfaced this look at a story that ran back in 1981 that covered
how internet news would someday be delivered. At least watch the last 30 seconds. The reporter remarks it would take more than 2 hours to deliver the digital text needed to read the “online newspaper.” She added the per minute (i think) charge was around $5 and comments about the difficulty the new approach would have when competing with the .20 cent daily.
What’s in store for us over the next 30 years?