Tag Archives: #sci4hels

Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins

It seems we like dichotomies when discussing changes in the media. We pick two words, and then fight over them.

I have no intention to revisit the stale old debate about journalists vs. bloggers, as it was silly to begin with, and was resolved back in 2005, oh wait, in 2008, or was it in 2009, or, oh, OK, in 2010…ah, well.

That old debate was just un-serious. People who used to write anti-blog screeds did a dereliction of journalistic duty, writing pieces about phenomena they knew nothing about, and did not bother to get informed and educated about. All the scorn that was heaped upon them at the time was fully deserved.

I am more interested in some more recent discussions, where two words are compared by people who put some thought into it and wrote interesting pieces about it, not just knee-jerk emotional reactions. Perhaps there is nothing to it, in the end, but I’d like to know at least WHY is it so important to so many people in the media to have these discussions in the first place.

Beats vs obsessions

Recent launch of Quartz, an innovative online magazine, incited a round of articles and blog posts discussing the distinction between traditional media ‘beats’ and the new concept, inaugurated by Quartz, of ‘obsessions’.

The distinction is fuzzy, to say the least, and not everyone can figure out the difference yet. The ‘obsessions’ are just another effort at replacing ‘beats’, now seen as an archaic concept originating in the necessities of internal organization of media outlets printing on paper.

I guess the main difference people are noting is that obsessions are narrower – in scope of the topic, or (geographic) space, or in time. A crime beat is a broad category. Obsessively following every detail of a particular crime for a while until it’s solved (or there is nothing more to say), is an obsession. Once the story is over, obsession is closed, and the reporter moves to a new topic.

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. So, looking at the Big Picture of crime, e.g., causes of crime and what measures potentially reduce crime in various parts of the globe, cultures, past eras, etc, from every angle possible, is also an obsession.

Finally, the third difference I saw in these articles, is the question of institutional organization. A beat is organized to cover a particular institution. Crime beat is coverage of cops and courts and prisons, not sociological causes of crime, or lives of criminals. You don’t cover war, you cover the military. You don’t cover policy, you cover Congress. You don’t cover education, you cover schools and school boards. You don’t cover health and medicine, you cover hospitals.

You learn the jargon, you learn their rules and laws, you learn who’s’who in that institution, and you make nice with your sources in institutions you cover. An obsession breaks out of those boundaries and covers a phenomenon or topic or theme from a perspective of people interested in that topic, different angles your audience brings to it. You need to be much more responsive, do more listening and less preaching. Notice how SciAm categories are not disciplinary (e.g., Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology…), but broader themes as people are interested in them (Evolution, Space, Energy & Environment, Mind & Brain, Technology…).

Columnists vs. bloggers

At about the same time, another distinction arose, that between columnists and bloggers (see the Storify of tweets of this discussion as well).

Here, the distinction IS essentially zero.

But let’s not confuse IS with OUGHT.

Obviously some people see a difference and are trying to put their finger on where exactly it is. Is column edited, blog not? Mostly yes, but there are edited blogs and un-edited columns.

Are blogs online, columns on paper? Everything is online these days (and everything can and sometimes is re-purposed for the print edition as well, or vice versa in old-skool organizations that are not digital-first yet but are still somehow surviving).

Columns have word-limits, blogs don’t (thus blog posts tend to be longer than columns)? Online, there is no need for word-limits no matter what the format.

Columns are paid, blogs are not? Ask all the professional bloggers about it, heh, though this may still somewhat persist quantitatively rather than qualitatively, with columnists being paid at a higher rate than bloggers for purely historically contingent reasons, not tied to quantity or quality of writing. There is also a balance of control in play, i.e., more you pay someone, more editorial control you can exert over that person’s work, but can reciprocate by giving the dignified title of “columnist”.

This blog network has three bloggers who consider themselves to be columnists. They started out as columnists in traditional media, and feel insecure without the safety net of copy-editors. Those three bloggers’ posts do get copy-edited (and if necessary edited, though not by me – I only edit Guest Blog and Expeditions with its outside authors). Other bloggers know they can use our copy-editing services, but it never occurs to them to ask – they are used to doing everything themselves without a safety net. I did the kindest, gentlest arm-twisting to persuade the three columnists to use the word “blogger” when they refer to themselves, for a number of reasons. First, everyone is equal, and I do not want to have perceptions that some people are more equal than others. If you use blogging software, you are a blogger. But more importantly, the word “blogger” gives you more freedom. Let me explain…

Column is an old term, and we all have a pretty good idea what it is, what to expect when we read one. There are traditions in length, form, format, language, tone, style, etc. Those traditions are now overly restrictive. On the other hand, word ‘blog’ is new and still being defined. It is about regular posting online, with experimentation being an important aspect of it – all kinds of lengths, forms, voices, styles etc can be used and nobody will find it unusual if the site is called a “blog”. Photoblogs, podcasts, videoblogs, are just as unsurprising as purely textual ones. Humor, funny photoshops, or profanity are just as “normal” on blogs as are long treatises, deep expertise and long lists of references. Heck, just look around our network: huge diversity of styles and forms, even though you can argue that the range of “acceptable” is narrower here than in the blogosphere as a whole.

Emotional effect of words

A few days ago, I discussed the distinction between beats and obsessions with a veteran journalist who’s been doing this for decades. We discovered that we have very different, essentially opposite, emotional reactions to those two words.

For him, the word ‘beat’ denotes something regular, steady, reliable and predictable, like a beat of a metronome, or heartbeat. Something that is comfortable and comforting. On the other hand, ‘obsession’ seemed dangerous to him, unpredictable, almost pathological. Obsessed people are not reliable, one never knows what crazy thing they will do next.

For me, the word ‘beat’ has a negative connotation. It is something aggressive, implying violence, as in ‘beating the dead horse’, or self-satisfactory, as in ‘beating off’. On the other hand, for me ‘obsession’ is a sister-word to ‘passion’. Without obsession, work is not worth doing. Without obsession, love is not worth loving. Without obsession, or passion, nobody will do anything risky and innovative, which is what we need in times of disruption of the entire system. During ten years in research, I was obsessed with it, thinking, dreaming, doing and breathing my science 24/7. I am just as obsessed with science communication, building the new media ecosystem, and discovering/promoting new writing talent now.

I was stunned by this difference in our reactions. Perhaps this is because English is second language to me, so my impressions of the words are colored by the context in which I first encountered them years ago when I was learning English? Or is it due to our temperamental (or even age) differences, me being always anti-authoritarian and kinda revolutionary, always proselytizing the new thing, the new order? Am I the one being crazy here?

So (and thanks to K.R. for giving me this idea in the first place), I checked the original etymologies of the two words. Apparently, we are both half-right. Both words are aggressive. The etymology of ‘beat’ indeed has something to do with physical violence. But etymology of ‘obsession’ is just as bad – implying near-possession by demons! But words evolve…

As someone who entered the media horizontally (from science to blogging to newsroom) as opposed to vertically (through j-school, or starting in the mailroom and working my way up), I am not emotionally wed to terms like ‘beat’, or ‘column’. For me, they have the patina of the old days of constraining tradition, not the comfort of ‘good old days’ I don’t remember (or don’t remember as “good”).

On the other hand, whenever one encounters a new word (or a word new to the person), it always looks strange. One way to deal with strangeness is to find it funny and laugh. This was the commonly voiced reaction by curmudgeon journalists to the new words like ‘blog’ and ‘twitter’. If they find the word funny, then the phenomena those words denote are not worth studying or taking seriously, but are perfectly OK to make fun of in public. They thought they were savvy, but they quickly discovered they looked stupid, in public. They fell for their own emotional reactions.

Oh, did I mention I hate the word “verticals”? How uni-dimensional (and hierarchical) for a network that is the Web!

Other subtle effects of words

There is another subtle difference in the way I subconsciously (well, consciously as of today) respond to the words “beat” and “obsession”.

Beat is repeated action. Obsession is a continuous action.

Oh, wait! Column writing is a repeated action. Blogging is a continuous action.

Or rather, beat (and column) is a repeated action, it’s work. Obsession and blogging are constant emotions that spur one into action all the time, out of love.

This is something related to a theme I often talk about (and write about, e.g,. here and here).

Blogging, unlike writing a column (or writing news pieces, or features, etc.), rarely produces stand-alone pieces that can be read in a vacuum. Blogging at its best is a series of posts, each building on what was previously written, and each connected to what other people have written (or what one has written elsewhere).

I have a beat here at my blog. Animal physiology and behavior, especially in respect to time (daily and seasonal rhythms), and especially when studied out in the field, within ecological and evolutionary contexts. Most of my blog posts on those topics are more or less stand-alone pieces. They link to scientific papers, or media coverage, but rarely link to my older posts.

I also have an obsession – studying the way the media ecosystem is changing. My blog posts on this topic are all connected. Which is why, just like the one you are reading right now, my posts on this obsession are chock-full of links, both to my older posts (so you can see where I am coming from, how my thinking evolved, etc) and to other people’s writing (to see the context within which I am thinking, who are the other people who are influencing me, etc).

A number of our other editors also do both. They produce perfectly traditional self-contained news pieces for the Observations blog (and elsewhere on the site, or in the print magazine), and fantastically gripping, innovative and experimental blog posts on their own personal blogs here (see their blogs on the pull-down menu above: Brainwaves, Streams of Consciousness, Talking Back, Octopus Chronicles, Budding Scientist, Critical Opalescence, Degrees of Freedom).

Our network bloggers are all over the spectrum here – most have some topics that are beats, some topics that are obsessions. For example, John Platt has a beat – endangered species (though he does obsess about a couple of species he writes about over and over again). Cassie Rodenberg has an obsession – addiction, from every possible angle: chemical, medical, societal, historical, ethical, legal, political, psychological, journalistic, artistic, and even personal. One can read most of Platt’s posts in isolation. One has to read many of Rodenberg’s posts before becoming acquainted with her enough to be able to, for example, post an appropriate comment.

So, most of us here on the network are sometimes columnists, sometimes bloggers, sometimes just wonderful storytellers, and sometimes something in-between. And that is probably the best. It is up to readers to recognize where they have just landed after following a link to a blog post. Is it a traditional piece that stands alone? Or is it a post that is one of many in a series, and digging through the archives and following for a few weeks or months are needed to really start understanding what is going on – at which point you will be richly rewarded because you have discovered a person with unique expertise and unique voice?

And this brings us to the next pair of words journos love to discuss: generalists vs. specialists.

Generalists vs. specialists

The Web has allowed many angles, many points of view, and yes, many truths to be available to everyone. Some of those angles and truths are more legitimate than others, but who’s the referee any more? It used to be the gatekeepers of the traditional media, but with so many voices out there now, and the trust in traditional media at a historic low, the MSM is not a referee of truth any more. It cannot do that as an institution, but it can regain some of it by hiring people who are referees of truth by virtue of having the relevant expertise.

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.

Every expert will have naysayers. There is always some fringe group that for emotional, political or financial reasons has an interest in promoting an alternative, illegitimate “truth” (see: global warming denialists, creationists, anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOs, animal rightists, etc). But for most people, expertise matters. Most people rightfully believe what Krugman says about economics. I hope people believe me when I write something about circadian rhythms. Expertise counts.

Expertise does not require a PhD in the topic. There are several bloggers on this science blogs network that came originally from English degrees, or journalism. But they developed obsessions for some areas of science, and over the years they became experts. And you know they are experts because they keep writing about it over and over again, they back up their claims with copious links to trustworthy sources, and they get general agreement from other experts in the same field in the comments or in responses on their own blogs. Over time, they earned respect and reputation for being experts on the topics they usually write about (and nothing wrong with occasionally using the blog to test new ideas in a new field, as a learning tool, perhaps as a test for moving from the old obsession to a new one).

A generalist who covers a different topic each time will never become known for expertise in any group of readers passionate about any of those topics. The articles and posts may be OK, but they will never be as inspiring or awesome as articles written by experts. A generalist may gain reputation among editors as a reliable freelancer who does good work, meets deadlines, is easy to work with and does not require too much time and effort to edit. But that reputation is inside baseball, it does not turn the writer into a personal brand, but one dependent on (usually declining, and often disappearing) institutional brands. In the world of “Friends in Low Places“, that is probably not the best strategy.

Thus, it is not surprising that j-schools are now trying to train experts, though that may be misguidedly turned into training computer programmers instead of journalists. Furthermore, some places are now taking existing experts and turning them into journalists.

When an expert keeps writing, that is more likely to be an obsession than a beat. It is more likely to look like a blog than a column. It will be continuous, rather than repeatable. It will be a constantly developing corpus of work, rather than a collection of unrelated articles. It will be an opportunity to gain regular audience and to build reputation, respect and a personal brand that is easy to move from one institution to another (or to freelancing). A person with a brand is attractive to hire by media organizations that understand that their institutional brand depends on the quality and reputation of the expert writers they hired – as bloggers, treated and paid as if they were columnists of yore.

“Bloggers vs. journalists” really makes no sense any more, does it?

#sci4hels – ‘Killer’ science journalists of the future ready to take over the world!

Finland, Finland, Finland!

Every now and then, a meeting happens somewhere in the world, and I am not there but watching the tweets with the official hashtag makes me thoroughly jealous I am not. It just seems like there is interesting stuff going on, important information exchanged, and everyone is having great fun. I know, I know, that is how many of you feel during ScienceOnline flagship meetings (currently at #scio13 hashtag). But for me, one of those jealousy-inducing events is the World Conference of Science Journalists, a large, international gathering of science journalists, reporters, writers, editors and the like, organized by World Federation of Science Journalists every two years.

I first saw the tweets from WCSJ three years ago, when it was held in London, UK. Last year, it was supposed to happen in Cairo, Egypt, but the events in the country made it potentially unsafe to hold the conference there, so the venue was quickly moved to Doha, Qatar. Although I was supposed to be on two panels there, the last-minute change in venue made both the logistics and the finances impossible for me to attend. So I watched from the sidelines again, in sadness and frustration.

Next year, the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists will be held in Helsinki, Finland, hosted and co-organized by the Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists, FASEJ. The official hashtag is #WCSJ2013.

And I’ll be there!!!! And I am so excited!

I will be on a panel organized and moderated by Deborah Blum. I hear this will be one of the Plenary Panels, which, from what I understand, means it will be held in the biggest room and nothing else will be occurring simultaneously. So potentially all the attendees will be there at the time. I better prepare well!

But I am even more excited about another panel, for which I am the organizer, though not a moderator or panelist. I am absolutely thrilled that my proposed panel has been accepted for the program. Let me tell you more about it, why I proposed it, and what to expect if you come to see it in person next summer. A little background first…

Why I do what I do.

As you may already know, discovering, helping and promoting new talented writers is something I see as central to my own work. A number of them found a permanent spot on the blog network here at Scientific American. Some of them have already been so successful, they are not even considered “new” any more, just a year after the launch.

Others have published on our Guest Blog, which has tremendous reach and reputation, and authoring articles there has led to jobs, TV appearances and book contracts for some of the authors who appeared there. Some of them subsequently got permanent slots on our blog network, or internships at Scientific American, or had their articles published in our web or print versions of the magazine.

Some of them had their pieces published in one of the past sixth editions of Open Laboratory anthology that I edit. And I invite a number of them each year to attend ScienceOnline, our flagship conference, where they moderate sessions, teach workshops, or report from the event itself.

Finally, I started an entire blog, The SA Incubator, specifically to promote new writers and to help them develop a new media ecosystem and then thrive in it.

Another way I try to help is by getting involved in science programs in schools of journalism. I am currently a visiting faculty at the NYU SHERP program, and am on the advisory board of the UNC program for Health and Science Journalism.

Why do I do this? Because media ecosystem, and science reporting as a part of it, is undergoing tremendous disruption right now. I am trying to help creative new people build a new ecosystem for the future – a kind of media that is sustainable, profitable and, most importantly – good!

I am trying to help Friends In Low Places find each other, gather their creative energies together, and take over the media world.

The ‘killer’ science journalists of the future

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! Some of them have science backgrounds, which can be helpful. They all write really well. And they are digital natives, effortlessly navigating today’s online world and easily using all the available tools.

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 and, if the appropriate Web tool is missing – they build the tools themselves. Some of them not only write well, but can write computer code, do web-design, produce all types of multimedia, and all of that with seemingly more fun than effort, seeing each other as collaborators rather than competitors.

I have proposed this kind of session, a panel of new, rising stars (this one is really, officially titled “The ‘killer’ science journalists of the future”), several times in the past, for various other meetings and it was always rejected. Perhaps the organizers automatically choose current stars over future stars, or established names over newcomers. But I am very happy that the Finnish organizers think out of the box and deem it important to include new voices in their event. Not just that it will be very useful for the young journalists, for networking, but also useful for all of us of an older generation to carefully listen and learn.

Just like I spent nine months diligently studying the science blogosphere before I picked the final line-up for this blog network, I applied equally studious effort to picking the members for my panel. I guess I am just that systematic (or obsessive-compulsive, you choose).

I started with several dozen names, including all the SA Incubator interviewees to date, from all around the world. I read every word of every article they ever published. I read the entire archives of their blogs. I studied how each uses social media, like Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Tumblr, etc. I looked at their art, photography, videos, podcasts, infographics and other multimedia projects. I actually talked to a number of them. And I gradually narrowed down the numbers, over a period of about two months, to four – one moderator and three panelists.

I wanted the best possible panel, including not just Web-savvy people, but also people who creatively and experimentally build the new media ecosystem, people with different backgrounds, career trajectories, talents, interests, skill sets, and personal goals, as well as four people who don’t only do it all, but also eloquently think, talk and write about it. They are all upcoming superstars. This panel will rock!

As you know, the media ecosystem in general, and science media ecosystem in particular, suffered a severe disruption in the USA over the past few years. The media ecosystems in the rest of the world are hanging by a thread and will soon be just as disrupted as the American one. Everyone is scrambling to find new ways of delivering news, and keeping their jobs while doing it. Media organizations are experimenting with new ways of doing things. And some journalism schools are starting to adapt to the new needs of the media.

Over the past few years of intently watching the science media world, I have noticed something interesting. Some, still very few unfortunately, science journalism programs in the U.S. have completely changed the way they think about training young journalists. As a result, over the last couple of years, they are producing exactly those kinds of people I like to call “killer journalists of the future” – creative, ambitious, experimental, curious, self-starting, hard-working, entrepreneurial wizards. I could have picked a dozen or two of their most recent graduates and they would all be good.

From my experience as an editor over the past two years, these new journalists are more professional to work with than many of the veterans I had to work with recently, and better than almost any of the recent students coming from other schools in the USA and the rest of the world. I get the drafts of their articles and reading them is not work, but sheer pleasure. I try to edit, and discover there is no need to apply my virtual red pen to a single word or punctuation mark. Heck, it is all perfectly formatted, so all I need to do is copy and paste exactly the way I got it. And their articles then go viral! They can certainly write straight-forward, traditional news pieces on assignment, but they really fly when given space and freedom to do something creative, try a new, different approach to telling a story.

It is unfortunate that a number of other US schools and all of the schools in the rest of the world are still teaching within an out-dated, 20th century model, doing a disservice to their students. This is why I think it is so important for the global audience at WCSJ2013 to see what these particular people have to say – they are the new breed, and we should all carefully listen to their experiences. It is especially important for the rest of the world to see what the American experience is about to bring to them, how to learn from it and adapt to it before they are, too, hit as hard by the new realities.

Interestingly, just as I received the wonderful news that this panel was accepted, the Nieman Journalism Lab started a series of articles exploring exactly this topic: the skills needed by the new media world, and how those skills are acquired either in j-schools or on the job, or by self-starting by blogging, for example.

Upon receipt of the official acceptance message from the WCSJ organizers, I finally contacted the four people I chose for the panel. They are all very excited about this. And, being of a new generation, they are not waiting six months to start preparing PowerPoint presentations! That is not how they operate (and no, their panel is not going to have PowerPoints or anything boring like that – they are “killers”, after all, they will make it exciting and fun).

Instead, they instantly sprung into action. They immediately started to discuss the topic on Twitter, first by using all four handles which turned out to take too much character space, so they quickly came up with the official hashtag for their panel – #sci4hels.Make sure you set up a Tweetdeck column for it as Helsinki time approaches!

They will write a series of blog posts exploring the topic, in advance of the event. The first one is already up – The Question of Code (which was then linked by the Nieman Journalism Lab in their Friday weekly review) – and several more are coming (I may write one myself, though this one is already long and detailed, and the original post still stands). And they have organized to meet in person in January, during ScienceOnline2013, to hash out the details of their panel (yes, brilliantly, all four of them are fast enough typists to have managed to register!).

Here they are:

Moderator:

Rose Eveleth: homepage, blog, Twitter, Facebook page, Incubator interview, Scientific American articles, Scienceline posts

Panelists:

Lena Groeger: homepage, blog, Twitter, ProPublica articles, new job announcement, Scientific American articles, Scienceline posts

Kathleen Raven: homepage, blog, Twitter, Spoonfull of Medicine articles, Incubator interview

Erin Podolak: homepage, blog, Twitter, Incubator interview

I am incredibly excited to work with such an amazing group. I am excited to see how quickly they sprung into action, to make this panel useful and memorable. And I am excited to see that the WCSJ organizers agree with me that their voices are an extremely valuable addition to the program.

How to break into science writing using your blog and social media (#sci4hels)

Yesterday I skyped into Czerne Reid’s science journalism class at University of Florida to talk about breaking into science writing as a profession, and especially the use of blogs and social media as tools for accomplishing that goal.

Just a few days before that, as a part of our regular Question Time in preparation for our panel at WCSJ2013 in Helsinki, we tackled the same question:

What does a new science journalist do to get noticed? How do you get people to read your work, give you assignments, follow you on Twitter, and generally just know who you are?

Rose Eveleth collected and organized the responses we received on Twitter (using hashtag #sci4hels), but here I’d like to provide, all in one place, a bunch of links to resources, other people’s thoughts about it, and a few brief thoughts of my own.

Ways of becoming a science writer

There are two basic trajectories: one more traditional, which I like to call “vertical”, and the other one I call “horizontal” which, though it happened with individual writers for a long time, seems to be a much more frequent, if not dominant trajectory these days.

The vertical trajectory is the one taken by people who, perhaps from a very early age, knew they wanted to become writers or journalists, perhaps specifically science journalists. They major in journalism in college (perhaps double-major in a science as well), work on their school paper, start internships early in their local papers (or radio or TV stations), then go to a Master’s program in science journalism. By the time they graduate from that, they already have lots of experience, several internships, many clips, perhaps some local awards, and are ready to start making a living as staff writers or freelancers.

The horizontal trajectory describes people who start out in science, with every intention of making a career in research. But, as tenure track is now an alternative career in science, most science students need to find other options. Some of them – those who always liked to write, wrote diaries as kids, etc. – will explore the option of becoming science writers. The most direct horizontal trajectory involves starting a science blog while still doing research, becoming known for good writing there, then start pitching stories for online (and later print) magazines, and gradually leaving the lab bench and starting to make a living by writing alone. Brian Switek, John Timmer and Ed Yong are probably the best known examples of people who took this path. Heck, I am one of those examples, too. Many more are somewhere along that trajectory right now.

Of course, those are extremes, too neatly cut apart. Many people will do something in the middle, combining the two approaches in some way. For example, they may pursue a career in research while also taking summer internships at science magazines, or editing the science section of the college newspaper. Some may major in science, then go to j-school for Masters. Also, not all of the new entries into science writing are young. Sure, some make the switch after college or Masters in science, but others make the switch later, after getting a PhD, or finishing a postdoc, or after years of teaching as adjunct faculty with no hope of ever getting a tenure track position, or even after many years as full faculty, once grant money dries out and there are no more resources to keep running the lab.

Either way, there comes a time when one becomes a professional science writer/journalist and has to make a living that way. What does one need to do to succeed?

Understanding the new media ecosystem

It is important to be aware that 20th century media ecosystem is a very unusual aberration in the way people communicated throughout history. Means of production were expensive. Very few people could afford to own printing presses, radio and TV studios, etc. Running all that complicated equipment required technical expertise and professional training. Thus media became locked up in silos, hierarchical, broadcast-only with little-to-none (and then again centrally controlled) means for feedback. There was a wealthy, vocal minority that determined what was news, and how to frame it, and the vast majority was consuming the news in silence.

Today, all one needs is some source of electricity (e.g., a small battery in your smartphone) and some means of accessing the Internet. The act of publishing is reduced to clicking on the “Publish” button. Yes, this still leaves some people out of the media, especially in the developing countries, but compared to just twenty years ago, vastly larger numbers of people now have access to the means of production of news. The obstacles to access – money, technical skills for running the machinery – are now much, much lower, almost free.

This turns everything on its head! Silos are breaking down, economics of media are severely disrupted, former gatekeepers are squealing in distress, old hierarchies are broken down (and replaced by new hierarchies), and now everyone has to learn new “media hygiene” practices: who to trust, how to filter the information, how to organize it for one’s self. The new ecosystem now contains both the traditional outlets and the individuals, “people formerly known as the audience“, as equal players.

There is only so much time and energy anyone can invest into consumption of the media. In the flood of information coming out every second, how does one get science to the audience? Specialized science media outlets cannot see each other as competition any more – they are now collaborators, helping each other toward the same goal: trying to, at least occasionally, displace trivia, Hollywood gossip, and dangerous pseudoscience with good science news. Individual science writers, as equal participants in the media ecosystem, should do the same: replace the notion of competition with the idea of cooperation.

How does a new science writer succeed in this new ecosystem? In the 20th century, one would try to ingratiate oneself with the gatekeepers, the editors. As they are still part of the ecosystem and probably will be for some time in the future, this strategy is still valuable, but it is only one of many. More important, if anything, is to build support networks with your colleagues, peers and buddies. The concepts of ‘Friends in Low Places’ and ‘Horizontal Loyalty’ are not just theoretical – put them to practice.

You may think of two potential career routes: getting hired as a staff writer somewhere (getting harder with each passing year), or to freelance. But there is a third way now: start and build your own media empire.

Huffington Post, DailyKos, Talking Points Memo, BoingBoing started out as unknown person’s personal blogs – after turning into group blogs, then adding functionalities that let readers contribute, today they are media organizations that make money, hire and pay editors, and more. Perhaps your own blog can turn into something like this. But teaming up with your own Friends In Low Places may make such a start-up more successful.

First you have to write

People who want to become professional writers are, I assume, people who always liked to write. Childhood diaries. LiveJournals filled with teenage angst. Long Facebook updates. It’s time to take this seriously and do your writing in a more serious, organized, professional manner. Start a blog. This is your writing laboratory. Start blogging about science. Nobody will know about your blog until you start promoting it, so don’t worry that your early posts are clumsy (you can even delete the first few embarrassing posts later, once you are happy with your blog and start promoting it).

Practice the usual journalistic forms – the feature, the interview, the brief news story with inverted pyramid. You will need to demonstrate that you are capable of writing in such forms and styles. But don’t limit yourself to traditional forms. Experiment with new forms. Explain animal behavior by letting animals have a dialogue. Explain science in the form of a fairy tale, Science Fiction or a poem. Try your hand at photography. Draw or paint or graph your own art, illustrations, infographics, cartoons and comic strips. Put some effort into making a video or animation every now and then. Record a podcast sometimes. Give data journalism a try. Try your hand at learning to code (but see). See what works for you.

Try to figure out your beat (or obsession) – what is it that excites you the most? Write about that. Try to find your own niche. Become a “go to” person on a particular topic, become an expert (or at least a temporary expert) on that topic.

Ignore the “professional” advice about having to blog daily. It was a necessity a decade ago, not any more. In the days of RSS feeds and social media, it does not matter for your readers any more – they will find your posts no matter how infrequently you post. It only matters for you and your own writing habit that you blog with some regularity.

Also ignore the “professional” advice about writing relatively short blog posts. Leave that for brief news articles. Blog posts are longform, at least most of the time. And longform works online much better than short articles – the traffic keeps on giving for years, as people rediscover long posts, see them as resources, and share with their friends.

Also important to remember: You’re A Human, So Write Like One. How do I write? First I read and study the topic. Then, I compose text in my head (usually during dog walks, often over a number of days, sometimes even months), imagining I am explaining something to a good non-scientist friend. Then I sit down and quickly transcribe that. Quick proofread. Click “Publish”.

Like every other skill, writing needs practice. Write every day, something, anything. That’s what makes the blog useful – you have a platform for your words every day. You’ll get better. When you write something for publication, watch carefully what the editor changed in your manuscript and learn from it. Read a lot of good writing, paying attention to how other writers accomplish their goals.

The hard-line “never write for free” slogan is a hold-over from some old, outdated times. Early on in your career, you will write for free quite a lot, especially on your blog. Your blog becomes your portfolio, your PR material. As you become a professional, you will learn how to reject offers to write for free, and will mostly write for pay. But even then, there will be times when you will want to write for free – on your own blog (or your Mom’s neighborhood newsletter). You will want to experiment with a new form, or a new topic. Or you will want to write something that would be hard to sell. Or you wrote something on commission, got rejected, got paid your kill-fee, and now want to see your work out there, meeting the readers.

Or, if you are a natural born writer, every now and then there will be a story inside of you, fighting to burst out of your chest and get expressed in words or visuals, and you won’t care if it’s paid or not, you want it out, and your blog will be there waiting for just such pieces.

Getting started with your blog

It’s easy. Go to WordPress.com (or some other platform, but WordPress has recently become a standard and is probably your best bet) and start one. Pick a name (and a URL) that is catchy, memorable yet informative about the main topic of the blog. Make at least some minimal effort to make it look pretty. Fill out the ‘About Me’ page, put buttons for your various social media accounts on the sidebar, and provide a method for readers to contact you. Start posting.

Get in a rhythm – decide you will post something on your blog every day or every week and stick to it. Sometimes, it will just be a few links or a YouTube video. Other times, you will write something more substantial. Start with book reviews – those are relatively easy. Do Q&As with scientists. Cover new papers in “ResearchBlogging” fashion. One day a seriously good post will come out of all your daily thinking in the shower and during dog walks.

Learn about science blogging, its theory and history. Learn about best blogging practices. Learn about the ethics of online writing and blogging, including the ethic of the link and the ethic of the quote.

If you make a statement, link to the source or to additional information. If you quote somebody, provide the link to the original context (including audio file or transcript if you yourself did the interview). A quote with a link increases your trust with the readers. A quote without a link decreases your trust with the readers – it’s a red flag that you are trying to manipulate them. And always try to link to the scientific papers you write about, even if they are behind paywalls.

Decide if you want to have commenting on your blog or not, and what kind of (technological and human) comment moderation you need. Come up with your moderation policy. Be prepared to be present in your own commenting threads in order to keep them constructive.

Another option is to join a group blog. Double X Science, Last Word On Nothing, Deep Sea News, Southern Fried Science, Science-Based Medicine, Real Climate, Biofortified and Panda’s Thumb are a few examples of excellent group blogs with high visibility, which authors can use as springboards for their writing careers. This reduces the pressure on any individual blogger to post with high frequency, as collectively they will produce plenty of new material on the homepage every day.

It is also OK to just write guest posts on other people’s blogs. A number of science blogging networks have designated guest blogs for just such occasions. We here have two such blogs – Guest Blog and MIND Guest Blog – but other bloggers on the network may also sometimes accept a guest post.

Even if you run your own blog, it is not a bad idea to occasionally write a really good one for a Guest Blog on a media-owned network. A post on our Guest Blog counts as a clip in your portfolio, is highly visible, will show up high on Google searches for your name, and thus will serve you well as your promotional material when you start pitching or applying for jobs.

You can find a number of good links about getting started, and about running your blog, on this wiki page.

Get some professional training

If you are further along in your career (e.g., research career) you may feel too old to waste another year or two of your life by going back to school. But if you are younger, e.g., just out of college, you may want to consider getting a Master’s at one of the specialized Science, Health and Environmental Reporting/Writing programs. There are several excellent programs to choose from, e.g., NYU, UCSC, MIT, UGA, UNC, USC, City University (London), UW-Madison and several others.

If that is too long (or expensive) for you, spend a summer at a science writing workshop, e.g., Banff or Santa Fe.

Or, if you are still in school, take some writing or journalism classes despite not needing them officially for your major.

Try to get an internship, perhaps in one of the popular science magazines. Nothing prepares you better than learning on the job.

Attend meetings with professional writing and journalism workshops, talks, panels and discussions, e.g,. ScienceWriters (NASW/CASW), ScienceOnline (either the annual flagship meeting in Raleigh, or one of the growing number of satellite events), AAAS annual meeting, SpotOn, or WCSJ. Use the opportunity to get to know (and get known by) editors and others whose careers are well in advance of yours, but also to meet your own peers and start forming your own posse of ‘Friends In Low Places’. Many of those events also have “Pitch sessions” where you can pitch your story ideas directly to editors.

Start reading, regularly and closely, sites that discuss journalism (especially science, environmental and health journalism), provide writing tips, provide media criticism, or provide information about unreliable scientific papers. These should probably include KSJ Tracker, CJR Observatory, NASW, Nieman Journalism Lab, The Open Notebook, The Science Writers’ Handbook, Embargo Watch, Retraction Watch, HealthNewsReview, SpotOn Blog, Communication Breakdown, and right here – The SA Incubator (I’d have listed the NYT Green Blog here, but sadly, it is now dead).

Read good science blogging by setting up ScienceSeeker as your homepage. Find out which blogs you like, subscribe to them, post comments, perhaps start out your own blogging by emulating their style until you develop your own.

Shameless Self-Promotion

If a blog post is published in a forest,….?

OK, you’ve been blogging for a while and now you are happy with your posts. You are ready for readers and their feedback. How do you get the readers to your blog? Good readers, with relevant interests and backgrounds, those who can provide valuable feedback?

First things first. Make your blog an official science blog by applying to have it aggregated at ScienceSeeker. ScienceSeeker is a portal for science writing and blogging, a result of fusion and then further development of Scienceblogging.org and Researchblogging.org (COI: I am one of the founders of ScienceSeeker, which is a ScienceOnline project). It keeps getting developed and adding new features.

Neither Google Blogsearch nor Technorati are good at filtering science blogs. They pull in spam blogs, blogs with a science tag that have no science content whatsoever, as well as blogs that push pseudoscience, anti-science, medical quakery and other silly or dangerous nonsense. As only approved science blogs can be found at ScienceSeeker, it has unofficially become a ‘stamp of approval’, a way to filter out the noise and focus on the quality content that one can filter in various ways, from topical filters, to only posts covering papers, to ‘Editors’ Picks’. A number of journal publishers and media organizations are now using ScienceSeeker to get metrics on how much their articles were blogged about. In its effort to preserve science blogs for posterity, Library Of Congress is using Science Seeker as the filtering mechanism guiding their decisions what to preserve. So get your blog on there. It will bring you reputation, traffic, and just the right kinds of readers to provide you with feedback.

Nominate your posts for various awards and collections, e.g., Open Laboratory, 3QD science prize, ScienceSeeker Awards, Science Studio (podcasts and videos) and others. This will give them visibility as people check out all the nominations.

Register and become a respected user on sites like Reddit, Digg, Slashdot, Stumbleupon and/or Fark. Be sure you know their policies well (e.g., Reddit will let only a small proportion of your links be to your own work). Don’t waste too much time on those sites, but you can use them to find interesting links to share, to share other people’s work, and to occasionally share links to your own posts and articles. If one of your posts catches fire on one of those sites, make sure your server can take it, and be present – you will be busy for a few hours moderating comments, deleting especially obnoxious, snarky, nasty or idiotic ones. But some comments will be good, and a small proportion out of those tens of thousands of visitors will bookmark you, keep coming back and will become your regular readers.

Have a nice-looking homepage (you can make it with WordPress, or use a specialized platform like About.Me, or pay a designer friend to make you one). Your homepage should have a short, easy to remember URL so you can shout it out on the street and people will be able to spell it, remember it, and find it later when they go online that night. This is your single most important URL that you will place everywhere – on your business cards, and on profile pages on all the social media and other sites that let you have a profile. Everywhere you are online should link back to your homepage. And your homepage should link to everywhere else you are online.

Your blog can serve as your homepage, or be a prominent and central part of your homepage. If not, make sure your homepage prominently links to your external blog. Make sure your homepage has a well written and accurate About/Bio page, contact information, link to your CV, and your Portfolio with links to all of your published work (perhaps your photography or videos or art on separate tabs). And of course, provide links to all the social media where you have accounts.

If you are lucky, you will be invited to join a blogging network, which makes your blog even more visible. If you are VERY lucky, you will be invited to move your blog to a media site as a blogger/columnist, like Ezra Klein at Washington Post, Nate Silver at NYTimes, or the Phenomena quartet at National Geographic.

If you are just embarking on the professional career in science writing, we can help right here at The SA Incubator. Khalil and I post our weekly “Picks” – if you have written something you are proud of, don’t be shy to send the link to us. If we like it, we’ll link to it. Then we may ask you to do one of the “Introducing” Q&As, a great opportunity to present your past career, skills, links and goals that will turn out very high on Google searches once potential employers start googling you.

The necessity of social media

There are many social networks out there, some general some specialized, as well as platforms which include some social media elements. Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, WordPress, Tumblr, Flickr, Picassa, YouTube, Vimeo, DeviantArt, Instagram, Pinterest, FriendFeed, Branch, Quora, Goodreads, MySpace, LiveJournal, Orkut, Diaspora, SoundCloud, Slideshare, Storify, Academia.edu, ResearchGate, Mendeley, FigShare, CiteULike, and many more. Which ones to use? I suggest you use one or two that fit you best, but also take a few minutes to set up profiles on many other networks. That way, people who find you on those sites can click on the link and find themselves on your homepage, where they can see where you are really active.

This wiki has a lot of great resources for starting out and using a number of those sites professionally, as a scientist or a science writer. Pay special attention to the pages about Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus, as those are the three biggies you should probably pay most attention to.

Let’s focus on Twitter now. It is essential for a journalist. Not having – and using – a Twitter account today is like not having an email address ten years ago (and yes, some cutting-edge people are completely abandoning email and doing all of their communications over social media).

Big companies have suffered losses because their old-timey PR teams were unaware of the backlash on social media, and then incapable of responding correctly on social media. Businesses can lose money if they are missing key information that appears only on social media. Academia is especially horribly insulated and way behind the times. But nowhere is use of social media as important as in journalism. Don’t be this guy who was completely oblivious that his newspaper was in the center of national maelstrom of harsh criticism, because “I only deal with what’s on paper”.

When an airplane skidded off the runway in Denver, I knew it, along with 100,000s of other people, 12 minutes before everyone else. A passenger tweeted about it, and it spread like wildfire, including his updates, blurry photos, etc. CNN had a brief piece 12 minutes later. The accidental “citizen journalist” scooped them. Sometimes, for some news, these 12 minutes may be crucial for you.

Twitter and Facebook were key methods of communication not just between participants, but also to the outside world, during the Mumbai attacks and the Arab Spring.

People got jobs and gigs on Twitter that started their careers.

Journalists on deadline quickly find expert sources for their stories.

Journalists who observed the massive, instant, intense and scathing reactions of experts to #arseniclife or #Encode did not make the mistake of filing their positive stories and then having to backpedal later.

If all you see on Twitter is garbage, you are following the wrong people. You have to carefully choose who to follow, and then learn how to filter. Unfollowing is easy, and polite. You are not dissing your Mom, as if you would if you unfriended her on Facebook.

Don’s use Twitter.com. Use an app. There is a lot of outcry right now (by myself as well) about the imminent demise of some Tweetdeck apps (version 0.38.2 is by far the best, if you can have it and keep it indefinitely – other apps are OK on smartphones, e.g., HootSuite or Twitterific). It is important to me not to have Twitter/Tweetdeck as yet another tab in my browser, a place where I have to go and spend time. Twitter is not a site to go to and spend time on. Twitter should be a part of the workflow, silently running in the back, behind my open browser.

Tweets show up in the corner and 99% of the time I do not even notice them. I am busy with something else, and I mentally block them out. But I have a “search image” (a term from ethology – a bird does not systematically scan every inch of tree bark, instead it has a search image for the shape and color of its prey insect and automatically homes in on it). If a tweet shows up with my name in it, or a specific word in it, or by a specific person, I will notice and take a glance. If there is nothing important, I only lost 1/10th of a second and can go back to what I was doing. If it seems important, I will Favorite the tweet (if unsure of the quality of content) or Retweet it (if it comes from a trusted source), so I can have it saved to read later. If it seems important and urgent, I will click through and investigate. Perhaps this is information that is more important to me than whatever else I happen to be doing at the time. And even then, I will probably spend only a few minutes on it before returning to whatever I was doing before.

In Tweetdeck (or any similar app), one should have a number of columns – move them around: the default position may not the the best one for you (I move “All Friends” far away to the right so I don’t have to see it almost ever). Mentions and Direct Messages are your more important columns, but also make several that follow Lists (your own, or other people’s), or display tweets that contain particular words or hashtags (your “Saved Searches”). I will add a column for an event hashtag while the event is on, then delete the column afterward. Play around until you refine your filtering this way.

Here are some good lists to get you started – follow them, and also follow some of the listed people directly – you decide who is useful to you:

ScienceSeeker Members
Best mindcasters I know
Young Smart Newsies
Top Journalism Linkers
Young science writers
ScienceOnline 2013 attendees
Blogs and bloggers on the Scientific American blog network
SciAm Contributors

If there is something I’d like to tweet out, that is easy, too. No need to go to Twitter. Get some kind of Bit.ly or AddThis bookmarklet for your browser and you can tweet any link in two clicks (perhaps with a little editing, to add/remove stuff from the tweet so it’s just the way you want it).

What kind of stuff you can – and perhaps should – do on Twitter? There are several different things. First, you can just use it to find information, to pick up good links, or to eavesdrop on conversations. Treat it as a river of news – sometimes you dip in, sometimes you go away. You won’t miss much while you are away. If information is really important, it will have staying power – many people will still be linking to it, retweeting it, and discussing it next time you log in. If you missed it – it’s not important.

You can, of course, post your personal musings, but if you are going to use Twitter like a professional, keep that to the minimum. I bet less than 1% of my tweets are in this vein.

You can retweet others. Your followers do not see everything tweeted by everyone you follow. Twitter is very asymmetrical – you don’t follow those who follow you, not automatically. You follow those who are useful to you, and you are followed by people who find you useful. Thus, if someone tweets, and you retweet, this will be fresh to many of your followers. If they RT in turn, they will spread it to their followers and so on, in concentric circles, spreading the message out further and further. A tweet can go a long way.

You can engage in conversations. It’s OK to butt into other people’s conversations, but be polite and be useful and constructive. If you know the answer to someone’s question, provide it. If you are at a University and have library access, you can help your freelance colleagues in search of papers – they will use the hashtag #Icanhazpdf (but first carefully read the comment section of this post to understand the legal, moral and etiquette aspects of it).

You can be a useful filter for others. Post links to good articles and blog posts. Everyone tweets links to NYTimes, BBC and The Guardian – you don’t have to. Instead, set up Google (and Google News and Google Blogsearch) alerts for the keywords in the domain of your expertise and interest. It can be “watersheds” or “science+superheros” (one of mine is “circadian”, naturally). Some of those links in the alerts will be very interesting, yet from obscure publications. People will soon realize you are the “go to” person for that topic. Follow a few good by less-well-known blogs. Tweet out links to their posts.

Broadcast links to your own posts. But do it politely and judiciously. Tweet once in the morning. Then again that day “for the afternoon crowd”, then once next day “for those who missed it yesterday”. That should be sufficient. DM (direct message) the link to a few people with more followers than you have but who are aware of you and know who you are. Ask them to take a look, provide feedback, and they are likely to retweet it if they like it.

Here are some quick rules you should memorize on how to be a useful and respectable contributor to social media.

And finally, if you are really well organized and dedicated, you can truly use Twitter as a part of your journalistic flow – from individual tweets, to aggregations of tweets – both your own and replies you got (e.g., on Facebook or Storify), to longer blog posts, to magazine articles, to books.

Moving on to Facebook, the strangest animal of them all, undergoing a metamorphosis every year or so, often abruptly changing people’s privacy settings, expectations and experiences. That makes many people uneasy about it.

You have to be sensitive that there are two main styles of Facebook use. One is personal, the other is professional. It is perfectly OK to keep settings to ‘Private’ and to friend only family and best friends, share vacation pictures and not much else. It is perfectly OK if you prefer to use it that way. But perhaps you should set up another Facebook Page for your professional outreach. This is where you post interesting science links, urge other scientists, writers, journalists and bloggers to follow your page. Keep the two worlds separate.

Many people, including myself, do not separate the two worlds. Yes, I occasionally post personal stuff, but I mainly post links to science stories on my personal profile, which is set completely on ‘Public’. I have many FB friends, and of them many are not inherently interested in science. By being my FB friends, they get served their daily dose of science anyway. Many are thankful for this. This is the so-called “push” method of science communication, where you push science onto unsuspecting audiences. The reverse is “pull” method, in which people who are already interested in your stuff will know how to seek you and find you if they know your stuff is good (people interested in science know where to look for Scientific American).

There is a lot of scientifically incorrect information floating around Facebook. One of your roles can be as a “downer” – the person who brings in a link to the scientific information that corrects the pseudoscience. And yes, your aunt may get really angry at you because of it, but at least some of aunt’s FB friends will learn something from your link, perhaps share it elsewhere.

And now the elephant in the room – Google Plus. It is not easy to figure out what it is and how to use it and how to find good stuff on it. But if you are using any Google product (e.g., Gmail) you are already on G+ even if you are not using it. Thus, it has tons of people on there already. And unlike some past Google experiments (like Google Buzz and Google Wave), this one does not appear to be going anywhere – it is here to stay, and it’s a monster. I have more G+ subscribers than Twitter followers or FB friends. Most of them have zero background in science. The least you can do is throw some science links at them, even if you do not have time to engage further. Lots of traffic comes from there, so it’s worth a second or two to plop in a link.

What is important to know is that scientists, science bloggers and writers were some of the early invitees to the Beta version of G+ before public launch. They have explored the platform from the very early days. There are many of them there, and many are active. They are experimenting with new functionalities, especially cool uses for Google Hangouts. Find “Scientists” circles and start following people. Even if you don’t engage with it fully now, keep an eye on it, keep your presence on it, I would not bet against Google that this will wither and die.

Next step

You are writing every day. You are blogging regularly. After six months of regular Twitter use, you now have some followers and interaction. Perhaps you joined a popular group blog or even a blogging network. You have a few guest blog posts elsewhere, perhaps a few clips from school or local papers, or when you did an internship. It’s time to start pitching.

Different editors have different preferences for pitches. But many will explore your blog, your prior clips, your social media activity (potential employers for staff jobs will do that very thoroughly).

If you pitch me for the Guest Blog, for example, and I have never heard of you before, you need to write me a longish, polished pitch. Show me that you can write, that you can write a pitch just as perfectly as you will write the article itself later on.

But if I know you from your blog, from Twitter, perhaps some previous work, you don’t need to do that. You can DM me on Twitter with a very brief pitch and I am likely to say Yes.

Now go and write.