paradigm shift

Frazzledjenluc2If it's Saturday, it must be — um, Palo Alto? Seriously, October has been so crazed that I had to think a moment when I woke up this morning to remember which city/time zone I was in. That's why blogging has been light to virtually non-existent: it's tough to be coherent and entertaining when you're barely hanging on to your own physical bearings. But this is the last travel I'm doing for the rest of the year, and I have TONS of fantastic fodder waiting to be spun into bloggy gold (or at least a cheap alloy with a shiny finish).

In the meantime, I'm at the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers, having been invited by science writer extraordinaire KC Cole (now a professor at the University of Southern California) to participate in a panel discussion: "What's Science Got to Do With It? Thinking Outside the Lab." I also attended a morning session as an audience member: "Geeks, Freaks and Deadlines: Writing About Technology and the Humans Who Love It," which featured Wired's Adam Rogers and Annalee Newitz, who heads the phenomenal io9 blog. Both the short presentations and followup discussions in both panels was substantive and thought-provoking, and honestly, I'm still processing everything I heard. So this post is going to be a bit of a brain dump of random but related thoughts, which will hopefully one day coalesce into sharp, penetrating insight.

First, the morning panel. Tom Abate, a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle who also writes a blog called "The Tech Chronicles," kicked things off with a frank assessment of what he calls the "media ecosystem," and what this means for science and tech writing. The traditional science writer is "an endangered species." The old model of a staff reporter assigned to the science beat who just had to worry about the writing is a thing of the past in today's multimedia empire. Deynevarputmine Now, he says, science writers must be more of a one-man band: learning Photo-Shop to create graphics and finesse photos to accompany those articles; researching online resources to hyperlink; finding supplementary audio/video material; writing a short blog post illuminating an aspect of the story that didn't make it into the final version; and so forth. The science writer of the future must be flexible, adaptable and multi-talented in many different media formats in order to stay competitive.

I particularly liked this statement: "We have to be the people who make sense of the world and put the new events into proper context." That's a big part of what's often missing in science stories in daily newspapers and wire services. There is neither time to develop that critical context, or space, in today's ultra-abbreviated formats, but it's difficult to genuinely appreciate the significance of scientific discoveries with no sense of what came before.

More importantly, with the rise of the Internet and the blogosphere in particular, anyone who wants one can have a voice. That's the beauty of democracy, but it does mean that there's an inevitable intermediate phase with lots of noise and various voices jockeying for position. This makes some people nervous, but eventually this dissonance subsides and the good stuff emerges from the muddle. I think Tom is correct that writers (or "voices," to be more generically multimedia) will be needed to help move this process along, by sifting through all the noise, picking out the nuggets, and shaping that raw material into a coherent, informative yet broadly appealing narrative.

It was fun not only meeting Annalee at long last — I'm a huge io9 fan, and loved the anthology she edited, She's Such a Geek — but also hearing about her personal journey as a microcosm of the evolution of technology writing. She started a Webzine just for fun, and one thing led to another until voila! She was a bona fide science writer and blogger. Most notably, she and Adam both pointed out that technology writing in, say, the early 1990s was a lot like traditional science writing: a focus on research, new applications, and the technical minutiae of bringing those high-tech products to market. Now, technology writing overlaps with lots of other different areas, so it can be a tough call for an editor to know where to place a story that has elements of business, technology, true crime, pop culture, or politics — and sometimes all of those at once. Thank god for "Lifestyle" sections!

Annalee also, no doubt, set one questioner on the road to Cyber-crime when he asked how one might go about generating fake "unique" hits, rather than just hitting the page over and over again from the same IP address: "You want a 'bot farm," a.k.a., zombie computers, each with a different IP address that registers one click on a site per computer. Duly noted. Jen-Luc Piquant is on the case. Expect to see the cocktail party's traffic soar in coming months.

There are many reasons for the meteoric rise of the blogosphere, but a large part of its appeal stems from the fact that it's more of a two-way conversation, an interactive community, and provides a more efficient, easily disseminated feedback loop than ever before. And that in turn is changing how newspapers, magazines, TV and radio view their online content. Per Tom: "Interactive/online journalism is the future." It's challenging to figure out what resonates with readers — unless you take the easy way out and resort to over-the-top rhetoric to provoke a response — but the payoff can be enormous. Tom told of how he recently created an online interactive element tied to the recent $700 billion bailout bill passed by Congress, to put it in terms an everyday American could grasp: eg, how many homes in Florida could you buy with that? How many football fields? It was two guys spending an afternoon crunching some simple numbers, but the reader response was tremendous. (Annalee chimed in with a paean to the well-known traffic-generating phenomenon of Top Ten Lists — an io9 staple, along with their regular "space porn" photos.)

Tom made the argument that in some ways, online journalism is actually more authoritative — or at least more easily held accountable — because you can link to original technical papers, reports and source material — an online version of footnotes and references. The format is also useful for combating errors and inaccuracies in science stories. Once an error has been pointed out, it can be corrected immediately, and permanently. Tom particularly bemoaned some of his earlier print stories, in which errors were still showing up on archives 20 years later. Online, those corrections can be made in a few minutes. And while blogs tend to be highly opinionated, the way things are shaping up, the online media might just look a lot like a traditional newspaper in the end, with a mix of news and opinion, clearly labeled as such, with lively commentary ("letters to the editor").

He also threw out an intriguing scenario of flipping the current news model that focuses on the print version first, then replicating it online with extras. Instead, perhaps the news could be reported primarily online for the initial "vetting phase" by readers, and only after corrections had been made, would a filtered version finally appear in print. Personally, I think newspapers are still struggling with the whole online news concept, and are not yet taking full advantage of the hyperlinking capabilities in particular. Too often, the links are to prior articles within their own pages, when source material is what the savvy Internet reader craves. It's built-in accountability, if done right. And that should be a good thing.

As for the much-discussed business models for "new media," Adam said that obviously, the current ones are going to evolve into something else. Annalee concurred, but added that these might not be totally new models, just updated versions of the older ones. For example, io9 is affiliated with Gawker, and benefits from its parent site's deep pockets and huge advertising base. So it has paid staffers, and gets most of its revenue from advertising, much like the current TV system. (A Gawker model weakness, Tom pointed out, is its lack of classified ads. But I thought Craigs List and E-Bay pretty much have a lock on that sector these days.) Josh Marshall, who runs Talking Points Memo, has adopted a more non-profit, public radio approach: asking for donations from devoted readers. In fact, readers contributed his travel expenses to cover this year's Democrat and Republican National Conventions. I'll be interested to see how these models evolve in the next few years, particularly as paid staff bloggers become less of an exception, and more the norm.

RE: advice to aspiring science writers, Tom echoed my own sentiments perfectly when he pointed out that Annalee had essentially invented her current position by exposing the world to her work online while still in college through a Webzine called Bad Subjects, that started out on Gopher — remember Gopher? — and is still around today in a much more graphics and multimedia friendly format. (It only took 15 years to achieve her "overnight success.") Aspiring science writers: start a blog.  Get your voice out there, start honing your craft, and if you're good, science editors will sit up and take notice. Or someone will.

You never know where these sorts of things will lead. It might seem counter-intuitive at first, but it's the 21st century equivalent of writing stories for free weekly newspapers for peanuts just to build up one's clips and resume. Heck, John Scalzi published his first science fiction novel online, and now he's got shiny prestigious awards and fantastic sales figures, as well as a hugely popular blog. I get this question a lot, and I always say the same thing: I've gotten more work because of the blog that I write for free, than by any other means. It's my writing lab, the place where I sift through the fodder to find the potential gems that may one day fit into an article or book. The fact that folks like to read it sometimes is a much-appreciated (and frankly humbling) bonus.

I think we're already moving past the denial phase of bloggy influence among the mainstream media, although there's still some resistance in certain quarters — and a tendency to view bloggers as second-class citizens. This is another aspect of getting rid of pointless categorizations. "All blogging means is you're using blogging software," Annalee said, admonishing upcoming writers to "Get used to it — you will be writing on the Web." Adam spoke on similar lines: "Don't be mislead by medium. Were talking about genres. It's about what we cover, not how we cover it. Your practices are what makes you a journalist, so don't be nervous (or apologetic!) about being 'just a blogger.'

"The hardening of the categories" is a common lament of KC Cole, who adopted it as her mantra for her very successful "Categorically Not!" lecture series/events, that bring together scientists, artists, writers, actors, dancers, and so forth together along a common theme. (The Spousal Unit participated in one with the theme "Mistakes," and talked about the different kinds of mistakes made in science.) That's why she wanted to have an NASW panel on the power of thinking outside the lab. Everyone on the panel — Adam Frank, Paul Preuss, KC, and my good friend Diandra Leslie-Pelecky (The Physics of NASCAR) — made excellent points, to which I cannot do justice because I was too busy participating to take copious notes. So I'll just focus on my own points to conclude, with the caveat that many of these were echoed, eloquently, by my fellow panelists.

I started off by re-phrasing Adam Rogers' question: "Just what is a science story these days, anyway?" The answer is that it can be so much more than traditional science writing, which — while still necessary — tends to "preach to the converted." At a time when all media is struggling and newspapers have killed off their science sections, how do we get science to the folks who don't read Discover, New Scientist, or Scientific American? The best strategy is to work it into existing sections: where's the science angle in the hot business story of the day? What ratings-smashing new TV series can be tied into the latest scientific research? What sorts of cultural and lifestyle issues might have a scientific component? The idea is to move away from the standard reportage of the latest arXiv papers and press releases to find science in the nooks and crannies of the world around us: what I call "found physics." 

Freelance science writers in particular are always needing to find not just an unusual story, but a fresh compelling angle, told with a strong narrative. Take vacuum technology: it's an essential component of most scientific research, but taken on its own, it's awfully dry and boring. (Diandra disagrees, but she's in the minority.) Some possible ways to deal with a potentially soul-destroying story assignment on vacuum technology include placing it within the context of a broader story on really cool research to make it a bit more interesting. Alternatively, you could take an historical approach, talking about early traveling demonstrations using animals trapped a glass container as the air is slowly pumped out. Or you could answer a niggling question, like, how long could you survive in the vacuum of space, and what would happen to you if exposed too long?

[UPDATE: There's one important point I forgot to include last night, and that's some helpful tips for finding those unusual angles. During the Q&A, Adam Frank and I both suggested fostering and/or rediscovering a childlike sense of wonder. "Take a walk in the woods," he suggested, and start looking for the science that will be all around you. You can do the same thing for any environment in which you happen to find yourself: Disneyland (amusement park physics is all the rage), a sporting event, a live taping for a TV show, etc. Science is everywhere; we've just gotten so used to its pervasiveness, that we tend to take it for granted. (To paraphrase my favorite exchange from Eric Roston's recent appearance on the Colbert Report plugging his new book, The Carbon Age: "It's ubiquitous." "No, it's EVERYWHERE!")

For instance, I shared an anecdote from early in my science writing career, the epiphany when I realized I was finally, officially, a science geek. I was riding a shuttle bus back to my hotel from a physics conference where I'd listened to a press conference on the physics of granular media. We passed a construction site where a huge machine was dumping sand into a gigantic pile. As I watched, the sand pile peaked and "avalanched," as the sand redistributed into a shorter pile with a broader base and started building up to a peak again. I pointed and exclaimed to my seatmate: "Look! Self-organized criticality!" And I had my real-world tie-in for a discussion of the dynamics of granular media.

Diandra supplemented those suggestions by emphasizing the need to listen to your target audience and hone in on what they really want to know — in the case of NASCAR, it's "Why isn't my favorite driver winning?" Physics has the answer, and Diandra was happy to provide it on her blog and in her book. NASCAR fans are passionately devoted to their sport, and their drivers — really it's almost a religion — and that means they will slog throgh even science-y treatises on aspects of aerodynamics, fluid mechanics, materials science and the like to find an answer to that burning question. Hard-core sci-fi fans show the same devotion and enthusiasm.

Follow the passion, and you'll find a powerful medium for your message — and that includes the stuff you're passionate about. One of the reasons The Physics of the Buffyverse turned out so well (at least I was happy with it) is because I am genuine fan of the show, and that passion and enthusiasm informed my writing. Diandra wasn't a big NASCAR fan when she started out, but she wanted to know the answer to a burning question — why did one race car crash for no apparent reason? — and forged into the brave new world of stock car racing to find out. She broadened her horizons, sought out new experiences, and learned as much about herself as she did about NASCAR in the process. Go forth, and do likewise. Living in a science bubble is not, in the long run, going to serve you well as a science writer in the new multimedia online world.]

It's late and I'm running out of steam, so I'll skip over the remaining salient specifics and cut to the chase. Putting physics (and science more broadly) back into the broader culture — instead of fostering the prevailing notion that it is somehow scary and separate — is the raison d'etre of this blog. I believe it's an important facet of effective scientific outreach, but more pragmatically, it can help make science writers more competitive in a constricting market — by opening up new markets, hopefully in more mainstream media outlets. We need less hardening of the categories.

There has been much weeping and gnashing of teeth in recent years bemoaning the "death of science writing," but it's really just the demise of an old paradigm that no longer fits the world we live in. I'm as saddened by the killing of science sections in newspapers as any other science writer, but at some point the mourning's gotta end, and we have to move on. The world is changing, and our industry is changing with it. Change is inevitable; we can't control it. But we can control how we respond to it and adapt accordingly, and how we do this defines us. Yes, we are losing one thing, but we are gaining a new opportunity to reinvent science writing for the future. Right now, we're kinda struggling to find a foothold in the brave new multimedia world, but that won't last forever. So reports of the death of science writing are greatly exaggerated. I predict it will rise like a phoenix from the ashes, in a new and glorious incarnation. And I can't wait to see what happens.

2 thoughts on “paradigm shift”

  1. Part of the reason that I got out of science writing as a full-time science career was that it seemed synonymous with science journalism and writing about science news. I must admit, I’m deadly bored by a lot of the stuff in science news — dark matter, the LHC, stem cells. I’m much more interested in the curious childlike questions that you mention above. Back in college when I was deciding whether to study more physics or not, I remember looking at the grass and thinking — If I could just understand everything there is to know about that blade of grass — the botany and how that grass interacts with the ecology, the cultural anthropology leading to its cultivation, the chemical processes that let it convert sunlight to energy, the physics and mathematics leading to its particular shape and curve — then that could be my life’s work.
    I doubt I’ll ever be able to understand that blade of grass completely.
    For anyone who is also drawn by these questions of how the world works, and wants to be drawn into science stories by these wonderfully naive investigations, listen to WNYC’s Radio Lab at In fact, one of their recent podcasts – Making the Hippo Dance – – talks about some of the production elements they use to create Radio Lab in order to emphasize this sense of wonder and casual questioning.
    I also wrote a little bit about this session over at sciencegeekgirl (see link).

  2. Hello Jennifer,
    Thank you for sharing what you learnt at the NASW meeting. I am struggling to find the right approach for my physical sciences blog, written in Portuguese, and this post have given me some ideas.

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