This weekend I had the honour of being invited to present at the Canadian Science Writers’ Association‘s annual meeting, a conference that took place on the beautiful campus of McGill University in the foothills of Mont Royal.
I had the pleasure of joining Lisa Willemse, a communicator for the Canadian Stem Cell Network and the main force behind their Signals blog, and Pascal Lapoint, who works with L’Agence Science-Presse, to talk about the ins-and-outs of blogging for one of the CSWA meeting’s career development sessions. The session was organized by freelance writer Jude Isabella. [Full disclosure, I was recently elected to the Board of Directors of the CSWA.]
Lisa covered the details of operating a blog network authored by scientists, and some of the nuance of running a highly niche blog. Pascal discussed some of the advances being made in French Canada and the growth of the Canadian science blogging community. Pascal’s presentation is online here (in French).
For my part of the talk, I decided to talk about blogging as a journalist–specifically, the kind of rapid turn-around news blogging that my colleagues and I do for Smithsonian Magazine‘s Smart News blog. Part aggregator, part synthesizer, part context-provider and part original story teller, Smart News is intended to give a quick, interesting perspective on the news. In my presentation, I tried to cover a few of the techniques that I’ve learned through Smart News’ not-quite-one-year existence on how you can tell an interesting story given the constraints of working as a blogger. Below I’ve put the notes I used to guide my presentation.
Hi everyone. So I’m Colin Schultz. I’m a science journalist. I’m also a blogger. Unlike a lot of people who blog—as a hobby, as outreach, as something they do in their free time—for me, blogging is my job. I do sometimes write blog posts for fun, for my own website, but that’s not exactly the most… frequent thing I do.
In preparing for this session, one thing Jude asked me to talk about was money. How the heck do you make a living as a blogger? I’d guess that’s a pretty common question, so I’m going to get that out of the way up front.
For me, the answer is pretty simple. I’m not writing on my own WordPress site with Google ads. I know of very few people who make a living doing that.
I blog for Smithsonian Magazine. It’s a job. I don’t just write what and whenever I want. I have an editor, I have deadlines. I work part time. I write 12 stories each week. There are three of us doing this—that’s 36 stories each week, Monday to Friday.
I get around 40% of my income from blogging. You don’t get exact numbers—unless you want to hire me, then we can talk :)
As Lisa mentioned earlier, and as I think Pascal intends to talk about, there are a wide array of bloggers and different kinds of blogs. The blogging I do for Smithsonian is different than what you’d probably do for fun. I want to call it “journalistic blogging.” That’s what I want to focus on: What does that mean, what do I do, and how does it work.
Being a journalistic blogger means you’re a journalist who works under a different set of constraints.
As a journalist, the most important thing to me is trust. My career runs on trust—I need people to trust me. Which means I need to deserve their trust.
I also need to be interesting—I need to say something new.
Now, those two goals: to be right, and to be original, run smack into the biggest and most important constraint in this kind of quick turn-around blogging: time.
I write each of my stories in an hour or less. Sometimes I’ll take longer if I’m doing something bigger. But, in general, I have an hour to research and write each story.
I really need to point this out: this kind of blogging can be incredibly high risk. With every post I put my reputation, and in some sense the Smithsonian’s reputation, on the line. The Smithsonian has been around for 167 years. I really don’t want to be that guy.
So that’s the question, how do you balance those three factors: accuracy, novelty and time? Obviously I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think all of my stories hit this mark, but I’m going to use some examples from my own work to show some things that I think work pretty well.
Tell the Story Around the Story
First, you have to play to your strengths. You’re not out in the field. In my case, I’m usually either at home or at a coffee shop on a laptop. So, you almost never break news. Also, there’s a reality to writing a story in an hour: you can’t really do interviews. The most responsive person in the world is probably still too slow. You can ask one or two questions here or there to confirm something, but you’re not going looking for quotes.
But, I really do think that’s okay, because there are lots of people out there trying to break news. What there are less of, and what you can actually do really well from behind a computer, is help people make sense of the news.
There is a tendency in news to jump from headline to headline. But every story has context, history. Things that have happened before that people forgot. I have an advantage here working for the Smithsonian: their audience really likes history.
As an example, I’m sure many of you remember this, when Clint Eastwood gave a very, very bizarre speech at the Republican National Convection. Tons of people wrote stories about how weird this was, what people at home thought, what people at the speech thought. What I think many people didn’t know—and I didn’t know until I started looking around—was that there is a surprisingly long history of debating empty chairs in American politics. It goes back to at least 1924.
So that is the story I wrote–The Long History of Americans Debating Empty Chairs. Some Googling was all it took to put this together, but it got picked up all over. The Washington Post wrote about it. NPR picked it up. And I think this is cool: I got a Wikipedia citation out of it.
Here’s another one: Scientific American in 1875: Eating Horse Meat Would Boost the Economy. It’s a similar idea. This story came out when they found horse meat in Ikea’s meatballs.
By this point, the horse meat story had been around for a while. It had been covered to death by pretty much every angle. But I knew there would be history to it. I was actually looking for old recipes on how to cook horse meat. But I found this instead: some really weird history about horse meat.
That one did really well, too. I got to go on NPR’s Marketplace to talk about it, which was fun.
So both of of those stories are sort of “weird quirky history” more than news, which may not be exactly the kind of stories you want to tell.
But this story, How to Understand the Scale of the Oklahoma Tornado is an example of how I think you can write something that people really want to read, something that really helps them, with limited resources and in a fairly short amount of time.
This came out a few hours after the recent Oklahoma tornado–the first EF-5 tornado that touched down in Moore, Oklahoma. This was a big breaking news–there was a lot of live coverage, and it was very much an on-going story. In that coverage there was a lot of talk about the tornado’s size, its strength. But those are just numbers to most people. They don’t really mean anything. I tried to give it some context. I think people appreciated it.
So that’s one way to do something new, something useful. To find the history or the context of the news. You can do that pretty easily in a short amount of time.
Tell New Stories With Other People’s Facts
There’s another way to do interesting work that is still quick and accurate, and it relies on what I’m going to call “outsourcing your trust.” What do I mean by that? It means I can’t necessarily verify every single fact in the amount of time I have. In order to make sure my stories are accurate—which is the most important thing—I need to know who I trust enough to wrap their name around my neck. Sometimes this means places like The New York Times, but sometimes it means other writers, or bloggers, or researchers who I trust.
You need to become a pretty quick judge on who you can trust, and who you can’t.
So now you’ve built this mental list of people whose work you trust. Then what? This is, I think, where blogging can sometimes get a bad reputation. In the worst case, this means reblogging—taking someone else’s facts and story and work and packing it up in a different way. It’s the online version of rewriting a wire story.
But you don’t really want to do that. And, honestly, those types of stories don’t tend to do very well.
The better way is to use those facts in new ways. To re-frame them. To put them together.
A few weeks ago, the video game press was all riled up about this new game: a virtual reality guillotine simulator. You’d put on these goggles and see your head get cut off. Everyone was writing about it. The easiest way to tell that story is: “Hey! Look at this thing!” and a lot of people did just that. But that’s not necessarily the most interesting story you can tell. To round out this news for my story–Feel Your Head Roll With This Virtual Reality Guillotine Simulator–I relied on facts that people had dug up for other, different stories. I remembered reading a feature in Nature from a few years earlier by Ed Yong, a story about virtual reality research and how real it felt. Putting those two things together made, I think, a stronger story than just “hey look at this thing.”
Same idea here for the story Stunning View of the Arctic Could be Last of Its Kind. The news was a photo, a gorgeous satellite image of the Arctic. Tying that photograph together with other stories—in this case, a feature on Arctic sea ice loss—made for a more interesting take. As long as you attribute and source heavily, people are usually pretty happy with this sort of thing.
Now those are both examples of relying on mainstream news sources, but it works with bloggers too.
I saw this story–New Zealand Is in the Midst of a Five-Month-Long Earthquake–on a blog post by GeoNet, an earthquake monitoring company in New Zealand. Combining that with knowledge I already had made for a pretty interesting story. The key here, though, is that I had to trust the writer of this blog post. Knowing GeoNet and their work is what made me willing rely on their blog post.
Trust Your Own Knowledge to Tell Original Stories
As I said earlier, doing this kind of work you’re not going to be breaking much news. For the most part I think that’s true. What you can do when it comes to science, though, is find things other people aren’t finding. I really care about climate change and Earth science. I keep tabs on a number of journals. Often, I’m able to find things other people haven’t covered. And, because I have a decent background in the field, I can normally understand the study without needing to talk to anyone. But again, there are no interviews. You need to be really careful in not overselling the results. There are no cranky outside scientists. You need to provide the caveats.
So this is the third way I think you can do good, valuable work in a short amount of time: trust your own expertise. Researchers Find Fracking Might Cause Earthquakes After All is an example of this kind of story–one motivated by a report [pdf] from the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission.
Doing general news, or even general science news, there are going to be topics you know more about.
For me, the thing I know more about is Earth science and climate change. So I can, in an hour, read a paper, figure out what it’s about, and dig up some caveats. I can say something new by trusting my own knowledge base. This was really scary for me to do, but I think it has worked out so far.
I can also use what I know about these topics to expand on the news. Here the original story was a political story, of the closing of a research group working on carbon capture and storage guidelines. By adding in some of my own knowledge, I could tell a more interesting story–Canadian Government Winds Down Research That Could Help Stop Climate Change–about the importance of carbon capture and storage, or “negative emission” technologies, to combating climate change.
I do this kind of story less often because it does take longer. But this, and providing context and history, are my favourite types of stories that I can do given the circumstances.
So that’s it. I know that blogging sometimes has a bad reputation. But I think that journalistic blogging is actually a very powerful medium. If you do it right, I think you can provide something really valuable.
Thanks so much.
Standing in a Raleigh pub last year, the exhilaration and exhaustion of Science Online 2012 still coursing strong, and the news that Canadian federal scientists were being muzzled making waves worldwide, Marie-Claire Shanahan and I arrived on what we felt was a vital topic overlooked in that year’s edition of the annual conference.
By geography and demographics, Science Online attendees skew British and American. Holding strong is the Canadian contingent, but Marie-Claire and I noted that the experiences of our international friends are, in many respects, fundamentally different from our own. In the UK and the US, science magazines, TV shows, radio shows, formal/informal outreach endeavours and bloggers are in far greater supply. Missing from Science Online’s niche debates over how, exactly, scientists, journalists, public relations people and the public should all get along was the broader discussion of how to give a kick in the ass to a science communication ecosystem that is lacking much of the established infrastructure to which nearly all of the conference attendees are accustomed.
Against this backdrop, Marie-Claire and I pitched a session for the following year’s conference: “Communicating science where there is no science communication”—a place to acknowledge the unique issues facing Canadian science communication efforts, and to highlight what we felt would be some of the downstream consequences of our country’s current climate.
The presentation, an early-morning gathering on February 2, went well, I think, generating discussion and debate both during and after the one hour session. The #CanComm twitter tag pulls together much of the ongoing conversation. But, not all were pleased with the representation of Canadian science communication that we conveyed, calling it “overly pessimistic” or “ghastly.”
Indeed, Maryse de la Giroday, who runs the FrogHeart blog, sent me the following email—leading questions suggesting of a displeasure with our presentation. I’ll not be speaking for Marie-Claire but just for myself, but I hope to answer Maryse’s questions, to better explain what I said, why I said it, and where I think we need to go.
Your presentation at the 2013 ScienceOnline conference came up during a recent conference call … apparently, you have ignited a fire in a few bellies with your contentions about Canadian science communication … I wonder if you might answer a few questions for publication on my blog (frogheart.ca) … I’ll be sending the same questions to Marie-Claire Shanahan and hopefully be able to include both sets of answers for each question … there’s not a lot of questions …I promise …
According to the ‘secret source’ who attended your presentation, you and Marie-Claire were very harsh in your assessments of the science communication efforts and environment in Canada. Given that most of my readers won’t have attended the presentation, could you summarize the presentation in a few bullet points and note where you agree and disagree with your co-presenter?
To understand the contents of the presentation, it is important to consider it in context.
Science Online pulls together brilliant, creative, hard-working and entrepreneurial problem solvers, communicators with a passion for science and a vigilante spirit. Many of these people, however, also have basically no idea what is going on in Canada in terms of the political atmosphere, the size of the mainstream press, or the scope of the science communication community. One of the goals I had in mind when putting together my short introduction for the session was that I wanted to tap into these clever minds so that we could all put our heads together and come up with projects that will work within the Canadian cultural context. But for this to work, we first all needed to be on the same page.
I opened the session with numbers: We have one mainstream science magazine, two TV shows, and one radio show. A 1998 study found that we had 18 full time science journalists at daily newspapers, and I mused that this number probably went down as the media industry crashed and companies cut their staff.
With no official science blogger database that I know of, I pulled from your (Maryse’s) own annual counts (2010, 2011, 2012) and the self-selected bloggers pulled together by the Canadian Science Writers’ Association to estimate that there are likely a few dozen science bloggers in the country. Discussions in the room pointed out that there are probably more than listed in those two places, but the order of magnitude on the guess is probably close enough.
Whether these numbers can be deemed “harsh” or not is up to you, but my goal was to give those joining us in the session a baseline count on what our mainstream science communication infrastructure looks like.
From the numbers I moved into my second main point, asking: “Why does any of this matter?” Scientific knowledge is borderless, so does it really matter if we hear about Canadian science?
To answer this I suggested that there is a split: for people learning about science, for keeping up with all the cool developments that are taking shape around the world, then no, it doesn’t really matter. Canadian, American, English, Australian—wherever your news comes from doesn’t really make much a difference.
But, there is the other side of it. There are serious scientific issues in Canadian life—the tar sands, oceans management, fisheries research, the climate of the Arctic—that will only really be addressed by Canadians, and outside of the larger issues of climate change or biodiversity, only really affect Canadians. Without established venues to discuss and report and debate science, without an established culture of science communication, there won’t necessarily be the conversation that we need on these and other issues.
I noted that when people aren’t aware of the work being done by Canadian scientists or Canadian federal agencies that it could become easier for those projects to slide away, a case that came to the fore recently with the cutting of federal scientists, the potential closing of the Experimental Lakes, or the issue of muzzling.
Were you trying to be harsh in your assesment? I read the presentation description which didn’t have a single positive comment about efforts in English Canada; did that hold true for the presentation or did you leaven it with some positive comments (and what were those positive comments)?
There is a lot of good science communication going on in Canada. Personally, I think that Daily Planet is a treasure, and following the session I had people asking how they could see it from abroad. Marie-Claire, and some audience members, raised examples of informal or non-mainstream media projects that are doing great work on science communication and science outreach.
The way that many Science Online sessions operate is this: The session leaders lay out an issue, a quick spiel to set up and frame a perceived problem, and then the discussion is opened to the floor. As I said, the conference attendees are brilliant, and I wanted to tap them as much as possible to offer up things they’ve tried, things that they’ve seen work, or to generally just bounce ideas around. The unconference format is unusual in this respect, in that the session leaders are not necessarily meant to be the ones with the answers. The one-hour blitz is the starting point, the opening remarks in a conversation that continues onward online.
Ideally, what you like to see take place in Canada, science communicationwise?
The most important thing to me, and something that I think has happened already, is just to get people talking. I want my international friends to know what we do and what barriers we are facing, and I want those within Canada to come together. Canada is a pretty sprawly place, and the biggest barriers we face stem from being so spread out. The first step in growing our science communication ecosystem and infrastructure is for everyone to know about each other, to know what we’re all up to and working on, and to put our heads together on creative projects. I have some fledgling ideas for things I want to work on, but can’t even begin to claim to have any real answers.
Would it surprise you to know that about the same time you gave your presentation a group (iwith no prior knowledge of said presentation) had formed to create a Canadian science blogging network? Full disclosure: I am a member of this group.
I heard whispers of this in the hallways at the conference, and think it’s a great idea. Building a blogging network will help draw people together, and help them find one another. I think that we have a lot of really serious issues to tackle, but this is a great place to start.
Purely for fun, I have three names for a national network. (These names are not from the group.) Which one would you join, if you one had one choice?
(a) Canuckian science blog(ger) network?
(b) Canadian science blog(ger) network?
(c) Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Canadian science blog(ger) network?
The last one, definitely.
Thanks for your time and I hope you have a lovely weekend.
1) Canada Gained Independence Only 30 Years Ago
Though the Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867, giving the country the ability to self-govern free from specific British oversight, Canada didn’t really come into its own until 1982.
The final legal step was achieved in 1982 with the passage of the Canada Act, which contained another rule of construction declaring that no future British Act would have effect in Canada. — source
2) Though, The Queen of England Is Still Technically In Charge
Queen Elizabeth II is Canada’s constitutional monarch, and acting through the Parliament-appointed Governor-General she retains symbolic oversight of the country.
The Queen personifies the state and is the personal symbol of allegiance, unity and authority for all Canadians. Legislators, ministers, public services and members of the military and police all swear allegiance to The Queen. Elections are called and laws are promulgated in The Queen’s name. — source
Elections can’t be thrown without the Queen’s permission, and the Governor-General can kick out the current Prime Minister whenever he or she so chooses. But without their intervention…
3) The Prime Minister Could Rule Forever
The head-seat of Canadian federal politics has no term limit, meaning that as long as a leader keeps winning, they can keep ruling. William Lyon Mackenzie King was in charge for 21 years. On the flip side, Joe Clark ruled for 273 days before being kicked out by a vote of no-confidence.
4) Most of Canada Used To Be Owned By A Clothing Company
Russian scientists have just reported that they have successfully drilled into Lake Vostok, a vast, tepid body of water that rests under kilometers of ice beneath Antarctica’s glacial surface. Most news reports make mention of the long-duration drilling effort that it took to make it down to Lake Vostok, but I’ve yet to see an account of the on-again, off-again relationship between scientists and these mysterious subglacial lakes.
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Siegert about his recent book, Antarctic Subglacial Aquatic Environments for the American Geophysical Union‘s members-only newspaper, Eos. Martin is the head of the UK-led mission to drill into another Antarctic subglacial lake, Lake Ellsworth, later this year. The full interview I feel is well worth reading (though unfortunately it is behind a paywall), but at one point the interview turned to a discussion of the convoluted history of the scientific endeavour to reach beneath the ice.
Eos: Lake Sovetskaya and the larger Lake Vostok were first detected in 1968 and 1970, respectively, but the field of Antarctic subglacial aquatic research did not begin in earnest until the mid-1990s. What was the reason for this delay, and what changed to make scientists take notice?
Siegert: That’s a really good question. When we first knew about subglacial lakes, no one—not even glaciologists—seemed to care. The lakes are now a curiosity, but back then no one seemed curious about them! The geophysical data defining both Lake Sovetskaya and Lake Vostok were published in the late 1960s and mid-1970s, but then they were sort of lost to the literature—people’s research just didn’t follow them up. The first inventory of subglacial lakes, published in 1973, showed there to be 17 lakes, but it still didn’t get wider scientific traction and interest. The paper published in 1996 on Lake Vostok showed that the water was about 500 meters deep.
Now, this is only my opinion, but what I think happened is that between the 1970s and the 1990s there was a great deal of development in our understanding of life in extreme environments. I don’t think that idea was mature enough in the 1970s for microbiologists to take an interest in subglacial lakes. But in the 1990s, when the new information on the depth of Lake Vostok was announced, microbiologists began to take notice, believing that trapped within these ice-covered lakes were bacteria that hadn’t been exposed to air for millions of years, adapted to withstand the extreme conditions. So glaciologists presented information on subglacial lakes in the 1970s, and glaciologists still presented information on subglacial lakes in the 1990s. It’s just that there was a different audience available: In the 1990s the audience suddenly became not just glaciologists but microbiologists too.
Siegert shows that the assumed linear path of scientific progress, of one discovery leading to the next, is not necessarily the way science works. Sometimes, waning interests or unrelated advances take a previous curiosity and transform it overnight into the next frontier.
You can learn a lot about yourself through introspection. You can learn even more through conversation. But retrospection… retrospection is different. It allows you to see the trends in your own behaviour or preferences, free of the constraints of what you should, or think you ought, to prefer.
Retrospection is great for soul-searching and big life decisions, but it works equally well for mundane things; like artistic tastes, or hobby preferences.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been carrying my camera around quite a bit. I’m not a great photographer, but I enjoy it. One of the most important steps in developing as a photographer is to figure out what you like taking pictures of. That understanding can later guide the inevitable expansion of your equipment: lenses, camera, lighting. For that, introspection and conversation are fine, but retrospection is best.
So, this is a slideshow of my favourite 11 pictures I’ve taken this year. I’ve tried to not over-process the images, for the most part leaving them the way they came out of the camera.
So what have I learned? I like photographs with a short focal length, that is, only a very narrow slice of the image is in focus.
I take close-ups. Probably too many close-ups. (It was hard to find any photos that weren’t.)
I like pictures with moody lighting, or shots that focus on something other than the obvious subject.
Also, apparently, I like taking pictures of animals.
Another year down, another batch of files archived in the development of a new hobby.
A female friend of mine, after reading the story, asked me
“Hey Colin, what was your response to this piece? I have a guy friend who isn’t responding well and I’m trying to explain it to him, but it might be helpful to have a male perspective.”
The only response I could come up with was to recount a story; a scene I’d seen play out in a coffee shop where I often spend my afternoons writing.