Writing in an Hour: Story Ideas From a Journalistic Blogger
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.