Monday, November 8, 2010

Maybe 'New Media' Needs a New Metaphor

Saturday I attended a couple of workshops about "New Media" ("Experiments in new media: Beautiful failures and startling successes" before lunch and "Rebooting science journalism: Adapting to the new media landscape" afterwards.) Together they convinced me that neither revolution nor evolution are the right metaphors for the impact of digital media.

A better model for what's happening in our profession is a forced migration. Old niches (like "science beat reporter" or "science writer for magazines") are drying up, so we're stampeding into new media. Not because they're better than our old watering holes in print and radio and TV, but because we have no choice. More and more of us find now that only digital media give us access to the public. Afternoon panelists Emily Bell (Columbia Journalism School) and Bora Zivkovic (new director of Scientific American's blogs) both explained the situation with rather unnerving detachment: it's no longer the case in 2010 that people can expect to make a decent living as "science journalists."

Both also said that science journalism itself would keep thriving. (Be comforted, about-to-be-extinct stegosaurus. The reptile class as a whole is secure.) How can this be? Essentially, it's because digital tools empower people to create good science journalism without getting paid. They can, like the award winning blogger Ed Yong, produce great blog posts about science in their off-hours, when they aren't at their day jobs. Or they can use social media to get once-passive readers to supply content for free. (My fellow-fellow Cori Vanchieri blogged the "beautiful failures" workshop, and provides a fine guide to many of these social-media tools in this post, so I won't reinvent that wheel. There are also good tutorials and summaries at zombie journalism, as a couple of panelists pointed out.)

For people used to traditional journalism, it's important not to be the kind of emigrant who refuses to learn the new language or otherwise adapt to a new country. We shouldn't, for example, nostalgically think of "old media" as a lost paradise. As one questioner in the afternoon workshop noted, there are plenty of over-hasty stories, misunderstood concepts and recycling of press releases in print and broadcast science journalism. (In fact, as you can read in this 2005 Economist story, the political scientist Matthew Hindman found when he compared star bloggers to star newspaper journalists, the bloggers were more likely to have an advanced degree.)

But other common migrant's error is to tell ourselves that everything about the new place is bright and beautiful and great, while the old country was awful. Yes, as the morning panel showed, social media lets us do great things we couldn't do before, like engaging the audience in real conversation. Yes, as Zivkovic said, blogs read well because they're not constrained by the conventions of old journalistic forms. Yes, this stuff is fun, and there's nothing wrong with enjoying ourselves. "There's a huge value in doing things because they're fun," said Mark Coatney, one of the morning panelists who is now the "media evangelist" for Your own enjoyment is a good predictor of your audience's, he said.

Trouble is, no one knows how our new media environment will support good journalism about science. Standards of quality for online journalism don't exist (part of Bell's new job at the Tow Center at Columbia Journalism School, she said, is to create these). There are things that old-media approaches could do—supply a travel budget to research a story, support a month's worth of real research before producing a word—that we don't see in "new media" tools of science journalism.

It's easy to caricature such reservations as what's-in-it-for-me self-interest, but I don't think that's fair. Our problem as our profession migrates from the old familiar niches is that we don't really know where we're going to. We're taking part in an ongoing media experiment. And the essence of an experiment, of course, is that the experimenter doesn't know how it ends.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Get the Numbers Right" Resources

Apologies for taking so long to get this list posted. Here are a few links to resoures that were mentioned during "Get the Numbers Right."

1. Andrew Gelman's blog:

2. "Odds Are, It's Wrong" by Tom Siegfried:

3. I didn't mention this, but fellow freelancer Andreas von Bubnoff told me the Atlantic's November cover story is about John Ioannidis, who wrote the 2005 PLOS story "Why Most Published Research Findings are False." A link to the Atlantic story:

Von Bubnoff wrote a piece for the LA Times on Ioannidis and stats, part of which appeared in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008. His work can be found here: .

4. I mentioned STATS, a web page run by statisticians at George Mason University. I'm very interested in hearing from anyone who takes advantage of their stats-interpretation, which you can use by clicking the "Are you a journalist?" link at . This web page also includes many articles about different measures.

5. For quick and clear definitions, the NCI dictionary is very useful:

Feel free to add to this list in the comments section.

The way we tweeted

Tweet - The Twitter bird has escaped ...What does a tweeter like me add to a meeting like ScienceWriters2010?

As promised, you can compare the twitter vs. blog coverage. To make this easier, here are the tweets from one session (Get the Numbers Right), including mine and others'. And for comparison, Sandeep Ravindran's blog post of the same talk. Obviously Sandeep's is easier to read post-meeting, with its luxuries like full sentences and organizational structure.

My biggest question, after a full day of tweeting, is this: Who are we tweeting for?
  • For those who couldn't make it to the meeting? Twitter users from afar have been replying to meeting tweets, RTing choice lines, and thanking attendees for tweeting.
  • For those who are in other sessions and need to time-shift? I had high hopes to use the tweets this way myself, but it relies on good transcript tools. I'm not convinced that the right tools exist...yet.
  • For those who are in the same session and want to discuss it? In other words, a backchannel. A few of us were using the tweets this way.
I was a programmer before I was a science writer, so it's interesting to compare the twitter coverage here to IRC backchannels from technology conferences. In those cases, people's comments were rarely just repeats of what the speaker said; usually they were critical, questioning, or providing more information. Groups of people would get into a discussion of a related subject, and yes, they might be IRC-ing with each other instead of listening to the talk.

Today's tweets often just propagated pithy quotes. Hey, what is twitter for if not pith? One typical selection was Tom Siegfried's comment that the red flags for wrong science (first report on something, hot topic, contradicts previous knowledge) are the same as the recipe for newsworthiness. Another was the question put to the panelists of "Building the Big Book": If all books on earth disappeared and you could save just one, which would it be? (don't worry, @vanessadamico tweeted their answers too.) Whenever a speaker said something surprising or funny or beautiful, a spray of tweets would appear all at once repeating it.

Live tweeting was an interesting experience for me: I had to decide, before I forgot what the speaker said, whether it was worth repeating. I tended to err on the side of "yes" - stats show me as the day's most prolific tweeter.

It's not easy to know what to tweet. Several times during a talk, the presenter would introduce a topic - like "reporters often get odds ratios wrong" or "statistical significance doesn't mean what you think it means" - that it took a while to explain. I wanted to tweet the idea, but how to do that when you haven't digested the explanation, and aren't sure if you'll understand it by the time the speaker finishes explaining? One audience member missing the point isn't a big deal, unless they're trying to report it live. You can see this happen in the transcript: tweets flounder around until an "aha" moment when several people tweet the conclusion.

Related problems include: what if you missed tweeting the beginning of the story, but the middle is so good you can't resist? (I tweeted anyway, about Gelman's sex ratio study.) What if you forget to tweet something? (Like the full name of the speaker who I referred to by initials for the next half hour - oh well.) What if you get a fail whale mid-talk? (Try, try again.) And the classic tweeter's dilemma: what to do when there's something that just can't be squeezed into 140 characters? (Wait for the blog post!)

One of my favorite things about tweeting today was providing extra information referred to in a talk. When a speaker showed an article or mentioned a topic that is worth reading up on, I quickly googled up the relevant link and tweeted it as part of my coverage. This is similar to the idea of google jockeying, which could be a fun experiment for a future meeting.

As for time-shifting, it's not easy on twitter. The #sciwri10 tag separates meeting coverage from off-topic tweets, but with four tracks of talks, that hashtag covers four overlapping topics in the same 90 minutes. To make the transcript above, I had to hand-pick the tweets on my chosen talk, which was tough because a concurrent but unrelated session was way more popular. What might help is an agreed-upon tag for the talk or the track. I tried using both #sciwri10 and #stats for the stats talk. (That at least worked better than the online commenting talk, where I attempted to use #onlinecommenting before dropping it because, geez, 17 characters?!)

How do you make a twitter transcript anyway? If you've got your hash tag, you can do a twitter search or use a tool like What the hashtag. Unfortunately I couldn't find any transcript tools with fine-grained control, like the ability to include or exclude certain users or secondary tags. (Are they out there and I missed them? Please comment!) Twitter seems to have removed the RSS link on users' profiles, or else I might have done the job with a perl script. This wouldn't be the first time that people's use of twitter outpaces twitter's abilities. Remember ScienceWriters08 where we had to use third-party tool just to search for our hash tag?

What do you think about twitter coverage? How have you been using tweets during the meeting? Who are YOU tweeting for?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dead-tree cred counts online

By Christine Mlot and Melissae Fellet

Three new online ventures in publishing have two things in common: top editors with old-school, self-described dead-tree credentials, and decent traffic--150,000 or more unique views per month--for even long-form narratives. And all are managing to avoid or not rely on advertising to pay the bills.

"What you put out really good products," said Miller-McCune editor John Mecklin, a former newspaper reporter and editor of High Country News. “That is the future. I see a whole bunch of examples where that is happening.”

Roger Cohn discussed coming from Audubon and Mother Jones to launch Yale Environment 360. “One of the things that struck me was how quickly you can build an audience,” and how online stories can have multiple lives. Eight months after a video report on mountain top mining was published to the site, a columnist for Le Monde linked to it and traffic exploded.

The New Haven Independent arose when 25-year veteran reporter Paul Bass saw that "out-of-state media conglomerates abandoned local news,” Melissa Bailey said. The online newspaper whose coverage never went beyond city limits then took on the decidedly national topic of nanotechnology with support from the Online Journalism Project. Apart from foundation support, the project gets donations from readers and sponsors.

Foundations and alumni support the Yale site, which is housed at and received start-up funds from the university. But the site is “editorially independent,” said Cohn.

Miller-McCune magazine launched knowing they were fully funded for five years, due to a large donation from Sara Miller McCune, founder of the academic publisher SAGE publications. They take a long-term approach to profitability. “You don’t start a business and expect to break even in 18 months,” Mecklin said.

Karl Leif Bates, organizer of the session that attracted some 50 science writers late on Saturday afternoon, is bullish on the what the new online world can foster for journalism. “These are emerging life forms that are springing up like mushrooms.”

Photo: Flickr zarky

Secrets from the seasoned: making a medical conference work for you

Long time medical reporters shared savvy tips on how to make the most of a medical conference this afternoon at Science Writers 2010 in New Haven, CT, while a scientific press room manager revealed tips for public information officers on how to garner attention for their stories.

Seasoned medical journalist Bob Finn, the San Francisco Bureau chief of International Medical News Group discussed the ins and outs of a conference press room. He disclosed his list of essential must-have equipment for covering a conference: at the top of his list the Kodak ZI8, which records video and has an audio jack. He carries back-up recorders, batteries and a long extension cord, as you never find an outlet close to your seat. A quick snap of power point slides and posters captures all the data and figures he needs for his stories. A swift tip: shoot the conflict of interest slide, which the presenter only shows for a second right after the presentation title.

Peggy Peck, executive editor of MedPage Today, stressed the importance of “research, research, research.” Journalists should show up at the conference prepared, an easy task in the digital age. “Let your fingers do the walking,” she said. “Almost everything can be found online.” She stressed that you need to know what was written beforehand to give the story context. Without knowing the history, you can’t spot new findings from rehashed research. A key question to always keep in mind is who is funding the research. And keep your ears tuned for magic words like “coffee.” When MedPage ran a story on how coffee reduces circulating insulin, the surge of traffic crashed their site for two hours.

Eric Rosenthal, an independent medical journalist and special correspondent for Oncology Times, likes to trawl a meeting. You can be spoon fed by the press room or you can pay attention to what is happening at the meeting, he said. “I eavesdrop on the big names during the plenary sessions to see their reactions. Then I ask them afterward why they reacted that way.” He strongly feels that serendipity can be your best friend, but you also have to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves by learning the art of the ambush.

Jim Sliwa, media relations manager for the American Society for Microbiology and long time press room coordinator for two large scientific meetings provided ten clever tips to public information officers for promoting your research at a major medical meeting:

1) Do your homework before calling the meeting PIO: often they post tip sheets on their sites

2) Start early: the abstracts are submitted 6 months in advance and the scientists know they will be attending 2 ½ months before the meeting. The press rooms start putting together their packets the day after the scientists learn they are invited to present.

3) Have a story

4) Don’t piggyback irrelevant research

5) Connect: if you are putting out a press release, send a copy to the conference PIO.

6) Be transparent

7) Be helpful

8) Solicit advice and then take it to heart

9) Don’t play games: people remember when they have been burned

10) Remember: Bigger isn’t always better. If a conference PIO spreads your story by word of mouth, even if they don’t issue a press conference, many journalists will pick up the story.

A Living Elements of Style

Voice, story, character, structure, and authority. The elements of a great novel wouldn’t look much different (with the possible exception of authority). And the message of this afternoon's session "Great science writing part II: Building the big book" was clear: science writing, at its very best, is great literature. In science, we may find the comedies and tragedies, the romances and poetry, of our age.

Each of the panelists took on a different element, beginning with style -- as interpreted by author KC Cole. She described how she veered into science, from writing for magazines like People and Glamour, when she had grown tired of her own voice, a “chatty” style that had become overly familiar. As a stylist, she cautioned, you need to avoid becoming a caricature. Practice different ranges.

Next, author Jonathan Weiner talked about how scientists and science journalists often have different views of what makes a good story. Weiner cited French mathematician Blaise Pascal on the subject: “What’s a story? You want to be able to say, ‘It goes like this: ~~~~~.’” (Pascal drew a curvy, graph-like line in his journal.) And the novelist John le CarrĂ©: “The cat sat on the mat -- that’s not a story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat -- that’s a story.” Great science writing is a matter of seamlessly intertwining these two kinds of stories: scientific exposition and narrative tension.

To author Charles Seife, characters are like "lampposts that illuminate history.” And in his book Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea, finding a constant light source was a problem, given that the narrative covered two thousand years of history. The solution? Personifying the number, and casting Zero itself as the protagonist. In his book, Zero is born, grows, struggles, clashes, and even punches a hole in something.

Speaking about structure, author Jennifer Ouellette drew a metaphor between a book and a car. If story is the engine, character is the heart, and voice is the comfy interior, structure holds the whole thing together. Start with an outline, she says, but know it’s going to change.

And lastly, author Carl Zimmer (pictured above) took on the most idiosyncratic of the five elements: authority. “It’s problematic for people like myself -- that is, English majors,” he acknowledged. But building authority is ultimately a matter of becoming obsessed, finding an addiction, digging into history -- and not skimping on footnotes. Even an English major can get to know a subject better than all but a few people. “If you don’t believe me about that,” Zimmer said, “we can talk later about shark tapeworms.”

Last book standing

Near the end of "Great science writing II: Building the big book" session, Robert Lee Hotz presented the panelists with a thought experiment. It was an update / modern cousin of the classic scenario: If your house is burning and you can grab one book from your bookshelf, what would it be? (Though in Hotz's setup, all books had been digitized and physical books were all but nonexistent. Then one day, he says, the power went out and all those e-books were lost. Which single book do you still have? Hotz's setup adds another dimension--it's not just your house that was destroyed, but all books ever published in history.)

Carl Zimmer said On the Origin of Species. Jennifer Ouellette followed with Newton's Principia. Charles Seife thought for a moment and offered up the Bible. Jonathan Weiner saved The Way Things Are by Lucretius ("He's already survived at least one apocalypse," Weiner added) and K. C. Cole said she wouldn't let go of the Bose-Einstein Letters.

These answers followed a revealing session in which each author personified one particular aspect of writing a book about science. Hearing writers dig into their own methods and present their experiences in light of these aspects was a novel and useful way to hear about the process, not necessarily exclusive to books. Many of their comments, reflections and experiences speak to more universal themes. Figure out when you write, find the best voice for your piece, be deliberate about structure. Each writer has to figure out how to make it work.

This session was a nice follow-up to the one last night at the Beinecke Library, in which some of these writers read from their works.

How about the rest of us? What single book about science would you grab from your shelf? I'm still chewing on that question, but The Elements keeps popping into my mind.