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.

Shooting 101: Video for Writers

In little over 60 minutes, Christie Nicholson and Eric Olson delivered a crash course on video reporting for beginners.

They passed around a sample starter kit (a $112 Kodak Zi6 pocket video camera, a tripod, and an ear mic) and got down to business by offering tips via video example. It’s the do’s and don’ts of news clips – here they are:

1. Keep it short. News videos should last about 2 minutes. And you’ve got about 20 seconds before your audience goes South, warned Nicholson, a freelance contributor to Scientific American.

2. Attract the viewer. Aim for visually pleasing scenes (i.e. not a researcher in his chair.) As for audio, don’t shy away from sounds and music. And regarding the script, remember humor. By example, Olson, an audio-video editor at Nature, showed us one of his videos, in which he begins a story by asking why anyone would smash rabbit bones.

3. Stop the tape. Don’t be afraid to turn off the camera to ask your source to repeat something that didn’t come out quite right. If an ambulance zooms by, stop and start again. If it’s windy, relocate.

4. Divide composition space into thirds. Nicholson and Olson illustrated this lesson by projecting live videos onto a screen with a 3-by-3 grid overlain. The subject does not sit front and center, but rather fills up two of the columns – eyes line up with the bottom of the top row. NASW attendees tried it out for themselves by composing mock interviews. In the video posted here, Nancy Huddleston of the National Academy of Sciences does a nice job of lining up her mock-interviewee, Mel Berkowitz of Interon Productions in Jamaica, New York.

5. Record footage beyond the interview. In the film world, that’s called B-roll. To demonstrate, Olson shot a mock-video of Nicholson counting money.

6. Use a tripod. And avoid moving the camera around, zooming in or panning out.

7. Interview tips: Ask three questions before your serious questions begin to warm-up the interviewee. And then for nice color, ask people to talk about themselves.

Taking Down Britney Spears: How Science Writers Can Fight for a Spot in the Media

The conflict between new media and old media or bloggers and journalists may seem like the hot topic these days, but at least one panelist this afternoon believes that such thinking is out of vogue. What is more important is talking about innovative ways to get science stories to people who don’t know it can be fun, even if that means mixing science in with news of Britney Spears, said panelist Bora Zivkovic at today’s session on “Rebooting science journalism: Adapting to the new media landscape.”

Bora, a newly minted blog editor at Scientific American, doesn’t see organizations such as his or Discover, Seed and Nature competing with each other in the new media landscape; rather he feels they are collaborators with a common mission. The real competitor, he says, is Britney Spears.

“We are all in this together now,” said Bora. “We are all in the same business of promoting science and pushing science literacy. I think if we figure out ways to collaborate, we can fight for our piece of the media pie and show people that science is fun, interesting and important.”

Fellow panelist Emily Bell left her post at The Guardian a few months ago to direct the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism. She said her new role as a “hackademic” is giving her the time to think about how to crack very hard problems in journalism today. She admitted that she didn’t have the answer on how to keep our jobs – and not surprisingly none of the panelists could impart such wisdom – but she did convey one key mantra: nothing is ever going to stay the same.

And she happily gave a number of tips on how we as journalists could evolve to survive in the current climes. (1) Adapt your mindset to the fact that journalism is always going to be changing. (2) Realize that the content and the platform go hand in hand, and that you have to innovate both at the same time. (3) Differentiate yourself as a writer and a brand, developing a deep expertise or niche. (4) Understand the process, recognizing all the elements that go into a great story, whether it is the BP oil spill or the midterm elections.

Emily, who is creating a new program that combines computer science and journalism, emphasized that science journalists of the future are going to need a different skill set and a different way of thinking. She doesn’t see blogging and journalism as all that different, quoting that 35 percent of bloggers were or are currently employed as journalists.

“There is this snarky debate that the web creates bad journalism, and I just don’t agree with that,” explained Emily. “There is no dead air time on the internet, absolutely none. There is no set inventory to fill like in other venues – the stories are never finished, and they can continually be commented on.”

Blogging became a popular topic in the session – how to tell blog from a news article, how to tell a good blog from a bad blog, how to use blogging to get into writing. Bora, who was the first NASW member to be accepted on the basis of blog posts alone, recognized that blogging may be a new and frightening thing for a number of veteran writers. But he explained that for those who want to explore blogs, there are a number of science blogging networks that provide a stamp of approval on their content that is unparalleled in other subject matter such as politics or knitting. The moderator warned Bora not to antagonize knitting bloggers.

Bora’s reply: “I wouldn’t do that, they are powerful and they have needles.”

Telling stories with video

Science writers aren’t just learning to write anymore; in these digital times they want to learn about Web video.

Confession: I stole that lead. It’s the opening narration for a short video produced and directed by volunteers who attended the NASW workshop “Producing video, on camera and off.” Instructors Christie Nicholson, freelancer and online contributor at Scientific American; and Eric R. Olson, audio-video editor at the Nature Publishing Group; walked us through the process of composing and shooting several quick interviews. Then they showed us how to organize the shots and add narration. “It’s not rocket science,” Nicholson reassured us.

Olson passed around a surprisingly small equipment kit, used for making Web videos at Scientific American, which contained a Kodak camera and microphone. (A Flip camera is an alternative to the Kodak model.) The other two essentials: a tripod and editing software such as Final Cut Pro or iMovie. Price for everything: only about $200.

We looked at some examples of videos that worked well, such as Carl Zimmer’s cuttlefish-bites-man story []. The most important elements of a good video story, the instructors explained, are action and engaging characters.

So where is the amazingly cool video that my classmates and I produced? Unfortunately, there wasn’t time for the other two crash courses we need to become full-fledged video producer/directors: doing an actual shoot of a real event, and editing our material in post-production, but those would make great sessions for ScienceWriters 2011.

Image: Nicholson (left) and Olson with the video reporting essentials: microphone, camera and Gorillapod.

Book authors channel Strunk & White

Robert Lee Hotz, moderator of the panel “Great science writing part II: Building the big book,” introduced the session by announcing, “We’re going to turn ourselves into a living Elements of Style.” Representing five elements were science book authors K.C. Cole (voice), Jonathan Weiner (story), Charles Seife (character), Jennifer Ouellette (structure), and Carl Zimmer (authority).

Cole cautioned writers against becoming attached to one voice. When people know that you’ve written something, she said, “that’s not a good thing.” She suggested trying on different voices, the same way that singers practice in different ranges.

Next, Weiner described the disparity between writers’ and scientists’ notion of story. While scientists seek universal patterns, writers look for a character facing an obstacle. Weaving those two notions together, he says, is a challenge for long-form science writers.

Seife spoke of characters as lamp-posts that illuminate a story and take the reader from one event to the next. He faced an unusual problem when writing a book about the number zero, which spanned more than two thousand years. “I turned zero into a character,” he says, giving the number verbs and a story arc.

Ouellette compared structure to a laser: light by itself radiates in all directions, but a laser focuses and directs the light. While she has several files of book ideas, she says, they sit there until she figures out which structure the story will take.

Finally, Zimmer gave an example of an error in his book The Tangled Bank, which incorrectly refers to one anatomist as Dutch. In "some of my nightmares," he says, people will refer to the book to look up the scientist's nationality. Book writing requires you to become a “junkie” about the subject, he says, and footnotes can show discerning readers that you’ve done your homework.

Here are a few of their favorite tools: Experiments in social media, part 2

"There's a huge value in doing things just because they're fun," said tumblr's Mark Coatney. Sounds great, but for those of us who are untutored in the ways of new media, where to begin?'s Steve Buttry (more below) shared some of his favorite resources, including a blog called Zombiejournalism, whose tagline reads: dispatches from the walking dead of today's "old" media. It's a source for keeping track of what's going on in the new media world. National Wildlife Fund's Danielle Brigida added  Mashable as a favorite source for news in social and digital media, and Best Blog, a blog review site on Wordpress.

Several tutorials exist to help newbies jump into social media. Steve Buttry's blog has a lot of Twitter resources, he says, because Twitter is his main tool. And for those of us who worry about wasting hours on Twitter, you'll find a time management tool as well.

To find what you need on Facebook and Twitter, the speakers mentioned two sources, Social Mention and Kurrently. Finally, Brigida posts all of her presentations on Slideshare. "It's like PowerPoint on youTube." And it's a great way to find presentations on a topic you want to learn about. Her slides from today's presentation are here.

Mike Spear from Genome Alberta reminded the audience that all of this new media is just another communications channel. The same rules apply to traditional and new media. "If you can't tell a good story on radio or TV, you can't tell a good story online." Think in old media terms for how you tell the story, but think outside the box on where you tell the story and whom you tell it to. was launched 3 months ago to cover local Washington, DC, news. The name is a perfect fit, according to Buttry, director of community engagement. "In a digital world, news is always unfolding. And the path to success will involve a lot of changes, surprises, and failures along the way." He spent the bulk of his talk discussing the departure of general manager Jim Brady. One more reason TBD makes sense.

Video for the Web

Trigger happy? You're in luck. Christie Nicholson, video producer and contributor to Scientific American, says now is the best time to get involved with online video. People’s TV and online video streaming are soon going to be one and the same, and Web video is growing at a phenomenal pace.

Nicholson and Eric Olson, video and audio editor for Nature Publishing Group, ran a hands-on workshop today on the basics of good video production. After a quick introduction to the basic equipment that a science writer-turned-producer would need, and tips on shooting and interviewing, volunteers from the audience played interviewer and producer. Here are some tips I took away from the session.

Action is key to telling an interesting visual story. Running, jumping, eating, biting. Nicholson's tip for judging good visuals: is the image/video still interesting if you turn the sound off? Take this New York Times video of cuttlefish that they showed us: See where the cuttlefish bites the scientist? That’s good action. (It would have been neater still, Nicholson says, if they got the creature to bite Zimmer too. More biting, it seems, is key.)

Take time to find characters who speak with emotion. If they talk with their hands, and with their face, that’s a valuable bonus.

Pay attention to sound quality – you only get one shot at recording all your source matter, so keep your headphones on. Stay away from trucks and sirens. Keep out of the wind, and don’t be afraid to stop your interview and start again until your sound quality is just super.

When shooting, make sure the person talking is well lit. Take your time. Avoid windows.

While interviewing, take a few questions to get the interviewee comfortable on camera (Olson says people usually get comfy after three questions). Ask them to repeat the questions in their answers – this makes stitching together the final video easier. (And, don’t forget to sound check!)

When shooting additional footage (b-roll in production parlance) zoom slowly, pan slowly, almost twice as slowly as you’re tempted to.

Finally, when editing, keep it short. Online videos these days typically run for about 2 minutes, Nicholson says. The scripts for video and audio pieces are snappy too. Nicholson, who produces the “60-Second Mind” weekly podcast for Scientific American, said these one-minute pieces don’t typically run longer than 200 words on a page.

The Penthouse Is Falling

David Dobbs, accomplished author and moderator of the session "Rebooting Science Journalism: Adapting to the New Media Landscape," described his dismay at finally feeling like he "made it" in the freelance writing world, only to have the industry change and the magazine he worked for close.

"I was at the party in the penthouse, then they began taking the building down," Dobbs said. At first he faulted people changing their news habits from print to the Internet, and predicted doom for science journalism because of it. But now he's come to admit that science journalism is alive and well, it's just changed its form and pay scale.

Betsy Mason, editor of Wired Science, claims to have heard of the "penthouse" of writing, but characterizes herself as playing ping pong in the basement. She edits both blogged and reported stories for Wired Science and struggles with differentiating the two forms effectively for readers because they are posted right next to each other on the site.

Despite her biases in coming from the print world, Mason has come to realize that it's OK to tweet a story even though all the reporting is not complete yet. "I've learned that sharing online is good. There are more opportunities now for contributing to the science discussion. Instead of placing blame, we need to think about science journalism as a whole and how we can make it stronger than ever."

Most of the discussion in this session involved changing expectations and taking advantage of the new tools available (blogs, tweets, Facebook) for writers to showcase their expertise. Although doing so may not pay at first, it can eventually open up opportunities.

The ability to cover a story more thoroughly without space constraints was noted by panelists as an advantage blogging has over traditional media. Bloggers are also not constrained by writing to a certain reading level.

"Blogging makes journalism better by adding value and through personal reporting," said Dobbs. "There's no set inventory on the internet."

How do we reveal the hidden patterns in data?

There they are: hundreds of digits nestled in their little cells, staring back at you from within the Excel file they call home. Like a swarm of bees, the numbers assault your mind with a collective buzz signifying nothing. But there is a language to learn. You need to pull the melody out of the static, to give these pixelated numbers color, texture, flavor and symbolic meaning. You've got to visualize this data.

At the Data Visualization for Reporting and Storytelling session, three speakers discussed how to make information beautiful, how to mine data sets for hidden narratives and where to find free online data imaging tools anyone can use. The session featured Peter Aldhous, San Francisco bureau chief of New Scientist, David Harris, Editor of Symmetry magazine and Eric Hand, who works for Nature and is an MIT Knight Fellow.

The take home message: Symbols, shapes and colors reveal patterns and distinctions that raw numbers often conceal.

"Columns of numbers are not very good ways to find patterns," said David Harris. It's simply too difficult to see relationships between data points when all you look at are the numbers themselves. Harris further explained that visualizing data can provide some unexpected benefits: (1) you can find errors in data sets and (2) you can uncover manipulated data.

When it comes to representing data, scientists are often too detail oriented and have difficulty in relating with the lay reader's perspective, Harris argued. In contrast, journalists can provide a more useful perspective infused with context. But, Harris cautioned, one should only use data visualization when it's genuinely the best way to tell the story - it's not a gimmick.

In one visualization, Peter Aldhous compared healthcare spending and life expectancy for various countries including the U.S., Japan, Australia, France, Canada and the United Kingdom. Life expectancy was displayed on the X axis in years and spending on the Y axis. As dynamic Google Motion Chart made clear, a shift occured in the 1980s: the amount the U.S. spent on healthcare suddenly became incommensurate with the benefit to life expectancy. Whereas the other countries continued to improve their life expectancy without a sharp increase in healthcare spending, the trajectory of the relationship between spending and longevity for U.S. citizens swung up at a sharp angle. The U.S. was suddenly spending a lot more than everyone else but the extra investments did little to improve life expectancy - and that trend continues to the present day.

Eric Hand emphasized sifting through databases, like the U.S. Census, to discover stories that most people don't bother to discover or have no idea even exist. Consider, for example, how many people in America actually have indoor plumbing. Many of those who don't must rely on outhouses - even today. Hand found one 80-year-old woman who daily carried buckets of water between her home and the nearest outhouse, quite a distance away.

The speakers also suggested a couple of free online tools:

--Harris recommended MIT Media Lab's program Processing, "an open source programming language and environment for people who want to create images, animations, and interactions."

--Aldhous pointed to Google Motion Charts, "a dynamic chart to explore several indicators over time"

"Use these tools to explore data, poke it, see what's there," Aldhous said. Data visualization does not need to be scary or overly complex. Anyone can do it.

Looking for a story? Try a spreadsheet.

Last year, 14 stem cell biologists from outside the US complained to journal editors that their papers were being sabotaged in the peer review process, resulting in delays or rejections. A provocative claim — but was it true?

Peter Aldhous, San Francisco Bureau Chief of New Scientist, got to the bottom of the story: Yes, in top journals, stem cell papers submitted by American researchers are published faster than are papers submitted by non-US researchers. What's more, one researcher — Shinya Yamanaka — gets cited far more often than anybody else. Aldhous discovered all this thanks to data visualization.

If I learned one thing at this afternoon's data visualization session, it's this: working with data can not only help journalists tell great stories, but find great stories.

Aldhous and his fellow panelists — Eric Hand, a reporter at Nature, and David Harris, editor of symmetry — showed dozens of examples of the ways in which they have incorporated data sets (large and small) into their stories. Eric once used census data to map all of the outhouses in Arkansas. David helped his wife, a criminologist, track life events of prisoners.

Luckily, spotting interesting patterns in data is easier than you might think. The panelists mentioned several free and easy-to-use online tools for making infographics. Here are a few of my favorites:

--Tableau Public: Allows you to publish interactive data to the web — for free, and no programming skills required!

--Google Docs Motion Chart: Simple bubble-chart maker that allows you to look at data over time

--geocommons: Create and share interactive geographic data and maps

Of course, putting together a clear and compelling infographic takes skill. I'll leave you with three tips from Eric:

1. Sometimes the best chart is no chart. If you can say it in words, say it.
2. Keep it simple (and in the service of the story). That is -- avoid infoporn. (Case in point.)
3. Be fair. You can manipulate people with data just as easily as you can manipulate them with words.

Image courtesy of New Scientist

New funders for science journalism: Is transparency enough?

By Jim Downing

A growing share of science news – particularly online – is produced with funding from foundations, industry and government. For science journalism, this reality raises a bundle of ethical questions: How much disclosure is enough? Is it possible to have a meaningful editorial “firewall” at an organization that gets all its money from a single funder? And are these new content sources contributing to the decline of in-house coverage of science at old-line media organizations?

Here’s a list from Robin Lloyd, the moderator of this afternoon’s “Partners and ethics in the new media era” session, of some of the most prominent examples of this trend, along with news coverage, and links to ethics policies.

Today’s panelists are playing central roles the evolution of this new tier of science writing. And it’s clear that there are still many open questions. Telling readers who paid for a story to be written is a good start. But things quickly get complicated.

Some highlights:

When a content provider has only one funder (as opposed to a the old model of a pool of advertisers), there’s more pressure on publisher-editor firewalls. On WebMD, noted Karl Bates, Duke University director of research communications, a sponsor such as a pharmaceutical company can fund the coverage of a particular topic – including a topic that is directly relevant to one of its products. Compare that with the old newspaper model, Bates said: “When we ran a tire company ad on page 2 of the paper, we wrote about a lot more than just tires.”

On the other hand, said Michael Lemonick, a longtime Time magazine reporter who is now a senior writer at Climate Central, the firewalls at legacy publications aren’t what they used to be either. He gave the example of how Time’s publisher pushed for more stories on addiction to please a pharma advertiser.

Peggy Girshman, executive editor at Kaiser Health News, described the variety of disclosure/transparency relationships KHN has with news sites that publish its stories. For stories that run in USA Today, for instance, KHN can’t quote anyone from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which means that a key voice on health issues gets cut out of the piece. Other partners, like the Washington Post, don’t have that same restriction. And there’s little consistency about what sites tell readers about KHN.

More broadly, it’s unclear whether the proliferation of free, donor-funded science content is helping to speed the decline of in-house coverage of science at magazines and newspapers. Girshman said this issue gives her pause; Lemonick was skeptical: “I don't think that if we don't give them content, they'd go find a reporter.”

It's about the conversation: Experiments in new media

"Social tools are a way to answer the phone for your readers," said Mark Coatney, director/media evangelist at tumblr. It's value is in interaction with your reader.

The four session presenters are trying different ways to chase their audiences and connect with them. Danielle Brigida, digital marketing manager at National Wildlife Fund (NWF) answered the phone and held onto a subscriber who described her problem via Twitter (see image). That told Brigida there was a problem, which she fixed. She also contacted the reader, who tried again and resubscribed, then tweeted happily about it. NWF tries many ways to reach its audience, with the motto "failing fast, failing cheap." They jump in and try lots of things, then measure how it works.

Tumblr, where anyone can set up a blog, allows lots of peer-to-peer interaction and elevates commenting, which is traditionally buried at the bottom of a website. Tumblr has reduced the barriers between consuming content and sharing it and stating your opinion. It's a good platform for sharing quickly, whether you're an individual or The Economist.

The website, GenOmics aggregates news from the genetics community for Genome Alberta, a funder of genetics research. They post material from many sources. Readers can post comments and video. Mike Spear, director of corporate communications, admits they have lots of readers, but not a lot of interaction--which he's after--yet. he invited journalists and PIOs to post original material.
None of the speakers were ready to call their projects stunning successes or brilliant failures. It's still too early to tell. But NWF's Brigida noted:"I only feel like I've failed when I've missed an opportunity to learn."

Stay tuned for a posting on's launch and the tools these new media wonks use to do their jobs.

Get with child, and other helpful hints for writing your book

Annie Paul, author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, did not take the usual, ho-hum road to pen her book. “I went to extreme measures,” she jokes. “I got pregnant.”

Although all of the panelists at “Great science writing part I: From eureka moment to book”, had their own adventures culminating in the birth of their own books, Paul’s was certainly the most creative. But thankfully, there are others ways to find inspiration and produce a worthy technology-driven tome, as shared by the speakers.

Maryn McKenna knew she had publishing gold when, after writing a freelance piece about MRSA and women for Self Magazine, “my email inbox exploded…and the story was picked up by The Today Show and Montel,” she recalls. “People wanted to know what the next dimension of the story was,” and thus a book proposal was conceived. Her book, Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, was published in 2010.

McKenna used a blog to organize her thoughts for her project, which is a great idea, echoed Brain Switek. His dinosaur-infused work, Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature” was also published this year. He described how he spent three years researching the field in order to gain the background necessary to write his book. During that time, he blogged every day. “A blog is a writing laboratory,” he stated, quoting another writer.

When you choose your subject, make certain you love it, because it will consume you for huge swaths of time. “[Writing] magazine articles [is] like dating someone, and writing a book is like marrying a person,” remarked Douglas Starr, author of “The Killer of Little Shepherds”. “If you pick the right person, it will be endlessly absorbing and it is the same thing with your book topic.”


Overheard last night from a sleeping science writer who wishes to remain anonymous:

"Mumble mumble Twitter mumble."

Discover and engage your digital audience

It’s all about the audience.

This morning’s panel “Your next book will be a pixel: Navigating e-books and e-rights” emphasized the importance of engaging with your readers both before and after the publication process.

The real change in the digital revolution of book publishing, said Guy Gonzales, director of Programming and Business Development, Digital Book World, is the ability to interact with your audience.

It’s an incredible time for an author to get your work out there and build an audience, he said.

People have been talking about e-book revolution for so long that people can be pessimistic about its potential, said Brandon Badger, product manager for Google Books. “This is the moment.” Prices are dropping on e-readers, people are adopting smart phones in droves, and e-book revenues are nearly doubling every year.

Non-fiction enhanced e-books, those with integrated audio or video, or extras like interviews, are a very vibrant area, and non-traditional publishers are looking for that kind of content, said Gonzales. The potential for interactive visualization of data, especially with books on science, is the real opportunity of the growth of digital books, said Badger.

Digital books and their related content can ease the way authors interact with their audience. Take the example of Stephen Elliott’s book, the Adderall Diaries. Elliot developed an application for smart phones that features a chat room where readers can interact with the author and each other, said Gonzales.

It’s becoming more important for authors to manage their own communities, said Jason Allen Ashlock, founder and principal of Moveable Type Literacy Group. “Find out who your audience is and find out how they will discover you,” said Jason. Content may be king, but discoverability may be even more important, he said. He also pointed out that if authors can find out who their audience is early on, then they can speak more clearly to them.

One audience member attempting to make the transition into new, more interactive technologies asked if she needed to learn programming. Ashloft says no, writers just need the right partners. He advises looking for the agents and publishers educated enough to know what’s possible for your digital publication.

But education doesn’t hurt—as a writer, the more educated you are about interactive technologies, the better you will be at finding partners who can help you. Debbie Stier, formerly senior vice president, associate publisher, and director of Digital Publishing, HarperCollins, said that getting a device is worth the investment. “Be as informed as possible about trends that are happening,” she said.” “We all need to be thinking about [smart] phones as sensory devices."

Science Writers Connect Across the Globe

From China to Chile, great science stories happen all over the world. Scientists have long been collaborating with their colleagues across international borders, and the World Federation of Science Journalists is helping science writers to do the same thing.

WFSJ aims to facilitate communication amongst its 41 member associations and their individual members, said Jean-Marc Fleury, executive director of the federation.

One venue for such communication is the upcoming World Conference of Science Journalists, which will be held in June in Cairo.

NASW is co-hosting the conference at a beautiful hotel on the banks of the Nile. According to Deborah Blum, the Program Committee Chair, the ideas and the food should flow freely. Members of NASW should be on the lookout for soon-to-be-posted information about travel fellowships.

WFSJ also works to foster relationships between science writers in the developing world and their colleagues in countries with more established journalism traditions. The SjCOOP project connects aspiring journalists in African and Arab nations with experienced mentors. New journalists from the program have already gone on to create new science beats, win prizes for their reporting, and cover science that has impacted policy decisions, said Olfa Labassi, the Chief Financial Officer of WFSJ.

Although American science journalists may be wondering about the growth potential for their profession in the United States, Deborah Blum noted that science journalism is exploding in other countries around the world. Internationally-minded science writers will have many opportunities to collaborate with a global community of colleagues.

Statistics in Journalism: Handle with Care

There are many ways to get statistics wrong, and we learned about some of them from the speakers at the 'Get the numbers right: A workshop on reporting statistics' session.

They also offered advice on how journalists could avoid the common mistakes and treat statistics right. Clearly this is a topic that many people care about, judging by how packed the room was.

Odds Ratios Vs Relative Risk
Stephen Ornes started off by drawing on his experience as a fact-checker, and talked about his pet peeve: the inaccurate treatment of Odds Ratios.

Odds Ratios and Relative Risk are two frequent ways to report results from scientific studies. Odds Ratios are ratios of two different probabilities, and Orne's bottomline was that journalists shouldn't report Odds Ratios as a percentage of risk, as that's not what it refers to.

Relative Risk is a lot more intuitive, and is simply the risk of one group compared to another. But that means you always have to mention what groups you're comparing between for it to make sense.

Ornes said journalists often get statistics like Odds Ratios and Relative Risks wrong with the best of intentions--when they're trying to simplify them so they're easier to understand. His advice? "Befriend a statistician."

How to properly interpret statistics in a paper
Andrew Gellman, professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University was next up. Gellman has also published some popular books and runs a blog that was recommended by all the speakers as a good place to learn about basic statistical concepts.

Gellman used the example of a recent paper that concluded that 'beautiful parents have more daughters' to show some common problems with the paper's statistics. He talked about the questions that sceptical journalists should ask when writing about a paper like that.

His conclusion is that given the sample size and the lack of statistical validity, there really wasn't much one could conclude from that paper. And this was backed up by an independent study he did looking at whether People magazine's 50 sexiest people had more boys or girls.

Gellman admitted another reason he liked doing that study was "I loved being able to refer to Brad Pitt in my statistics paper."

Gellman also pointed out an important reason why journalists needed to be skeptical about the statistics in scientific studies: to be published in the peer-reviewed literature, studies have to be statistically significant. As a result, there's a bias towards overestimating effects in peer-reviewed studies.

Things journalists often get wrong about statistics
Tom Siegfried, Editor-in-Chief of Science News, talked about the common mistakes that journalists make when writing about statistics.

- He explained what exactly statistical significance means, emphasizing that it wasn't the same as 'significant' in the sense of important. With a large enough sample, you can almost always find something that's statistically significant.
- Also, lack of statistical significance doesn't mean that there is no effect. It could just mean the sample size is too small, and could require more studies.

He suggested writing about a statistically significant effect as something that "was seen at a level unlikely to be explained by chance," which I thought was a very clear way to express it.

He also pointed out that the recipe for wrong science was the same as the recipe for wrong science news: So here are the things to watch out:
- Is it the first report of something?
- Is it an advance in a hot research field?
- Is it contrary to previous belief?

This could mean that it's a really good study, or it could mean it's wrong, and it's up to us at journalists to think about that when writing about it, the speakers said.

Practical Advice
All three speakers weighed in on how journalists can avoid common mistakes in interpreting statistics:

1. Read the actual methods section of the paper, and use your own intuition. Does the result make sense based on what you expect? Look at other studies - does this agree with past results?

2. Then contact an expert to confirm. "Befriend a statistician," was Ornes' advice. He mentioned, a site where journalists could ask statisticians about specific questions they had. Gellman pointed out that not all statisticians are the same, so it's important to find one who's an expert in the specific field you're writing about.

3. Judge how important the study actually is, and decide how to write about it. Explain the statistics in plain language, but be careful to not oversimplify or draw inaccurate conclusions.

And if the study draws a lot of attention but your analysis finds that it's not that significant, this might be an opportunity to explain your take on it.

The bottom-line was that statistics can be invaluable in interpreting complex information, but the onus is on journalists to do their research and know enough about statistics to get it right.

Can Scientists Paired With Rock Stars Improve Science Literacy?

Panelists tackling solutions to the collapse of science literacy and the collapse of science journalism differed radically on how to get the public interested in science and reading about it.

Co-moderator and new NASW President* Nancy Shute kicked off the discussion by citing "depressing numbers" reflecting peoples' knowledge of science, like what an experiment is, or what a placebo is. Though excited that DNA no longer has to be described to many, they did not seem to know much else, she said. Given the level of knowledge, and that news online is linked to hits, she asked whether science could "sneak into the matrix," and answered her own question by saying "No."

Carolyn L. Funk, Associate Professor and Director of the Commonwealth Poll, Virginia Commonwealth University, who consults for the NSF, said that the public barely distinguishes between science and pseudo science. She favored stressing the practical ways that science affects everyday life, like the chemistry of cooking or GPS.

But Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, said the public is somewhat engaged and cited the uproar over the demotion of Pluto from planet status. On the other hand, half of Americans don't accept the theory of evolution. He suggested that mass entertainment and Hollywood have helped increase scientific literacy, but not enough. He said pairing scientists with rock stars like Joe Perry works.

Jon Miller, Director of the Center for Science Literacy at the University of Michigan, said that if people don’t know what an atom or molecule is, they won’t understand nanotechnology, so he advocated improving science education at all levels, especially secondary. On a positive note, Gen X is the most scientifically literate generation ever, he said. Gen Xers surf and are selective about what they read online. He did not think the Pluto issue was a serious one. We have to think in terms of how the Internet has changed everything "because we are a just-in-time world."

As for solutions involving science writing, Mooney said scientific organizations are rethinking how best to communicate with the public. Another approach, emphasizing the human interest side of science came from the audience. Miller said it couldn't counteract attitudes about science resulting from cases of scientific fraud and doctors who are engaged in drug clinical trials and yet take money from pharmaceuticals.

Co-moderator Rick* Borchelt asked each how they would use one dollar to fix the problem. Miller said 50 cents for pre-college education, 25 to improve college courses (because we're failing worst there)*, and the rest for adult learning of all kinds. Mooney called for the government to subsidize careers in science communication for journalists and young scientists who did not get tenure.

Funk said she would put the money into the education system, especially standards for science learning, which is being eclipsed by math and reading standards.

* added on 11/9/10