NASW Workshops Emphasize the Electronic

ScienceWriters 2009, the most recent annual workshops of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), included perspectives of science editors in the popular media. The workshops also emphasized electronic communication, for instance, in online magazines and through short videos by scientists or science writers. Following are highlights of some of the workshops, held on 17 October 2009 in Austin, Texas.

Editing Online Magazines

The session “Starting an Online Magazine” included a presentation by an editor who had recently done just that: Jenny Leonard, editor of the magazine Futurity (futurity.org). Leonard, assistant director of public relations at the University of Rochester, noted that the magazine is run by a consortium of more than 40 universities and contains selected news releases and feature articles from them. She said that the magazine, which had been launched a month before the NASW workshops, covers research in both the sciences and other disciplines.

Editor Hugh Powell discussed the online magazine Living Bird (www.allaboutbirds.org/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=1201), which is combined with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Web site All About Birds (www.allaboutbirds.org/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=1189). He mentioned “crowdsourcing”, in which readers submit photographs of birds to post on the Web site for species identification. The most popular part of the Web site, Powell reported, was the knowledge base. “Don’t underestimate the value of pure information,” Powell said.

Tom Siegfried, editor of Science News, also spoke. Whereas initially the online version of Science News contained only articles from the print version, it now includes distinctive content, such as daily news postings, Siegfried said. He indicated that although online magazines contain elements not available in print (such as blogs, multimedia, and interactive quizzes) and although they pose special considerations (such as search-engine optimization to attract readers), the writing should be done in “the same damn way good writing has always been done”.

In an ad hoc addition to the session, Karl Leif Bates, director of research communications at Duke University, repeated a presentation recently given elsewhere in which he identified some online magazines of note. Among them:

Bates mentioned that Circle of Blue WaterNews includes translations of content into 10 languages other than English.

What Magazine Editors Want

Much popular writing about science appears in general magazines. In the session “Pitching Science to Non-Science Magazines”, editors described what they sought in a science story.

James Gibney, of The Atlantic, said that the magazine sought stories that were “less gee-whiz, more so-what”. He noted that a story should have a compelling narrative and that stories at the intersections of fields tend to especially interest the magazine. He recommended that a writer start by approaching the magazine about a short piece.

Chris Suellentrop, of The New York Times Magazine, said that his magazine favored stories on ideas and the people who make them. He emphasized proposing a story, not just a topic. Similarly, Jake Silverstein, of Texas Monthly, said that his magazine was seeking “the pitch that seems like a story rather than a subject”. Terence Samuel, of the daily online magazine The Root, said that one of the easiest ways to get a good story is to profile someone who is doing interesting things.

Business Skills for Freelances

The session “You Are Not Just Writing— You Are in a Business Venture: Entrepreneurial Skills for Science Writers” contained much of use to freelance editors as well as writers. It stressed freelancing as a business in which one’s time is the commodity. Points from the panelists—all of whom were freelances—included the following.

Building relationships, promoting yourself, networking—whatever you call it, you must do it. Begin by marketing yourself. Doing so might take the form of starting a blog or simply telling everyone you know what you are doing. Once you’ve started to meet people, remember not to ask them for work until you get to know them. Furthermore, don’t lose track of contacts.

To avoid a precarious financial position: Try to get some sort of recurring assignment, don’t be too dependent on any one client, and try to do different types of work. Consider having a stable part-time job in addition to freelancing. Lecturing at a university is an especially good choice: you gain access to its library and an affiliation to use when needed. Before beginning any assignment, be sure to have a contract that outlines intellectual-property rights and payment.

A freelance must deal with the mechanics of running an office and so has less time to write than if working for a large company that has specialized staff. For example, time must be spent in handling tax and payroll paperwork, buying office supplies, and solving computer problems. Freelances should plan accordingly.

Extreme Interviews

In the session “The Art of the Interview— Extreme Edition”, panelists recounted some of the most difficult interviews that they had conducted and suggested questions to ask. Rosie Mestel, deputy editor for science and health at the Los Angeles Times, emphasized finding interview subjects who know the science, not just those who look good on camera or are convenient.

Mary Miller, of The Exploratorium, explained how she and her colleagues train scientists to film and report on their research themselves. Doing so allows video to be created in situations where sending an extra person would be unfeasible, such as when the scientists are working in the Arctic. Miller suggested not filming too much, because someone must edit the video.

Creating Short Videos

The session “Why Science Writers Should Embrace Cheap Video Cameras, YouTube and Final Cut Pro” focused on using short videos to communicate science. In addition to explaining why video can be effective, the panelists shared their experiences and presented tips, such as using an external microphone to obtain high-quality sound.

Panelist Andy Revkin, of the New York Times, emphasized asking oneself, “How do I tell that story?” In other words, what medium—video, text, pictures, interactive media, or some combination—is best for presenting the message to the audience? Craig Duff, director of multimedia for Time.com, noted that “Web video has its own sensibility.” It must be engaging, teach something, and be short. Ideally, it will accompany other content, such as a written article.

Coverage of the 2009 NASW workshops also appears at www.sciencewriters2009.org. For information on plans for the 2010 NASW workshops, please see sciencewriters2010.org.

Barbara Gastel is a faculty member at Texas A&M University and the editor of Science Editor. Christina Sumners is a graduate student at Texas A&M and a Science Editor intern.