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#sci4hels – ‘Killer’ science journalists of the future ready to take over the world!

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Finland, Finland, Finland!

Every now and then, a meeting happens somewhere in the world, and I am not there but watching the tweets with the official hashtag makes me thoroughly jealous I am not. It just seems like there is interesting stuff going on, important information exchanged, and everyone is having great fun. I know, I know, that is how many of you feel during ScienceOnline flagship meetings (currently at #scio13 hashtag). But for me, one of those jealousy-inducing events is the World Conference of Science Journalists, a large, international gathering of science journalists, reporters, writers, editors and the like, organized by World Federation of Science Journalists every two years.

I first saw the tweets from WCSJ three years ago, when it was held in London, UK. Last year, it was supposed to happen in Cairo, Egypt, but the events in the country made it potentially unsafe to hold the conference there, so the venue was quickly moved to Doha, Qatar. Although I was supposed to be on two panels there, the last-minute change in venue made both the logistics and the finances impossible for me to attend. So I watched from the sidelines again, in sadness and frustration.

Next year, the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists will be held in Helsinki, Finland, hosted and co-organized by the Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists, FASEJ. The official hashtag is #WCSJ2013.

And I’ll be there!!!! And I am so excited!

I will be on a panel organized and moderated by Deborah Blum. I hear this will be one of the Plenary Panels, which, from what I understand, means it will be held in the biggest room and nothing else will be occurring simultaneously. So potentially all the attendees will be there at the time. I better prepare well!

But I am even more excited about another panel, for which I am the organizer, though not a moderator or panelist. I am absolutely thrilled that my proposed panel has been accepted for the program. Let me tell you more about it, why I proposed it, and what to expect if you come to see it in person next summer. A little background first…

Why I do what I do.

As you may already know, discovering, helping and promoting new talented writers is something I see as central to my own work. A number of them found a permanent spot on the blog network here at Scientific American. Some of them have already been so successful, they are not even considered “new” any more, just a year after the launch.

Others have published on our Guest Blog, which has tremendous reach and reputation, and authoring articles there has led to jobs, TV appearances and book contracts for some of the authors who appeared there. Some of them subsequently got permanent slots on our blog network, or internships at Scientific American, or had their articles published in our web or print versions of the magazine.

Some of them had their pieces published in one of the past sixth editions of Open Laboratory anthology that I edit. And I invite a number of them each year to attend ScienceOnline, our flagship conference, where they moderate sessions, teach workshops, or report from the event itself.

Finally, I started an entire blog, The SA Incubator, specifically to promote new writers and to help them develop a new media ecosystem and then thrive in it.

Another way I try to help is by getting involved in science programs in schools of journalism. I am currently a visiting faculty at the NYU SHERP program, and am on the advisory board of the UNC program for Health and Science Journalism.

Why do I do this? Because media ecosystem, and science reporting as a part of it, is undergoing tremendous disruption right now. I am trying to help creative new people build a new ecosystem for the future – a kind of media that is sustainable, profitable and, most importantly – good!

I am trying to help Friends In Low Places find each other, gather their creative energies together, and take over the media world.

The ‘killer’ science journalists of the future

Science media ecosystem has never been as big, as good or as vibrant as it is today. Many young writers are joining the ranks of veterans each year – and they are good! Some of them have science backgrounds, which can be helpful. They all write really well. And they are digital natives, effortlessly navigating today’s online world and easily using all the available tools.

But some of them are going beyond being well adapted to the new media ecosystem – they are actively creating it. They experiment with new forms and formats and, if the appropriate Web tool is missing – they build the tools themselves. Some of them not only write well, but can write computer code, do web-design, produce all types of multimedia, and all of that with seemingly more fun than effort, seeing each other as collaborators rather than competitors.

I have proposed this kind of session, a panel of new, rising stars (this one is really, officially titled “The ‘killer’ science journalists of the future”), several times in the past, for various other meetings and it was always rejected. Perhaps the organizers automatically choose current stars over future stars, or established names over newcomers. But I am very happy that the Finnish organizers think out of the box and deem it important to include new voices in their event. Not just that it will be very useful for the young journalists, for networking, but also useful for all of us of an older generation to carefully listen and learn.

Just like I spent nine months diligently studying the science blogosphere before I picked the final line-up for this blog network, I applied equally studious effort to picking the members for my panel. I guess I am just that systematic (or obsessive-compulsive, you choose).

I started with several dozen names, including all the SA Incubator interviewees to date, from all around the world. I read every word of every article they ever published. I read the entire archives of their blogs. I studied how each uses social media, like Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Tumblr, etc. I looked at their art, photography, videos, podcasts, infographics and other multimedia projects. I actually talked to a number of them. And I gradually narrowed down the numbers, over a period of about two months, to four – one moderator and three panelists.

I wanted the best possible panel, including not just Web-savvy people, but also people who creatively and experimentally build the new media ecosystem, people with different backgrounds, career trajectories, talents, interests, skill sets, and personal goals, as well as four people who don’t only do it all, but also eloquently think, talk and write about it. They are all upcoming superstars. This panel will rock!

As you know, the media ecosystem in general, and science media ecosystem in particular, suffered a severe disruption in the USA over the past few years. The media ecosystems in the rest of the world are hanging by a thread and will soon be just as disrupted as the American one. Everyone is scrambling to find new ways of delivering news, and keeping their jobs while doing it. Media organizations are experimenting with new ways of doing things. And some journalism schools are starting to adapt to the new needs of the media.

Over the past few years of intently watching the science media world, I have noticed something interesting. Some, still very few unfortunately, science journalism programs in the U.S. have completely changed the way they think about training young journalists. As a result, over the last couple of years, they are producing exactly those kinds of people I like to call “killer journalists of the future” – creative, ambitious, experimental, curious, self-starting, hard-working, entrepreneurial wizards. I could have picked a dozen or two of their most recent graduates and they would all be good.

From my experience as an editor over the past two years, these new journalists are more professional to work with than many of the veterans I had to work with recently, and better than almost any of the recent students coming from other schools in the USA and the rest of the world. I get the drafts of their articles and reading them is not work, but sheer pleasure. I try to edit, and discover there is no need to apply my virtual red pen to a single word or punctuation mark. Heck, it is all perfectly formatted, so all I need to do is copy and paste exactly the way I got it. And their articles then go viral! They can certainly write straight-forward, traditional news pieces on assignment, but they really fly when given space and freedom to do something creative, try a new, different approach to telling a story.

It is unfortunate that a number of other US schools and all of the schools in the rest of the world are still teaching within an out-dated, 20th century model, doing a disservice to their students. This is why I think it is so important for the global audience at WCSJ2013 to see what these particular people have to say – they are the new breed, and we should all carefully listen to their experiences. It is especially important for the rest of the world to see what the American experience is about to bring to them, how to learn from it and adapt to it before they are, too, hit as hard by the new realities.

Interestingly, just as I received the wonderful news that this panel was accepted, the Nieman Journalism Lab started a series of articles exploring exactly this topic: the skills needed by the new media world, and how those skills are acquired either in j-schools or on the job, or by self-starting by blogging, for example.

Upon receipt of the official acceptance message from the WCSJ organizers, I finally contacted the four people I chose for the panel. They are all very excited about this. And, being of a new generation, they are not waiting six months to start preparing PowerPoint presentations! That is not how they operate (and no, their panel is not going to have PowerPoints or anything boring like that – they are “killers”, after all, they will make it exciting and fun).

Instead, they instantly sprung into action. They immediately started to discuss the topic on Twitter, first by using all four handles which turned out to take too much character space, so they quickly came up with the official hashtag for their panel – #sci4hels.Make sure you set up a Tweetdeck column for it as Helsinki time approaches!

They will write a series of blog posts exploring the topic, in advance of the event. The first one is already up – The Question of Code (which was then linked by the Nieman Journalism Lab in their Friday weekly review) – and several more are coming (I may write one myself, though this one is already long and detailed, and the original post still stands). And they have organized to meet in person in January, during ScienceOnline2013, to hash out the details of their panel (yes, brilliantly, all four of them are fast enough typists to have managed to register!).

Here they are:

Moderator:

Rose Eveleth: homepage, blog, Twitter, Facebook page, Incubator interview, Scientific American articles, Scienceline posts

Panelists:

Lena Groeger: homepage, blog, Twitter, ProPublica articles, new job announcement, Scientific American articles, Scienceline posts

Kathleen Raven: homepage, blog, Twitter, Spoonfull of Medicine articles, Incubator interview

Erin Podolak: homepage, blog, Twitter, Incubator interview

I am incredibly excited to work with such an amazing group. I am excited to see how quickly they sprung into action, to make this panel useful and memorable. And I am excited to see that the WCSJ organizers agree with me that their voices are an extremely valuable addition to the program.

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Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. Shecky R. 6:55 pm 09/23/2012

    The future of science journalism seems in great hands; the genuine enthusiasm, vibrancy, and attention to quality/detail being shown by so many will inspire still more to enter the arena!

    Link to this
  2. 2. sleeprun 7:00 pm 09/23/2012

    Our experience is that popular science is not only an oxymoron but does more harm than good. The more facts are disseminated the more attacked the people who report or produce them are experiencing.

    The popularization of global warming, vaccines, evolution, etc has mainly produced blowback and given more popularity to deniers and crackpots.

    There is no market for real evidence-based knowledge and stories outside of professional circles. That is a very small market. Best to teach celebrity journalism for a living.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Bora Zivkovic 7:13 pm 09/23/2012

    @sleeprun – I understand your pessimism. But, like Shecky R. , I have seen the future, the upcoming media and people building it, and I am an optimist again.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Shecky R. 8:31 pm 09/23/2012

    assuming ‘sleeprun’ is not just trolling(?), I think one thing he fails to appreciate is how many of the new generation of science journalists are themselves scientists or folks with scientific training (no, not all). This hasn’t been as true of prior generations of reporters.
    And sure, there will always be a market for pseudoscience, hyped and shoddy science, but that’s not a reason to dismiss or give up on good science journalism… indeed, it’s all the more reason to encourage it.

    Link to this

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