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The other kinds of expertise

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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If you read my old and new posts about the media, science journalism, etc., you know I come down strongly on the side of specialists and against generalists. But it is a caricature, a simplification I have to use to make my posts clearer, and to cut my posts down to a semi-manageable length ;-)

Yes, people are hungry for information. They are asking to be educated, not served content. And education requires expertise.

If people were not hungry to be educated, and if there was no inherent trust in experts, there would be no interest in either editing or using Wikipedia, there would be no interest in TED talks, and there would be no interest in either producing or using MOOCs and other forms of online education. I am far from being the only one who sees an article in a newspaper and, before sharing the link anywhere, first double-checks it with an expert blogger. Which is why expert bloggers are so popular.

We used to read a newspaper, nodding along, assuming they got it all right, until we get to an article that covers a topic on which we actually know something, an article within the domain of our own expertise. Then we scream bloody murder: “Why can’t they ever cover X correctly, idiots!”. The assumption everyone had was that media covered everything well except the domain of our expertise.

The emergence of the Web, especially the expert blogs (and expert commenters), opened our eyes. We saw that every expert is complaining about (and skillfully dissecting) the coverage of their own area of expertise, leading to the conclusion that the traditional media covers everything poorly. We started losing trust in the media and consuming it less. The way media reacted to economic consequences of lost trust was to fire experts and hire generalists who were asked to cover seven different topics per day, not covering anything well. Audience asked for expertise and for education that could only be provided by specialists, yet the media responded by offering more and shorter articles all written by diluted generalists.

But these are extremes I needed to use in my past writing in order to make a point clearly and strongly. So, here is the missing piece, about varieties of expertise that exist between the two extremes of super-expertise of hyper-specialists and the super-diluted non-expertise of hyper-generalists.

Temporary Expertise

If you work for one of those media mills, expected to churn out several articles per day, good luck with that. The work will, inevitably, be shallow, superficial, formulaic and sprinkled with inaccuracies.

But if you have the luxury of having time to write something longer, perhaps a feature, or a series of articles or blog posts on the same topic, then you have time to become a temporary expert. You have time to read books and articles on the topic, to study, to interview many experts, to take a class, to go to a meeting or conference or a series of public lectures, to think about it, process it, digest it, internalize all of that knowledge. You have time to learn enough to be able to write a piece that is accurate.

Expanding into new Expertise

Every one of us is an expert on something, at least one thing, probably several things.

This also means that each one of us is completely non-expert on many other things.

One can argue that each one of us is the expert on our own personal experiences. And if one writes about that, this can certainly be wonderful, riveting reading. But it’s fiction, and entertainment, even if it hints at some bigger generalities about human condition. It is not expertise, and it does not educate or inform.

And then there are topics we all think we are experts on and like to pontificate about. For example: politics. But even there, there are people who know the arcane rules of the Senate, or details of how Electoral College works, or actually sit down and read through thousands of pages of the bill going through the House. Such people have a much more deserved reputation of being experts than the rest of us cheering for our side.

My personal rule: never write about topics I am not at least somewhat expert on. And if I write about politics, to make it clear it is personal opinion, colored by my own background – from comparing USA to ex-Yugoslavia, to having studied some psychology of voter behavior.

There is no money you can pay me to write about exoplanets (or baseball!!!). I find the topic fascinating, but I have zero background. It would take me months of intense, focused, time-consuming study to even reach the level of “temporary expert” (and several years to become a real expert). Thus, I’d run my draft of the article by real experts…who should have written the piece themselves anyway, right?

My narrowest expertise is in “role of gonadal steroid hormones in the development of individual, strain, age and sex differences in circadian and photoperiodic time-measurement in Japanese quail”. While doing my own research on this, I also read a lot and thought a lot about related topics. I know quite a lot about sex hormones, brain and behavior, about circadian rhythms, and about bird physiology and behavior. Even more broadly, I studied quite a lot about animal physiology, animal behavior, and evolution. I took several graduate courses in history and philosophy of science. I have written blog posts about biological clocks in non-bird organisms, from bacteria, protists, fungi and plants, to arthropods, mammals and even humans (although I systematically avoided the literature on humans throughout grad school). I have written blog posts about other aspects of bird behavior. I have written about evolution and ecology and hormones.

So, a few weeks ago, when a bunch of people started asking if NYC subway rats would drown or survive Sandy, I decided I had enough background to be able to extend my area of expertise to rats. This is not my area of expertise, but I knew enough to know where to look, how to evaluate information, and how to quickly get up to speed. So I wrote a blog post about it (and a follow-up) and ended up linked and quoted all over the media. I was a ‘temporary expert’ on rat behavior during floods, but this expertise was not isolated from my other expertise – it is tangential to it, quite closely related.

When I write about human clocks, that is expanding my expertise. When I write about sleep, that is expanding my expertise. Those are not the cores of my expertise, but they are related enough, close enough that I can figure it out pretty fast.

The worst situation is when one is not even aware that a topic requires expertise and pontificates anyway. Remember a few years ago when old-skool, curmudgeon journalists wrote op-eds making fun of blogs (and later Twitter), each one of them instantly revealing they have never actually seen a blog?

Or today’s example – this one – which appears totally ignorant of a decade of writing, studies, companies, software and other stuff related to Open Access publishing (and scientific publishing in general, and alternative methods of peer-review). How does one even start critiquing such a piece? Where does one start, when so much has happened in the decades since the last time those arguments may have appeared valid? With the definition of “publishing”? Or “what is publishing for?”. Or “at what point in the timeline of scientific process does publication fall (hint: not at the end)?” Or “when did pre-publication, publisher-driven peer-review become accepted (hint: around 1960 or so, before which science worked perfectly fine for a few centuries)?”

So, better to stick to one’s own expertise, and then slowly expand to neighboring topics. Don’t jump head first into a topic you know nothing about. People will know. And they will point and laugh.

Technical Expertise

There are many more ways to tell a story than just a block of text. There is art and illustration. There are comic strips and cartoons. There is data journalism and infographics. There are talk podcasts and non-talk sound files. There are photography and slide-shows. There are animations and videos. And there is interactive stuff – “move the sliders!” – where users can change inputs to see how it changes the output.

Just like long articles (and blog posts) have a much longer staying power than short ones, good multimedia packages also are treated differently by users, regarded as valuable resources, something to save, bookmark and share with friends.

People who make that stuff are not topical experts. They have other kinds of expertise. They have technical skills needed to make that. They may have heightened sense of visual aesthetics. A really good ear for rhythm and timing. They may be really good at math. And as this kind of work usually takes more time, they may become ‘temporary experts’ on the topic as well.

Just like we, as users, run to topical experts, our “Go To” people to learn about the topics that are in the news, so producers of media run to their own “Go To” people when they want to produce videos, or infographics, or multimedia packages.

Many people produce videos, but not all have the same appeal. There are many good cartoonists out there, but there is a reason why we all flock to XKCD, PhD Comics and The Oatmeal – they are really, really good. For data journalism, infographics and interactive stuff, some big old organizations are really good at that, e.g., The Guardian and The New York Times, but we also check out ProPublica which really specializes in that format and sets the standard for everyone else.

For a multimedia package to work both short-term and long-term, it has to be appealing, inviting, intuituve to explore, entertaining, informational, educational, beautifully and clearly written (the text parts of it), and 100% factually accurate. Thus such a package is usually done by a team, at least two people: a topical expert, and a multimedia expert. Both are experts, both are specialists, both are journalists, and both can become hot commodities in the media market.

Amazing Writing

Let’s go back to the wild days of those silly “bloggers vs. journalists” op-eds a few years ago. It is interesting how they all had the same pattern, using some of the same arguments.

“But who will report the news as it happens, from the scene?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did exactly that.

“But who will do in-depth, investigative reporting?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who do that every week.

“But who will cover local town councils and school boards?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who are doing an amazing job with that.

“But who will speak truth to the power?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did just that.

“But who will effect positive change, affect legislation, diplomatic efforts?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples when bloggers did exactly that.

“But the word Blog is funny!”

Eh? That’s an argument? Well, “nut graf” is funny, too. And so is “lede”. And “word limit” is a funny concept.

“B-b-b-but at least we can write! So there!”

To which the only appropriate response is a throaty laughter.

I don’t think you mean what we mean when you say “writing”….

Writing is not just the ability to compose grammatically correct sentences. Writing is not the ability to put together sentences really fast in order to turn in the copy on deadline. Writing is not the ability to follow the formula of the 500-word inverted pyramid news piece that is just like all such pieces everywhere, including all the tired old metaphors, topped by over-hyped headlines. Though all of those skills can be useful sometimes. And writing is not keeping readers’ attention because they cannot avert their eyes from the train-wreck of an op-ed you just wrote.

Writing is the ability to get the reader who finished your first sentence to decide to read your second sentence. And third. And then fourth. And all the way to the end. And then say “Wow, this was good, let me share with all my friends”. Topic, length, form, format – those do not matter. It can be a tweet, it can be a book. It can be about duck penises, it can be about cancer. A good writer writes riveting, beautiful prose. Not convoluted, Victorian-style prose, but clear, exciting prose imbued with one’s personality.

Writing is also the ability to write riveting, can’t-put-down prose without giving up one inch of factual accuracy.

People who write riveting prose but what they say is BS are not good writers, they are what I like to call ‘seductive’ writers. I already mentioned David Brooks last week as a good example of a ‘seductive’ writer.

The way he invented stuff out of thin air about neuroscience and psychology was much worse error by Jonah Lehrer, another ‘seductive’ writer, than any plagiarism, “self” or “non-self” (non-responsiveness to expert criticisms in comments was his #2 error, and complete lack of interest in being a part of the science blogging community from which he could have learned both neuroscience and ethics was his #3).

There is a reason why we all stop whatever we are doing and go read long new pieces by the likes of Deborah Blum, Steve Silberman or David Dobbs. They do beautiful writing, their writing is assuredly 100% factually accurate, it is always interesting, and we always learn something new.

What I am trying to say is that good writing is a form of expertise. Many can quickly put together a formulaic news piece. Relatively few are really good writers in the sense I am trying to convey here. Media organizations that want to be successful have to try to lure in and hire some of those good writers, no matter what their area of topical expertise, or how much they explore neighboring topics to extend their expertise, or how much they tend to hit new topics and become temporary experts on those (and how much time they need for this). Some topical experts are also good writers. Some technical experts are also good writers. Mix and match, combine the different types, give them freedom and incentives to collaborate with each other, and you can have an awesome newsroom.

Expertise: the next generation

You are probably aware that one of the things I most like to do is “scouting” for talent, discovering new, up-and-coming science writers, bloggers and journalists, giving them opportunities, mentoring them, promoting their work, helping them become visible and successful.

Several science writing programs in the USA are churning out small armies of such amazing new writers each year (unfortunately, most other US schools and all the rest of the world are yet to catch up).

Many of them have background in science, thus have real scientific expertise to draw from. Others have always been fascinated by a topic and explored it in great detail over the years. So they are topical experts, always working on expanding their expertise, but being careful not to jump into something they don’t know anything about.

Many of them are skillful with a variety of modern tools, can troubleshoot them, modify them, and generally get them to work the way they want. Many experiment with a variety of other, non-textual forms of communication. Many can code and thus make their own tools if needed. Thus many of them are also technical experts.

They tend to be sticklers for accuracy. They do triple fact-checks on every word, number, symbol and punctuation point before turning in the piece. This also makes them good temporary experts whenever the assignments calls for it.

And many of them are beautiful writers as well, keeping my attention all the way to the end.

So, the new generation seems to combine all kinds of expertise. And working with them is a pleasure. They are so…professional!

Working with one of them, e.g., for a Guest Blog post, is so easy! We do not exchange 500 emails, half of which are irrelevant, half of which are CCd to irrelevant other people, half of which contain bits and pieces of the assignment (and I am the one who needs to track the most recent versions and patch them all together?), half of which contain images in wrong formats I cannot use, etc. No, the usual exchange is about six emails:

Email #1: Hey Bora, here is my pitch.
Email #2: That sounds great. Do it. When do you think you can have it done?
Email #3: How about April 15th?
Email #4: Deal. April 15th at 12 noon EDT it is.
Email #5 (on April 15th at noon): Here it is (attached), let me know if you want any changes.
Email #6: Perfect. Published. Thank you so much. The URL is: http…. ”

What I get is perfectly formatted text (not for Word, for WordPress), perfectly sized images with links and credits, author bios, and perfect embed codes that render multimedia exactly the way they should look. Publish-ready.

I sit down ready to edit and realize, fifteen minutes later, that I have come to the end without having to make a single change, not even to fix any typos as there were none. And I really enjoyed reading it. And that is not easy – I am a jaded, old blogger with ADHD, so keeping my attention all the way to the end is hard, and making me enjoy it even harder.

Yet these new generations keep doing this to me! Over and over again (sure, some of the veterans are also extremely good, but there the experience varies). Just the latest example – this post was due at 1:00pm. I received it (including images, embed code, etc) at 1:00pm. It was published at 1:16pm. It came in perfect. All I needed to do was read, copy, paste and click “Publish”, then spend a couple of minutes promoting it on social media and my work for the day was done. Easy. How nice for me. More time for me to read something else, or write a post of my own. Or take a long weekend.

They are really good, which makes me hopeful for the future. Now go ahead and hire them (you can find many of them in the archives here)! If you don’t, they’ll start their own media empires and vanquish the competition that still hires generalists ;-)

Related:

Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise
Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins
#sci4hels – ‘Killer’ science journalists of the future ready to take over the world!
The SA Incubator, or, why promote young science writers?
Science Blogs – definition, and a history
#scio12: Multitudes of Sciences, Multitudes of Journalisms, and the Disappearance of the Quote.
Blogs: face the conversation
Is education what journalists do?
Telling science stories…wait, what’s a “story”?
The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again






Comments 29 Comments

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  1. 1. Tom666 10:38 am 11/21/2012

    Genuine question, you say: ““But who will report the news as it happens, from the scene?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did exactly that.”

    Could you give those examples?

    I mean, I know that some news events may have been covered by bloggers because they are there, but surely you can’t guarantee that? Is there anyone who will, say, write a factual piece about, say, a terrorist attack straight after the event – listing casualties and key facts etc? Because there I would always go to a big news site.

    If I am running a news desk, and a bomb goes off in a city in my country, is there a real sensible mechanism whereby I can get good facts (or even good reportage) that I know to be reliable, quickly, in a usable form without using paid journalists?

    Like I said, it’s a genuine question. I can’t see how it would work but then I couldn’t see how wikipedia could ever possibly work. And I was pretty damn wrong on that.

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  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 10:45 am 11/21/2012

    Mumbai attacks are a canonical example.

    But I like the time when the bridge in Minnesota fell down. It was all reported by the blogger – he lived right next to it, took pictures, wrote about it in real time, interviewed people, covered the story for as long as it lasted. When local media arrived, much later, the witnesses were suspicious, not as forthcoming as they were toward their neighbor. They did not like the questions from the local media because they seemed irrelevant, sensationalist or insensitive. They actually preferred to talk to the blogger who, being part of the community and an eye-witness, had their trust much more than the local TV station and a local paper.

    Of course, now we learn stuff on Twitter – when an event happens, there will be someone there with a smart phone to take a picture or video and to tweet it. Reporters cannot be everywhere at all times, but chances are *someone* is there who can report the news.

    Big picture analysis, later on, is more likely to be done by a professional who is paid to spend time and effort doing it. Though no reason why a really passionate blogger cannot do it, either. Most of the information is public and, if not, there is always FOIA and bloggers know their rights and how to use them.

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  3. 3. Tom666 10:56 am 11/21/2012

    I suppose it was big picture analysis I was talking about. Of course any sensible news journalist will pick up tweets and eyewitness blog posts – they would be fools not – but generally they still need to be pulled together if you want an idea what’s going on.

    And you do also need to know where the story is being pulled together – traditional news journalism has problems, but at least you know something about the source.

    In the immediate aftermath of, say, an attack on Gaza I would not like to rely on a newly-arrived local source who may well be genuine, but equally could be Hamas or Mossad. Just think of the case of that fake Syrian blogger.

    I would also like to rely on a news source that can be sued. I’m from the UK and twitter recently erroneously accused (in somewhat complex collusion with mainstream media) someone in power of being a paedophile – going far farther than any newspaper could have. Twitter was wrong.

    The bridge collapse sounds like an interesting counter-example, but also, I guess, a rather unusual case?

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  4. 4. Tom666 11:10 am 11/21/2012

    Also – full disclosure – as a professional journalist myself the distinction I’d be interested in is not between blogs vs “proper” news. That is, after all, just the form you choose to publish in. My (self) interest is in paid vs amateur.

    Many people can easily write good opinion and backgrounder pieces in their area of expertise – often pieces that are better than anything in the papers.

    But good proper journalism, to my mind, is something different. It involves going to places, meeting people and experiencing things. Even by experts, that takes time and costs money. I do think there’s a place for it though. Additionally that form of journalism – in-depth reportage – is often the last place you want an expert.

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  5. 5. julianpenrod 11:58 am 11/21/2012

    If you go to any court trial, you can find “experts” of every stripe who always, and reliably, give conflicting, contradictory testimony. For every “expert” in a trial who says one thing, the other side’s attorney will find an “expert” who claims the diametrical opposite! “Expert” doesn’t necessarily meaning all about a subject and certainly does not attest to their truthfulness, and underplays the fact that, largely if not mostly, “experts” are called on for their opinion, not an unquestionable statement.

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  6. 6. PascalLapointe 12:01 pm 11/21/2012

    You say: “The way media reacted to economic consequences of lost trust was to fire experts and hire generalists”. Not exactly. We’ve talked a lot these last few years about the demise of science journalists in newspapers, but expert journalists in politics, finance and money, sports, arts, even “add-supported contents” like cars or housing, are still there. The sad fact is there are “expertise” that medias are considering less important than others —and publicity is unfortunately one of the criteria, is not the main one.

    In the same time, journalists are asked to do a lot more than 10 or 30 years ago, in less time. And the fact is that with 3 or 4 articles to write in a day, even an expert will be superficial, from time to time.

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  7. 7. Bora Zivkovic 12:01 pm 11/21/2012

    Who is talking about legal use of the word “expert”? Not I.

    And why such a jaded view of expertise, @julianperod? Why so anti-science, anti-knowledge, anti-expertise in every comment you post on this site? This is a science site, you know, we think a lot about these things, work with concepts of expertise in a much more nuanced way than your knee-jerk, unthoughtful, outright rejection or everything.

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  8. 8. PascalLapointe 12:23 pm 11/21/2012

    @Tom666 is also bringing an importance nuance. It is not sufficient to say that there can be 20 bloggers able to report or twit about the collapse of a bridge or a bombing on Gaza. We have to ask who will pay them. The collapse of a bridge, I can live with the factual description, but the bombing on Gaza, I will quickly want explanations, and reassurance that those bloggers are not too “one-sided”.

    If I know them since years, I’m OK, but if I’m discovering them on the fly, I can only count on external criterias to judge which one are “credible” —like, who is publishing them and paying them.

    But let’s assume that there are auto-publishing and that I will discover all by myself, after weeks, which one are more credible. Who will pay them? Probably me and a lot of readers because this is big news. But after the bombing, when all eyes will be elsewhere, who will continue to pay them? Or is it an irrelevant question because in the future, only a small minority of writers will make a living “only” by writing?

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  9. 9. Bora Zivkovic 12:31 pm 11/21/2012

    These threads always devolve into discussions of money and “business models”. I don’t want to talk about it. My posts are NEVER about it. I don’t care. I care about people getting informed. Call it journalism if you want. Some will get paid, some will do it for free. I don’t care. Some will do it well, some will do it poorly, I don’t care who is pro who is amateur. I just don’t want all discussions about quality of information ecosystem to always get degraded and derailed by the comments about the darned money.

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  10. 10. Tom666 12:38 pm 11/21/2012

    I think one of the issues is we are talking about different things, which fulfil different needs. Take the Higgs Boson discovery. It’s a big story, and probably justifies several articles.

    One of those articles, if I was news editing, would ideally be by a big name physicist who can talk like a human being, giving context. This is just the sort of thing you are talking about here and it would patently be idiotic not to look for a big name – like, say, Jon Butterworth, who does the job very well at the Guardian.

    Another story, which I still think people value but I may be wrong, is the straight news story – telling those who don’t follow twitter all day what is actually going on as simply as possible. That is where you hoover up quotes from Higgs and the head of Cern. It can be by a physicist but, ideally, it should just be a set of facts and quotes – a window through which readers view the story. So I’m not sure why a physicist is necessary.

    A third story would be a piece of reportage, describing the scene on the ground, the partying of the physicists and the elation of discovery. It would be a human story. Since physicists (or anyone close to a story) rarely know what makes physicists interesting, or which aspects of their culture need explaining, that is a story that has to be done by an outsider.

    I haven’t yet ever come across a blog that regularly produces dispassionate reportage, and I don’t know how it could.

    So I think we’re talking at cross purposes. Of course comment and backgrounders should be done by experts – it would be idiocy if they weren’t. But a lot of journalism isn’t comment and backgrounders. Now maybe that other journalism will go now that no one is getting paid, but I for one feel that would be a loss.

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  11. 11. Tom666 12:51 pm 11/21/2012

    Bora Zivkovic 12:31 pm

    Fair enough. I suppose what we are discussing is the utility of the sort of journalism that requires money, versus the utility of the sort that often doesn’t – and whether one can replace the other. But it is as you point out possible to talk about that without diverting into whether and how people will pay for either.

    I suppose the payment issue becomes an issue because without it, the sort of journalism I’m talking about will disappear for ever – so then we need to discuss, from the information perspective, whether that’s a bad thing?

    And my contention is that your argument above makes some very reasonable points, but also appears to claim a universality for a blogging model with which I don’t agree – that if everything is blogs, or at least if everything is written in the blogging style, we really will lose something.

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  12. 12. Bora Zivkovic 12:52 pm 11/21/2012

    Wait! I never said, not ever, that blogging style is the only or best one, or that blogs will “replace” other forms. I just don’t want to talk about money as that is diversion from the topic of the post.

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  13. 13. Tom666 12:56 pm 11/21/2012

    Fine on the money point – but it was my understanding that that was precisely what you said. Your article implied, to me at least, that there was nothing other forms could do that blogs could not:

    “But who will report the news as it happens, from the scene?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did exactly that.

    “But who will do in-depth, investigative reporting?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who do that every week.

    “But who will cover local town councils and school boards?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who are doing an amazing job with that.

    “But who will speak truth to the power?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did just that.

    “But who will effect positive change, affect legislation, diplomatic efforts?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples when bloggers did exactly that.

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  14. 14. Bora Zivkovic 12:58 pm 11/21/2012

    Blog is software. I covered that ground in a number of past posts.

    This quote is a summary of examples from several years ago, showing how old-skoolers were trying to make artificial division between two forms, while bloggers always saw it as mutual, equivalent, parts of the same ecosystem, collaborative and not competitive or mutually exclusive.

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  15. 15. PascalLapointe 1:18 pm 11/21/2012

    Bora: “These threads always devolve into discussions of money and “business models”. I don’t want to talk about it. My posts are NEVER about it. I don’t care. I care about people getting informed. Call it journalism if you want.”

    Well, I don’t care either if it will be called journalism or blog or whatever. But many people, as I am, seems to think that money is an important factor. If somebody want good articles/posts/texts and if he wants them regularly and if he wants some kind of long term relationship with any kind of writer, sooner or later, this writer will have to be paid. If not, the writer will find some other job to eat and pay its rent and we will maybe lose an expert. As we have lost many, because of low-pay or insufficient markets.

    I think it is a dangerous mistake to not talk about pay, because it is central to the evolution of journalism in general and science journalism in particular —and it will be central to the evolution of science blogging, freelance journalism and investigative journalism, amongst others, in the next decades. I know it is not a glamorous subject. But it is impossible to dissociate this subject from debates on information quality or information diversity. I am perfectly at ease with the fact that society will always have people willing to write for nothing, but we have to ask if that will be enough, not assume that it will be enough.

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  16. 16. Tom666 1:21 pm 11/21/2012

    Ah I see – you’re quite right. Indeed, I said in my first post that since it’s just a publishing medium it doesn’t really matter.

    But – and I might be misinterpreting – your blogpost does seem a bit antagonistic towards this traditional journalism. For instance when you say it covers everything poorly…!

    On that note, I would say your thesis of why traditional journalism is becoming less popular is quite wrong. In fact, outside of a small group who do just read blogs, traditional journalism is getting massively more popular.

    A mainstream journalist could expect 20 years ago to be read by at most a few hundred thousand people. Today he or she will be read by millions. Traditional newspapers have never been so popular – or, apparently, so trusted. It’s just that no one (sorry, you can’t avoid it) is paying for them.

    That is why they are making redundancies – it has nothing to do with a loss of readership. Although, here too you are in my experience wrong.

    It is not the specialists at all who are made redundant. It is generally the sub-editors and the generalists. The front of house reporters with expertise are precisely the ones who are kept – because they are the ones people notice. Even if, with the meat of the organisation gone, the whole edifice is at risk of collapsing from within.

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  17. 17. Bora Zivkovic 1:23 pm 11/21/2012

    There are plenty of places where business models are discussed. This is not one of them.

    There are two ways to derail discussions on my blog. One is “business model” bait (“who’s gonna pay?”). The other is “blog replacenik” bait (“why bloggers think they can replace us?” which no blogger ever claimed ever, it is total paranoia from the traditionals).

    It would be interesting if someone did a psychological analysis of people who read those two themes into everything I write, what motivates them (fear?), why they can’t stop themselves from commenting on those two unrelated, off-topic subjects.

    I have sprinkled my post with links that can provide context for those new to my blog. I have also conveniently linked them all at the bottom of the post for easy access.

    Now let’s go up and re-read the post to see what it is all about. “Kinds of expertise”. Let’s talk about that, OK?

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  18. 18. Bora Zivkovic 1:26 pm 11/21/2012

    @Tom666 – “…leading to the conclusion that the traditional media covers everything poorly.” does not mean that it is my conclusion, personally, does it? Not in the context of that paragraph, at least.

    Link to this
  19. 19. PascalLapointe 1:33 pm 11/21/2012

    I certainly do not want to derail any discussions. I am talking about expertise (at least, this is my intention). And I am saying that paying is possibly the most under-estimated factors of the last decade, either in those discussions about “blogging vs journalists” or today about “who is the expert”. Or, more broadly, in any discussion about what will be the information landscape of tomorrow. I don’t expect us to draw here a business model, I just think we can safely discard the variable “money” in the equation.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Tom666 1:34 pm 11/21/2012

    Bora, maybe we have all misinterpreted. Maybe we do indeed need psychoanalysis. But it came across to me that your post was rather setting up one against the other – and that, following from that that you have treated my perfectly polite, perfectly temperate, replies rather antagonistically.

    And no, I didn’t interpret that paragraph – even with the passive “we” – as anything other than you implying traditional media does most things rather poorly.

    But if your point is just that some people are experts who can write well and when experts who can write well write well that is a good thing, then I think we can all agree.

    Link to this
  21. 21. PascalLapointe 1:35 pm 11/21/2012

    I meant “I just think we can NOT safely discard the variable “money” in the equation”. :-)

    Link to this
  22. 22. Bora Zivkovic 1:48 pm 11/21/2012

    @Tom666 – first, I apologize. I was snappy. You may be relatively new to this blog and these discussions, but I’ve been through many, and some of the phrases now act as “triggers” for me and induce my short temper ;-)

    The quoted quasi-dialogue I included as an illustration how silly making such dichotomies was then, and how even sillier they see from the vantage point of today, when the media ecosystem is so much more integrated.

    As John Rennie once said, and I agree, this is the best time for journalism and the worst time for journalists.

    I am very careful, in this post and others, to use terms like “writer”, in a platform-agnostic way. You don’t know if I am talking about professionals or amateurs, people publishing on blogging software or on some other CMS or on paper or in some other medium. I want the focus to go away from medium and onto substance.

    I have also, in several posts (including those linked), gone to great pains to show how the disctinctions are getting even more blurry than before, and how such divisions are artifical and counter-productive.

    My job here is to make such distinctions even more fuzzy, to completely erase the borders between Old and New, CMS (or paper) and WordPress. And yes, to get bloggers to be paid as much as columnists. And yes, to help new voices find a place in the ecosystem and get paid for it.

    It really does not matter if the writers I am talking about work for old media organizations, or are founding new ones, or are freelancers, or have other jobs and blog on the side. I am interested in the quality of the ecosystem as a whole, what kind of information is available, how much of it, to whom and where.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Bora Zivkovic 1:50 pm 11/21/2012

    Also, we are on the 23rd comment and we have not yet started discussing the topic of the post. That is, almost by definition, a derailed comment thread. Thus my frantic attempts to put a stop to derailment and hope that we can return to the topic of varieties of expertise.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Tom666 1:51 pm 11/21/2012

    Fair enough, I apologise too for being tetchy. And, actually, I largely agree. Understood!

    Link to this
  25. 25. notscientific 2:35 pm 11/21/2012

    Awesome plug to the new generation of science writers! I like.

    Link to this
  26. 26. mlc77 8:09 pm 11/21/2012

    Agree with notscientific! What a great piece to encourage new science writers. It’s a very interesting period of change in writing and reporting. I can’t wait to see where we go next!

    Link to this
  27. 27. Bora Zivkovic 9:18 pm 11/21/2012

    Here is an excellent response to this post:
    http://www.thisview.org/?p=92
    and further discussion of both posts:
    https://www.facebook.com/coturnix/posts/114963145333080

    Link to this
  28. 28. Bora Zivkovic 6:10 pm 11/22/2012

    As an aside, two people had the patience to carefully dissect that bad article on publishing:
    http://bjoern.brembs.net/comment-n884.html
    and
    http://www.scilogs.com/next_regeneration/great-expectations-for-scientific-publication-how-digital-publishing-is-helping-science/
    Check them out.

    Link to this
  29. 29. SoundingTheSea 9:38 pm 11/22/2012

    I just wanted to say that I loved this post, especially this: “A good writer writes riveting, beautiful prose. Not convoluted, Victorian-style prose, but clear, exciting prose imbued with one’s personality.” Wonderfully put.

    I wish more scientists were good writers, or more good scientist writers would write about their science for public consumption (outside of academic journals). Blogging and writing about my “expertise” has been one of the greatest joys of the past year, and it has made me more aware of how much of an impact good science communication has on public awareness and policy. Thanks for letting us write.

    Link to this

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