This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They – at least some of them – have recently hatched in the Incubators (science writing programs at schools of journalism), have even more recently fledged (graduated), and are now making their mark as wonderful new voices explaining science to the public.
Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you from originally?
I grew up in the agricultural heartland of California, which means I can milk a cow and drive a tractor. My family is one in a long line of farmers living in the Central Valley. I spent summers weeding the fields, swimming in irrigation ditches and tipping cows.
How did you get into science and how did you get into writing? And how did these two trajectories fuse into a career in science journalism?
My father, hoping that his children would one day work alongside him on the family ranch, spent a great deal of time teaching us the agricultural business. Living at home, I got an education in everything from agronomy to pest identification.
When I left for the University of Oxford, UK it was only natural for me to cater to the left side of my brain and study science. I spent a term researching mold. I studied green mold and black mold. I examined fuzzy mold and furry mold — believe me, there’s a difference. I smelled mold. I tasted mold, and I wrote about mold. A lot.
However, not to be outdone, my mother also contributed heavily to my curriculum. As the editor in chief of the local paper she’d always encouraged me to build up my right lobe. So, during the next term, I occupied my days with Milton and Byron. I went to poetry readings. I attended English literature lectures. I analyzed at least two-dozen books on literary form, and I got paper cuts. A lot.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I can use both sides of my brain. Left and right, analytic and creative work together instead of competing for dominance. And because of this knack, I saw the perfect opportunity to marry science and journalism, looking for the balance between statistics and narrative, between multimedia and straight text. Thank you, right brain and left brain.
What professional experience you have had so far – publications, internships, jobs? Feel free to include a bunch of links here!
In July 2012 I began a science reporting fellowship at E&E Publishing, a Washington, D.C.-based news wire, where I cover the impact of climate change on everything from the international chocolate industry to methane hydrates in Antarctica. I had a few internships before moving to the East Coast, all of them involving the environment beat and multimedia reporting.
I also freelance on the side. Here’s my Village Voice story on the rise of Wiccan academies in New York City, my radio report on the “furry” subculture, and a piece I wrote for your publication on brain parasites, California’s hidden health problem.
For my complete resume, check out my website at www.mbloudoff.com.
You write a variety of science stories for E&E Publishing, “from the international chocolate industry to methane hydrates in Antarctica.” How challenging is it to switch topics on a daily basis?
General assignment reporting is a demanding job, even when working for a niche publication. Every morning I hit the ground running. Most of the time I’m familiar with the subject of the day, but I actually like it better when I’ve never been exposed to my story topic. It gives me the opportunity to take on a challenge, expand my knowledge base and meet new people. I love brainstorming creative ways to tackle a story, and I’m a sucker for the adrenaline rush of writing on deadline.
Plus, the benefit of knowing a little bit about everything is that I’ve stared to see connections among different stories. For example, the drought isn’t just a problem for agriculture. It hits transportation and energy and health care, etc. Picking out the unifying thread allows for more extensive, in-depth features and better overall coverage.
How do you find stories to report?
Quite a few of my daily stories materialize out of social media interactions, but most of my features come from good old-fashioned pounding the pavement. I enjoy chatting with random people on the street or on public transportation. Even if our conversation doesn’t generate a story idea now, odds are the exchange will turn into something later. It also helps that I enjoy reading academic journals, which are always great sources for stories.
That being said, I actually think one of the greatest skills for a science journalist is the ability to turn down a story. If the methodology is weak or the data is statistically insignificant, you have to be able to effectively convey those flaws to your audience — or take a stand and decline to write it at all.
Can you give insight on your writing process?
It’s a process, but I don’t focus on just writing. I see a story as an experience rather than simply a text piece or a broadcast piece. Reporters have to think in terms of the overall message and carefully consider which media or combination of media best conveys that message. When I plan a story, I try to tailor it to my audience and take visual, audio and social media components into consideration.
How often do you use social media networks to promote stories, to learn and to connect?
It’s a 24/7 industry. People want information, and they want it now, or they’ll go elsewhere. Audiences are intelligent, avid news consumers who crave information. Social media is not “just one more thing to do.” It is a valuable reporting and distribution tool that I incorporate into my everyday workflow.
Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter give me access to new opinions and narratives, adding millions of sources to my Rolodex. I use Tumblr and Pinterest to start conversations with readers, creating forums for public debate, and sites such as Google+ give me the opportunity to immediately assess reader reaction to stories.
Online journalism is a rapidly growing field, and the publications that learn how to efficiently use the available tools — and create their own — will be in the best position to serve their audiences.
You can find links to all my social media platforms at http://www.mbloudoff.com/
Apart from writing, do you also do other aspects of science communication, e.g., podcasts, video, art/illustration, photography, infographics, or do you do any coding, web design and programming?
In the spring of 2012 I got my master’s degree in digital media from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with concentrations in science journalism, radio reporting and photo documentary. While my passion lies with those specific media, you can’t leave a place like Columbia without training in infographics production, video editing and coding. It’s important to have a working understanding of every position in the newsroom. These skills allow journalists from different departments to communicate and collaborate more effectively. Such a varied background also gives reporters the capability to look at stories from multiple points of view, making them more effective storytellers.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m searching for a full-time position with a science-oriented publication that is interested in developing their social media presence and expanding their multimedia department. I’m hoping to stay on the East Coast for a while, but I’ll go wherever my career takes me.
Long-term, I want to report on climate change from Antarctica. It’s an important topic that is underrepresented in the mainstream media. I’d also like to go back to school and get my Ph.D. in water policy. The energy sectors in China and India are already at odds over water, and the U.S. agricultural industry is struggling with this summer’s drought. Water is the next big issue, and people will need educated journalists to break down the science and help the public make informed decisions.
Thank you, it was my pleasure.
Previously in this series:
Kristina Ashley Bjoran
Mary Beth Griggs
Amy Shira Teitel
Noby Leong and Tristan O’Brien
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX