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Huffington Post Science - interview with Cara Santa Maria


A couple of weeks ago, Huffington Post launched its Science section. I invited Cara Santa Maria, the science correspondent at Huffington Post to tell us more about this new endeavor.

Bora Zivkovic: Hello, welcome to the Scientific American blog network. The launch of the brand new Science section at the Huffington Post created quite a lot of buzz two weeks ago, so I'd like to take this opportunity to ask you, as their science correspondent, to tell us more about the project, its history, and its future. But it is probably best to first introduce you - can you tell us something about yourself, your beginnings, how you got into science, what kind of research you did, how you got into journalism, and how you ended up at Huffington Post?

Cara Santa Maria: Thanks so much for having me. Here’s a little about my background: I became interested in neuroscience while studying psychology and philosophy as an undergraduate in Texas. I had an opportunity to complete a practicum with a clinical neuropsychologist, and the more I learned about brain damage and dysfunction, the more I wanted to know about the electrophysiological, neurochemical, and network-level underpinnings of brain-behavior relationships. So, I went on to earn a graduate degree in biology with a neuroscience concentration. While in school, I worked at the Center for Network Neuroscience, where I was the chief cell culture technician and managed the culture facility. I also did some research in the area of cell-cell communication and network organization. Then, in New York, I worked in an adult neurogenesis lab, where we used a songbird (zebra finch) model. While I was furthering my education on the East Coast, life took me on an unexpected path (as it is prone to do), and I ended up in Los Angeles. Here, I was offered the opportunity to develop a pilot for HBO and to appear on different television programs, promoting science education for a mainstream audience. Along the way, I met Arianna Huffington, and when she decided that it was time to start developing a science section for The Huffington Post, she called me up and asked for my help.

BZ.: The idea about a science section at Huffington Post has been circulating for a few years now. What took HuffPost so long to start a Science section? Also: why now? What changed at HuffPost recently to make this section now possible after so many years of people proposing it?

CSM.: I didn’t start working at HuffPost until after the merger with AOL, but I know the editors have always taken science seriously. I think that the growth in editorial resources has allowed AOL/HuffPost to launch multiple new sites and sections, and it was important—especially to Arianna—that science be one of them.

BZ.: How do you go about recruiting bloggers for the section? How many did you have at the moment of launch, and how many do you expect to have as a maximum?

CSM.: HuffPost welcomes diverse voices to use its platform. We’ve reached out to many different scientists, educators, and science writers. During our launch week, we showcased blogs by Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11 moonwalker), Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic Magazine), Lisa Randall (Harvard Physics professor), Seth Mnookin (M.I.T. science writing program educator), Saul Perlmutter (Nobel laureate), Jean-Lou Chameau (president of Cal-Tech), and even Richard Branson (founder of the Virgin Group). Site-wide, HuffPost has somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 active bloggers. At the time of the launch, we had engaged nearly 200 bloggers specifically for the science section, and that list grows every day.

BZ.: As HuffPost does not pay its bloggers, I am assuming that most of your bloggers are not going to be professional writers and freelancers, but rather researchers and others with day jobs who also like to write on the side (is that correct?). Many people like to write and gladly do it for free (just watch a billion or so people writing on blogs and social networks every day!), so why not expand one's audience a thousand times by abandoning a small, independent, personal blog and joining Huffington Post instead? Yet this business model is making a lot of people uneasy - HuffPost is a business that makes money, so there is a sense of fairness that people who produce the product should be paid for it. Also, there is a fear of a slippery slope - if a big site like this can get away with not paying the authors, that makes it easier for other media organizations to follow the model, leaving the professional writers without a source of income. Do you have a good response to those concerns?

CSM.: Between our New York, DC, and Los Angeles offices, HuffPost has a paid newsroom staff of 320 journalists, with over 60 of them doing original reporting daily. We make a distinction between our newsroom staffers and our bloggers. People choose to blog for us because they are passionate about their ideas, and they want their words to reach the largest possible audience. Our site gets over a billion hits a month. Also, they know that they have the opportunity to cross-post the work from their independent blogs to our site, where readers have an unparalleled community experience. We also encourage our bloggers to engage with readers. Any time I write a piece or produce a new video, I find myself answering challenging questions and having exciting conversations with the commenters on my posts.

BZ.: The reactions to the launch of the new Science section have been quite interesting to watch. Most are in a "wait in see" mode, and they range between cautiously optimistic and deeply skeptical (see, for example, posts by Charlie Petit, Carl Zimmer, Keith Kloor, Mark Hoofnagle, Seth Mnookin, Michael Conniff, Autism Blog and Orac). This is understandable as Huffington Post has a long reputation as a repository for all kinds of pseudoscience, New Age woo and medical quackery, and most dangerously, the anti-vaccine screeds. Of course, only time will tell, but is there anything you can tell the skeptics today, this early in the game, why they should give the new section benefit of the doubt, and perhaps some support? You will try to do the same here at ScienceOnline2012 where many of the critics of the past Huffington Post science and medical coverage will be present (someone said to me that you must be "very brave to enter the lion's den" there) - how can you turn your critics into your supporters?

CSM.: I am a scientist and educator first. I strive to promote rational, skeptical, evidence-based thought and to improve scientific literacy with every word I write and every conversation I have. When it comes to the science section as a whole, my editors and I feel very strongly that scientific rigor is the priority. Generally speaking, when scientists write peer-reviewed journal articles, they often take some liberties in their closing statements within the discussion section, because this is the appropriate place to discuss implications of their work, future developments, and its philosophical/moral/ethical ramifications. Without a rigorous materials and methods and results section, however, the author hasn’t really earned the right to speculate on its implications, no? Similarly, with popular science writing, information must be vetted. This isn’t to say that we don’t welcome writers with differing opinions or questioning, skeptical eyes. Instead, what I’m trying to say is that pseudoscience, junk science, and anti-science are vastly different from views that use scientific fundamentals to challenge the status-quo. I can guarantee that this is a science section, not a pseudoscience section. I can also guarantee that false equivalencies will not find a home here.

BZ.: Media outlets dedicated to science (e.g., science magazines, science sections of newspapers, science programs on the radio, science channels in cable TV, science blogs/networks, etc.) are examples of the so-called "pull" media strategy - they are destinations for the audiences that already know they are interested in science. They are easily skipped and ignored by the general audience. It takes awareness of their existence, as well as personal interest, for one to find and then consume science stories in such outlets. What we'd all like to do more is the "push" strategy - going to the audiences where they already are. This means inserting science stories into places where they will be seen by people who came there to see news about celebrities or sports or politics, and perhaps do not even think they like science. This is a way to "hook" them to science. But this strategy is hard to accomplish, mostly because of the old myth that science stories do not have audiences (myths busted over the past couple of years when outlets ranging from The New York Times to Slate noted that science stories are some of the most viewed and shared stories on their sites). Thus legacy generalist media, still with the largest general audiences out there, is really hard to penetrate. Huffington Post is one of the most visited and popular general media outlets. Its audience comes to the site for all sorts of different reasons. This is potentially a great opportunity to do the "push" method - to mix science stories in with other stuff. Which leads me to the question: how mixed is it really going to be? Will the Science section going to be just a "pull" destination for those already interested, or is it going to be always mixed in with the other topics and "pushed" on the readers no matter where on the site they may find themselves?

CSM.: Oh, I think that moving forward, we will have a very strong mix of push and pull. Our editorial mission is to inform readers, but also to engage them with the awe and beauty of the natural world. I personally find science to be poetic, intriguing, and often very, very human. I find that most individuals who run screaming from the word “science” do so out of fear more than out of boredom. Almost any topic can be described in such a way that it connects with a personal interest or emotion of a reader. I am lucky enough to be able to produce a video series, Talk Nerdy To Me, where I attempt to do just that. I discuss topics—sometimes ones that are in the news, and sometimes ones that are evergreen in nature—in a way that invites my viewers to start their own conversations around the dinner table or water cooler. I think it’s important to break down complex scientific ideas, or translate them, without dumbing down the content. Generally speaking, I think that many popular media producers underestimate the intelligence of their audiences. If we can hook a front page reader who’s perusing an article about the race for the republican nomination, the Golden Globes, or even the NFL playoffs with a snappy title and then deliver on that promise of offering an eye-opening perspective on the way the universe works, I think we’ve done what we all want to do: make a small step toward increasing the scientific literacy of the public at large.

BZ.: In his post about the launch, Charlie Petit was wondering how much science "reporting" there will be on the site. Of course, that word is tricky - there is "news reporting", there is "investigative reporting", and then there are op-eds, "cool animals" stories, and videos. All of that is "reporting" in a sense. There are cool stories ("look, this is so cool what they just discovered!"), there are relevant stories ("wow, this is useful information for me to have"), and there are 'fishy' stories ("yuck, scientists are up to no good again"). Cool stories are the best "push" stories that excite, entertain and hook readers who then, hopefully, become regular readers of science stories. Relevant stories may not be as sexy, but tend to get shared a lot. 'Fishy' stories are very important to do, but perhaps should go to specialized science sites rather than generalist sites as they may have a tendency to reduce trust by lay audiences in science and scientists - something that may not be a good idea on a site that is already (in)famous for its pseudoscience and angry rants against some invented conspiracies by scientists or "Big Pharma". Or perhaps HuffPost Science may be the ideal place specifically for skeptical stories - active debunking of pseudoscientific claims (including those that appear on other parts of the site). So, how would you respond to Charlie Petit - what kind of media site is Huffington Post, and what kinds of stories can he (and all of us) expect to see there?

CSM.: As mentioned before, I think there will be a fair amount of push and pull on our site. The hope is that we will create an environment where interested readers can “hang out,” reading up on new science developments, looking at “wow” photos, watching cool videos, and engaging with bloggers and other readers within our expansive commenter community. When it comes to deniers, I have a slightly different approach than some of my peers in the scientific community. I think that scientific literacy is a gift, and not everyone has been lucky enough to receive it. It is difficult for somebody who hasn’t learned how to think scientifically to have an immediate filter for non-science, which often masquerades as science, throwing around big words that sound legitimate and hiding behind .org or .edu domain names. For example, when it comes to how many people view Big Pharma, a controversy you raised in your question, I attempt to make key distinctions between what happens in the research lab and what happens when companies market and sell their products. I, like many others, am critical of the health care system in this country. But I’m careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because I do not trust that my insurance company has my best interests at heart, it doesn’t mean that I also distrust the medication or surgical procedure that could save my life. This is an important, nuanced distinction to make, and without education, we can’t expect everyone to have the tools to make it.

BZ.: Tell us more about David Freeman, the new editor of the Science section? His introductory post was well-received. What is his vision for the place?

CSM.: David is a wonderful editor, and we are so lucky to have him. His experience and wisdom having worked at, and having written for WebMD, Men's Health, Consumer Reports, and Popular Mechanics (among others) is invaluable to the section. As for his vision, he has this to say: “Science has become absolutely central to our lives and is certain to be increasingly important as the 21st Century unspools. My goal for the new science vertical is to bring HufPost’s signature journalistic flair to the world of science, presenting science news in a way that is engaging and accessible but always intellectually rock solid. Our aim is to entertain as well as inform our readers--and to present science broadly, looking at its intersection with the arts, politics, and other aspects of popular culture. And as with all the verticals at The Huffington Post, another key goal is to foster a conversation, bringing together scientifically minded people for a spirited but always respectful exchange of ideas.”

BZ.: What exactly will be your role as a science correspondent?

CSM.: As I mentioned before, I produce a video series called Talk Nerdy To Me, in which I explore topical and evergreen scientific subjects. I also write original pieces, which generally reflect my personal style and vision, incorporating original reporting with op-ed sensibilities. Moving forward, I plan on doing more interviews/discussions both with scientific minds and everyday people. And, I am always on the lookout for new ways to engage readers and viewers, especially with new media. As Arianna said in her introductory blog, “HuffPost Science will be anchored by our Science Correspondent Cara Santa Maria.” I work closely both with my editorial team and with my video production team to ensure that the page continues to inform, entertain, educate, and inspire.

BZ.: Traffic to HuffPost as a whole is huge, but there is, I heard (correct me if I am wrong), a pronounced "Long Tail" pattern: almost all of the traffic goes to a small number of articles, while most articles get very little traffic and few or no comments. How will you ensure that Science articles get top traffic (get into the "head" or at least "neck" as opposed to the "long tail" of the traffic distribution)? Will they be routinely promoted on the HuffPo homepage? Syndicated on the sites of media partners (including Scientific American)? How much social media activity will be used to promote the content? We all have the same goal - promoting realism, rationality and science. How can we, as a community, help you do it better and reach more people?

CSM.: Science content is represented on the HuffPost homepage daily. Articles are always linked to other relevant articles within the site, and cross-promotion on other verticals (pages) is common. But, getting people to click on an article is only half the battle. We also want them to join the discussion. Site-wide, we have already reached over 2.26 million comments so far this year. The science page alone got over 4,000 comments the day it launched. We also have a team of social media geniuses on staff that are helping us engage people via all of the social tools available. We’re definitely open to any and all suggestions from the online science community at large. We are all on the same team here: team science!

BZ.: Thank you so much!

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

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