January 6, 2012 | 3
Happy belated new year everyone! 2011 was a wonderful year for me. Not only did my blog move to its shiny new abode at Scientific American, I also joined the science desk of NRC Handelsblad, a daily Dutch newspaper. I started out as an intern and was later hired as a staff writer. Since I’m organizing the discussion session ‘Going from blogging to MSM: selling out or gateway drug?’ together with Hannah Waters for this year’s Science Online conference, this seems a good time to share some of my personal experiences of being an on- and offline science writer.
The newspaper scrap above is an excerpt of my very first article that ran in NRC, on the 2nd of December in 2010. In NRC newsroom jargon, this is a ‘shortie’. Shorties range from 80 to 150 words in length and contain a short description of a single research paper’s results and findings. This one is about how oxytocin, a chemical often branded as the ‘love hormone’, can also induce negative memories. I remember spending a good 5 to 6 hours reading the paper and writing this piece.
So did it feel good to have made the newspaper for the first time? While I was relieved that my writing was deemed good enough for print (after several rounds of editing and rewriting – the first blow is never half the battle), the blogger inside me felt betrayed. As a blogger I was used to wrote long stories on subjects I was deeply familiar with. Here I was writing about oxytocin, a hormone I knew nothing about, in the tersest way possible. This is how science blogger extraordinaire Ed Yong covered the same research, using over 820 words. My 130 words looked stale in comparison. They were missing depth, context and nuance.
But before judging the shortie for what it isn’t, I should have realized that NRC Handelsblad is not the internet. Unlike Ed, a newspaper doesn’t have the luxury of unlimited white space. NRC publishes five science pages a week (and a larger science supplement in the weekend), so every inch of paper should be an inch well spent. A column full of shorties contains a diverse mix of science news in a short amount of space. They’re like chocolate sprinkles on a daily science dessert. And in a sense, their brevity is their forte (‘it’s not a bug. it’s a feature!’). Its length reflects its importance, relative to the other articles of that day. This kind of hierarchy is hard to come by on a blog, where every post seems as important as the next.
That said, short articles still make me uncomfortable. My biggest worry is that they contain enough information to pique a reader’s interest, yet not enough to satisfy her curiosity. Often I get questions from readers that were covered in the original research, but which didn’t fit into my story. And there’s always the danger of oversimplification. It’s impossible to trim down a research paper of 6 pages full of details and caveats to a hundred words without cutting some corners. Therefore, in my ideal newspaper, the last line of each short piece would read ‘click here to read more’.
If short stories made the blogger inside of me cringe, he should feel comfortable with the large feature articles that I’ve written, right? Yeah, that’s not true either. I’ve found that even in 2,300 words, there are always opportunities missed, details left out and ground left uncovered. A paper I mention might be a single part a much larger body of research. A person I interviewed might feel misquoted because I highlight key quotes from an hour long interview. Online, I could have linked to papers, additional sources, graphs and transcripts. Offline, the article is the article.
Forward-looking mainstream media organizations should recognize the potential of online reporting. I try to sneak in links into the newspaper whenever I can, but I’d like to see the integration of offline articles and online resources carried much further. And while I’ve been dipping my toes in this cross pollination already, with some of my blog posts becoming newspaper articles, and vice versa, I hope there’s a bigger role for me and other young bloggers to play in this transition in the future.
Online-offline discussions aside, I am glad I had the opportunity to work in MSM. I acquired journalistic skills that I didn’t even know existed when I was a rogue blogger. The first time I called a scientist to interview them about his research, I was nervous. The interviews went horrible. In hindsight, I was trying to impress my conversation partner more than I was asking relevant questions. ‘Hey, I have a MSc degree in biology, I know what you’re talking about’. It took some time before I realized that it’s all right to ask basic questions.
This is but one example of many, and there is still much left to learn. Blogging made me a writer, but it is thanks to editors and colleagues, who were honest enough to criticize and give advice when it was necessary and kind enough to guide me as I stumbled onwards, that I became a better one.
Next week I’ll return to regular evolution blogging. Here’s to another year of genes, Neandertals, dinosaurs, Yeti crabs, ecology and evolution!