Adam Smith, Penny Sarchet and Douglas Heaven are the three early-career science writers to be nominated for this year's Best Newcomer award by the Association of British Science Writers. (Adam eventually won the award.) Adam and Penny work as reporters at Research Fortnight while Douglas is at New Scientist (and is also a "Storyteller" for TEDxAlbertopolis).
I got the three to pool their ideas, expertise and opinions about journalism—its evolution, its technicalities and more—in one shared Google Docs. This interview started as a bit of an experiment. I created it with a few open questions, which Adam, Penny and Douglas jumped. They even commented on one another's answers as well. So the *interview* became more like a conversation.
Welcome to The SA Incubator. So, let’s start from the beginning... how did you get started with science communication?
Adam: I’m going to take ‘communication’ in the broadest sense here and not rehearse the long-running debate about journalism vs communication/PR! I worked for a few years as a journalist on a business magazine reporting stuff that didn’t excite me enough. After having left science behind at school to do a degree in English with media and cultural studies, I wanted some science back in my life so I figured I’d have a go at reporting science. I quit my job and spent a year trying all kinds of different media and beats within science, largely thanks to a masters degree in science journalism at City University. I did some freelance work and lots of unpaid work. One of the blogs I wrote was on science policy, which I got more and more into. Then I got a job reporting science policy for Research Fortnight. We’re read by people who follow the money for research—scientists, policymakers and people in universities. And Penny is a colleague!
Penny: I did a degree in biological sciences and a PhD in genetics, but I've always done a lot of writing too alongside all the science. I began freelancing professionally over two years ago, and I joined Research Fortnight as a reporter last October.
Douglas: I worked in research for three or four years after doing a computer science PhD, switching between short-term contracts. Universities are great places to work, but I never found a happy niche. I was often more excited about other people’s work than my own and it’s hard to win at science if you’re not fully into what you do. So I jumped. Like Adam, I started out in the humanities and my first degree was English and Philosophy. With a split background, science writing ticked a lot of boxes. But a career change was still daunting. I freelanced for a few months and then did the masters in Science Communication at Imperial College London.The course was great, but that year also gave me a bit more time to do some freelancing and find my feet. Last summer I started a six-month internship at New Scientist and I’m now reporting for them full-time.
Adam: I wonder whether you’ve heard the same old prejudice against arts degrees as I have. Maybe you’re immunised after your PhD?
Douglas: There have been a few times when I’ve tried to defend the “worth” of arts degrees—especially when the question of state-funded education is in the background. What’s silly is that many of the arguments I’ve heard against arts degrees and research can sound pretty similar to some of the arguments against non-applied science. Also, one common assumption seems to be that you’ll never be a physicist without doing a physics degree but that you can be a political or cultural critic with just a bit of common sense. I guess Feynman is a good model for that idea. But I don’t think you can have a Feynman in a society that doesn’t already have significant academically-driven momentum in the arts or humanities.
Interesting. Journalism, science journalism included, is undergoing a profound change right now. How do you see it evolving? How would you want it to evolve?
Adam: The big question is not about ethics or technology but about funding. We're all a bit squeamish about this. It's bizarre that while scientists and researchers are forcing policymakers and companies to revolutionise the business models for academic publishing, journalists and others are not doing the same for journalism.
Trade or business-to-business journalism is valuable to a certain group of people. Readers have always paid for it and will continue to pay because the information is financially valuable to them. But the open, public media covering anything from international politics to celebrity houses to scientific discoveries is something else. Major newspapers in print and online, like The Times and the Guardian are losing up to £50m a year. Public broadcasters like the BBC are enacting major cuts and barely coping with unwieldy structures that have not translated into the new, diffuse media world. How often do you see coverage in the press or on the BBC of this huge challenge to journalism and how we run our societies? You can understand the BBC dodging it because it’s not subject to market whims, so it doesn't have a stake in the conversation. But most general newspapers and magazines aren't covering it at all (because they're scared, I guess). The public need to get more comfortable paying for journalism because it's a public service. There are cases for both voluntary payment (tip jars, subscriptions, micropayment) and mandatory public funding through tax - couldn't some of the BBC's budget be freed up to support journalism in the public interest but that the BBC wouldn't do? What are the other creative options we could come up with, in the way that academics have worked out all sorts of solutions for open access academic publishing? Why aren’t more media outlets using their access to audiences and powerful people to push these questions and find answers from the public?
Penny: I suppose if we’re talking about journalism “evolving”, then the answer has to be adaptation. I wouldn’t pretend to know where science journalism is headed, but I do think one way or another, there will still be an audience for science news and ideas. You only have to look at the popular science book market to see how much of an appetite there is for good science writing.
Adam: OK, so Penny wins with the Darwinian references. I agree about adaptation, although I was thinking about it only with regard to funding. Penny, if the popular science book market is where science coverage thrives, do you think that might become even more important than magazines and websites? I like the idea of readers supporting more and more long-form journalism in books and e-books.
Penny: The appetite for popular science books shows that there are audiences hungry for science writing. I think this is also true for shorter science journalism and news reporting, and I would hope that as long as people want to read it, journalism will find a way to continue providing it.
Douglas: Adam’s right to highlight the problem of funding. There’s been a lot of navel gazing in the last year or so with debates about ”journalism” vs “science writing”—important to a degree, but less so if nobody’s paying for it either way. There are big questions. Why pay to read an original story in one place when you can read a rehashed version of it for free elsewhere? I think journalism needs to offer at least one of two things for people to come back—and pay—for more: authority and exclusivity. But the writing also has to be incisive, insightful and stylish—because we read for enjoyment, right? Ultimately, I’m not sure whether readers or advertisers make the better paymasters. Ideally, I’d like to think readers would pay for writing that they think is entertaining and informative. But I know a lot of the time I don’t even do that myself. There are a few bold experiments going on—digital subscriptions, magazine apps that bundle writing with an interactive package, pay-per-longread (I’m thinking of Matter or Aeon, for example, which I think are good examples of the longer-form journalism experiments Adam and Penny touch on above)—and in five years’ time we’ll have a better idea of what works.
With the change, there are lots of talks about journalists needing to build up their skill sets (e.g. learn to code, learn photoshop, etc). What’s your take on this?
Adam: Why not learn as much as you can? You can't learn everything, but you should pick one or two non-traditional journalistic skills and nail them. My masters degree in science journalism was as painful as hell because I had to force myself to learn new stuff every day, but it was the right thing for me at the time because I found a few things that I wanted to learn really well. You shouldn't change the bread and butter of journalism, such as interviewing, fact checking, media law and writing. But having other skills, especially online and in social media, is essential. I'd love to learn to code, but I'm relying on the fact that there'll always be dedicated coders who I can work with!
Penny: I like that journalists are expected to do more. It’s great that we get to work across different media, especially. There are things that you can do with a podcast or a blog that you can’t do in a print article. And when it comes to coding, photoshopping, and so on, this doesn’t just apply to journalism—so many jobs are becoming increasingly techy now, and journalism is just one of these.
Douglas: I think the idea of a journalist needing to be a Jack of all trades is somewhat hyped—we all know the flip side to that. It’s true that the written word competes for space with video packages and podcasts in a lot more outlets these days, and having some experience in those areas widens your scope, but if you’re a print journalist well-written, well-reported copy is still what gets you hired. I don’t think photo-editing or web-coding skills are essential either—unless, of course, you’re working in a tiny team or producing your own site (which, incidentally, is a great way to get started, so maybe I’m talking in circles here). But knowing your way around datasets—knowing a few database commands, for example—might be a good thing to learn. There’s more data out there than people to look at it. I think more and more exclusive stories will start to come from these kinds of sources and the journalists getting those stories will be the ones who know how to make sense of the data.
Adam: I agree that data is providing more possibilities for stories, and I would advise young journalists and journalism students to get to grips with data. But I don’t think this is a sea change in journalism: novel technologies have always brought new ways to find stories; the bread and butter of journalism as finding out things, speaking to relevant people about them and then reporting the facts is unchanged.
Douglas: I think this is probably the right way to think about it. Nothing is fundamentally changing, but a journalist who knows how and where to look might find stories that others don’t. Then again they might just find data and no story. But I do think the need to wrestle with datasets rather than written reports, for example, will become more common. We’ll probably see a lot more information being produced by computers and put online without going through a person first.
As up-and-coming science writers, what advice would you give to those who are joining or want to join the ranks?
Adam: My advice is trite: do it because you enjoy it and because you think it’s right. If you’re doing it for money or glory or power then you’re in the wrong game. Have a think about why the movement of information - our product - is important. You might want to be a cheerleader for the novel science that’s being done or to chronicle how people use science to shapes our lives - if so, it’ll help if you decide on this and keep it in your mind. As for practical stuff, get out there and read lots of blogs and websites and publications from a variety of sources. Meet and talk to people on social media. Follow the discussions that scientists and other journalists are having. And best of all, experiment—write, podcast, blog, draw, whatever.
Penny: It’s simple and it’s obvious, but my best tip is just to get writing, and then to do lots of it. Beyond that, it’s important to test yourself—get feedback, ask for comments, enter competitions.
Douglas: The three Rs: reading, writing, and rejection. (1) Read people you think write brilliantly and copy them, read lots of stuff written in your area so you know what’s going on, and read fiction.
Adam: Yes, read fiction!
Douglas: (2) Write as much as you can and seek feedback. I found this hard starting out, without deadlines and without a potential audience. But write for local magazines, write a blog, and pitch freelance stories. I found writing for other people helped. External deadlines force you to start writing!
Adam: Writing and publishing is really important, and if you have internet access there’s no excuse. The main reason why I got started covering science policy was that with two friends I started a blog about science funding (we thought we were really clever when we called it ‘Purse String Theory’) …
Douglas: I always thought that was a great name!
Adam: … I didn’t know anything about the topic beforehand, but made myself write at least one post per week, covering news and writing brief opinions on things I’d found it. Testing these posts on relevant people by hitch-hiking on hashtag conversations on Twitter was terrifying and exciting but always invaluable.
Douglas: (3) And get used to rejection—it’s tough but happens to every writer out there. Not everything you write will find an editor or a reader. Start pitching to places you’d like to write for—work out first what they publish and aim to offer something they want. If they go for it, great! If not, find out why and you’ll learn something that will help next time. Repeat. Don’t get hung up on one idea. You’ll have many, many more.
The fundamental goal of science journalism from your perspective?
Adam: I guess this is asking me why I do it. For me, the fundamental goal of science journalism isn’t different from that of any other flavour of journalism. The goal is to report what’s going on for people who are interested.Thanks to the internet, you can reach people who haven’t before been interested in the topic you’re reporting, but I don’t see that as part of my job. I know that some people get into science journalism because they want to communicate the wonders of science to a wider crowd, but I’d rather focus on just getting the story. I’m informed in my opinion here by my current job, where we already have a subscriber base and sales people who find more subscribers. But I think even if I were blogging as a one-man band, I’d do the social media story promotion of course but not actively pursue people who aren’t yet interested. The focus of the job isn’t to promote your work or that of others’; it’s to report on the activities of people who are either too busy or not minded to explain their workings all the time. You’re at the service of the audience and no one else. That’s why having a debate about public payment for journalism is so important.
Penny: Personally, as a reader, I turn to journalism of all kinds for clear reporting and critical analysis, and for me, the same principles apply to science journalism too.
Douglas: I’m with Adam and Penny on the importance of critical and analytical reporting—but I think a lot of the time the point of science journalism is to entertain as much as inform. Science is integral to society, and I hope we always have great journalists writing about science policy and funding. But science is bigger than society. Journalists writing about new results in science, for example, are reporting back from the boundaries of where we’ve gone as humans. There are sometimes ethical questions to be framed, but a lot of people read about science simply because it feeds a fascination with the new, the strange, and the amazing. For me, that’s an aesthetic response as much as anything else.
And when it comes to catching readers who maybe aren’t that into science, appealing to the imagination or simply telling a good story might be their way in. The best writers can make us read about anything.
Penny: I agree with you—entertainment is important too. If your article isn’t interesting, no one’s going to make it to the end.
Adam: So thanks to the reader who made it to the end of this one!
Douglas: Does it still count if you skipped bits?