Scientific American’s Experiment in Wiki-Reporting

When the news of the oldest hominid fossil on record broke this fall, the magazine's lineup was packed -- so its editors tried an experiment they had been kicking around for months.

In September, a team of scientists, led by paleoanthropologist Zeresenay Alemseged, announced the results of a study on the 3.3-million-year-old skeleton of an ancestor of human beings called A. afarensis. The skeleton, found in Ethiopia, appears to be that of a 3-year-old girl. Selam, as she is called, is now the oldest hominid fossil on record. She belonged to the same genus and species as the famous “Lucy,” and despite being 100,000 years older, received the contentious nickname “Lucy’s Baby.” Scientists are using Selam to uncover details about the development of brain capacity and bipedal locomotion. When the news broke in the September 21 issue of Nature, however, Scientific American’s news lineup was packed, and with a two-month lead time the editors could not squeeze it into the magazine. So they decided to try an experiment that they had been kicking around for months.

“Immediately, we knew we wanted to do more with it than usual,” said SciAm’s online editor, Kate Wong, who had been following the Lucy’s Baby story. The day before Alemseged’s paper was published, Wong had written a feature-length article for the magazine’s Web site describing the Selam discovery and the significance of what scientists had already learned from her bones. Next to it was a sidebar that urged readers to “Be part of our publishing experiment.” The note explained that another version of the story would appear in the December issue of Scientific American magazine, and solicited feedback from readers about what information the new article should contain. There was a link to a blog where readers could post comments and questions about Selam’s discovery and the subsequent research. Wong also contacted a number of experts in the fields of paleoanthropology and human evolution (some of whom she had already interviewed for the online article) to ask for their input as well. “We just crossed our fingers that people would be interested enough to comment on this,” Wong said. “Fortunately for us, they were.”

Throughout September and October, more than 100 readers and six scientific experts posted their thoughts on the SciAm blog. Two weeks ago, the results of the experiment, the second iteration of Wong’s feature on Lucy’s Baby, hit the newsstands. The front of the December issue contains an editors’ note, titled “Old Baby in the New Media,” which explains the genesis and evolution of Wong’s story. “Wikis, social bookmarking and other online exercises in communal authorship have opened eyes to novel ways of creating quality content,” it reads.

John Rennie, SciAm’s editor-in-chief, said last week that for some months the staff had been “trying to develop features for both Web site and print that would play to the strengths of each medium.” When the Lucy’s Baby story got jammed in the news pipeline, it provided the perfect opportunity. Colorful graphics of Selam’s skeleton and maps of the excavation site were a good fit with both digital and traditional platforms, and the magnitude of the discovery left readers plenty of room to ask follow-up questions about Wong’s first take on the story.

There are about four new paragraphs in the eight-page December feature, and some subtle reshaping of the existing text. When the story broke in September, readers immediately took issue with the nickname “Lucy’s Baby,” which they called misleading because Selam is much older than Lucy. In response, Wong added a parenthetical statement to the first paragraph of her print feature that acknowledged the contradiction. Readers also wanted more detail about how scientists dated the skeleton and determined its sex. Having that feedback was useful, according to Wong. “I wasn’t clear that that was something the reader wanted to know,” she said. “And I don’t know if I would’ve included that amount of detail.”

In the original feature Wong thoroughly covered the big scientific questions that resulted from Selam’s discovery. A. afarensis is a key species in the study of how humans came to walk on two feet and how quickly bipedal locomotion developed relative to larger brains. Half ape, half human, Selam and Lucy are puzzling because they exhibit skeletal traits of both an arboreal and a terrestrial existence. Given that information in Wong’s first story, readers wanted to know more about what the African landscape looked like three million years ago, so the second draft included a paragraph describing an ancient, wooded savannah. Along the same lines, readers asked for a graphic that would show where A. africanus fits in chronologically with other species in the human lineage, and for a map of east Africa that would show where scientists had discovered Selam, Lucy and other notable skeletons. All of that appeared in the December issue. Many questions posted on the SciAm blog didn’t make into the final text of Wong’s feature, however. “Rather than just taking the feedback and weaving it into the article, we wanted to show people what we did,” she said. To give the experiment transparency, especially for those who did not follow the Web forum, the editors created two sidebars to complement the feature in print. Both contain snippets from the blog discussion — one from experts, the other from lay readers — which were not used in the magazine article.

The benefit of all the feedback is obvious in Wong’s new story. From the original story, thorough enough in its own right, to the profound depth of the information available on the Web site, to the print feature, replete with bells, whistles and addendums, there is more than enough to educate and entertain readers. The new, if subtle, scientific detail in the finished product is a significant improvement, and even more of the gritty, anthropological specifics can be found in the expert commentary on the Web. In that respect, the experiment can be called a success. But such a process also requires a lot of extra work on the part of reporters and editors, and that raises questions about its practicality in an age of shrinking news staffs. Is open source Wiki-reporting an efficient way to deliver the news? Wong said that she was in a good position to make a first stab at it because she is SciAm’s online editor and has also worked for the print edition. “I’m not a paleoanthropologist,” she said, referring to her readers’ many questions, “so for some I had to go back to the books … but it wasn’t all that demanding. If you’re willing to open yourself to the possibility that your readers want something different than what your gut is telling you to do, then it is really rewarding.”

To make the most out of new media requires more, however. The experiment did not have a dedicated page on the Scientific American Web site, and it may not have been clear to casual visitors that anything out of the ordinary was going on. “If you really want to do this,” Rennie said, “there’s a lot about the online presentation that has to click in terms of pulling all the information, graphics and discussion platforms together.” Another challenge with a multimedia presentation is “getting a feel for the different audiences that you have online and in print,” Rennie said. “The general observation that most people have had is that there’s more technology interest in your online audience than there is in the print audience.” The list of such considerations is quite long.

Which stories best lend themselves to open source/multimedia platforms? What types of audience or readership are most apt to take part in networked reporting? Can open source reporting be used to break the news as well as expand upon it? How do we define participatory journalism? Was SciAm’s experiment Wiki-reporting? Networked reporting? Citizen journalism? These questions remain open because editors and publishers, especially in the mainstream press, have undertaken only a limited number of experiments in new media.

According to Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, the first stab at open source reportage was a 1999 article about cyber-terrorism in Jane’s Intelligence Review, “the international journal of threat analysis.” Editors submitted the piece to the readers of, “news for nerds,” and asked for edits, but feedback was more excoriating than constructive, so the story did not run. In June 2005, the Los Angeles Times opinion page suffered a similar embarrassment when it decided to allow its readers to edit and improve “War and Consequences,” an editorial about the Iraq War. Editors shut down the experiment after two days when readers repeatedly posted pornographic photos. Coincidentally, it was that directed its readers to the Times “wikitorial.” Some experiments are proving more successful, however. This summer the Washington Examiner launched its Community Action Network (WECAN). The project is trying to link reporters with community leaders and activists by posting databases online that relate to government services such as public works, transportation and educations. Also this summer, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington began Web-casting its news meetings, hoping that such transparency would improve trust with its readership.

At this nascent stage in the development of new media, it is of little use to label any such experiment a categorical failure — even the disastrous mishap in the L.A. Times. As a modus operandi, open source journalism is only beginning to take shape, and more disappointments will surely attend its development. Journalism needs more experimentation, not less, and a willingness on the part of editors, publishers and reporters to expose themselves to the inevitable risks of innovation. Scientific American’s effort is proof that such gambles can pay off.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.