Q&A: NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson

On the site's new science and technology section and blog

On Tuesday, The New Yorker launched a science and technology page on its website, along with a companion blog called Elements. The new Science & Tech vertical, wedged prominently between Books and Business on the homepage, had been on NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson’s to-do list for a while, and in January he hired BuzzFeed’s Matt Buchanan to be deputy editor of the section and the blog. On Thursday, Thompson, who joined The New Yorker as a senior editor in 2010 after five years at Wired, and left print to manage the website in 2012, shared his thoughts on the foray into science and technology online.

Why did you decide to add a sci-tech page and blog?

It’s something I had wanted to do more or less since I took the job. Traditionally, content on The New Yorker’s site has been grouped into news and culture. A couple months after I started, we added a books category, and it seemed like science and tech was the natural next step. Even before I took over as editor of the site, I had been blogging a lot about technology. Sometimes it would run in News Desk and sometimes it would run in Culture Desk. Science and technology are things that The New Yorker has done really well for a long time, but we didn’t have a clear home for them online.

Are there any particular stories or issues that made sci-tech seem like the natural next step?

The question of how technology is changing the way we think, the way we relate to one another—that’s a huge question that requires in-depth coverage from all sorts of places, some of which we can provide.

You can look at our initial posts to see what we’re interested in. There’s Maria Bustillos, who had a big post about bitcoins and the global economy—how technology is changing finance, changing the way markets work. And Michael Specter had a post asking, “Can we patent life?” The patent system is one of the most inscrutable, but also most interesting, features of the American economy. How do you reform it? What should and shouldn’t be patentable? Who owns our genes? These are big topics, things that as a society we have to figure out the answers to, and we’re not going to figure them all out on a New Yorker blog, but they are conversations we want to contribute to.

Joshua Rothman had a great article, “Nine decades of science coverage in The New Yorker,” that described a longtime focus on technology—the things we create and how they shape our lives. Will that continue at NewYorker.com?

Absolutely. The principle is to take what we’ve always done in the magazine and expand it to this fast-moving world of the Internet as best we can. We want to take the things we’re good at, and try to cover of them at Web speed.

Josh’s post is a great example of how The New Yorker has covered science and tech, what we’ve done well, what has interested us, how we’ve written about it, how we’ve covered it. It appeared on the first day for two specific reasons: to remind people that this a magazine that has done this great work, and to serve as a set of guidelines for what we want to do, to help us determine what to cover and what not to cover.

So, in terms of approach, will that mean more newsy posts, or a lot of enterprising, feature-y kind of stuff?

We want there to be a mix. Facebook is announcing a new phone today, for example, and we’re certainly going to see if we have a good way to respond to what people are talking about. If we don’t have a way of saying something new, we won’t publish anything, but we’ll try to engage in that discussion. So, as best as possible, we’re going to be involved in the conversations of the moment.

But what’s the point of having a New Yorker blog about science and technology if you don’t also use it to really dig into stuff? Ideally, we’ll end up with a lot of pieces like the one about bitcoins. They’re in the news right now—everybody’s talking about them—but our article is about 4,000 words long, with history, in-depth interviews, and real reporting that involves actually going out and talking to people and finding out things.

You’ve recently published some great work by new writers like NYU psychology professor Gary Marcus. What other novelties can readers expect?

We’re definitely going to be adding writers. I’d worked with Gary while I was at Wired, and edited one of his feature stories. He started writing for NewYorker.com and loved it, and it turned out he had new ideas every week. So, he’s been churning them out, and they’ve been excellent. We’d love to find more writers like him. Tim Wu has done a couple of pieces. Gareth Cook, who’s never written for The New Yorker before, wrote a piece for us yesterday, and just filed another one.

So, there’ll be a group of writers that I hope will develop into regular voices on the Web. It’ll be open to freelancers and there will be pieces from staff writers, but I also want there to be another tier of writers who are regular contributors like Gary. Part of what we’re doing now if figuring out who those people will be, who consistently comes up with ideas that work for us, who’s easy to edit—all of those things that go into making an editor-writer relationship work. I suspect that there will eventually be a regular set of 10 or 12 voices. We’ve kind of seen that with Page Turner, our books and literary blog, where people like Teju Cole are now regular voices.

Despite the decline of science coverage in the mainstream media, it’s really booming online. What’s your view of the current trajectory of science writing on the Web?

This blog and the Science & Tech page cover two things—science and technology—and of course technology is a big thing online. People who use technology like to read about technology. People who use Twitter like to read stories about Twitter. So tech journalism thrives online. It always has. It always will.

But it’s also the case that science journalism is showing remarkable growth. There are great blogs coming out, and a lot of great young science writers. When we were looking for a deputy editor, we read through lots of blogs, and were incredibly impressed. It’s something about understanding who we are, how the world works, how our lives work, and how our lives interact with nature. These are huge questions, and it turns out that the Internet is a great forum for debating, discussing, and investigating them.

I think it’s now kind of the cool, smart, hip thing to be a young science journalist in a way it may not have been 10 years ago. The way that our knowledge is evolving and the way science is changing our understanding of fields like neuroscience or genomics really draws people in. These areas where we really know next to nothing, but where it’s clear that what we do learn will be profoundly important in all sorts of ways.

Science is also a place for great photography, and as the Web has become more image-based, that has probably helped science journalism. Tech journalism has always had a problem with how you represent it visually. When you write a story about hackers, it’s kind of hard to illustrate it. It’s hard to find a good photograph. You can come up with some kind of conceptual drawing, but it’s tough. When you write a story about science, on the other hand, there are all these beautiful images, whether it’s something on a microscopic level, or it’s outer space, or it’s the beautiful picture that accompanied Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece about global warming and droughts.

Where does The New Yorker fit into the online, science-writing ecosystem? Is there any particular role that you’re trying to play, or any particular gap that you’re trying to fill?

I don’t know if there’s a gap in that new ecosystem. We just want to be part of it and do things really well. But we don’t want to compete in the, who-can-summarize-the-new-paper-in-Nature-the-fastest race. We’re not going to be able to win at that game; we don’t have a large enough news operation. But when it comes to explaining science and technology in the clearest, crispest language, and exploring different corners of research to find something new, I think we can do a good job and compete well.

I also think that there are going to be certain topics and ideas that we continue to push forward. Michael Specter, for example, who wrote a book about denialism—whether that’s doubting the benefits of vaccines or the science of climate change, or fanciful thinking about the effects of genetically modified foods—and why a rational approach to science is what’s best for the world, and I think that is an idea that we’ll continue cover at The New Yorker.

What’s so important about bitcoins, then? On Wednesday there were three pieces about them at the top of the page: the Elements post by Maria Bustillos, a News Desk post from Nick Traverse, and a 2011 feature from the archives by Joshua Davis.

The fact that there were three pieces was partly random. It just happened that we had a really good piece in the archives, and the Nick Traverse piece was just 100 words; it was part of a little feature we have in our new Business hub, “The Number,” where we pick a number every couple days. So we picked the price of bitcoins that day.

But they’re amazing for a couple of reasons. First, you can write about them in a way that ties us into the global economic crisis, as Bustillos did. Second, there is this amazing mystery about how they were created and who created them. Joshua Davis’s piece from the archives was all about trying to find Satoshi Nakamoto, the man, or the group of people, who built them—no one knows. It’s unbelievable.

So this is a sort of enduring question for journalists who are interested in narrative and mystery, and figuring things out. Somebody built this thing that is worth tons and tons of money, and nobody knows who he is.

And then there are the incredible questions about bitcoins’ volatility. This is a currency that is worth actual money, and it used to take thousands of bitcoins to buy a pizza, and now a bitcoin is worth around $140. It’s an extraordinary story about a mysterious invention that is actually changing the world.

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