When American science writers donned their cowboy boots to travel to the University of Texas in Austin for their annual meeting, they—like much of the world—found themselves Skyping, tweeting, live video streaming and using other digital technologies that made the reporter’s notebooks in their registration packets seem like quaint specimens from a journalism history exhibit.
Yes, many did find themselves taking notes the old-fashioned way, but they often also were multitasking on computer notebooks and smart phones, using Twitter to converse online about the meeting at the same time they were watching speakers’ slide shows and videos.
ScienceWriters 2009 is a joint meeting of the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. As a membership group, NASW organizes workshops each year about the craft of science writing, while CASW organizes an educational briefing on cutting-edge science called New Horizons in Science. This year’s five-day meeting began with journalism workshops on Saturday. The New Horizons science presentations, which started Sunday, include an experimental use of live video streaming using Ustream to allow others to participate from afar. The live video stream continues through Tuesday afternoon and is accessible via casw.org.
Digital media was a major topic during the science writing workshops. In one presentation, two digitally savvy science journalists, Alexis Madrigal of the Wired Science blog and David Harris, editor-in-chief of Symmetry Magazine and deputy communications director of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, gave a tour of the social media landscape and its “secret life.” Digg.com operates like a gang, Harris said, with stories or links nominated by super-users tending to rise in the ranks; meanwhile Reddit.com is like an “ADHD direct democracy” in which any link can make it to the top rankings, but popular links turn over rapidly. Harris noted that about 15 percent of his site’s traffic comes via Twitter and Facebook, while Madrigal said about 30 percent of his blog’s social media traffic comes from Digg and another 30 percent comes from StumbleUpon.com.
Harris advised the standing-room-only audience not to waste time crafting a social media strategy or hiring a social media guru, however, telling journalists to get involved directly instead.
The science writers’ sometimes-awkward embrace of social media tools was evident during Harris’ presentation. “Are we supposed to be looking at your screen or this other screen on the side?” one audience member asked upon the room’s secondary projection screen, featuring a real-time transcript of the conference’s Twitter feed.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Harris replied, as the room erupted in confused laughter.
In a keynote speech, Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, had told attendees: “Twitter is supremely important. It may be superseded … but it is a critically important new infrastructure.” But dozens of conference goers had already come to a similar conclusion.
The social media madness at ScienceWriters 2009 won new converts, including veteran reporter Ron Winslow (@RonWinslow), who set up his first Twitter account on the spot and found, to his amazement, how quickly his list of followers was growing.
“It’s clear that if you’re not doing it, you’re not going to participate in a very critical part of the dialogue,” he said of Twitter, “and you’re not using a tool that’s changing the way information gets disseminated and shared.”
Brooke Wang, one of the most avid and helpful tweeters at the meeting, said that new media platforms had been “very valuable” to her as a newcomer to science writing. At the meeting, people who recognized her tiny Twitter photo stopped her in the halls and others engaged her online. Wang, who has a Master’s in public health and now works in the National Cancer Institute’s office of media relations, said digital technologies gave her instant access to the science writing community in ways she had not expected.
Other converts included Robert Finn (@bobfinn), San Francisco bureau chief of International Medical News Group. “Last year I was a real skeptic of Twitter. It wasn’t really on my radar screen,” he said. This year, Finn was one of the most prolific tweeters at the meeting.
“It adds a completely new way to communicate at a meeting,” he said. “There are side discussions and questions for speakers and people not at a meeting get a very real sense of what’s going on. Who knows if this is going to be a flash in the pan or something that will change the way people communicate? But it sure is fun.”
Meanwhile, during a session titled “Starting an Online Magazine,” Science News editor Tom Siegfried predicted that Twitter will go the way of the CB radio.
“I do not see the lasting value of Twitter,” he explained later. “I do not see that a large number of people will find a large amount of value in spending a lot of time looking at a lot of tweets.”
Siegfried also said it’s unclear where online science journalism is headed, adding that “a lot of what’s going on doesn’t have a lot to do with journalism. It has to do with technology or style. Getting news reported well is being subordinated to a concern with technology.”
Gillmor, on the other hand, is the voice of optimism and enthusiasm about the future of digital media, calling the current situation—with its declining print ad revenues, closing newspapers, and burgeoning online news outlets—a phase of “creative destruction.”
“But we’re also in an amazingly constructive phase,” he said during a talk. “We’re in a period that maybe we should call ‘messy’… but I’m so sure that we’re going to come up with something wonderful that I don’t worry about it anymore.”
One innovative new Twitter tool that Purdue University researchers unveiled earlier this month was made available for use at ScienceWriters 2009. Designed to help make sense of the wave of Twitter traffic at a meeting or conferenc, a new site called Need4Feed sorts through the tweets at a meeting and builds a popularity ranking to identify those with the broadest appeal. Developer Kyle Bowen, director of informatics at Purdue, said in a university press release that “Need4Feed lets conference goers sift through the noise to find the important things being said.”
The Purdue site showed that, as of last night, science writers tweeted almost 1,700 times about the Austin conference, with NCI’s Wang in the lead (164). The most popular links shared were a social media graphic and an animated U.S. map showing fossil fuels carbon dioxide emissions that was a hit on YouTube. One of the most popular overall was a compliment from keynote speaker Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor): “Want to talk with an intelligent audience? Try science writers… wow.”
But lest you think that science writers are too high-minded, it’s good to keep in mind that the most popular Sunday night re-tweets focused on where to get great Indian food in Austin (try the Clay Pit) or draft beer (how about the Ginger Man pub on Lavaca?). Science writers, after all, still have those key journalistic instincts for a good story, a good meal and a good watering hole.
Editor’s Note: To follow the Twitter stream from the ScienceWriters 2009 meeting, go to Twitter and type in hashtag #sciwri09. The authors’ Twitter feeds can be found at @robinlloyd99 and @russellcris. To get more information about the live streaming video from the New Horizons meeting, go to casw.org (it will be archived in the near future). Lloyd and Russell helped organize sessions at the science writers’ workshops on social media; Russell is also CASW president.
[Clarification: This post was changed to reflect the fact that 30 percent of the Wired Science blog’s social media traffic - not total traffic - comes from Digg and another 30 percent comes from StumbleUpon.com.]Robin Lloyd and Cristine Russell are freelance science writers. Lloyd is currently on contract as the online editor for Scientific American and was previously a senior editor at LiveScience.com and SPACE.com. Russell is a CJR contributing editor, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.