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.