Science Blogs “Win a Place at the Table”

Zimmer and Yong on the evolution of online science coverage

According to “techy historians,” there were around twenty-three blogs in 1998. As of mid-February, there were 156 million, Phil Hilts, the director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT, pointed out at a journalism event in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Tuesday night.

Yet for all that progress, media professionals themselves often hold outdated views of the industry they work in, Carl Zimmer, an award-winning journalist and early adopter of science blogging, would later say. He recounted two experiences in recent months that made him feel that way.

In one, Zimmer was asked to speak at conference of public information officers from leading universities in Washington, D.C. The organizers told him they wanted him to talk about “this new thing that is changing the way people are learning about science, and this new thing was blogs.” In the other, a variety of major media outlets began referring to a seminal article he’d written for Slate challenging a piece of controversial astrobiology research (which online denizens will remember as the “arsenic life” brouhaha) as a “blog post.” Of course, blogs are no longer “new” and Slate is not a blog.

“These two things really fascinated me because, to me, they show that despite the speed at which we’re moving in terms of the way that science journalism is changing, there’s an amazing amount of inertia,” Zimmer said. “In a way, we’re just getting used to the idea that there are things called blogs. So, what strikes me is that we’re in 2011 and yet the image we have of image we have of the science writing landscape is stuck several years back.”

Hilts and Zimmer were speaking at dinner panel titled “Media I Am - How blogs, tweets, and social media are changing science writing,” that was part of the annual Cambridge Science Festival. (“You are what you blog and tweet,” moderator Cristine Russell, a CJR contributing editor, explained.) Also on the panel with Zimmer was Ed Yong, an award-winning British journalist based in London. Both are part of Discover’s blog network, where they respectively write The Loom (originally launched in 2003) and Not Exactly Rocket Science (originally launched in 2006).

The first “bloggy type things” were launched in the 1990s, Zimmer said, and really took off around 2002. And despite lingering, archaic perceptions of the science writing landscape, he thinks they “won a place at the table” two to three years ago.

Indeed, Yong said later, they are already changing the ways that journalists, scientists, and readers interact. He then told a tale about the fascinating outcome of a post he’d written about a study of “weird, sexually ambiguous chickens” called gynandromorphs. After writing it, he received an e-mail from a chicken farmer in the United States, who attached a photo of one of his flock, asking if was an example of one the hermaphroditic birds. Yong replied that it was, and suggested the farmer contact the scientist behind the study he’d covered, because specimens are rare. Later, he learned that the farmer and scientist had established a valuable research collaboration.

Yong also discussed the ways that digital media are changing storytelling. He talked about a widely praised timeline of stem cell research that he created in February using Dipity—which a number of other major media outlets embedded in their own stories—and mentioned other tools like Storify, which can be used to collect conversations from different social media into a story, and Vuvox, which can be used to create collages and other presentations. Yong also praised Discover for building a slideshow feature into the content management system for its website. He uses them to provide more context, and now includes one in every piece about microbes in the gut, for instance.

“People reading these news pieces can get a really good handle on the background behind the latest discoveries,” he said. “And the thing I really like about the slideshows is because you can update from the central source, I can ensure that every piece I write has this constantly growing and updated library of stuff at the bottom of it.”

Zimmer highlighted a few other ways that digital media is changing the news. Sites like The Atavist are (contrary to conventional wisdom) encouraging of “insanely long-form journalism,” he pointed out, and e-books are now the best-selling category of books, having outstripped hardcover and paperback.

“What’s fascinating to me is the way e-books are getting integrated into social media,” he said. “It’s not very hard to for you to put up a tweet or a blog post with a link to a Kindle edition of a book. So really it only takes about ten seconds from someone sending a tweet, to you reading a book.”

The panel’s “discussant,” Hillary Rosner (yet another award-winning journalist, though one that has worked primarily in print and launched her PLoS blog, Tooth & Claw, two months ago) weighed in with a couple other interesting observations. One was a story about a friend of hers, Science News reporter Alexandra Witze, who had e-mailed earlier in the week from the Kennedy Center Space Center in Florida, where she was covering the chaotic and eventually postponed final launch of the shuttle Endeavour.

“She was saying that even though she was actually at the Kennedy Center in the NASA press room, she was getting the bulk of her news about what was going on from Twitter,” Rosner said. “She was sitting in the pressroom getting news about the fact the press conferences were being rescheduled from Twitter. That really says something.”

It’s worth watching the entire video recording of the panel. Zimmer, Yong, and Rosner had many other anecdotes, incisive and humorous, about science writing in the digital age, the ways it has grown up, and the ways in which it is still growing.

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