Sunday, April 06, 2014

What is a science graduate and aspiring journalist to do?

- if you haven’t already been snapped up.

First let me thank the McGill (University) Daily for inviting me to participate in a panel on Science Journalism in the Digital Age. The March, 2014 event was coordinated by Diana Kwon, the Sci & Tech Editor. Co-panelists were Elizabeth Howell, space and science journalist, and David Secko, science journalism professor at Concordia University, in Montreal. This post summarizes some of my main points.

So, if you haven’t already been recruited by the mainstream media, there are things you can and should do. Explore and promote your own idea(s). One benefit is that you will be marking out your territory. The other is that you will learn hands-on ‒ and often at little cost ‒ what works and what doesn’t, digitally.

For example, even though my own book Escaping the progress trap never made any best-seller lists,
  • the sites that complement it, and consistently rate near the top on Google searches . That’s due to careful SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and regular, focused updates to the blog and the main site,
  • the book also has an electronic edition - eBooks are often short and can be produced at little or no cost,
  • the most frequently read page at the book’s site is about Tikopia,  and that page is also close to the top of Google searches for Tikopia,
  • the most frequently read page on the Blog is  Creativity: how extraordinary is the ordinary person's mind – an excerpt from the book.

The Territory
The digital extensions of this book are thus beneficial, and the 'territory' has been marked out, something that needs doing even if you have copyright and your work is widely known. In 23 years, only one author has claimed to have coined the term “progress trap” since I registered copyright on it in 1991.

Harvard Bookstore

Not built in a day
Some books do take time – for instance We, the Tikopia by Raymond Firth, was published in London in 1936 and languished unsold until WWII, when the publisher had to decide whether to dispose of it, or not. The book survived the blitz and eventually found a market after the war.

Quality, not quantity?
As a fictional aside one recalls the amusing episode from Angels and Demons where the character Robert Langdon ruefully proclaims upon unearthing one of the cryptic clues “ aaah.. just a few days with this and I could have finished my book …  and sold dozens of copies at the Harvard Bookstore.”

The digital world
So, on to the digital real world: There are many ways to analyse the performance of your site, blog, tweets & videos, and more internet tools than one can hope to use. Most of us rely on Google Analytics to gauge a site’s performance. For a general overview of the state of the net there is the assessment of internet publishing in its many forms: The 2013 Digital Influence Report is useful on blogging, social media and multimedia.

Common wealth
The Creative Commons license provides a free springboard to source material that is often the basis for serious, professional study and reporting. Better yet, Open Data sources from many international bodies such as the World Bank are available. There is also Open Science Data  and many governments provide Open Data. Yes it’s Ok to consult Wiki. If you can’t bring yourself to cite Wikipedia, do cite one of the peer-reviewed articles that you are likely to find among their references. After actually reading that article, of course.

Anyone for MOOCs?
If you suddenly feel the need for more expert knowledge, don’t be shy to take a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Perhaps the best known are under the MIT-Harvard umbrella known as They are free for the most part and don’t take up too much time. I have taken three in the last year and now have Harvard, Berkeley and Oxford on my resume. FYI, is just now hyping Street-Fighting Math, #educatedguessing.

While it is true that traditional media outlets have been trimming science staff, the jobs haven’t gone away. Science isn’t going away. It gets more intricate all the time, needing expert interpretation for voters, policymakers, investors and everyone else. Many organizations rely on new media for communicating their interests. One example is the Mayo Clinic that lists about thirty staffers in its Communications department. The site also lists 14 Canadian Institutions and their newsroom personnel.

It means different things to different people and usually takes endurance, smarts as well as copious resources. This little blog post of mine can assure neither fame, fortune, professional accolades ‒ or any of the above ‒ to anyone. On the other hand, you might be invited to speak at McGill University!

The last word – goes to Jared Diamond
“The Easter Islanders' isolation probably also explains why I have found that their collapse, more than the collapse of any other pre-industrial society, haunts my readers and students. The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other…..Thus, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples.”
Jared Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. Viking 2005

Thanks also to the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA)