A Day in the Life of John Timmer

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At the French-Swiss border, in the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider.

John Timmer at the French-Swiss border, in the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider.

Where I work:

I work in a home office in Brooklyn. Ars Technica runs online: we have a virtual office in an IRC channel and a staff-only IM server. I’m also available via Skype and Gtalk, since a lot of the writers are freelancers and don’t have access to the staff resources. Even though Ars is owned by Condé Nast, which is based in New York City, I’ve probably been in the corporate offices an average of less than once a year.

My home office has a desk, and I use that a lot of the time. I’ve got a tall filing cabinet that I can put my laptop on so I can read while standing. And, weather permitting, I spend some time on my balcony, which is lovely in the spring and fall (but too hot or cold in the other seasons). I’ve got enough focus that I can work on the subway or in parks and coffee shops, so I try to do a bit of that too, just to make sure I don’t end up feeling trapped in my office. Read more »

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Single Best: Cristine Russell

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Today we continue our series Single Best, where we ask top writer and editors to give us their single best piece of advice — given or taken, their single best idea, reporting trip or memorable experience. Here, science journalist Cristine Russell talks about the, er, breakthrough moment when she learned to avoid a certain science writing cliché. Russell is an adjunct professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Follow her on Twitter @russellcris.

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Tackling the physical sciences

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Imagine that you are a salesperson tasked with selling a special product. Most people know very little about the product, and many have had a bad experience with similar items. People can’t see what you are selling, and it is unlikely to impact their lives immediately.

Such is the plight of the reporter who covers the physical sciences. Science writers on this beat know its hazards, from having to describe the intricacies of quantum gravity to dealing with readers who hated chemistry in high school. Yet some journalists are still compelled accept the challenge, often driven by a love for a particular scientific field. Read more »

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Single Best: Charles Choi

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Today we continue our series Single Best, where we ask top writer and editors to give us their single best piece of advice — given or taken, their single best idea, reporting trip or memorable experience. Here, science journalist Charles Choi shares the writing concept that is “God.”

Choi is a longtime freelance science journalist who has reported for Scientific American, the New York Times, Science, Nature and many others. Follow him on Twitter @cqchoi.

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A Day in the Life of Brian Switek

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What I’m working on:

I swing back and forth between panicking over not having enough work and taking on too much. At the moment, I’m trying to find the joy in being swamped.

Writing my blog Laelaps for National Geographic is my primary gig. Everything else is freelance work, which consists of looking for new assignments while trying to tackle the ones I’ve already taken on. This week, that has meant filing stories on giant swimming sloths and a 28-million-year-old whale skull while finding time to run downtown for radio interviews on de-extinction and a giant Jurassic carnivore. I need to take some old stories about conservation paleobiology, the world’s small cats, and dinosaur size off the back burner, as well, not to mention pitching new stories. Read more »

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The first critic is you: Editing your own work

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Self-editing is a selfless endeavor. You cut, replace, rearrange and endlessly re-read — all for the reader’s benefit. “Journalism is all about having a sense of empathy with your audience,” says Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. To achieve that connection with the audience, Fagin says, revise with readers in mind, always asking yourself “what they need, what they want, will they understand?”

As traditional journalism outlets’ budgets shrink and editors are being overextended, writers are asked to take increasingly larger roles in shaping their own stories. Whether you have the best editor in the world or no editor at all, self-editing is necessary to deliver the best story possible. Read more »

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Ask TON: Getting sources to open up

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. This week, we ask experienced journalists how to get people to open up and talk like human beings. (Click here to see previous installments).

Scientists and other interviewees are often eager to talk about their work, but sometimes, ask a basic question and you’re left with answers like “that was explained in our paper.” And some sources are reluctant in general. They may not want to talk about controversial subjects; they may have been burned by other journalists, and are wary of the media; or they’re just difficult to approach. This can be difficult if your source is a key character in a feature story.

So, what can you do to break the ice?

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Tips to help your sources warm up to you and your questions. Read more »

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Single Best: Robin Lloyd

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Today we continue our series Single Best, where we ask top writer and editors to give us their single best piece of advice — given or taken, their single best idea, reporting trip or memorable experience. Here, science journalist Robin Lloyd shares a career turning point. Lloyd is online news editor at Scientific American. Follow her on Twitter @robinlloyd99.

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Covering the environment beat

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Taking on the environment beat is like marrying into a big, colorful family. Environmental reporters need to keep abreast of news in many different niches, including climate change, ecology, ecosystem management, public policy, international relations, business, health, transportation, public lands, water and energy. How can an environmental journalist keep tabs on all these facets of science and still have time to file daily stories or work on features or months-long investigations?

Through a series of group emails, TON picked the brains of four writers who cover the environment for magazines, newspaper, and online newsrooms. They told us which sources they call to check out their hunches, which databases they screen and which websites they prowl. They admitted to a tendency to over-report. And they made a case for why it can be worthwhile to force oneself to read to the end of government reports. Collectively, they offer a primer on how to cultivate an environmental beat.

The reporters participating in the discussion were:

Lisa Song, reporter at InsideClimate News, a nonprofit news organization that covers energy and climate change. Her beat is oil and gas drilling and environmental health.

Michael Hawthorne, environment reporter on the investigative team at the Chicago Tribune.

Jane Braxton Little, freelance writer for national magazines including Utne, Scientific American and Audubon.

Kate Sheppard, senior reporter and energy and environment editor at The Huffington Post.

Read more »

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A Day in the Life of Charles Seife

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Charles Seife

What I’m working on:

My latest project is a book about how digital information messes with your head (and what you can do to combat this.) It’s called Virtual Unreality and is due out this summer. I’m also doing some investigative work on research misconduct in clinical trials, and starting work on a nonfiction project which, if I get funding, I hope to turn into a documentary.

Where I work:

New York City — home office is a dedicated alcove, and an office at work.

Daily routine:

Arise sometime between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.; my son typically gets up at 7, so I can read the morning news and catch up on some e-mails and even perhaps write a little bit before he stirs. Get the kids ready for daycare, and hand ‘em off to my wife who takes them in. My workday starts at 9:30. If I’m teaching that day, I typically go in to the office, and if not, I stay at home. (During the school year, maybe one day a week is devoted to writing and researching; the rest is largely prepping lectures, grading, and administrative stuff for the department. )

Most productive part of my day:

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A collaborative workspace.

Easy: whenever the kids are away or asleep.

Before I had children, my most productive hours were about 2 p.m. until about 8 p.m. – I would spend the morning catching up on news, doing research, and answering e-mails, and really start cranking out the prose after the lunch torpor dissipated. Now, the day’s more or less over for me at 5:30, so I can’t do the sustained productive writing sessions that I once did — except on special occasions when my wife is kind enough to take full responsibility for the kids or we hire a babysitter.

Most essential ritual or habit:

My most essential habit, at least when it comes to long works, is that pretty much every time I open up a document make any substantial changes to a work in progress, I save it as a new draft rather than replacing the old file. It’s an extra layer of backups that has saved my bacon more than once. (And it’s a habit I picked up after losing about half a chapter of my first book to a corrupted file.)

Mobile device:

Avoided. I don’t have a smart phone, and I use my cell phone only rarely. I’m distracted enough when I’m at my computer; the last thing I want is for those distractions to follow me.

Computer:

I rotate among a laptop and two desktops, one in the office and one at home. They’re all Windows 7 boxes, and I keep essential files synced with a memstick and Syncback. I have access to Apples in the office if I need them, and I have converted an old laptop to a Linux box (Ubuntu) for special-purpose work.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

MS Office for most of my writing, number crunching, and database work. Adobe Pro for PDF manipulation (and PDFCreator instead, on my home desktop.) Syncback for keeping files in sync. Google Docs for sharing. Truecrypt for encrypting sensitive documents.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

Kerbal Space Program.

My reading habits:

My pleasure reading is almost always before I fall asleep in the evening. I still prefer a good old-fashioned book made out of wood pulp, but nowadays, about 50 percent of my reading is on Kindle. (Periodicals for me are almost entirely electronic.) Maybe four out of five books I read are nonfiction; the last is fiction. Most recent reads are James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird and Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?

Sleep schedule:

About 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. if all goes well, and once in a while, I can grab a 45 min. nap.

 

Charles Seife is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of five books, most recently Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. Follow him on Twitter @cgseife.

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Michelle Nijhuis’s National Geographic Adventure Began with a Single Word

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Michelle Nijhuis

In her first assignment from National Geographic, award-winning freelance science journalist Michelle Nijhuis started with a one-word assignment: coal. Based on that single word, Nijhuis traveled  from West Virginia, a top coal state, to China, the world’s largest coal user. No spoilers here, so we’ll just say that a long lag between assignment and publication could have derailed her story but instead Nijhuis distilled that vast, contentious and highly technical topic into a a story so compelling that rock stations interviewed her when the story ran. Be on the lookout for her byline in upcoming issues of National Geographic, because she has more stories in the works. [Can Coal Ever Be Clean? appeared in National Geographic in April 2014.]

Here, Nijhuis tells TON guest contributor Robin Meadows the story behind the story:

How did you get this assignment and what was the timeline?

I first heard about the assignment five years ago. I had been pitching feature ideas to National Geographic for a little while, and my editor, Rob Kunzig, said that he and the other text editors wanted to assign me a story on coal. But at National Geographic, an assignment is just the first step toward getting final approval for a project. The photo editors assigned photographer Robb Kendrick to the story, and eventually the photo and text editors met in a pitch meeting, where they discussed and approved the overall plan for the project. The time between initial assignment and pitch meeting varies a lot, but in this case the wait lasted a couple of years.

After the story got final approval in 2011, I had a budget for travel and could begin reporting the story, which I did in the first half of 2012.

Had you proposed other stories about energy to National Geographic before?

I’d written essays and Q&As for two special issues of the magazine, one about climate change and one about energy. I’d been offered those assignments because I’d written extensively about climate change for other publications. So the editors knew I had an interest and background in both climate and energy. Not all of my feature pitches had to do with those issues, but most touched on them in some way.

What was your assignment and how did you focus your story?

It was very general at first — coal. Robb Kendrick was going to document the global process of producing power from coal, from mining to power distribution, showing the environmental and health effects at every stage. That was a great visual narrative, but it was just too broad to work well as a text story. My editor and I decided on a narrower focus: Can coal be “cleaner”? Specifically, can carbon capture and storage technology really reduce the carbon footprint of coal power? That’s a really important question, and it’s one that’s almost impossible to address in photographs. Read more »

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Dispatches from fact checking

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I am a magazine fact checker. This is how I describe my job: “I verify and put a check mark above every single word in an article. If it is incorrect, I put a box around it and suggest a fix.”

It sounds boring, but it rarely is. At its finest, fact-checking is a little safari through someone else’s reporting process. I trace a reporter’s steps in writing the kinds of big glossy feature stories that I hope to write someday.

To verify the information in a story, I read papers, email assistants, talk to scientists, and sift through CDC reports. I’ve chatted with a mangrove tree specialist as he called me from rest stops on a road trip through Louisiana. I’ve woken up at 6:30 a.m. to Skype a solar energy scientist in Israel, from the bathroom of a sublet in Brooklyn so as to not wake up my roommates. I’ve toyed with putting NASA media headquarters as a contact in my phone.

I’ve also cursed writers for listing Wikipedia pages and sloppy WordPress sites in their footnotes. I’ve been chided by researchers for attempting to confirm misinterpretations of their experiments, or relaying the content of a banal quote they’re sure they’d never say. The most frustrating: I’ve collected my own anecdotes that never amount to more than Gchat fodder. (Writers may have to kill their darlings, but fact checkers keep them to themselves in the first place.) It is never not a learning experience, and I think I am poised to be a better writer for it. It is how I learned to be a writer in the first place, really.

One of the first stories I ever fact checked was about paleontology in a big city. The text was a little over 1,000 words. The editor handed me a thick envelope full of papers, notes, and newspaper clippings for reference. All this paper and ink had gone into making two pages of a magazine. I learned that fact checkers also act as last-ditch reporters: There were still more questions that the editor needed me to answer — details like “What did the paleontologists dig out of the ground first?” (Answer: snails, and along with it the mind-pop reward of tracking down a good detail.)

The experience of reading a good article is easy. The opposite is true of fact checking it. Getting every little detail in place is like sliding Jenga pieces back into a half-dismantled Jenga tower. It is a careful process that in the end is largely uncreative.

From the mechanical process, here’s what I’ve learned about the art of writing: Read more »

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