Is a Science Blog Still a Viable Path into Science Journalism?

Shanna Baker

Colin Schultz took the blog path to editing, but that path may be getting overgrown.

Depending on how you define these things, science blogging began in earnest in the early 2000s. That makes science blogging into something of a teenager: still unsure of what it will become as it continues to mature, but increasingly able to look back at its earlier years with some clarity.

For some years, starting around a decade ago, professional science journalists and amateur science bloggers (many of whom were working scientists or graduate students in the sciences) gathered annually for a conference called ScienceOnline. In the minds of many, the boundary between blogging and journalism was hazy, and it was even common to find journalists and nonjournalist bloggers writing for the same blogging networks, such as ScienceBlogs.com, the first science-only blogging network. Some viewed science blogging as an activity that could be taken up by anyone with sufficient expertise, regardless of formal training in journalism.

In the last few years, however, science blogging has become increasingly professionalized. The ScienceOnline conference has ceased to exist and the world of online science writing has evolved dramatically. Here, Jason Goldman speaks with science journalist Colin Schultz about the changing role that blogging has played in science journalism and in the careers of young science journalists, and about how his own blogging experience shaped his development as a writer and editor.

Schultz began writing a science blog in 2009. After completing his master’s degree in journalism, he wrote for Smithsonian’s Smart News blog, the American Geophysical Union’s Eos newspaper, and other publications. He’s currently news editor at Hakai Magazine, and he wrote a chapter for Science Blogging: The Essential Guide about blogging as an early-career journalist.

Editors’ note: This article was prepared by the editors of Science Blogging: The Essential Guide. The Open Notebook has partnered with the authors of the book to serve as its editorially independent online home.

You started out as a science writer by writing blog posts and publishing them on WordPress in your spare time. Less than a decade later, you started working full time as a blog editor (now news editor) for the online science magazine Hakai. While it doesn’t seem like that long ago, a few years is an eternity in Internet time. What are the most important changes in online science communication that you’ve seen in that time?

I graduated from journalism school in 2010 and, so far as I can tell, science journalism is in a far better place than it was then. Newspapers and magazines are still shutting down, of course, but since I graduated it feels like there was a period of mass experimentation. Journalism, particularly online, seems to be recovering (at least a bit). People are willing to take bets on science journalism. Some existing outlets have grown—BuzzFeed opened a science desk, for example, while The New York Times expanded its climate team. And there has been a whole pile of new outlets that cover science: Nautilus, Vox, Aeon, Hakai, Undark, Mosaic, bioGraphic, STAT, Quartz, etc. It’s been a busy seven years. This makes it a lot easier than it was to find someone willing to pay you for your work.

That being said, I’ve also seen a fairly important change in the online science-communication world. Fostered in large part by blog networks like ScienceBlogs, and the now-dead Science Online conferences, the early 2010s was a period of intermingling between previously separated groups, such as scientists, science communicators, journalists, and public relations people. When journalists and writers are losing their jobs left and right, they’re more willing to look beyond their traditional borders for opportunities. Similarly, when editors are working with tighter budgets, they may be more willing to take chances on new writers. For many people, that intermingling worked out extremely well. But—and I may be wrong on this—it feels like with the journalism economy recovering, some of the walls between those groups are starting to go back up.

Add to this a general shift in how people seem to be using social media—abandoning the sometimes toxic and hostility-prone open platforms like Twitter in favor of private discussion groups on Facebook or Slack—and it feels like the online science-communication world is maybe less open and inviting than it once was.

How does Hakai’s editorial approach differ from other places you’ve worked?

The interesting thing about Hakai is that while we are an online-only magazine, we’re not going out of our way to be particularly “Internety.” This creates a strange set of challenges, because online and print magazines face very different expectations.

So, for example, online outlets are generally supposed to be fast. At Smithsonian’s Smart News blog, we’d be looking to publish a story about something that happened within hours if not minutes. At a print publication, like the American Geophysical Union’s newspaper Eos, things happened much more slowly, but far more time was spent researching, writing, and double-checking each story.

At Hakai, we’re sort of trying to do both. We spend a lot of time on research and edits, and in the case of feature stories, independent fact-checking. But we’re always aware that we exist online—where, if we don’t have a head start, other outlets will almost certainly beat us to the punch. This creates an interesting dynamic, which mostly plays out in terms of which stories we choose to pursue and which we skip.

Science Blogging: The Essential Guide (Yale University Press) was published March 1.

Science Blogging: The Essential Guide (Yale University Press) was published March 1, 2016.

How did your early experience as a blogger prepare you for your work as an editor?

One of the great benefits of blogging is you tend to have a high degree of independence. Often, and as was the case with my early personal blog, you can write whatever you want. But blogging also means you’re solely responsible for the content of your stories—including all the broken logic, terrible spelling, janky flow, and factual errors. If you care at all about the quality of your work, blogging teaches you how to self-edit. Being a decent self-editor translates, I hope, into being a decent editor of others.

The section you edit at Hakai was originally formulated as a blog, but it’s now formulated as a news section. Why and how was that change made? Did the label change alter the way you do your job?

The decision to change from calling it a blog to a news section stemmed from a natural evolution in what we were publishing.

When the magazine launched in 2015, we were producing a lot more blog-like content, which has since been cut or moved elsewhere. For instance, Hakai’s blog would publish a weekly roundup of stories from other outlets—a very conventional blog activity that we’ve since moved to our newsletter.

Our stories were always reported and edited, but over time they grew longer and more narrative. These are traits we valued in our features, and that ethos was bleeding over. We started to shy away from quick hits about current events or articles about the scientific paper of the day. The section began to feel more like a newspaper’s feature section or a news magazine and less like a typical news blog, so we opted to change the name.

With the change, we’ve doubled down on our focus on finding and uncovering the news, and put less emphasis on responding to what others deem to be news.

Would you recommend that young science writers publish independent blogs on sites like WordPress, as you once did?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I know you really want me to say yes, because I wrote a whole chapter for your book about how blogging is a viable pathway into traditional journalism, but I feel like the context has changed. A decade ago, people were hailing blogs as a way to bypass traditional media gatekeepers. Blogs were a way to write with style and voice, to work independently and from a point of perceived authenticity that was lacking from mainstream outlets. Blogs were the answer to issues of access and diversity. I don’t think any of the issues that blogs were supposed to resolve have gone away, really.

But against this backdrop we’ve seen such massive problems explode around things like propaganda, hyperideological clickbait, and viral fiction. I think—or at least, I hope—that readers have become more skeptical of what they see online. In this context, I can’t even imagine opening a WordPress account, typing things out, and expecting anyone to trust me.

I don’t think people shouldn’t start blogs. If your goal is to establish a voice and a name as a reliable source of information, I think blogging can get you there. But the path will be longer and more difficult than it was before. Hopefully the media can find a way to solve some of these issues around trust without backsliding on what little progress has been made on all of the other fronts.

If not “start a blog,” what do you think are the best ways for young writers to start to carve a niche for themselves and build their skills?

If you’re writing a blog as a way to practice writing, with your ultimate goal being to break into traditional outlets, then I would suggest just skipping that step. When I was a writer I—like many writers—was terrified of pitching. But now that I’m an editor, I get to see the other side of it. And it’s not what I expected. I’m friends with a bunch of editors, and there’s a gripe that many of us share: We don’t get enough pitches. I don’t just mean excellent, stellar, award-winning pitches. I mean pitches.

I appreciate there’s a handful of huge outlets—think Scientific American, National Geographic, New Scientist—where the editors are probably slammed. But there are editors at other high-quality outlets—editors with budgets—who are hungry for good stories and are more than willing to work with you. So pitch them. I personally love working with students and new writers, and I know many other editors do too.

“Being an editor demands a whole set of administrative and organizational skills that I didn’t necessarily have before.”

What skills have you had to learn on the job as an editor that you may not have learned as a writer—and what are you still learning?

Oh, basically everything. As a writer, I mostly wrote short news stories—often between 300 and 500 words. That fit really well with the original vision of Hakai’s news section, but I’ve had to learn a lot as the section changed. In a sense, the scope of the news section evolved as I became more comfortable handling larger, more complex, more narrative pieces. I’ve learned a lot from my fellow editors—and often, from writers—about crafting these bigger stories.

In a practical sense, being an editor demands a whole set of administrative and organizational skills that I didn’t necessarily have before. As a writer, I would usually do one or two stories at a time. I’d hand one in, then move on to the next. Right this minute, I’ve got 29 stories on my plate at various stages, and more pitches sitting in my email. On top of the actual creative work of editing, my job in many cases boils down to trying to keep tabs on a bunch of people’s schedules—the art director, the copyeditor, the top editor, the writer, the proofreader—and trying not to screw anyone over as I ferry all these stories around. I’m still pretty terrible at getting through all my emails, but I’m working on it.

 

Russ Creech

Jason Goldman

Jason G. Goldman is a freelance science journalist, wildlife reporter, and one of three editors of Science Blogging: The Essential Guide. His bylines include Scientific American, Los Angeles Magazine, bioGraphic, The Washington Post, BBC Earth, Hakai Magazine, and Gizmodo. He also co-founded and directs an annual science-communication retreat called SciCommCamp. Jason is based in Los Angeles. Find him on Twitter and Instagram: @jgold85.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Off The Wire: June 27-July 4 | CMG Freelance

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *