Even as a small kid, Joshua Sokol was fascinated by the night sky. Growing up in suburban Raleigh, North Carolina, he loved watching meteor showers with his mother. Having been brought up in the Jewish faith, he thought of nature and experiences in it as sacred. “The first time you see something in nature or in the world that is a special experience, you say this prayer called the Shehecheyanu, which is basically like, ‘Thank you, God, for letting me reach this day and this experience,’” he says.
Sokol carried that sense of reverence toward the natural world through his university studies in astronomy and as he later pivoted to covering space and natural history as a science reporter. While reporting on natural history and paleontology, he often found he could infuse his stories with the tangible emotional and physical connections that the researchers developed with their work while they went about field work. But he struggled to write the same way about astrophysics, where scientists were physically removed from their objects of study and “there’s so much technological mediation [and] abstraction,” he says. For years, Sokol viewed his “cool-astronomy-space-phenomenon” stories as distinct from his more rounded “science [in] society” stories, which had a sense of place and had social and cultural stakes. And over time, he found himself gravitating away from space stories and toward sciences “where you could see the connection between the research, the place, the people, culture, and society,” he says.
When SpaceX launched its first set of Starlink satellites in May 2019, Sokol saw an opportunity to bridge the distance between space and society, and tell broader stories about people’s relationships with the night sky and how technology was changing them. He realized that these swarms of satellites were bright enough to be visible from the ground, and once thousands of such satellites went up, they would obstruct not only professional astronomers’ view of the night sky, but also affect casual stargazers, dark-sky activists, Indigenous groups, and others. Sokol imagined people across the globe looking up at the night sky, gasping, and thinking, “What the hell is that?’” he says. “And then, night after night, noticing all these little for-profit dots that weren’t there before.” In 2020, Sokol successfully applied for an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship, which granted him a year to produce at least four stories, roughly one each quarter. Eventually, the stories in this series were published in Science, Scientific American, and The New York Times, and together they explored overarching questions about humanity’s relationship with the night sky, who can lay a claim on it, and what happens when we lose access to it.
Sokol, a freelance science journalist who now lives—again—in Raleigh, recently spoke with Pratik Pawar about his process of pitching, reporting, and writing the series. He also shared his process of gaining trust and getting access to sources, including reporting in Indigenous communities as an outsider. And he described the professional and personal challenges he faced while working on a longer-length project like this as a freelancer. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
You mentioned in an earlier conversation that the launch of Starlink satellites was the jumping-off point for this whole series. How did you use that to build out your story idea and turn it into a series?
Once the Starlink launch happened, I started collecting string on a larger story, not knowing yet what it would be. What I thought was most compelling was this idea that you could change the sky for everyone on Earth and nobody even knew how to talk about that. So I wanted to tell that story, and I started doing interviews with people in 2019 and 2020.I took this in two directions. One, I tried to place the Starlink-and-what-it-means-for-Indigenous-astronomy story in The New York Times Magazine in mid-2020. It was probably the best-written pitch I’ve ever submitted; I worked so hard to polish it. I got this very positive initial reaction, but then they decided that a piece weaving together those two topics was too much, and they weren’t interested when I tried to bug them again about it.
In parallel, in 2020 the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT was offering fellowships for project reporting. I had my one big idea—megaconstellations and the question of whether or not they would change the sky. I thought it would be cool to do environmental writing about the night sky, and from the beginning, that implied trying to tackle light-pollution ecology, the dark-sky movement, and cultural astronomy [the study of how past cultures and societies understood the night sky].
Then my KSJ application to do all this was also turned down. (And I’m including the rejections I got in this project on purpose, because it’s a big part of our job.) But I was able to repurpose most of my proposal for the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which worked out.
As for pitching the actual stories, I did it one at a time, once I felt like the reporting had coalesced into a clear story. (Or once I was desperate to have the structure of an editor and a due date.) I was definitely doing what we’re not supposed to do: I was sort of pitching topics instead of pure stories, in the sense that while I had tried to find a lot of tension and an arc in each of these areas, my own starting interest was just to build up some expertise on the topic.
How did you juggle researching and putting all your fellowship stories together?
This was the first time as a freelancer that I’ve had a check just come in every month, because there was a stipend from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. So, I was doing the research for [multiple stories] at the same time, but I had a lot more time to think about how to pitch and develop these stories. There was a lot of overlap. I would try to do cultural astronomy reporting in the same week that I was trying to do the satellite light-pollution reporting, [and] in the same week that I was trying to talk to people who studied ecological light pollution.
There was space for me to do it—honestly, there maybe was a little bit too much space. What I found in attempting this project was that I am very drawn to broad, complex topics and I really have a hard time narrowing down to tell a specific story. I could unearth all this cool material and all these cool reporting opportunities, but I struggled then to go to a publication and show them that I was going to tell a tight, compelling story about it.
What ultimately helped was having conversations with editors and just being up-front about it: “Hey, I have a bunch of stuff on this area, and even though I’m having trouble finding a central narrative, are you interested?” And then I’m immensely grateful that places like Science and Scientific American said, “Okay, sure, we can talk.” (It is hard to imagine an editor having the same response if I were a few years earlier in my career, though.) Once an editor was invested, that really helped. It felt, finally, like having a teammate after all those months just drowning in the material myself. In hindsight, if I could do it over, I think I would reach out to editors much earlier and try to divvy things up into neat stories.
You mentioned that the editors were willing to talk to you and help you work through the material you had gathered to come up with sharp story ideas; I think that’s a big privilege. What are some strategies or approaches that helped you open the door to such conversations?
I think it’s a question of building a relationship. If you have a little time, you start with pitches for short, straightforward stories. You do them well, and maybe the editor gives you a few assignments like that, too. And once the editor is confident in your work, they’ll often be more open to collaborating on something more complex and open-ended.
Alternatively, you could chip off a part of your big, indeterminate story and pitch just that piece as a short story. This is easier for an editor to commit to. But at the end of that pitch or during the process of writing it—you could make clear that you might have more to say on this topic and would be interested in working with the editor on a longer feature, too, assuming the shorter “audition” piece on the topic goes well.
The other strategy I’ll use is to just try my hardest to pitch the big feature idea with the most compelling angle I can manage, even if I suspect my angle still needs work. Maybe a scene opener; maybe a big summary statement of a dramatic situation. So I’ll have a few paragraphs where it’s like, Okay, this sure sounds like a story. What I’m trying to do is show that I have done or can do some interesting reporting on this topic and then write it really well. At the end of the pitch, though, I’ll [add] a paragraph that zooms out a little and says, Hey, this place/conflict/debate/trend/issue is really important, and I’m the perfect person to do a deep dive on this for you, and would love to work together on focusing this more if you’re interested.
Did you face any particular reporting challenges? For example, with your story about Starlink and other satellite megaconstellations, you had to report on companies like SpaceX and Amazon. How did you approach that?
That story was incredibly complicated because the issue of satellite constellations providing broadband internet is about economics and engineering; there’s a business aspect. It’s all these things that I, as a science reporter, haven’t necessarily had a lot of experience getting into. And the problem with that story is that the most important player in that story, SpaceX, does not talk to the press, ever, except a friendly press. I found the engineer who had done the brightness mitigation work and I contacted them. And that engineer was like, Yeah, I’d love to talk to you for this story. [But] SpaceX communications shut it down and they prevented me from talking to that person.
So I had to find other ways to get insight into what SpaceX and Amazon were doing. I had to rely a lot on the astronomers who had worked with them because they knew a lot about this relationship. The science writer Alan Boyle, who had reported a lot on Starlink and Amazon’s Kuiper in the Seattle area, was super generous with me—huge shoutout to him. And then separately I interviewed somebody from the Satellite Industry Association, a trade group; I interviewed Seattle-based aerospace execs who remembered when SpaceX came in; I interviewed satellite industry consultants; I interviewed Viasat [a satellite internet service provider], who was trying to get the courts to block SpaceX; and more like that.
Let’s talk about another example. Your story on Maya archeoastronomy was unlike a typical science story, where you might read a bunch of research papers and talk to relevant researchers. In that story, you interpreted science that was done hundreds of years ago by members of a wholly different culture. How did you access and interpret that research?
It was different to have so much of a cultural and societal element in the piece. The science that I was writing about was Maya astronomical science as it existed in the past—this was astronomy as an academic/religious/governmental discipline. It was in many ways analogous to contemporary Western science. They were funded to produce knowledge that people could then use, and so I felt like I’m doing science writing about science from a thousand years ago. In the case of Maya astronomy, there is [also] this Western scholarly literature about archaeology and archeoastronomy. The existence of that literature was very helpful to me, because I could fall back on that. So, now who are the most relevant sources? Well, the archaeologists who look at Maya sites are obviously relevant, and epigraphers who can read Maya writing are obviously relevant. But the descendants of Maya people who have similar cultural beliefs are good sources to understand these Maya scientists from 600 or 1,000 years ago, so that’s kind of how I approached it.
How did you convince the sources from Indigenous communities in Guatemala and Mexico to speak with you and share their expertise?
I found it enormously challenging. When I went into this project, I was very naive about cultural astronomy [and] what it might be like to report on Indigenous star knowledge, especially coming into this situation as a science journalist, a white guy, and someone who does not have relationships with these communities. So I learned quickly how many possible problems could result from me blundering it.
I was reaching out to astronomers who were doing these cultural astronomy projects, and I found Isabel Hawkins. She had built up all of these bonds in Guatemala and in Mexico in the course of doing her own cultural astronomy research and her own engagement with Indigenous communities—this network of people, both scholars and people of Maya heritage, who were interested in engaging with this in the present day, and in having a say in how their own culture is interpreted. So, I broached the topic with Isabel—that I would like to report on this world, and can you put me in touch [with] sources and see if they would be comfortable? What made [the story] possible was that Isabel was willing to trust me with this network, and also the willingness of the K’iche’ sources in Guatemala and the sources in the Yucatán in Mexico to talk to me and tell me what they were comfortable with and what they were not comfortable with. Ultimately, it ended up being relationship building that made that story possible.
Having the Alicia Patterson Foundation grant must have given you a lot of freedom and room to stretch out and explore your interests. Did you find any challenges with working on a longer-length project like this?
One big challenge that I found was topic creep. I start researching something and I have more time than I would usually have to research. So I find something interesting and then I find another thing interesting and another thing interesting and soon, the stuff that I really think is cool is sprawling all over the map. And I find myself, ultimately, interested in topics, not stories. And so that makes it hard to go from having done cool research to producing a valuable story. So partly, I think I’ve learned the value in having modest ambitions. I learned the value in trying to tell part of the story that interests you and not the whole story.
As a freelancer, the structure in my career comes from this dance with editors about having a story published. I get excited about something; I send off the pitch. And once that pitch is accepted, I have a week, a month, two months of structure in my life and in my work to deliver this product. Moving from freelancing short news articles and longer features to something that was a big amorphous project like this, it was very hard to [not] have that structure, to [not] have those intermediate goals. It was very eye-opening. What I found was that having more freedom was not as helpful as I thought it would be because there wasn’t that much structure.
The [pitch-and-publish] loop gives me structure and purpose in my professional life. It also gives me confidence. When you have a story accepted, you’re like, Great, I’m worthwhile; people think my work is interesting. And then when you publish, it’s like, Oh, someone said something nice about my story, this is good. Once I started doing this [longer project], I was like, Oh my gosh, I’m not publishing that much. So that loop of validation that comes from publishing goes away.
What did you learn through this process that you think will be helpful for someone who is starting something similar? And what would you do differently if you were to start over again?
My answer is based on the experience I had, where I had a lot of freedom and a lot of uncertainty, and I ended up having no confidence about what I was doing because I didn’t have structure. So this is not a one-size-fits-all answer. But, if I could start again, I would have, at the beginning, tried to fit it more into a format that I had done before[and] that I was more comfortable with. And so I would have tried to be on the hook to deliver some stories to editors. It would have been less exploratory research. This sounds weird, because exploratory research was such a great part of the experience. But for me, at least, I derive a lot of structure when [I’m] on the hook for a story. And I think any staff writer reading what I’m saying will be really jealous and be like, What are you talking about? But what it felt [like] for me was, Wow, this is really hard to not have any pressure to do these as assignments.
What I ultimately did was, [in] December of 2021, I took a little vacation around the holidays. I thought, I’m just not thrilled with what I [have] produced on this. And so, in January , I said, I just need to pitch a lot of stories related to what I have. That decision really helped, and having pitched those stories toward the end of the fellowship meant that I had work I was committed to after it ended, and it made me feel more structured in my work. So that was a big turning point for me.
Looking back, I wish I had had more fun with it. It was an amazing, uncommon opportunity, but unfortunately, I spent most of it thinking, Uh oh, I’m blowing this because I don’t know how to organize myself on something this size. Still! I now have a little distance from it, and a little more perspective, and there keep being outgrowths of it—like this piece I’m currently revising on firefly conservation and light pollution—that I’m really enjoying.
Pratik Pawar is a freelance science journalist who writes about infectious diseases and global health, among other things. A TON early-career fellow supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, he lives in Bangalore, India. Pratik’s work has appeared in Discover, Science News, The Wire, and Undark, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @pratikmpawar