My year with the real wonks: how academia enriches journalism

I stepped out of a chemistry lab to receive a shiny doctorate a little more than two years ago. Then, against the wisdom of many, I decided to become a journalist. That decision was made not because I despised academia, but because it seemed to me that journalism was where my strengths would give me the best chance to succeed.

In doing so, I was leaving behind a world that I had tremendous respect for. Dedicating one’s life to pursuing hard questions in a narrow field of knowledge enriches the world in countless ways. That enrichment is the result of two things: production of new knowledge and new knowledge-bearers (ie students). What you read in popular press about universities is mostly what new research has found about the world. A less talked about, and perhaps greater, contribution that universities make is in educating new students.

Teaching the same course year after year sounds boring to me, but I’ve been assured by many that it is one of the reasons they enjoy being academics. This yearly practice of coming up with new and better ways of explaining fundamental concepts combined with the struggles on the edge of knowledge in a particular field gives these academics the power of conveying the meaning of complex concepts in simple and powerful ways.

A new experiment

If I were asked to give one reason for choosing science journalism, it would be that I get to learn new things about the world all the time. Hardly a days goes by when there isn’t something awesome in science news to read and write about. That is why when I was offered, a year ago today, to be the launch editor for the science and technology section of The Conversation’s UK edition, I wasn’t going to let the job go.

But there was another reason why the job appealed to me: the idea was to get academics to write for the public. The hope was that, with their expertise and skills at explaining ideas, they would help put news in broader context and convey the “meaning” of events to help improve public dialogue on important topics.

While the scientist in me was dancing with joy, the journalist was sceptical. What academics usually write is meant for fellow academics. Their use of passive tense and jargon can put off even the most interested non-experts. They also work on vastly different timescales. Journal articles can take from months to years to get published. News articles usually take only few hours or days to get to the reader.

Marrying the two professions for a public service project was a great idea, but would it work? Could the third major contribution of universities be educating the public (not just a promise, but a reality)?

Is there demand?

“Professors, we need you!” said Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. The Conversation Media Group, founded in 2011 in Australia, got to work before Kristof made the public demand. By the time it launched in the UK in May 2013, it had shown that the Australian public had an appetite for this experiment.

The success down under was swift for one more reason—The Conversation represented a “third choice”. Until 2011, most newspapers and online news websites were owned by either Fairfax or News Corp, which allowed The Conversation to tap into a readership eagerly looking for alternatives.

The UK was different. It had (and still has) some of the most respected publications in the world. There was plenty of choice for an average reader across the political divide. Yet, it seemed that The Conversation stood a chance. Many of the best publications were under financial constraints, cutting staff, especially specialist reporters in science, environment and health. There was scope for explaining news better, and bringing new stories that journalists missed or didn’t have the time to cover.

Readership figures show that the experiment has been successful so far. For the last few months, which is less than a year since launch, the UK edition alone has been reaching more than 2 million readers, and that number is growing quickly. All this with a small team (seven editors at launch, then 14 since February) and no marketing budget.

As a Creative Commons publisher, The Conversation’s authors and their articles have featured in some of the top publications worldwide, which have different aims and leanings—The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, The Independent, The Hindu, Daily Mail, New Statesman, The Week, The Atlantic, Quartz, Business Insider, Scientific American, Popular Science, Discover Magazine, Ars Technica and Slate, among others.

Much of my scepticism about this job was reasonable. But, right from the start, I was pleasantly surprised at the both the quality and the speed of writing. When given a brief and a deadline, academics usually delivered. Sure first-time authors needed (and still need) lots of help, but most of them were also prepared to learn and improve in this form of communication. What surprised me the most was their enthusiasm. Whoever thinks academics don’t like to engage with the public should spend just one day in our office.

For the first few months, about four in five stories were those where I had to approach an academic with an idea and commission them to write an article. But as The Conversation’s name started spreading, I started getting in more pitches. This was what I was waiting for. Academics who understand what The Conversation does, who get what the public reads, and who were willing to spend the time to write such articles. These academics were bringing through new stories or new angles to old stories, all of which journalists had missed. Here, I realised, were the true wonks.

What is true wonkery?

Recently Felix Salmon of Reuters asked, “Is there a wonk bubble?” In answering that question, he mainly referred to the launch of two websites Vox.com, which wants to “explain the news”, and FiveThirtyEight.com, which wants to use data to tell news stories. I agree with Salmon that both these experiments are great for journalism, but I don’t think that they represent “wonkery” in the true sense.

The new publications are being built on the back of the wonkery of its Editors-in-Chief: Ezra Klein (politics and economics wonk) and Nate Silver (data wonk). The rest of the editorial staff, while quite capable and of high calibre, can’t all be classed in the same category as wonks, definitely not in Salmon’s narrow definition of journalists who know their subject really well and built their reputation through blogging (mostly about policy and politics).

Wonk’s definition as “a person who is obsessively interested in a specified subject” is actually much more accurate for academics (or even PhD students). That is why I class them as the true wonks. Being able to tap into this wonkery, or expertise (as most people would call it), can bring through stories that journalists would just not find on their own.

Economists such as Tyler Cowen, Paul KrugmanSimon Wren-Lewis and David Blanchflower command large audiences already. Scientists have had a long tradition of popularising science, be it Carl Sagan or Brian Cox. Now, beyond promoting the good work of already engaged academics, what The Conversation provides is a platform for new and diverse voices with fresh ideas, which would have otherwise remained in the ivory towers. More than 11,000 academics from over 700 institutions have already contributed to this new conversation.

To give you a flavour of what I mean, I have selected some of my favourite science stories on The Conversation from the past year. They have been split into four categories: the first is explanatory (The Contextual) and the other three are stories that journalists missed or couldn’t dig up  (The Newsworthy, The Amazing and The Strange). I trust you can judge for yourself whether the experiment is worth it.

The Contextual

The Newsworthy

The Amazing

The Strange

Image credit: Lucas Warren

With so much good writing, is it worth struggling to write some more?

An editor at The Economist once remarked, as advice to me on how to write: “Aim to write a piece that gets featured on The Browser.” Edited by Robert Cottrell, The Browser is a website that recommends only five to six articles everyday, which it considers are the best of all that is published on the web that day.

Cottrell, who spends every possible hour of the day reading new content on the web, has written an article in the Financial Times that has some important lessons for young writers like us (if you can’t get through the FT paywall try this). I’ve distilled them for you here:

  1. Only 1% of all writing on the internet is great writing, and even that is an “embarrassment of riches”.
  2. Great writers produce great writing, and the bad ones cannot be rescued.
  3. His golden rule is: the writer is everything. And a corollary: the publisher (with a few exceptions) is nothing.
  4. We live in a world of ideas and they are not restricted by source or medium.

All of the above taken together paints a rather depressing picture for young writers. The honest truth is that the market we’ve entered is full of great writers who produce ever more great writing, leaving ever little time for us to find a readership for our work. Despite the difficulties, there are some ways to overcome these huge hurdles.

The antidote

To cheer myself up, here are two things that I read/watched after Cottrell’s article:

First: Robert Krulwich’s 2011 commencement speech to the Berkeley Journalism School

Krulwich shares some of  Cottrell’s views, but he serves them on a kinder platter. Krulwich says that journalism has reached a point where there are no guarantees that any big publishing house will give you a safe job, irrespective of how good you are. So if you are waiting to get picked, your chances are pretty low. Instead go out there and start doing. “There are some people who just don’t wait,” enthuses Krulwich. This is not a fanciful advice. There are examples like that of Ed YongBrian Switek and Alexis Madrigal, who’ve managed to build a career on their own terms.

Second: Avi Steinberg’s article in the New Yorker: Is writing torture? (on Gilbert vs Roth)

The article tells the story of Julian Tepper, a wannabe novelist, who was told by Philip Roth, an accomplished novelist, to quit writing. Roth said, “It’s an awulf field. Just torture. You write and write, and you have to throw most of it away because it’s not any good.” In response Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray and Love, wrote that there are few professions that come close to the pleasure that writing can give.

But it was Avi Steinberg’s take on the whole matter that most convinced me. He says that authors like Roth are correct in that writing can be a torture, especially if it is something that you want to make a living out of. And what Roth tried to do by dissuading Tepper was perhaps good too, because it is better to be aware of the harsh reality of being a writer than to go in to it being ignorant. It is those who can say: “Listen, I don’t care what you tell me. I know it’s a bad idea, but I’m determined to do it, and I will do it,” are those who will be able to succeed in this profession.

Science writing is not fiction, but it is still writing. And at the heart of our profession is our desire to convey thoughts and ideas, mostly through scientists’ work. But we do it because we enjoy it. We are fascinated with the world of science and we want to share stories that amaze us. That to me is enough reason to keep trying.

So what can we do get to that 1% of great writing?

Somewhere in Cottrell’s article I can smell the rotten stink of the innate talent hypothesis, which says that great writers are born to be great writers. I’m sorry but I don’t buy it. I hated English in school, but that was because fiction was not my thing. My education was structured in a way that fiction was given undue importance in writing. Then when I finally realised that non-fiction writing is just as great (if not better), I started to work on it. If I read my blog posts from two years ago, I can see myself in that writing but mostly I see how much I’ve improved since. Of course I have a long way to go, but great writing can come from lots of practice. Period.

I’ll also argue that, while the publisher may be nothing for Cottrell, it is a great place for young writers to vie to be. Great publications are great because they have fantastic editors. Even now articles that I submit to the same editors come back with lots of red marks. Every time this happens, I learn what it is that I need to improve the next time. And I’m not the only one, even accomplished writers have their work decimated. So writing for publications is not just a way of reaching an audience but also it is the secret of rapidly improving your writing.

Finally I would say that while there is a lot of science stories out there, most of them aren’t written well. For instance, it kills me a little every time when I see someone share a link to sciencedaily.com or physorg.com, which are news aggregating websites that share press releases, when some science writer has actually written a story about the same piece of research. And while Cottrell is right that we live an age where ideas matter not the source or the medium that carry them, there is a lot of value that writers can add to make the ideas clearer and spread faster.

Cottrell’s article was a nice slap in the form of a reality check, but it only makes me want to work harder and write better. And someday I know I’ll have an article featured on The Browser.

First published as a guest post on scientificamerican.com (SA Incubator blog).

Why I chose journalism over science

Warning: You are about to become victims of my introspection 

The motivation for writing this is the conversation that was spurred by a post on why doing a PhD to become a science writer is a bad idea. While those conversations helped me crystallise my thoughts for this post, it was not where they first began.

Earlier this year I submitted my PhD thesis. While graduate students go through common experiences (that Jorge Cham so beautifully portrays in PhD Comics), every doctorate is unique because everyone has different reasons to pursue it.

I applied to graduate school because it seemed like a very attractive option. First reason was the prospect of studying in a university that had people from all disciplines and not just chemical engineering, as happens to be the case in the Institute of Chemical Technology where I studied before.

Second was the desire to master a subject. My undergraduate degree was a menagerie of subjects across engineering, chemistry and biology (I specialised in pharmaceutical sciences and technology). While that was great, I just did not have enough time to be able to fully appreciate how amazing each of these subjects were.

The first two reasons might seem to contradict each other, but they don’t. It is rare to be able to appreciate the messiness of science without a broad understanding of arts and humanities. While many from my undergraduate days might feel that they got that broad understanding in the four years they spent in Mumbai, I felt that my education was incomplete.

That is why the third reason sealed the case. I had an offer letter from Oxford. Just in a short few hours that I spent in Oxford in 2007, I had fallen in love with the city of the dreaming spires and the idea of the knowledge powerhouse that lay hidden behind those stony walls. It was a place that would allow me to widen my horizons and still focus on mastering one subject.

At the end of four years of having made that decision, even though in the process I have decided to not go down the academic path, I feel that I have somewhat succeeded in achieving my goals. But I would not have said that a year ago.

When I started the PhD, apart from “completing” my education, I knew that I wanted to be an academic. The profession lured me because I felt that it will give me the freedom to pursue all my intellectual interests; that it will allow me to mingle with the best minds of the world; that academics are not bothered by the administrative hurdles of other jobs…

Another bubble?

The bubble broke just after a year of being in the lab. While I still have immense respect for what scientists do (I wouldn’t write about science otherwise), from up close I could see that the profession faces the same challenges that many other professions do. What sealed my decision to not go down that path, though, was the question: do I love my subject enough to be able to dedicate my whole life to it? I wasn’t so sure.

I am a restless person with many interests. I knew few young academics who were able to pursue more than just one interest (ie their own subject) with their full heart in it. I’ve also heard many horror stories where people have spent 15-20 years waiting to secure that dream job of having their own lab, but never got there.

But as it happens, on leaving academia, I chose journalism—a profession that commands a lot less respect (compared to scientists who command the most), has fewer permanent positions, offers smaller compensations, is known to have poorer career progression and, finally, most importantly, I do not have “proper training” for.

Will I regret this?

It is not such a mad decision, after all. I chose to be a journalist because I loved the job, but I am also a pragmatist. Each of the criticisms of a journalistic career over a scientific one can be dealt with.

Although people have less trust in journalists, it is a statistical average. An honest journalist is often well-respected, and great journalism also happens to command a lot of influence over its audience.

It has far fewer permanent positions, but it is also a career that has a lot of freelancers. Although freelancing early in the career is hard, there are ways to reach there which have been tried and tested.

It offers a smaller compensation, but I am happy to balance that with job satisfaction.

Although there are many trained journalists out there, many of the top journalists I have spoken to have told me that journalism is more a craft than a science. A lot of the people who do a master’s in journalism have the same experience. So as long as you have your fundamentals in place, you can become an excellent journalist through practice and apprenticeship.

And, finally, if you think about it, scientists and journalists are in someways doing the same thing. Both aim to decipher how things work and disseminate their findings to the world, just at vastly different timescales. Where as things in the sciences are considered objective, that in reality is a subjective notion.

But the decision wasn’t that straightforward. Those defecting research, especially having pursued a PhD or post-doc, are viewed as failures. As Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist who is considering leaving academia, recently wrote: scientists may consider such defectors “as turning away from the “right” path to something that is more lightweight, more flimsy, less worthy of their talent and effort.”

It is sad that some scientists are that small-minded to consider their work to be superior to that of many others. And, yes, that happens even in a place like Oxford which is full of brilliant people on either side of the divide.

PS: Yes, I haven’t failed to see the irony in that. At the end of my PhD one of my aims was to “complete” my education…