Why read the news

It is easy to make fun of journalism as a profession or even claim that “news is bad for you.” But journalists continue working even when the news gets too depressing to cover. They are driven by a purpose, which an editor explained to me in my early days of journalism is to inform and entertain.

To some, however, informing and entertaining are goals that do not provide enough motivation. The right information delivered to the right audience at the right time can be powerful. News can have impact, and to the remaining few journalists it is this “impact” that makes the struggle worthy of the effort.

Such impact, however, is hard to measure. Unless you are working on a story such as the Edward Snowden leaks, it is difficult to find out what kind of impact your story about about jellyfish swimming can have on the real world.

Fortunately, every so often there is a reminder why good journalism is important even if “impact” is not always visible. Consider what Harvard University economist Sendhil Mullainathan wrote in the New York Times on racial bias:

“Even if, in our slow thinking, we work to avoid discrimination, it can easily creep into our fast thinking. Our snap judgments rely on all the associations we have—from fictional television shows to news reports. They use stereotypes, both the accurate and the inaccurate, both those we would want to use and ones we find repulsive.”

We are shaped by the thoughts that surround us. Good journalism plays a vital role in providing those thoughts. So don’t feel too bad about spending some of your time every day reading bite-sized news pieces, even if Mark Zuckerberg would like you to read a book instead. Just make sure that you are selective about the journalism you are reading.

Image credit: pslee999 CC-BY

Eric Schmidt would approve of the new Quartz homepage

The homepages of all news websites are pretty much the same: some pictures and lots of headlines, all linked to full stories. Until last week, as far as I know, every news website in the world had a homepage except one. Now even that exceptional news website—Quartz—has succumbed.

Launched in 2012, Quartz wanted to be like The Economist but for the 21st century… “embodying the era in which it is being created”. When you visited qz.com, you didn’t reach a homepage. Instead you were dumped on to whatever was the top story at the moment. If you didn’t like it, simply scroll down for the 2nd most important story, or choose one from the sidebar.

Their logic for this design was pretty simple: most people were coming to news websites from the side door of social media. A few months ago, a leaked New York Times report showed that unique visitors to their homepage fell from 160 million in 2011 to 60 million in 2013, which only reaffirmed the Quartz stance. They proclaimed, while acknowledging the self-serving argument, that the “homepage is dead“.

quartz-s-audience-growth-since-launch-unique-visitors-trailing-three-month-average_chartbuilder

The audience growth chart would make it seem that the “no homepage” strategy seems to be working. And, yet, this week Quartz introduced a homepage. Living up to their spirit of experimenting, the homepage design is unusual.

Homepages are boring…

Most homepage designs are boring, partly because of their function (and partly because of the old mindset of the newspaper industry). If you want to give your reader what you think are top stories and still leave choice for them, you need a page where headlines and pictures can be placed strategically so that you can nudge the reader towards stories that you deem important.

Not having a homepage may seem to be the lazy approach. The common belief is that an editorial staff is paid not only to produce important and interesting stories, but also to help the reader navigate this complex world by showing them which stories are more worthy of their attention. When you don’t have a homepage, you are letting the reader come to their own conclusions about what is important and what is not. And for this extra effort that you demand from them, they may decide not to read your website.

But Quartz didn’t seem to care, and neither did their readers. In the two years since launch, only 10% of the visitors were coming to Quartz stories via qz.com. Rest were taking the side-door: social media, direct referrals, search engines and email.

…but they still matter

Homepages are designed to increase reader loyalty. This is one reason that despite falling traffic to them, they remain central to how news websites function. People go to news websites when they are bored at work or when they want to know what’s going on.

When you visit the website of a large news organisation, you are guaranteed that they will have at least one story (of course linking back to their own website) of the most important happenings in the world. But if you are a startup news website with a small editorial team, how do you compete with the big dogs?

Quartz found the answer in their email newsletter. In less than two years, their daily newsletter—the digital equivalent of a printed newspaper—was being to sent to 70,000 subscribers. More than 40% of those subscribers opened the newsletter every day, which is a surprisingly large proportion of readers.

The success of the newsletter—called the Daily Brief—spurred Quartz to create a homepage in a bid to leverage this loyalty further. The new homepage consists of tailored summaries about “your world right now”, which are continuously updated. Right now, there are 10 summaries with multiple links in each. And, like the newsletter, the links aren’t always those that take you to a Quartz story.

Eric Schmidt would approve

Not simply linking to Quartz stories is how their homepage could compete with the big dogs. This move gives Quartz the freedom to choose the best story from any news organisation in the world, and still build a loyal readership to their own homepage. Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, would approve of the homepage. Recently he said, “The best way to stay ahead is a laser focus on building great products that people need.”

What people need from a news website’s homepage is an update about the world around them and high quality information to put things in context. It doesn’t matter to the reader whether that information comes from your own reporters or that from a Guardian reporter. As long as your homepage is providing the links to the best information, loyal readers will come back. This is one reason why news aggregation websites have become so popular.

The downside is that readers may not click through to Quartz stories as often. But that trade-off is worth it if the total number of visitors to the homepage goes up, because then the absolute number of clicks will increase both on Quartz and non-Quartz stories.

The new-style homepage is fertile ground to experiment. For instance, based on the number of clickthroughs, Quartz can gauge reader interest in particular stories. If a non-Quartz story is doing very well, it could inform the newsroom to cover that story in their own style. And when they do, they can simply swap the link and retain the reader.

If nothing else, as senior editor Zach Seward told Nieman Lab, “If you don’t build a homepage for people to go to, they’re not going to come to it.” I have a feeling that I will use the Quartz homepage more often than I use the Daily Brief.

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

Science in the news: why does it really matter

Most of what is written in a newspaper on a daily basis makes no difference to the life of the common man the people on the streets. Indeed some have even argued that news is actually bad for you

That, though, doesn’t stop people from engaging with news. And, despite the struggles of the news industry, more people read news today than they did when the internet did not exist. This should not be surprising, because the price to read even quality writing has plummeted.

But the lack of a good business model, not surprisingly, has caused a lot of pain to journalists. A new debate has broken out among some veteran science journalists about the work that science journalists ought be doing but don’t. The main criticism is that science in the news is nothing but “pretty entertainments about mummies, exploding stars and the sex life of ducks”.

This, Dan Vergano of USA today, finds to be a problem. He feels that science journalists should instead focus on aspects of the news that should matter to people, such as “whether Iran really will have the bomb, whether Quantitative Easing will spark inflation or whether Peak Oil is a real concern”. Dan thinks in these dark times science journalists have formed a ghetto and that is hurting readers, who deserve better.

I’m sympathetic to some of the points raised. But, even though I’m new to the business of news, I can see some clear problems in Dan’s arguments. (Many of those have been pointed out in these comments).

For example, Dan should be addressing editors, rather than reporters. After all editors are the gatekeepers of news. But because he doesn’t make that clear, a lot of reporters have felt compelled to answer Dan. And rightly so.

There is also a problem with treating the news audience as Dan does. The nebulous idea of a reader who likes politics, sports, science, health and everything else on the news menu is just wrong. When the only way to find out who read your work was through expensive surveys conducted once every year, it made sense to assume such a reader to be your audience. Today, though, that is not true. (Perhaps not accepting that fact is the bane of a good business model to fund journalism).

Third, and this is the reason I was compelled to write this post, is that few journalists outside Dan’s “ghetto” understand the importance of science in the news. That though doesn’t stop readers from devouring science news. The fact is that science news, at least that written well, evokes a sense of wonder among readers. And few in the business of news really understand the value of that.

Oh wow, a duck’s penis is like a corkscrew!

Our sense of wonder, as Jesse Prinz aruges in a beautiful essay, may not have evolved out of any purpose but has been the source of the impetus behind humanity’s greatest achievements. Readers of science news may not always be able to put it such eloquent words as Prinz has done, but deep inside they connect with that feeling.

Three things usually appeal to our sense of wonder: art, science and religion. Religion is newsworthy, but not for its aspects that cause wonder. And perhaps art journalists (if they even exist today) have more to complain than science journalists when it comes to being featured in the news.

This leaves science news (and thus science journalists) to take on the responsibility of satisfying our readers’ wonder-tastebuds. And, you know what, science journalists are doing a splendid job at that.

This is one reason that The Economist’s readers time and again vote for the science and technology pages as their favourite in the weekly newspaper. Apart from that, I don’t have numbers to back me here but I’m willing to bet that, in those expensive annual surveys (some of which still happen) if the right questions are asked, readers will say that they love reading about science because it is wonderful.

As the world has got richer, and that it has despite the recession, and technologies like the internet has left a little more time at hand, it shouldn’t be surprising that more of us are feeding our innate curiosities. I have a feeling that despite the many problems that the world faces today, we might be living in a golden age. A different kind of enlightenment, if you will, where, not just the rich few understand and investigate the workings of the world, but the masses do so too.

Science and the news that it creates, even in its current shape, I contend is fuelling that age.

The art of asking questions

NYT correspondent Jodi Kantor writes:

There is no one question that works for everyone. In fact, the secret to asking great questions is avoiding generalities or broad philosophical inquiries. Hypotheticals are worst of all, because they’re going to give you the opposite of what you want, which is the person’s real, lived experience. To ask a really high-yielding question, you need to have done your homework. The most illuminating questions are simple and specific.

Developing world science journalists lose out

The organising committee of the upcoming global gathering of science journalists has made sudden changes to the programme last month, cutting several sessions that focused on developing country issues and leaving journalists disappointed. In recent years the World Conference of Science Journalists has attracted up to half its attendees from the developing world. That seems unlikely now.

Developing-world sessions purged from WCSJ2013 programme,  SciDev.Net, 2 April 2013.

 

How to stop fooling yourself

When I first wrote about self-deception, a little more than a year ago, I found the experience traumatising.

It can be very troubling to realise that inside my own head I maybe tucking away truths that I am already aware of!

Now Eli Dourado has an essay in The Umlaut that discusses a paper by Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson that grapples with the issue of self-deception.  Here’s the relevant bit:

Self-favoring priors, they note, can help to serve other functions besides arriving at the truth. People who “irrationally” believe in themselves are often more successful than those who do not. Because pursuit of the truth is often irrelevant in evolutionary competition, humans have an evolved tendency to hold self-favoring priors and self-deceive about the existence of these priors in ourselves, even though we frequently observe them in others.

Self-deception is in some ways a more serious problem than mere lack of intelligence. It is embarrassing to be caught in a logical contradiction, as a stupid person might be, because it is often impossible to deny. But when accused of disagreeing due to a self-favoring prior, such as having an inflated opinion of one’s own judgment, people can and do simply deny the accusation.

So how can we cope with self-deception?

Cowen and Hanson argue that we should be on the lookout for people who are “meta-rational,” honest truth-seekers who choose opinions as if they understand the problem of disagreement and self-deception. According to the theory of disagreement, meta-rational people will not have disagreements among themselves caused by faith in their own superior knowledge or reasoning ability. The fact that disagreement remains widespread suggests that most people are not meta-rational, or—what seems less likely—that meta-rational people cannot distinguish one another.

We can try to identify meta-rational people through their cognitive and conversational styles. Someone who is really seeking the truth should be eager to collect new information through listening rather than speaking, construe opposing perspectives in their most favorable light, and offer information of which the other parties are not aware, instead of simply repeating arguments the other side has already heard.

What sells in the name of journalism today is written to appease one side or the other. Opinions are important, but what is more important is facts that help you arrive at it and the process you use to form them. A good journalist should be a meta-rational person. He should also be able to find other meta-rational people, so that the world is made aware of facts and arguments that help take things a step forward.

The problem, of course, is that meta-rational people care less about success but more about seeking the truth/understanding the world. Their voices are present but harder to find. They get far less attention than they deserve.

You can stop reading now, if you like. For, because we are on the subject of good journalism and meta-rational people, I’d like to discuss an example of exactly the opposite. Aleks Eror writes in VICE that the Chinese are engineering genius babies. This is a great story, if it were true. Sadly, he bases this claim on the word of Geoffrey Miller, an American academic, who wrote a heavily biased article about it in January. What’s worse is that it Miller’s argument had been criticised and debunked (sort-of) immediately after. But Eror chose to ignore that and rehash the fear-mongering story.

The central point of the argument is that the Chinese have an institute where they are doing genome sequencing of the world’s smartest people to find the genes that makes us smart. This is not a new story. Eugenics in some shape or form has existed for a long time. The problem with Eror’s piece is that he doesn’t run by an expert the claims made by Miller.

A good science journalist should always do that because the complex nature of the subjects we usually deal with. Experts may not be the perfect meta-rational candidate that we’d like, but they are close enough. They bring an external perspective, and I’ve found that invaluable in my own work.