Archive for the ‘journalism’ category

Floor Polish or Dessert Topping: Media Edition.

September 7, 2016

I think it’s always a serious risk to disagree with Adam; he’s basically always right.  But I do find myself differing from him on one question: is The New York Times actively trying to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency, or are their actions better explained by a less evil, more dangerous tendency?

Adam’s on the overt evil side: they’re trying to shiv her side. I’m thinking that what we’re seeing is an unconscious process, which is actually a much more difficult problem to tackle within elite political journalism.

My view:  I communicate with some NYTimes people, and I’ve known some there for a long time, though I’m not in close touch with that cohort these days.  I don’t have any contact with the Sulzberger/Baquet level, but below that I’m quite confident that there’s no conspiracy going on.  If you could ask just about anybody at the Times, I’m sure they recognize that Trump is a shit show and all that.

But that doesn’t alter the problem there, the way the deck is nonetheless stacked at the Times and other top-echelon outlets.

A big part of the reason, ISTM, is that within a lot of journalism there is a very particular definition of what a story is, and the concept of accuracy is narrowly defined.  A story need not be about facts, but about claims of alledged facts — Clinton’s emails raise pay-for-play concerns; and to be accurate such a story need only rise to the level of “some see in the new email release more indications of a pay-to-play connection to the Clinton Foundation.”   That is — the fact that someone is willing to say such a dreadful deed took place makes the statement and the story “accurate” even if no reasonable reading of the underlying material suggest such nefariousness actually took place.


That paradigm leads The New York Times and the rest of them to make the same mistakes over and over again — and to get played in the same way seemingly every week. The right wing media activist camp — think Judicial Watch and the email farrago — is very good at pushing the story buttons, and you have a circumstance where the Times bites, over and over again, and finds itself once again dipping into  the Clinton well.

What makes that so wretched is that if The New York Times were anti-Clinton in the way, say, Fox News is, there’d be an obvious counter:  consider the source. But because this is done within a framework that the top practitioners believe is the right way to do journalism, pushback often serves to confirm their judgment in their own eyes. If partisans complain, they must be doing something right.  And given that the elite media basically talks to itself, it’s hard to insert a corrective, though I and many others are trying to do so on and off social media.

 It’s also important to note that the Times  did engage the Trump-Attorneys General bribery story today, placing it prominently on the website.  There are some oddities in the story — not uncommon for a publication playing catch-up.  And the test will be the follow up: how deeply the Times chooses to pursue each of the elements of the story in the days ahead.  If they do give it the full effort, then (a) that will be good and (b) it will suggest that much of the crap coverage of Clinton we’ve seen is the product of pre-existing bias (Clintons are yucky) combined with the story dynamics and incentives discussed here.

There’s an interview with Bob Woodward that the Harvard’s press office published today that to me expresses the problem of a Village, an epistemically closed community of practice that can’t easily interrogate the ways its own methods undermine the mission that they do in fact, sincerly, believe they’re pursuing. Woodward says:

Bob Costa, a reporter at the Post, and I interviewed Trump and we published the transcript and there are all kinds of things in there. For instance, he says, “I bring out rage in people,” and he’s proud of it. He forecast a giant recession, he was very pessimistic about the economy, and since then it’s only done better. He was asked, because he was running in the primaries in the Republican Party, a party that contained Lincoln and Nixon, “Why did Lincoln succeed?” And Trump’s answer was, “He did some things that needed to be done.” [We then asked,] “Why did Nixon fail?” “Because of his personality.” And we had to say, “Yeah, but his criminality was part of it.” And Trump said, “Oh, yeah.” It tells you who he is. 

The same with Hillary Clinton. There were just voluminous stories on her. Let me give you an example from The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2016, a two-part series they did on Hillary’s role in Libya. It explains her role, exactly what she wanted to do. At one point, after [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi’s death, it quotes her saying to some of her staff, “We came, we saw, he died.’ There was a series of spectacular Post stories about the Clinton Foundation, about her time at the State Department, and so forth. 

The Trump interview is a story, sure.  It was accurate, in the sense that I’m sure Trump said what Woodward and Costa said he said.  It’s not revealing of very much — like what Trump has done and what his actions in the various enterprises he’s undertaken would tell us about a potential Trump presidency.  But its accurate.

More important for the discussion of Clinton and whether press treatment of her reflects conscious or unconscious bias is the comparison between the kind of material Woodward celebrates as journalism about Trump vs. what he recognized in the Clinton Coverage.  The Libya story he cites is a perfectly reasonable one one, exactly what you’d expect a newspaper to do.  The Clinton Foundation stories…not so much, and so on.

The point’s obvious, I think.  All of the stories listed above are “news” in some way.  They meet (mostly) the narrowest criterion of accuracy.  But they add up to a very different body of work, and evidence of very different approaches to the two candidates, born, I think, of the construct of the “sweet story” much more than of a planned journalistic campaign to derail Hillary.

TL:DR?  You don’t need to invoke malice.  An intellectual laziness* born of bad craft habits and professional norms fully explains what we see — which is bad news, as that’s harder to fix than explicit enmity.

*I don’t mean to suggest that Times journalists and their peers elsewhere are lazy in the sense that they don’t work hard.  They work constantly for (in almost all cases in the print world) relatively short money.  I’m just saying that they don’t sufficiently train the traditional journalist’s skepticism on their own endeavor, and so find it very hard to credit outside criticism, or to recognize what it is in fact they’re doing, not just day by day, but summed over the life of a campaign.

Image: Francisco de Goya, Fool’s Folly, 1815-1819

Dear Washington Post

September 6, 2016

Here’s another slightly edited dispatch from my ongoing off-social-media conversation with some political reporters on the obvious implicit bias I see in coverage of Clinton vs. Trump.  The reporters I’ve engaged publicly and privately don’t see it that way — and they are, I firmly believe, sincere and honest in that belief.  So the task, as I see it, is to build the argument story by story and (as possible) in analysis of the sum of coverage, that they’re wrong, and to do so in a way that honest and expert reporters can read, analyze, and, I hope, become persuaded by.

What caught my eye today was this article in the Washington Post, “Inside Bill Clinton’s nearly $18 million job as ‘Honorary Chancellor’ of a for-profit university,” by Rosalind S. Hellerman and Michelle Ye Hee Lee.  That story has received professional praise as a well reported deep dive — and it is!  Really.

School of athents

By that I mean:  it is definitely a long (2604 words) and detailed dissection of Bill Clinton’s involvement with Laureate University, a major international for profit higher-ed company.  The reporters play fair by the rules of the craft:  they show their work, and a reader can see where each individual fact comes from.

But does that make it a good story, an honest one, or one that within the larger story — that of the 2016 presidential election — meets basic standards of journalism as it serves readers interests?

Not at all.

That’s what I argued below in my note to one of my correspondents.  Here, the point is that the elite political press — like any group of people working on the same stuff in substantial isolation from the outside world — has its own professional criteria for excellence.  They’ve got a value system and an expectation or understanding of what represents good work or bad.  They’re not all wrong in that.

But as far as I can see from the outside, theirs is a bunker-dwelling, mostly technical standard: well reported = good, for example.  I don’t think that there is a conspiracy at the Times  or the Post, or CNN or what have you simply to shiv the Clintons.

But what I think outside the bunker (and please do recall:  a presidential campaign is a mind-and-body deranging experience; these folks really are working without access to a lot of the reality checks that could help) those of us who are looking at the coverage both closely and synoptically see the problem not as one of reporting, but of coverage.

That is, what matters is the way stories are assigned, framed, their narratives interpreted within each piece, how they’re edited and placed (2604 words!) affects the overall message readers and the electorate as a whole receive.

Thus, the ongoing and increasingly inexplicable failure of The New York Times to engage what should be a burgeoning Trump bribery scandal with state attorneys general and Trump U.  Thus all the stories on the Clinton foundation which (a) failed to show what was implied and (b) omitted crucial context, like the Bush Foundation headed by a Powell.  And thus today’s story, in which two good reporters distill what had to have been a substantial amount of work that taken all-in-all demonstrates that Bill Clinton made a lot of money while there was, in the words of the story itself, “no evidence that Laureate received special favors from the State Department in direct exchange for hiring Bill Clinton…”

What there was, instead, was a reason to ask whether or not such special favors might have taken place.  The answer was no.

There the story should have ended.  But because this was the Clintons, and this is the elite political press, it was impossible to accept that answer.  Hence what is a type specimen for how the press is getting this election wrong — with potentially disastrous consequences.

With that as prologue (I know…logorrhea…), my breakdown of the piece for my journalist-contact.  We began by marveling at the size of Bill’s fee — which truly is pretty astonishing:


I agree with you on the sum, though from where I sit, with my full time job in higher education (and a professor’s kid, and w. two professor-siblings and, and, and…) what bothers me most about that clearly outsize wage is that it is less of an outlier than it should be.  As I’m sure you know, top academic positions at a lot of places are now paid at seven figure levels.  A million or so/year as a college president  is different from $3.6 million/year as an honorary chairman, certainly.  But it’s also true (and a scandal) that higher ed, both non and for profit has headed down the same path for CEO and senior management compensation that large businesses have.  That’s troubling.

But what got me about the story was the contrast between the reporting craft you rightly recognize: meticulous, detailed pursuit of both individual incidents and the financial details…and the lack of any substance to the clear thrust of the story: that this was another example of soft corruption in the Clinton family.  You look at the lede and it clearly asserts a pay-off.  Clinton invites someone to a working dinner who is an FOB, who later hires Bill for lots of money.   (more…)

Mountains, Stars, Conflict

May 31, 2015

You’ll forgive, I hope, the self promotion here, but I want to draw attention to an essay I have in The Boston Globe today.

It’s about the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) that is beginning to be constructed at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Mauna Kea is one of the world’s most significant sites for optical and near infrared astronomy — it’s already home to thirteen telescopes, including the two largest now in operation in the twin Keck instruments.


The TMT is designed to have a primary mirror three times the diameter of the Keck ten meter light buckets, with nine times the light gathering area.  Over the last century — which covers the era of large, mountaintop optical observatorys, each similar leap in telescope size has produced startling, powerful discoveries, and there’s every reason to expect the same of the TMT and its planned southern hemisphere counterparts.

But there’s a catch — or something more fundamental than a mere glitch.  Mauna Kea is a sacred site within the Hawaiian tradition, and an environmentally sensitive one, and opposition to TMT has grown from a point of tension to one of direct confrontation.  Construction of the TMT has been suspended, and the governor of Hawaii has called for the removal of a quarter of the existing observatories before the TMT itself begins operating.

In the midst of this confrontation, plenty of people have framed the two sides as another battle in the old war between science and religious belief.  I say in the Globe today that’s a mistake.  A taste:

….the TMT dispute shows where the science versus religion trope goes wrong. The Hawaiian protesters haven’t said that Mauna Kea’s telescopes are inherently impious, or that the data they collect is somehow wrong, or that Hawaiian mythology is a better account of the cosmos. Rather, the value, the joy, the need the observatories satisfy may indeed satisfy many, but not those continuing a Hawaiian tradition that allows its heirs to find connection with memory, with history, with nature — to achieve the same transcendence sought by those who find beauty in the measure of the universe.

That is: The TMT defenders and their opponents seek analogous rewards from their presence on Mauna Kea. Their conflict isn’t between the competing worldviews of science and religion, but between desires that are kin to each other — and that require the same physical space.

Check it out, if your Sunday afternoon tends that way.  Let me know what you think.

Image:  Johannes Vermeer,  The Astronomerc. 1668.


For Good Times In Cambridge: Fallows/Kummer and Merry White Distant Early Warning

December 2, 2013

Good stuff coming up this Thursday, Dec. 5.

First off:  I’ll be introducing The Atlantic’s James Fallows and Corby Kummer at the last MIT Communications Forum event of the year.  It’ll run from 5-7 in MIT building 66, room 110. (Map at the link.)

Fallows you all know, I think.  He’s been national correspondent at The Atlantic since forever, with a stint at Jimmy Carter’s head speechwriter thrown in.  He’s covered an enormous range of stories from a great range of places — Washington, Shanghai, Beijing,  and any civil aviation landing strip he can find.  Politics, flight, international relations, China-watching, beer and much more.  He’s a National Magazine Award and American Book Award winner.  Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he has shepherded many of its signature pieces from wisp in a writer’s eye to publication.  (He’s also one of America’s leading food writers, winner of 5 James Beard Journalism awards including one my previous post would suggest I find most impressive, the M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

Here’s what the two of them will talk about: “Long Form Journalism: Inside The Atlantic.”


The session will focus on two questions: what goes into the making of a major piece of journalism.  First: what’s required to conceive, report, develop, refine, fix, verify, and then, finally, produce a long piece of writing that can both demonstrate the proposition and persuade its readers of its truth and importance.  Second: why such journalism matters (and, perhaps, some commentary on the curious fact that despite the internet’s supposed slaughter of attention, long form non-fiction seems it be entering something of a golden age.)

This will be videotaped, and I’ll post the clip and/or links to same when it goes live (and I  know that I’ve still got to get the promised Coates-Hertzberg video ready to roll…)  But if you’re in town on Thursday, this should be a good one.  We’ll probably be focusing on a single, maybe a couple of signature Fallows articles that went under Kummer’s watchful eye, and as I find out the texts, I’ll post those links in my next reminder.

The other event that Greater-Cambridge folks might want to check out is a truly happy book event for one of my oldest and dearest friends, Merry “Corky” White, (my college tutor, as it happens), whose classic Cooking for Crowds (illustrated by Koren!) is being re-iussed in a 40th anniversary edition.


She’ll be talking the book at Harvard Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Thursday — and I’ll be dashing as fast as I can from 02139 to 02138 to cheer her on.  If you can, you should too.  (No media for this one, alas.)

BTW: here’s the Amazon link to Corky’s book — but in the spirit of time, place and season, get it at Harvard Books if that’s near you, or from and the independent bookstore you normally use if you’re one of the lucky ones to still possess such a community treasure.

Images: Mary Cassat, Woman Reading in a Gardenbefore 1926

Jan Steen, Feast of the Rhetoricians Near a Town Gate, before 1679

Work the Referee

November 15, 2013


Following DPM’s post below on Michael Shear’s ACA website woes = Katrina piece, let me urge y’all to let Mr. Shear know directly of the problems you find in the piece.

Click on the link just below his bio to email him.  Again, please do so firmly, but politely.  The goal is to get better work out of Mr. Shear in the future, not to leave him in a “f**k the hippies” state of rage.

What I told him, more or less, is that most of his piece ain’t bad — he does note, albeit not strongly enough for my taste, that a crappy website aint’t a physical disaster, and that Republicans have set obstacles in the way of fixing Obamacare, a level of obstruction that Bush never had to deal with. The biggest problem lies, I said, with his lede, his framing of the story as one in which Obama’s troubles are the same as Bush’s accepts the premise of the Republican opposition. Instead, I said, he should have begun by asking if that attempted framing were true…and then the rest of the story would have followed a much more sensible (and useful) path

In other words: the goal is to get Shear from building stories on crap foundations — and if you can let him know you noticed this time in a way that suggests he can do better — that can  help.

Work the refs people. It’s part of politics these days, and if we want out side to come out on top, we gotta do so.

Image: Thomas Eakins, Taking the Count1898.

For a Good Time In Cambridge — Hendrik Hertzberg/Ta-Nehisi Coates Edition (reminder)

October 29, 2013

Hey, all you Greater-Boston folk, a reminder:

Tonight at 7 at MIT, Ta-Nehisi Coates will talk to Hendrik Hertzberg about the state of opinion journalism…


and the related matter of the debased (my word) state of American politics.

Location:  32-123, which translated out of MIT-speak, denotes the big first floor lecture hall in the Gehry-designed building known as the Stata Ctr., located at the corner of campus where Vassar St. hits Main. See this interactive map for details.

Ta-Nehisi, as most here know, is a blogger and senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, writing about race, culture, politics, history, hip-hop, e-gaming, French language studies and anything else that comes to his notice.  Winner of the National Magazine Award for his essay “Fear of a Black President” he is also, to my great pleasure, my colleague in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing Program.  Hertzberg, senior editor and staff writer at The New Yorker led the New Republic won three NMAs, while taking home the hardware (is there any?) for his solo commentary at the home of the monocle and the top hat.  As I noted the first time I plugged this event, “he is one of those writers on whose work other writers take notes.  He takes writing very, very seriously — talking to one of Ta-Nehisi’s classes yesterday he let them know that the craft isn’t just hard for beginners, that he still sweats and agonizes over getting right with every single piece he publishes.

In other words — whether you want to know about the craft or the content of major-league political analysis, this should be a fun evening.

For those of you who cannot make your way to 02139 tonight, we will be recording the event, and though it may take a little bit, we’ll get the video up in reasonably short order.  I’ll let y’all know when and as that happens.

Image:  Lesser Ury, In the Cafe Bauer,  1898

The Best of Times (Good Reads Redux)

August 8, 2013

Fair warning:  What follows is ~3000 words on what a good time it is to find science fascinating.  Avoid if you’re not interested.

Given my day job teaching young writers about covering science, and given that we’re a month shy of the first day of classes for our next cohort of science-writing graduate students, I’ve been doing an informal survey of what’s out there as venues in which those folks will perform over the next few years.  And, as I suggested in this post, I came away with the somewhat unexpected sense that we are living in a genuinely great age for writing and the public engagement with science.

Science writers are fond of weeping in their cups* about the dire state of the traditional science media.  And they/we should.  MSM science writing is often said to have peaked in the so called “golden age” of the 80s.  That was when a whole new crop of science-technology-gee-whiz glossies appeared.  I think I listed a fair number of the new rags last time — Time Inc.’s Discover (my first real employer), Science 8X, Penthouse publication’s Omni** (founded 1978, actually) and others I’m blanking on, joining old stalwarts enjoying new interest — Scientific American, Popular Science, Science News,and others.  The end of the decade saw the birth of one of my all-time favorites, the short-lived, much missed Mondo 2000, and in the early 90s, you got Wired.

The NYT’s Science Times first appeared as a separate section on November 14, 1978.  It still exists, and is reasonably healthy — but diminished from its heydey.  Following the Grey Lady (no longer of) 43rd St., other newspapers built up their own dedicated science, technology and health desks.  There were lots of jobs to be had, a seemingly endless tally of stories to be written.


Part of the reason you saw such an expansion of science journalism was that the late 70s and onwards have been simply a fabulous time to be covering the beat.


ITEM: You had the beginnings of the digital revolution ramping up into full scale insurrection over those years.  I didn’t grasp fully what it meant that I could haul my Kaypro C/PM driven, dual-disk drive machine down to the subway below the Time-Life Bldg., and then muscle it up to my fourth floor walk-up in Little Italy to pound away through the night — but I knew that this was a wholly different experience from the typewriter-and-carbons system I’d used just a year or two before to file from Manila and London.  I got the significance a little more when I first played with  the 300 baud modem I got with my TRS 100 (NEC clone, actually) notebook computer a couple of years later.***  But even if I was a little blase about this sudden appearance of computation in the nooks and crannies of my daily life, still, it was clear something big was in progress.

ITEM: Same for the molecular biology story.  As of 1980, it was still a huge deal to sequence a single gene, which meant that there was a lot of what looks from here to be dicey scientific claims and dicier stories about the “gene for (x)” — where x could be alcoholism or what have you.  But again, even if in those days both researchers and reporters leapt to conclusions actual biology would erode over time,**** it was clear that we were in the midst of transformative shift in the precision and levels of explanation — the understanding of causation — that biology could approach when it tackled life at the molecular level.  If we’ve learned that all the problems that seemed just one more DNA sequence short of solution are considerably more complicated than we might wish, still it’s not often you live through the kind of conceptual earthquake that occurred from the 70s to the 90s.  That it now seems obviously the necessary approach is just a measure of how powerful a wave it was then.

ITEM:  I could go on all day (and some might say I have).  The original Keck telescope saw first light with its complete 10 meter mirror on April 14, 1992 — an event that ended Mt. Palomar’s Hale telescope’s 45 year run as the world’s largest (high performance) optical telescope.*****  In the two decades since the Keck went live  — though I need to check this number — I believe more telescope observing area has been installed around the world than was used in the entire prior history of professional observing dating back to 1609.


Throw in the Hubble, the other NASA “Great Observatories” — and the record of NASA’s other unmanned space-science missions — and you have a revolution in our knowledge of both the earth (remotely sensed from space) and our cosmic surroundings through incomprehensible ranges of space and time.  And then there’s…

…hell, you get the idea.  Oh Brave New World that has such knowledge in’t.

Science is still roaring along, of course, and  fundamental inquiry lands in technology with astonishing, daily-life-reworking speed.  I remember in 1983 taking a trip to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, where a virtuoso microscopist showed me a video image of a segment of a neuron, saying “some think that’s where memory resides.”  This year I spent time at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Science, and talked to someone who was tracing in high resolution images of living brains thinking the development of specialized systems of thinking about other people.  We live in amazing times; flat-out gorgeous, exciting times.

Only, not so much for science writers trained up as I was, in an ecosystem dominated by a robust print advertising model.  The newspaper science sections are gone, mostly, hundreds of them between 2000 and now.  Magazines have folded, or eroded into shadows of their former selves.   There’s a fragmentation of the business; there are these things that every graduate student seems to write — I think they’re called blogs and….

… you know this drill too.

But here’s a funny thing.  I do not believe there has been a better time to be a science reader. Ever.

Again, in that earlier post, I focused on a couple of fine articles turning up in one of the new venues for long-form science writing, London-based Aeon Magazine.******  Aeon is in some ways simply a digital expression of a conventional media type.  It publishes essays and features, nicely illustrated with a bit of flat art, just like a magazine on dead trees. But even with that utterly familiar genre focus, there is still this crucial difference:  that Aeon  is an all-digital production means that it has no constraint either as to the overall length of  the pieces it publishes, or to a need to cram its pieces into set frames, one page in the magazine for a short, say, and five for a full length feature.  The news hole is what it wants to be for each and every article it chooses to put out into the world.    This sounds like a small thing, or maybe just an obvious one — but it sets up a radically different writing framework than the one that I and my friends and colleagues encountered (and still do, sometimes) when working to the constraints of cold type.   Stories get to be what they need to be, and not what the issue-budget that month dictates.

(One corollary:  this puts a premium on the one true constraint in this new golden age:  excellent editing.  Long doesn’t mean good, unless it’s actually good, and the only way to be sure of that is if someone with a brain, an ear and a sharp red pencil is available to go to work on one’s deathless prose.)

Merely digitizing words, thus, opens up venues and forms to writers who could never have hoped to try that sort of thing when only The New Yorker and a handful of other rags would let their chosen few rabbit on until they were done.  We hear more voices, younger voices, more from across the gender line and so on, and that’s a big change.  Thus the importance not just of Aeon,  but of  MatterByliner (not just a science-themed site, but  with a lot in that area), Nautilus, which is trying to enact a concept-album approach to popular science publication, and many more.  I sent out a query to some science writing buddies to survey the venues people in the business are pitching to, and the names came pouring out:  Quanta, Pacific Standard (formerly Miller McCune Magazine, and also not exlusively aimed at science)The Vergeand others that my colleagues are already writing for, despite the fact that they have yet to launch.  Older venues are shifting some resources this direction too — I’ve written once for The New Yorker’s new Elements strand, a daily feed of some commentary and some original science and technology reporting under that august brand.  Old warhorses like Popular Mechanics, Scientific Americanor Popular Science are putting good material out there, and so are places like the Nature New Service…and the list goes on.

The science blog world is enormously valuable as well, the more so (IMHO), as it professionalizes.  There’s the Scientific American blog network; National Geographic’s new Phenomena  salon,’s stable and many others.  The New York Times may be dropping blogs — but in the science writing world, there’s no shortage, and increasingly, the old signal-noise problem of that blogosphere is resolving itself through a rather traditional gate-keeping/quality control editorial approach, updated for new media.

And then there is the penetration of science into culture and vice versa as documented at strands like Io9, or parts of the ArsTechnica site, BoingBoing, and dozens more that I know exist but one one-person/one-day-per-day life doesn’t permit me to read.  A torrent of words, of ideas, of engagement with science, its applications in technology and the useful arts, and its intellectual penetration into the realms of story, narrative, expression, art, all the good stuff.  Just digging through this first layer of links to write this essay has made me happy:  so much interesting, unexpected, important stuff out there, daily, for my private, personal edification.

And wait!  There’s more.  I and a lot of the folks I talk to about the future of science communication talk often about Atavist.  The Atavist acts as both a publisher and a platform, and the secret sauce there is their system to produce multimedia reads:  texts augmented by computation to permit the use of a rich range of materials, moving images, sound, interactive graphics and so on.  You can turn on or off such add-ons, (and you can buy Atavist published work as plain e-books  for a bit less than the fully gadgetized texts if you choose).  But theirs is one of the most elegant solutions yet to the challenge and opportunity posed by what the digitization of words permits in the way of marrying text to all the rest of the ways to communicate with each other — both the ones we’ve had for a while and those now being created.  Other publishers are working on similar stuff, “books” that are actually apps.  In such work, you have something inconceivable when I started out in the business:  an account of something about science that can, at the reader’s command, reach through the first layer of words into (conceivably) anything that bears on the matter at hand that exists anywhere on the web.

All of which is to belabor the obvious:  this is a Gutenberg moment, a handful of years — decades at most — when the range of ideas about science and its connections to human experience can reach audiences that have never had such a wealth of information and interpretation so immediately available to them.  As someone for whom this stuff is the Greatest Story Ever Told — as a reader — I couldn’t be happier.


But as a writer and a teacher of those who would deliver this stuff into the great, gaping maw of the web?

There are problems, no doubt.  All those good staff jobs of a generation ago are gone, and there is no reason to expect them back anytime soon.  Take the current run on resume-writing software in a newsroom in DC as a material reminder of that reality.*******

The reality is that science writing of the sort that I’ve been discussing here — longer pieces, essays, attempts to dive beneath the surface of any single paper or finding — is largely a free-lance game.  Freelancing in the context of a mostly online publishing ecosystem is tricky; the dust is very far from settling in the transition from a centralized on-paper publishing model to the much more variegated evolutionary tree we’re seeing now.  I  get emails regularly from well-intentioned people who want me or my students to write for free “for exposure,” — and who are surprised when they are told that exposure don’t pay the rent.

Some of the new web-publications get this and are paying rates that are at least plausible, even if they don’t approach the five figure paydays one could aspire to with a major feature in a top glossy.  Some places — notably Atavist,  but others as well — are trying some new payment models that can reward writers very well indeed. Some are still stuck in the old couple-of-bucks-for-a-blog-post mindset, even as they seek the much more involved and deeply reported-and-thought pieces you now often see at the best blog venues. The writers I admire are making it (that’s a bit of circular logic, I guess; they wouldn’t be there to admire if they weren’t) but there’s no question that it is an uncertain, unpredictable game for newer writers trying to build a self-sustaining career.

But acknowledging that reality, this wealth of new venues implies an audience responding to these attempts to bring serious, sophisticated, complex, variegated stories of science to the public.  That, to me, is the most hopeful sign for a healthy, economically viable culture of science communication.  The argument made by the simple existence of a venue like Aeon or a platform like The Atavist is in direct contradiction to the daily-evident failure of those media institutions that have tried to chase a presumed ever shorter attention span and/or a hunger for one flavor or another of raw meat.  CNN isn’t imploding for lack of resources; it is, at least as I see it, dying of contempt for its audience.  So it is with many others…and so it isn’t with the best of what’s happening in the science writing-and-reading world.

Here endeth the lesson.

*Fond of their cups full stop, I might add.  Standard wisdom at the relevant conferences:  Don’t drink with the ocean folks.  Hangover city.¹  Trust me on this.)

1: Actually, puke till it leaks past your eyeballs city, but never mind.

**As I was working on this post, news has come that Omni is getting a reboot. Great news.  It really was a gonzo magazine, a great one when it played to the top of its game.  One of its strengths — killer fiction to go along with all the rest, works by folks like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling (who’ll be appearing in the reincarnation, it seems) and many others.  As I say through the rest of this post, this is a fine time to be a reader of smart stuff infused with ideas, science, technological imagination and all the rest.

***That Radio Shack box was truly revolutionary — the first really functional traveling computer, one that in some ways was never really replaced.  It weighed three pounds, ran on AA batteries (I repeat: it ran on double A’s!) and could do just a couple of things with its 8 lines by 40 character screen. But what it could do was great:  you could write, and using its on-board modem (an add on for my NEC) you could file over any phone line in the country.  Netbooks and earlier versions of ultralight computers could serve the same function, but what the Trash 100 (as it was affectionately known) had going for it was (a) extreme simplicity, (b) a go-anywhere capability made possible by the use of standard batteries, and (c) after a while, a pretty reasonable price.  I don’t know if this is just my impression, having been in a world — journalism — that really glommed onto the little beasts, but that one bit of kit seems in retrospect to be a true cultural harbinger.  YMMV.

****(not that we’ve altogether shed that particular error)

*****A Soviet era telescope with a mirror 6 meters in diameter went into operation in the north Caucasus mountains in 1977.  In the context of the Cold War, the instrument took direct aim at the 5 meter Hale for the title of the largest optical telescope in the world.  A series of issues with the mirror and the siting and design of the observatory itself significantly limited its effectiveness, and it never out-resolved the Hale.  Hence, most western histories of optical astronomy ignore it, perhaps, unfairly.

******As of this writing (August 7, 2013) the top-of-the-feed post is another good one, an essay on privacy in the context of Snowden and Facebook.  I take some issue with its dependence on that most studied of all human groups, 18-22 year old, at least relatively well-to-do American college students, but I found provocative the notion that while we retain a desire and/or need for privacy, the fact that, as writer Ian Leslie puts it, “we don’t really believe in the internet,” puts us in a position where there is a mismatch between the technology of communication and our expectations of it.  There’s a bit of a “get off of my lawn, kids” feel to that argument, but I don’t think it’s all wrong.  And here I’m making my point:  the piece is making me argue with it and myself, which is a marker of useful writing.

*******Not intended to be a factual statement.

Images:  Juan Gris, Still Life with a Guitar, a Book, and a Newspaper, c.1919.

Galileo’s sketch of the moon from Sidereus Nuncius, 1610, with a photograph of the same view.

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Scholar Seated at a Desk1634.