NYUlab: Science journalism as an institutional undertaking

This blog post belongs to a series, presumptuously titled NYUlab, about interesting thoughts and experiences I have as I pursue an MA in science, health and environmental reporting at New York University.

“The paper has been through many financial crises and Science Times has not been affected.” These were the words of David Corcoran, Editor, NYT Science Times, who’d dropped by my NYU SHERP class today for a short presentation and some Q&A. David said that in response to the question “How easy or difficult is it to make money off the science section on nytimes.com and the newspaper?” that I’d asked him. His reply in full went like this:

Not something the Times has been worried out. Going back to 1978 [when Science Times was launched], the paper was facing a lot of pressure. The top management came up with publishing special sections every day and the hope was to attract more advertising. [Once the other days were decided,] There was a question about what to do about Tuesday. There was a lively debate between the news and business sides. The business side wanted fashion but the top news editors said that’s not The New York Times and they came up with the idea of a science section. They knew it wouldn’t be a big money maker – it never has been. We have a big ad on the last page today but that’s unusual.

The future of newspapers is very much in doubt and the reason is that the old business model which was selling those newspaper ads is rapidly going away. They’re still a significant source of revenue but much, much smaller than they were even 10 years ago, even five years ago. So the question is how we’re going to replace that source of revenue. The ads in videos don’t bring in nearly as much money, and I don’t know why. Science Times is very central to the identity of the newspaper, and it’s not going to go away. The paper has been through many financial crises and Science Times has not been affected.

In response to someone else’s question, he said: Wrapping your mind around a subject like stem cells is not what [editors of other desks] have a lot of time for, so we get to do our own thing most of the time.

Sounds like the science section of The New York Times in print (much like at The Hindu) exists in order to fulfill some kind of institutional ambition more than being a logical conclusion backed by the commensurate resources. If only to me, this sounds like a precarious position to be in for many reasons. Foremost, depending on ideological over business interests means the science section is susceptible to ideological over business forces. And ideological forces are often much less rational, unpredictable and, most importantly, accountable.

Could it be that science editors are reluctant to acknowledge that their department in a publication is situated in a bubble that protects them from financial pressures? There’s no doubt that The New York Times does some excellent science reporting and analysis, and wins many awards doing it, but there’s a part of me wondering how much – and in what ways – this would change if science editors were pulled up and asked to start showing profits from their work. It’d be a brutal thing to do, no doubt, asking such gentle creatures to figure out a business model that even political editors are confused about. But it would also level the playing field, give the science department some bargaining power, and let journalists explore if there’s any way to eliminate the subsidization of science news.

Cutting back: my classmates as such had a lot of questions for David Corcoran. I’d like to reproduce his answers to two that pertained to specific stories that appeared today (September 16).

How do you decide if it’s time to reintroduce an issue in the news, like with Karen Weintraub’s piece today [on stem cells research]?

It’s an important subject and it’s overdue for an update. There’d been a lot of hype but not been many major breakthroughs yet. We brainstormed with the writer and photo editor and art director and figured out the best way to show this. We went to researchers and got a striking picture. The picture inside would’ve given a false impression because not everybody comes from stem cells treatment and the next day, be break-dancing.

How did the Peter Higgs interview work out?

Dennis [Overbye] went to England and ended up having lunch with Peter Higgs. I let him write it, he was a little starstruck. And he turned it in without any fanfare, he just sent it to me. I did a wordcount, it was 1,600 words, 600 words more than [we could fit]. But then I read it and said, “Wow, that’s fabulous”. Dennis’s strongpoint is explaining these difficult ideas. So we held another piece and included Dennis’s piece in the cover. [When asked about the staid choice of picture] With that particular columnist, there’s an artist, and they like each other’s work, so we let them go with it.

Overall, David comes across as an unassuming, deliberative and very helpful person in his role as the editor of Science Times. I say helpful because, when asked how much time he spends mentoring freelancers, he said, “I spend quite a bit more time working with [promising freelancers] because there are lots of people like you who are just starting out and how are they going to start out if nobody takes them seriously? I would hope there are lots of other editors doing a similar thing.” Thanks very much for dropping by, David, and it’s good to know a newspaper as daunting as The New York Times has someone like you who makes people like me feel less intimidated.

The trouble ‘measuring’ geomagnetic events

A sunspot five times the width of Earth exploded earlier this week. On September 10, it released an X-1.6 class solar flare. A solar flare is a sudden burst of energy that releases much more light and other radiation in one second than it usually does. This one was also accompanied by a violent release of millions of tons of charged particles and strong magnetic fields called a coronal mass ejection (CME).

Their combined physical influence on Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere is described by a number called the Kp index. It is determined using an array of instruments called magnetometers stationed around the world that measure how Earth’s magnetic field fluctuates over successive three-hour periods. Interestingly, there have been some questions about how the Kp index is defined and measured.

The impacts of solar flares, for example, are well-defined. Although they can get stronger through a continuous spectrum of energies, they’re classified into six groups to make understanding each energy range’s implications easier: A, B, C, M, X and Z. All ranges except X have nine sub-points (e.g. A-1, A-2, A-3, …, A-9), whereas X is known to be able to go up to X-28. Because its scale is logarithmic, an X-1.6 flare is 1.6 times as strong as an X-1 flare.

Each class corresponds to a range of energies in W/m sq. “of 100 to 800 picometre X-rays near Earth, as measured on the GOES spacecraft” (Wikipedia).

On the other hand, the Kp index is calculated indirectly. Each magnetometer around the world measures one of the two components of Earth’s magnetic field: the horizontal. When geomagnetic disruption occurs, the horizontal component fluctuates over certain regions. The fluctuations are picked up. Then, the Kp index is calculated for each magnetometer as the maximum fluctuation at that location compared to that on a normal day.

Finally, an algorithm calculates the average global Kp index according to Kp indices from all the magnetometers. This isn’t as easy as it sounds because each measurement station’s “normal” is different, leading to a constantly changing weighted average being necessary.

Depending on how and where the disruption occurs, alerts are sounded for possible damage to electrical and navigational systems and orbiting satellites – anywhere there is a concentration of electrical or electronic equipment used to provide critical services. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a table to describe the extent of damage.

noaatable

The accompanying Kp numbers describe the extent of the ongoing geomagnetic disruption, with Kp > 5 referred to as a geomagnetic storm. This is what happened last night. The Storm Weather Prediction Center, affiliated with the NOAA, runs a neat live-update system (of the preliminary Kp index) that refreshes every five minutes. You can see where the Kp value peaks in two instances. Another such peaking is expected to happen on Saturday, September 13.

swpcupdate

Now, here are the NOAA’s concerns about using a scale to describe geomagnetic disruptions, from a page on their site titled ‘New Scales Help Public, Technicians Understand Space Weather‘.

The simplicity and the usefulness of the scales for some purposes leads to some unavoidable tradeoffs. Using only one physical measure for each scale leads to a description of events less precise than some users might like. Duration and timing, for instance, are not considered in a scale’s assessment of an event; measures like integrated fluxes do not take into account the sometimes important aspects of spectral shape; and the cadence of the data or index may not be well-matched to the time-scale of the physical event, which complicates the climatology. (The average frequency was obtained from the National Geophysical Data Center’s solar-terrestrial database covering the last several solar cycles). As an example, Kp values are derived and reported every 3 hours, although a single geomagnetic storm may last a day or more.

Subsequently, it raises another important issue: about having a scale that goes from 0 to 9 but having few historical incidents of strength 5 or higher. For example, the Richter scale describes the strength of earthquakes, and enough quakes have occurred across the spectrum of strengths for it to be well calibrated.

On the Kp index scale, however, more occurrences of stronger and weaker events are necessary for us to really know where each one sits on the scale because what we know as a Kp 5 today could easily be a Kp 7 or a Kp 3 in the next decade. And as opposed to earthquakes, the potential global nature of geomagnetic disruptions adds to the confusion.

NYUlab: Beat-sculpting, money-making and science journalism

Money is not always just money but also economic relevance. Mr. Benjamin Franklin likely agrees.

Money is not always just money but also economic relevance. Mr. Benjamin Franklin likely agrees. Image: 401kcalculator.org

(This blog post belongs to a series, presumptuously titled NYUlab, about interesting thoughts and experiences I have as I pursue an MA in science, health and environmental reporting at New York University.)

Today, my class had two guests. Malcolm Ritter, whose Twitter profile reads “Associated Press science reporter”, is not just any science reporter. He’s been covering science for AP for over 30 years now. While Dan Fagin said Ritter’s journey through journalism might not be relevant to our class considering he made a name for himself before the new media wave swept through, Ritter’s answers to our questions revealed a skills set brilliantly honed by three decades of reporting.

Our second guest was Andrea Thompson, a senior science writer at Climate Central and an alumnus of the program she was now addressing, from 2005. Until recently, Andrea was with Live Science before switching to CC.

With Dan “compering”, my classmates and I had many questions for the duo. I had two the answers to which revealed some informative differences between newsrooms in India and the United States. Here they are.

You’re both beat journalists. Dan also mentioned something about science journalism having become very competitive recently. In this setting, how protective of your beats have you had to be [within the organization]?

This question may have mildly startled our guests, neither of whom had a specific answer in that they had nothing to say about my concern. Dan jumped in and clarified that when he said ‘competitive’ – whenever he said it – he didn’t mean journalists pushing their colleagues on the same beat out of their way. I said then that, though I wasn’t disputing him, I had worked for a couple years in India in an environment where people often competed to simply retain their beats, and that that’s what prompted my question.

I don’t have to stress on the point that having a beat all to yourself can be very comforting. Apart from working secure in the knowledge that only you produce the news on whatever your beat is, you also get to sculpt your employer-institution’s attitude toward happenings in that beat, which can be a powerful exercise, as well as your audience’s. But herein lies the rub.

Dan equated the presence of multiple journalists (from the same org.) working on common beats to the organization’s success – which is almost obviously true. If a newspaper puts multiple journalists on the same beat (which The Hindu did; not sure if it does anymore), then

  1. It must enjoy a large and loyal readership for whom so-so beat must be covered in great detail
  2. It must be able to afford putting two, three or four journalists on the same beat

Dan continued, “Here [in the United States], companies are short-staffed.” His choice of words implies that they’re more likely not doing well than that they intend to run a lean organization. By extension, the ‘rub’ is that your opportunity to be ‘beat-sculpting’ is more accessible if you’re writing for a smaller audience – which is kind of ironic. (Remember at this point that I’m writing based on just two experiences: talking to Dan and working with a newspaper publisher in India.)

How do journalists at publications like The New York Times and The Guardian organize their beats? This is what I’d like to know.

My second question:

How much influence does the business model of your employer wield over how you write?

Again, this was a question that didn’t bring forth eager answers. I was disappointed with myself for not being able to ask the “right” questions… but only briefly, recalling that I was among a bunch of people wanting to talk about science writing, not the business that surrounded it. I also think now that I should’ve worded my question differently, and perhaps asked it to someone else.

Earlier, in response to someone else, Malcolm Ritter had recounted that there were a lot of newspapers in the United States in the early 1990s that sported dedicated science pages (similar to what The New York Times and The Hindu continue to publish to this day), and that by the close of the decade, all those sections had either been truncated or assimilated into the rest of the paper. Dan and Malcolm agreed that this was because science news wasn’t bringing in the money.

Next, as the 2000s labored on, publishers began to realize that science writing could be cool as well as impactful when done right, and there were, and continue to be, a lot of people to do it right. At this point: I believe remaining unmindful of the exact reasons why science journalism saw a decline and then an improvement in prospects endangers our ability to keep science journalism always relevant. It seems social forces cannot be entrusted with this task because why else would dedicated science sections disappear and then start from scratch in building a case to reappear?

The economic forces hold the key.

In this context, science journalists shouldn’t be concerned only for the wellbeing of their beats or the people or the trees or whatever but also for the future of their unique profession. They should not be completely insulated from the business side of their work, and this goes far beyond simple populist ideals and toward engendering an entrepreneurial streak of thinking about new forms of publishing and channels of revenue, at least specific to as exacting an enterprise as science journalism.

This is what I expected our guests to talk about when I asked my question. But I think now that I got my audience wrong, not to mention my lousy wording.

What do you think?

Image: fanpop.com

NYUlab: Being a science journalist with dignity

(This blog post belongs to a series, presumptuously titled NYUlab, about interesting thoughts and experiences I have as I pursue an MA in science, health and environmental reporting at New York University.)

Classes at NYU have started! On day one, Michael Balter, who is a senior correspondent for Science, kicked off the program with an introduction to interviewing by, simply enough, interviewing each one of us, having us introduce ourselves at the same time. I’m not sure about how much others were able to take away from it, but I couldn’t much until Michael told us that he was getting each one of us to say something interesting. And it was only in hindsight that his demonstration started to make sense to me.

After introductions, we got into discussing Michael’s classes, how they’d be structured, what we’d be expected to do and what goals we’d better have in mind. While they wore on, what struck me hardest was my great inexperience as a science writer. Despite having spent two years at The Hindu reporting on science as well as grappling with tools to take the subject to a bigger audience, all that I’d thought were problems that only accrued with time found mention in our classroom discussion on day one.

Maybe we’d take on these problems “in detail” in the coming months, but their quick acknowledgment was proof enough for me that I was in the right place and among the right people.

Participating in the discussion – led by Michael’s comments – finally gave me the sense of dignity in being a science journalist that I believe is not easy to acquire in India except, of course, together with being considered exotic. It was reassuring to be able to discuss my problems in detail, especially being able to pick on small, nagging issues. For example, stuff like “What do you do when a scientist you’ve spoken to asks to see the story before it is published?”

It seems the answer’s not always a simple “No”.

The class on Day 2, by Dan Fagin, was more introspective. Seemingly, it was the class that explored – and I suppose will continue to explore – the basics of journalism in detail; what a news story is, where story ideas come from, etc. – the class that will keep us thinking about what it is that we’re really doing and why we’re doing it. And just to make things more interesting – and obviously more educative – each one of us in the class was assigned a beat to cover for the semester, so chosen that they lay completely outside our respective comfort zones.

Taking my cue from Masterchef USA, where so many attempts to cook the personally uncookable had paid off and trying to play it safe with “just chicken” had backfired, I got myself assigned genetics, secure in the knowledge that:

  1. If I do screw up, I will screw up gloriously.
  2. If I end up being able to write about experimental physics and genetics with equal ease, I will also likely feel up for anything.

Toward the end, and just like on orientation day, Dan had another nugget of golden advice. He said that while writing his stories, he had in mind not his entire potential audience but one reader in particular – a fantasy reader: a man named Stan whom Dan knew, who wanted to know everything about the world but actually didn’t know anything. “Pick someone like that, and my advice is don’t pick your mother because she will like everything you write.”

At this point, although I would like to keep writing, I’m going to have to get started on my assignments. So I’m going to leave you with this quote from an amazing blog post by Paige Brown Jarreau I read on SciLogs the other day, to give you a sense of why I’m writing “NYUlab” in the first place.

So if you are a student, especially a student of mass communication or a student studying at the intersection of two different fields, I highly encourage you to blog. Use your blog to make connections between concepts in vastly different fields of study, or that seemingly occupy different parts of your brain. Tie your art classes to science communication. Tie your biology classes to your information theory classes. Tie your knowledge of human cognition to environmental and scientific issues. Don’t let anything you learn or read about go un-applied.

Over time, I’m hoping my experiences at NYU will pay off in much the same way, by becoming closely tied to different aspects of my life. Have a nice day!

Link

Two researchers associated with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have published their research on the number of nuclear warheads possessed by countries worldwide, together with data on where they have been deployed based on various sources. The best part is their paper is available for free, and from the looks of it many of the sources the authors draw on to discuss nuclear proliferation seem to be publicly available, too. I plotted the salient numbers here. For the full paper, go here.

Good science writing is like unraveling the history of a burnt pine cone.

NYUlab: Who is a science writer?

(This blog post belongs to a series, presumptuously titled NYUlab, about interesting thoughts and experiences I have as I pursue an MA in science, health and environmental reporting at New York University.)

August 28 was Orientation Day at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, New York University, where I’ve enrolled with the Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) for the 2014 fall term. It was an exciting day for many reasons. The first such moment was meeting the wonderful people who are to be my classmates for the next 16 months and, if things work out as promised, friends for life as well. We were introduced to each other – 13 in all – by Dan Fagin, the SHERP program coordinator and, incidentally, this year’s winner of a Pulitzer Prize (general non-fiction category).

Dan’s icebreaker for the class centered on what made a good science writer, at least as far as SHERP was concerned. He had brought with him a burnt pine cone from somewhere near the Hamptons. We knew its seeds had been released because its scales were open. What was particularly unique about the specimen at hand was that it was a pine cone that had adapted through evolution to release its seeds in a hostile environment. Dan explained that it had, over the centuries, acquired a resin coating that would pop only when burnt off by a forest fire. On one level, he said, it was a news story about burnt pine cones, but on a deeper level, it was a story about evolution.

Then came a more interesting perspective. Dan said it was possible the cone’s seeds were sterile. How? “It has to do with something that has changed since the last ice age, something that humans have done different for the last 150 years. What could it be?”

“The seeds could’ve been sterile because of humans putting out forest fires. These pine cones were evolutionarily adapted to releasing their seeds during naturally occurring forest fires, like when lightning strikes. But humans have learnt to put out forest fires,” and that means the resin wouldn’t have had the time to melt completely. “In the same way, the job of a science writer is to peel off the different layers of a story to reveal” deeper truths. “On one level, this is about a burnt pine cone. On a deeper level, it’s about evolution. On a still deeper level, it’s about how humans are influencing the natural world around them.”

For all my success, such as it is, in making it to one of the better science writing programs in the USA, Dan’s introduction was doubly empowering, and I now look forward to classes doubly eagerly!

(I’d promised my friends @AkshatRathi, @pradx and @vigsun that I’d let them know as much as possible about life studying science writing at NYU. Consider this blog post the first in the series.)