Crossing over to non-science publications

By Alison Fromme

Science writing is everywhere — even in non-science publications. But how does a science writer cross over to those markets? A standing-room-only crowd gathered to hear the answer on Saturday morning at Science Writers 2011 in Flagstaff.

Burkhard Bilger, staff writer at the New Yorker, began by explaining that most science publications focus on news and explanation. In contrast, general interest publications like the New Yorker emphasize the story first. For a science story to fit into the New Yorker, the piece needs to have the components of great storytelling, including a strong character, solid reporting, and multiple threads and subthemes. For example, a New Yorker story Bilger wrote about shoes featured the economic decline of a shoe town, the history of footwear, the damage the industry has caused to our feet, and his own firsthand experiences trying different shoes.

Michael Mechanic, senior editor at Mother Jones, also noted the key components of a great story, especially conflict and tension. Mother Jones, founded in the 1970s as a non-profit alternative to corporate media, publishes stories about political or corporate meddling in science, scientists who buck conventional trends, and more. A story about a scientists counting Iraqi war dead exemplified those components. Mother Jones has also run articles about class action suits, health effects of technology, and medical controversies.

At Outside magazine, science stories work only if they include great tension and resolution, according to Abe Streep, senior editor at the magazine. For example, the magazine never would publish a straight article about community-based conservation. But a profile of the lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy championing that very idea worked essentially because he was a charismatic guy with a quest. The magazine also publishes shorter explanatory science stories, like their Natural Intelligence column.

From the writer’s perspective, freelance writer Elizabeth Svoboda explained how she frames stories differently for different publications. In one example, a story about self-assembling nanostructures reversing paralysis in mice could have fit easily into one of her regular markets, Popular Science. But she framed the story for Fast Company, a business magazine. To do so, she emphasized the main researcher’s ability to lead a huge interdisciplinary team of scientists, encouraging collaboration that resulted in tremendous innovation. Svoboda encourages science writers to avoid automatically dismissing unusual ideas and consider how to get readers fired up.

October 16, 2011

Biedler Prize for Cancer Journalism