New media technologies for science writers

Starting a science Web log probably won't finance your retirement, but it could boost your career in other ways, said Chris Mooney, Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and senior correspondent for The American Prospect. Mooney's comments were part of a panel at NASW's "Navigating the New Media" session.

At first a money sink, Mooney's blog, called "The Intersection" (http://www.scienceblogs.com/intersection/), now makes him enough money to cover overhead, but little else. However, Mooney told the audience that focusing ideas and getting feedback from blog readers helped him develop his best-selling book, The Republican War on Science. Testing subjects and refining ideas on a blog is "kind of like having a public first draft," Mooney said.

Carl Zimmer, a freelance science writer and author of the blog "The Loom" (http://www.scienceblogs.com/loom/), agreed that starting a blog will likely not make much money — and could actually lose money, if you find yourself spending more time blogging than working on paying jobs. But starting a science blog can help writers become known among potential editors or other employers, Zimmer said. The material that goes into a blog doesn't have to come from scratch, he added. Many journalists blog on the same topics that they cover for commissioned articles, which means that extra time devoted only to the blog may be minimal.

Using Goodgle AdSense (https://www.google.com/adsense/) — which places advertising links next to a blog that are related to its topics of discussion— can help make a small amount of money, Zimmer said. However, he added, it's important to consider the type of links that are likely to appear on your page. Zimmer rethought using AdSense when his discussions of evolutionary biology led to ads promoting creationism popping up on his page.

Alan Packet, senior editor at Nature Genetics, presented a different view on blogging, because his blog entries are associated with the journal and are not solely his own. The Nature Genetics blog, called "Free Association" (http://blogs.nature.com/ng/freeassociation/), was created to drive traffic to Nature Web sites, to reach a broader audience than the journals reach, and to offer unique perspectives from editors on topics such as editorial processes and peer review, Packet said.

It's sometimes difficult to walk the fine line between being impartial as an academic journal editor and being provocative and opinionated as a blogger, Packet said. The peer review process is confidential, and editors are reluctant to be critical of potential contributors, he said, which makes blogging openly difficult. Still, he added, the hardest part of keeping the blog going is finding the time to work on it.

For those who suffer from a chronic lack of time for blogging or for more traditional job tasks, Wired Magazine editor Nicholas Thompson pointed the way to technology tools that can save reporters time and effort. The most essential tool for Thompson is Google Alerts (http://www.google.com/alerts), which sends periodic e-mails alerting him to news stories that match certain keywords or phrases of interest.

RSS feeds also automatically deliver alerts to a computer desktop when a blog or other website publishes new material, Thompson said, which avoids the need to check favorite websites constantly for new entries.

Several of Thompson's favorite tools revolve around ensuring that he stays on task. Extensions to the web browser Firefox (https://addons.mozilla.org/firefox/plugins/) can block ads from popping up — and, importantly, they allow the user to define what constitutes an ad. For Thompson, any web page containing the words "Red Sox" is not allowed to appear on his computer during work time. He also has Windows freeware called Temptation Blocker, which prevents other software — say, FreeCell or Firefox — from opening on the user's computer for a set amount of time.

Thompson also mentioned a variety of other tools that help him work more efficiently or cheaply, including Skype (http://www.skype.com/), which allows him to make nearly free phone calls from his computer; Backpack (http://www.backpackit.com/), which creates online to-do lists, calendars, and notes; Google Docs & Spreadsheets (http://docs.google.com/), which allows online document creation and editing; and Meetup (http://www.meetup.com/), which introduces people to discussion groups in their neighborhoods.

Melissa Lee Phillips is a freelance science writer and correspondent for The Scientist. She is now based in New York after moving from Seattle several weeks ago.

Nov. 6, 2006

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