From ScienceWriters: Budget cuts claim The Why Files

By David J. Tenenbaum

The Why Files: The Science Behind the News, one of the oldest popular science websites, ceased publication on Jan. 21, roughly the 20th anniversary of its birth as an experiment in the nascent technology once called the World Wide Web.

The cause of death was a university-wide belt tightening at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Born as part of a National Science Foundation grant, the site’s funding transitioned to UW-Madison around 1999, and became part of the “Wisconsin Idea,” the notion that the university must serve all Wisconsin citizens. Of course, once on the web, borders are meaningless — reach is global.

Site co-founder and editor Terry Devitt, director of research communications at UW-Madison, has long held that broadly sharing accurate science is a duty, not a luxury, for large scientific enterprises, especially those supported in good measure by the public.

“We live in a society dependent on science and technology and people deserve access to good information,” observed Devitt. “I’d like to think we helped illustrate many of the pressing issues of our day and, at the same time, provided a rich, factual resource to inform critical thinking on some important topics.”

ScienceWriters cover winter 2015-16

Despite being housed in a university press office, The Why Files was not parochial. Heeding its “Science Behind the News” slogan, we combed the headlines for news with a scientific background. When Princess Diana died, we discussed the science of grief. After 9/11, we covered the psychology of terrorism and then PTSD caused by the attack. After Hurricane Katrina, we covered the wisdom of building in flood plains, and the impact of climate change on hurricanes.

The Why Files solicited sources from around the world. Charged with creating a website from whole cloth at a time when many people didn’t even know what a website was, we chose a highly illustrated style light on jargon but heavy, when possible, on humor. In our on-scene, moment-by-moment coverage of a heart transplant, we linked to our “Home Heart Transplant Kit” page pimping an imaginary 45-minute explanatory video.

We covered research on Mt. Kilimanjaro’s declining glacier in a “No Snows on Kilimanjaro” mock Hemingway:

You could look or you could not look. But if you looked, you could not mistake it. Kilimanjaro’s frozen crown was melting fast.

When Dolly the sheep was cloned, we ran the “Scottish Sheep Shocker,” aping a National Enquirer front page, studded with lurid teasers: “The truth behind DNA,” and “REVEALED: Dolly not a perfect replica.” Each teaser led to our best effort at accurate analysis of the ramifications of this reproductive revolution.

We parodied Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and even the crown jewel of parodies, Mad magazine.

The Why Files logo

Liberated from the linear path entailed by print, our first stories were tangled in internal hot-links, producing a labyrinth that not even a web-surfing Theseus could escape. Those within-story links declined, then disappeared, but not our practice of connecting to background material.

Early on, before traditional media figured out that the web would put many of them up against the wall, print publications were liberal in their praise. Favorable reviews appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, and U.S. News & World Report, among others. Twice, Popular Science listed The Why Files among the best of the web.

In 1997, PC WORLD wrote that the Why Files was “dedicated to explaining the science behind the news, usually with tongue firmly planted in cheek,” while ranking us among 100 best websites. That same year, Yahoo Internet Life described us “bright and — dare we say it — funny.”

In 2001, NASW awarded The Why Files the first Science in Society Award for online journalism. The same year, AAAS conferred on us its Science Journalism Award, also a first-time recognition of online science writing.

The Why Files was produced by three part-time staffers: gifted illustrator-designer S.V. Medaris, Steady-Eddy webmaster Darrell Schulte, and yours truly as the writing department, with editorial guidance and troubleshooting from Devitt. Our half-time graduate students came from such fields as journalism, history, library science, and botany.

Over time, we settled into a routine: A short, research-oriented story, generally about breaking research news, alternated with a “science-behind-the-news” feature, usually in the 3,000-to-4,000-word range. An uncountable number of times, we covered global warming, evolution, and natural disasters.

We branched out. For a good dozen years, our pages have been the “textbook” for a UW-Madison geoscience course. We posted book reviews and classroom activity pages for the benefit of the many teachers among our readership. Our longstanding Cool Science Image series, which extracted fascinating, well-captioned pictures from around the world, has spawned a UW-Madison Cool Science Image Contest, now approaching its fifth edition.

The web has changed. In my early days online, I remember a shocking realization that I’d visited more than 200 pages in a day. (Today, that would mark a day of goofing off!) I remember the delight of using a link to support facts, saving space while allowing readers the choice to read background or skip it. I recall the transition from the print media’s obsession with the cost of color photos, to the liberation of only worrying about bandwidth and space on the page. I’m not young enough to take amazing resources like Flickr and Google for granted, but we sure did burn up the Ethernet taking advantage of them!

Bandwidth soared, computers accelerated and proliferated, audio and especially video entered the picture, plugins came and went, and the competition exploded, from every quarter, with every point of view, level of expertise, and regard for information or disinformation.

As the web transitioned from novelty into utility, interviews became harder to land, and even stressing our home at the University of Wisconsin-Madison cut both ways. Scientists sometimes mistook us for a student publication, further harming the prospect of an interview.

In the early years, as a pioneering website for science storytelling, we routinely garnered more than 300,000 unique visitors per month. The majority of visitors came from search engines, and we benefited from the feedback inherent in Google rankings: Top-listed sites get more visitors, and hence tend to stay on top. But our skeleton staff and bare-bones budget never supported fervent marketing, and our numbers dwindled as the web landscape expanded and fractured into a thicket of potential destinations.

Now, faced with extreme budget cutbacks at our host institution, it is time to pull the plug. We are posting our “greatest hits,” and whyfiles.org will remain active for several years, but we won’t be producing anything new.

Although we were born in a communication revolution, it’s hard not to wonder about the next revolutions. Social media’s endless circle of quotation comes perilously close to the old game of Telephone, the need for speed that is steamrolling quaint notions like research, accuracy, and graceful prose, let alone spelling, usage, and expounding thoughts that can’t be squeezed into 300 words let alone 146 characters.

It’s been a great run. We’ve been surrounded by talent, given enough rope to hang ourselves, and set free on the best beat in the news business. Like the song said: Who could ask for anything more?

The Why Files is survived by a number of great publications, most of which are facing financial hardship, readership difficulties, or both. In lieu of flowers, please subscribe to your favorite periodical.

David J. Tenenbaum has been the feature writer at The Why Files since its inception. He continues to work in research communications at UW-Madison.

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