From ScienceWriters: Undark debuts

ScienceWriters Spring 2016 cover

Knight Science Journalism Program digital magazine

By Jane Roberts

If you were hanging around the Twittersphere in February, you may have caught glimpse of the excitement generated by the return of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker: the MIT-based blog for evaluating and critiquing science journalism, which went on hiatus in 2014. The Tracker has a new home as a monthly column in a much broader, more ambitious digital publication that KSJ’s new director, Deb Blum, and editor Tom Zeller Jr., have given the evocative title Undark.

The new magazine began quietly publishing late March as part of a so-called “soft-launch” and moved into a full launch schedule in April.

“We said when we first decided to put the Tracker on hold that we wanted to find ways to make it stronger, and to find ways to enhance the KSJ program’s impact on both the journalism profession and the wider world,” Blum said. “Undark is one result of that quest.”

The magazine draws its name from a glow-in-the-dark paint used to illuminate WWI-era watch faces and instrument panels. That paint, marketed under the brand name Undark, gained its luminous qualities from a dubious ingredient: radium. As a result, the mostly female factory workers who applied it — later dubbed the Radium Girls — became unwitting human test subjects on the dangers of radiation exposure. Dozens grew ill and many died from radium exposure.

Blum and Zeller decided to appropriate the name as homage to the Radium Girls, and as a signal to readers that they intend, as Blum puts it, “to explore science in all of its manifestations, both good and ill, in both light and shadow.”

“Science has delivered plenty of benefits to humanity,” Zeller added. “We want to cover those advances and innovations, but we also want to shine a light where science falls short, and where it collides with public policy and economics, or the wider culture.”

With newsrooms shrinking and local journalism taking a hit, the shift to an online publishing model has created room for science coverage to thrive. As the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out last October, Aeon and Nautilus came to life in 2012 and 2013, respectively. This past November, Boston Globe owner John Henry launched STAT, an ambitious, standalone digital publication dedicated to the coverage of the life sciences and biotech.

Blum, a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and the author of numerous books, left her post as a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to take over the helm at KSJ@MIT last summer. Her first order of business, she said, was revisiting the Tracker and the program’s publishing mission.

“It was a great idea that needed some updating,” she said.

Her first move was hiring Zeller, a former KSJ fellow and longtime reporter and editor for the New York Times who was working as a freelancer in western Massachusetts.

“We had one long, spirited conversation over the phone,” Zeller recalled. “When I hung up, I told my wife that I was pretty sure I was about to help launch an online magazine. It was really that fruitful a conversation.”

“Both of us have a similar journalism ethic,” Blum added. “We both believe in journalism as a watchdog in democracy. We believe in the integrity of the story. We are both very serious about why journalism matters, and we started talking about the kind of publication we wanted to create and the way that it could live at the intersection of science and society. We saw a real need for that; an open space.”

From there, things ramped up quickly. The duo exploited their journalism networks to empanel a who’s who of advisory board members that today includes not only prominent science writers and journalists, but highly-regarded scientists and filmmakers as well. And in addition to Paul Raeburn, they’ve already lured a variety of heavy-hitter contributors, from the New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova to former Boing-Boing science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker.

Also on board: former New York Times Science Times editor David Corcoran, who is now anchoring Undark’s monthly podcast.

“As a recent editor of Science Times, I can testify that the demand for science journalism has never been greater. Nor has the supply of eager science journalists — even as most mainstream news outlets shut down their science coverage to save money,” said Corcoran. “Undark comes along at just the right moment to take advantage of both demand and supply. That’s good luck for its readers and, I hope, its listeners.”

With funding from the Knight Foundation, Undark is able to avoid many of the pitfalls of a new media startup, allowing it to take the time to contemplate and develop its coverage without the pressure of obtaining advertisers or answering to shareholders.

The structure of the magazine is straightforward: Deeply reported, long-form investigative or narrative-driven pieces, will serve as showcases, published roughly every month — although the team is allowing itself the flexibility to push such projects only when they’re ready, Zeller said. Those will be surrounded by a mix of shorter articles, op-eds, essays and reviews; allowing the magazine to respond quickly to current events as well.

One feature Blum is particularly excited about is the “What I Left Out” series, in which science book authors share something they had to cut from their books. “As a book author myself, I know how often this can happen,” she said, “and I really like seeing this material given a second life.”

Undark also includes a daily news blog called Cross Sections, which is anchored by freelance journalists Aleszu Bajak and Alexis Sobel Fitts. The magazine also works with interns from the MIT graduate program in science writing and will sponsor a summer intern this year from the Boston University science writing program.

“Our hope with Cross Sections is to make Undark not only a destination for long-form journalism but also a place to find punchy, nourishing stories drawn from larger themes we’re investigating,” said Bajak. The blog will offer insights into stories that might be otherwise passed over, he noted, “kind of like blog posts drawn from science journalism’s cutting room floor.”

While the magazine will live solely online for now, Blum said there is talk of a print version coming out in the future.

“We’re still working out what that would look like, but we’ve been in informal conversations with MIT Press about a print version of Undark that could range from an annual “best of” anthology collection to a book that curates some of the more interesting features in a way that’s insightful about both science and science writing.”

“We want it to be a magazine that makes a difference, so there’s something of a crusading spirit,” she added. “We describe Undark as focusing on the intersection of science and society, and that also means that we care about social justice issues. I think science can make a lot more of a difference there than people tend to appreciate.”

While Undark’s initial audience will likely be other science journalists, Blum expects it to have a wide appeal.

“I’ve been getting emails and personal notes and constant congratulations on social media,” Blum said. “It’s amazing to me that this magazine that we just launched in a beta kind of way already has such good writers queued up, and that we’ve assigned pieces all the way into the late fall.”

The magazine’s home page is undark.org Its podcast can be heard at the magazine or by subscribing on iTunes

UNDARK

Editorial content

A mix of long-form, narrative-driven journalism, shorter features, profiles, essays, op-eds, book excerpts, Q&A’s, reviews, blog posts, photography, digital video, information graphics, and data visualizations.

STAFF

  • Deborah Blum, Publisher
  • Tom Zeller Jr., Editor
  • Jane Roberts, Associate Editor

ADVISORY BOARD

  • Charles M. Blow
  • Shannon Brownlee
  • Raychelle Burks
  • David Corcoran
  • Dan Fagin
  • Felice Frankel
  • David Kaiser
  • Tom Levenson
  • Alan Lightman
  • David Quammen
  • Mary Roach
  • Phillip Sharp
  • Rebecca Skloot
  • George Whitesides
  • Carl Zimmer

(NASW members can read the rest of the Spring 2015-16 ScienceWriters by logging into the members area.) Free sample issue. How to join NASW.