Technology Outside the Box

At a session filled with video clips, multimedia web surfing and, yes, someone muttering at the display computer "I am a Mac person. How do you ... ," panelists at the "21st Century Science Writing: New Tools for Thinking Outside the Box" session of this year's NASW meeting talked blogs, YouTube, Facebook and online gambling. Each panelist presented a case study or two of how they use new technologies to tell stories better and faster. Christine Russell, a freelance science writer and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, moderated the session and began by invoking the shrinking print news hole dedicated to science news. But she was not there to wail and gnash her teeth. "I am through the hand-wringing stage about the good old days," she said. "Science is in every part of the newspaper. All of the beats are having to deal with science in some way." Alan Boyle, science editor at MSNBC.com walked the audience through the mix of websites and old-fashioned telephone wielding he used to sew up an update on a peculiar story about a recent meteorite strike. Hopping from Google news to the NASA web directory to the website of the meteorite hunter accused of pilfering Peruvian patrimony by absconding from the country with chunks of valuable space rock, Boyle got his narrative and reassured himself that the story he was getting was legit. Then, once the story went live as a post on Boyle's Cosmic Log, commentators, including players in the story, added more information. "The community that you are writing for ads to the story," said Boyle. "And hopefully they do some of the work for you." Boyle also presented a list of useful websites, which he hopes to continue updating with suggestions from other science writers. Next up was Vikki Valentine, science and health web producer for National Public Radio. Valentine shared the good news that video clips supporting or telling stories don't have to look fabulous to get viewers. But they do have to tell a story. So a scientist's video of crow behavior — which looked inscrutable to the average viewer — was out, despite the possible advantage of opening with a shot of avian defecation. "There was a small part of me that wanted to be the one to post a video of a bird pooping on NPR's website," admitted Valentine. Some examples of videos that worked can be found here, here, and, in the so-bad-it's a media sensation category, here. The session closed with Jane Ellen Stevens, a multimedia journalist at the University of California Berkeley, who has been working with Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) to create an engaging and interactive website about the plight of threatened predator species at sea. In what turned out to me a smash success, she helped put together a website following the migration of leatherback turtles from Costa Rica to the Galapagos Islands. The Great Turtle Race attracted over 3 million hits in two weeks, thanks not only to science enthusiasts, but also to fans of faux news anchor Stephen Colbert, for whom one of the turtles was cannily named. And another contingent of viewers came from Partybets.com, which featured the race on their site during a slow week for sports. Stephens says her only regret is that she didn't arrange with the betting site to get "a little piece of the action" to spend on conservation. Stephens also discussed her success in telling conservation stories by setting up pages for individual animals on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. "Penelope seal," for example, has more than 300 friends on the latter site. As Stephens toured the audience through the widget and photo-laden site for TOPP, she paused briefly at a story she had written, and said, perhaps reassuringly to some of the audience, "I am not opposed to text." Emma Marris is a freelancer who writes for Nature, Nature Medicine, and Nature Reports Climate Change. She lives in Columbia, Missouri.

Oct. 23, 2007

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