Tools and skills for the digital science writer

Science writers who wish to adapt to the digital age have two fundamental questions to answer: What new skills do I need? And what equipment do I need to buy? Panelists at this session of ScienceWriters 2008 in October in Palo Alto — organized by Tabitha Powledge — discussed how multimedia can enhance stories, how to get started with going digital and how to choose the right laptop computer.

 

Science writers who wish to adapt to the digital age have two fundamental questions to answer: What new skills do I need? And what equipment do I need to buy? Panelists at this session of ScienceWriters 2008 in October in Palo Alto — organized by Tabitha Powledge — discussed how multimedia can enhance stories, how to get started with going digital and how to choose the right laptop computer.

Peggy Peck, executive editor of MedPage Today, demonstrated how her outlet has integrated multimedia — particularly video reports — into its medical coverage. Of the 12 to 15 stories published daily on the website, MedPage Today strives to add audio or video elements to half of those stories, Peck says. MedPage Today has expensive video cameras and editing equipment. However, Peck points out that with an initial investment of $500, individuals or outlets can begin to produce multimedia content. For example, most digital cameras can take video, but require a large memory card and a tripod. To get good quality audio, use a unidirectional microphone and use headphones to listen as you record sound. To record phone interviews, MedPage Today reporters use Skype, the VoIP calling service, with a recording program called WireTap.

But do people really listen to podcasts? Yes, says, Jerry Monti, a technology trainer at the the Knight Digital Media Center at the University of California, Berkeley School of Journalism, who helps print journalists learn how to tell stories in multimedia. Recent Pew research showed that about a quarter of Internet users under age 50 had downloaded a podcast in the last year, and 4 percent had downloaded one in the last 24 hours. In a simple demo, Monty demonstrated how to record audio from microphone to Mac using GarageBand. He quickly cut and pasted the audio bits he wanted, and published the demo podcast to iWeb.

Whether science writers are creating stories with text, audio or video, laptops remain that essential tool that they depend on. With a particular eye to portability, CNET laptop editor Michelle Thatcher gave the lowdown on two options: netbooks and ultraportable laptops.

Larger than a Blackberry but smaller than a traditional laptop, netbooks weigh in at under 3 pounds and cost less than $500. But they also have some drawbacks: small 7- to 10-inch screens; small, often non-standard keyboards; and, less processing power than a standard laptop or computer, which makes them underpowered for multitasking. A netbook can be a great tool for checking email, web surfing and doing light office work — particularly on the go — but can't replace a more full-featured computer.

Ultraportable laptops, which start at roughly $1,800, combine light weight with most of the full features of larger laptops. However, some don't have an optical drive, and the screen may be small for all-day work. So, when choosing to use an ultraportable as a primary computer, Thatcher said, think about investing in an external monitor or docking station as well.

Of course, laptops come in a range of sizes and specs. Thatcher offered some general guidelines to get the best machine for your money:

  • If your laptop has a 2.0 GHz processor, you're probably better off spending money on more RAM to get better performance from your laptop, rather than on a better processor.
  • Unless you work with video, the integrated Intel graphics in most machines will probably suffice.
  • Be sure to get your hands on the laptop and try it out before you buy.

For more details about models and prices, check out Thatcher's blog on CNET.com.

Sarah Webb is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She writes for Discover, Science Careers, Science News, and a variety of kids' publications.

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