#sci4hels - What makes one a "killer" (science) journalist of the future?

Scientific American
Quick programming note - #SciFoo and #WCSJ2013/#sci4hels
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Quick programming note - #SciFoo and #WCSJ2013/#sci4hels
It is only four weeks till the World Conference of Science Journalists commences in Helsinki, and our #sci4hels panel has been hard at work, for months now, at preparing for the event. We had discussions on Twitter (account, list, hashtag), set up the Google + and Facebook pages, and put together a website/blog.

Over the past few months, we also engaged the community with our questions. The first question was about the need for specialization (also see), which also feeds into the question of a need for specialized skills, like coding (see this and this).

The second question was "What does a new science journalist do to get noticed? How do you get people to read your work, give you assignments, follow you on Twitter, and generally just know who you are?" This provoked a lively discussion on Twitter.

The third question, upon noticing that all the panelists are female (and many of the upcoming science writers are, too), was a discussion about breaking the glass ceiling in the media organizations.

We all pitched in together for the Question #4: How Should Science Journalists Deal with Breaking News?.

The final, fifth question was: "What is the obligation of a science journalist when it comes to education?"

Obviously, we covered a very broad range of topics. But now we need to focus. We'll only have 90 minutes in Helsinki, and the attendees will come to hear and learn from "killer" science journalists of the future, hoping to get some advice on how to join their ranks and become one of those "killers", successful in the fast-shifting world of modern media.

On Thursday we will publish our final post and open it up for discussion. Here, I want to make some quick, broad, Big Picture thoughts of my own.

What are the characteristics of a "killer science journalist of the future"?

Understanding that being in print, on radio, or on TV is sweet, still pays better, and still carries a cache with some audiences, but that this picture is changing fast. These 20th century types of one-way broadcast media are rapidly losing audiences, while new generations are essentially using only the Web for information, education and entertainment. Thus, it is smart to focus primarily on the online world, while still occasionally getting some money from the old media when possible.

Understanding that the currency of reputation in the new ecosystem is trust. As the readers rely less and less on the banners on top of the page and more and more on the names in the bylines, it is essential to build one's own personal reputation and not to rely entirely on the institutional reputation of the media outlet for which one writes.

Understanding that, for one to gain the currency of trust in an online world, one has to constantly use the currency of trust - the hyperlink. A killer science journalist of the future profusely peppers one's articles with links. Every place in the article that makes a statement should contain a link. Every such spot that does not have a link automatically is a red flag for the modern reader. What is the author trying to hide? Is the originator of information not credited properly?

If information is gained from a document, the document should be linked. If it comes from an article or a blog post, it should be linked. If it comes from a scientific paper, that paper should be linked. If there is a two-sentence quote, presumably taken out of an hour-long interview, it is important to link to the complete interview - transcript or audio or video recording. Every link is a gain of trust. Every lacking link is a loss of trust. Digital natives understand this almost instinctively. Modern online journalism is in many way just like science, including the importance of proper citation and credit for the past ideas on top of which one builds one's new edifice.

There is no expectation that most readers will actually click on the links. The links are there as a proxy, a sign to the readers that the author has done the due diligence of actually doing the necessary research and finding the relevant sources (what quotes used to do in the old media, but now have the opposite effect online), and generally understands the way the Web requires proper credit of all sources of information. In cases of controversial statements, a small proportion of readers may click on links (even if they are behind paywalls - some readers will have access) and tell the other readers in the comments if the links actually support the statements in the text.

Understanding that the new media ecosystem is an open system. An open system is much stricter and faster in enforcing both the traditional journalistic ethics and the additional online ethics, and much harsher and faster at meting punishment on transgressors of such ethics than the old-style, closed ecosystem. Feedback is instantaneous, and often devastating. The best way to deal with criticism is complete transparency, humble admission of errors, and civil countering of incorrect information if such is presented in the feedback.

A digital native does not take harsh feedback personally, is used to harshness of online comments, shrugs it off but does not ignore the feedback - understanding that it is always a learning experience that helps one get better at the job. It is also understood that responding to feedback and involving the readers in the learning process is one way of getting better, earning trust, and gaining good reputation.

Understanding that self-promotion is not a dirty word the way it was in the 20th century. With a glut of information, and glut of overall online communication, it is necessary for the author to be seen and heard above the din. The only way to do this is to have the link circulate widely online, especially on social media. For the link to appear on social media in the first place, the author has to place it there first. If the piece is accurate, well documented, and well written, it will be spread around. For the link posted by the author to be seen, the author has to have sufficient number of people to send it to, particularly people who already trust and respect the author. Thus, building and nurturing one's own community of friends, colleagues and readers, and being a part of other people's similar circles, reciprocating the goodwill, is essential. This is the essence of the principle of horizontal loyalty (or "Friends In Low Places").

Understanding that all of the above is still not enough. Doing it all correctly, diligently discovering information, linking to all the sources, not stealing ideas from bloggers and then linking only to traditional sources, being humble, respectful and transparent, and generally making a coherent article day after day, week after week, is still not enough. One day soon, everyone will be doing it technically correctly. How does one get noticed in such an environment then?

Yes, sometimes you'll have to write a dull article for money. Perhaps too often. But the pieces that will really take off - and the pieces that will bring the reputation and trust, not just traffic - are pieces that are written with passion. So, follow your own curiosity and find your passion. Find your own obsession and turn it into your beat. Become a Go-To expert on the topic of your obsession. Ditch the boring old inverted pyramid (it was invented due to space limits of paper, something that vanished online) and start writing in an exciting way.

Or, if your passion is not any narrow topic, then your expertise - or your signature stuff, something for which people will keep coming back over and over again to check your work - may be something else: absolutely beautiful writing, or amazing visuals, or stunning art or photography, or video, or animation, or hand-coded interactive infographics, or whatever makes you excited. If you are excited, your readers will be excited, too. They will support you, tell their friends about you, and make you successful in the process. As long as the basic journalistic ethics and the additional online ethics are met, it is this added passion that will make the difference between successful writers and those who are...not so much...

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