UPDATED: RIP: The Knight Science Journalism Tracker & Robin Williams


RIP Knight Science Journalism Tracker, sort of

UPDATE: The comments are piling up on the post announcing the Tracker’s end, 42 as I write, and they are 100% horrified.  I have asked Deb Blum and Wade Roush for comment, and whether there’s any chance they will rethink the decision. Stay tuned.

UPDATE 2: Deb Blum has just emailed me that “we are continuing with the decision to put the Tracker on hold while we figure out the ways we want to improve it.”  They are not surprised at the negative response: “There are so very loyal Tracker followers and we didn’t expect them to embrace this.” She has written a new Tracker post explaining why they made the decision. Here’s the meat:

I’ve thought since that we could have done a better job of providing a sense of the complicated set of circumstances that went into the decision. My colleague, Wade Roush and I wanted to focus on all the positive reasons behind the move. But in the interests of accuracy – a Tracker standard – I’ll tell you also that there were other issues at play: some budget related (especially in the short term) and some personality related, and some purely logistical. Combined with our strong belief that we needed to move quickly on some of our plans to expand on the existing program, that led us to make the announcement now.

And the one thing I regret about the timing is that we ended up pausing the Tracker before we had the new version fully developed. It leaves us in the position of asking you to accept, on faith, that the new version will also be smart, challenging, useful, important.  And I know accepting things on faith is something that journalists don’t do easily.

 Original Post

The big news in science writing this week is that the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, the MIT-based blog that has evaluated science journalism (and not infrequently found it wanting) for >10,000 posts, is winding down.

Most of the current bloggers–Charlie Petit, Faye Flam, Pere Estupinyà–will be gone by the end of August. The Tracker will continue until the end of the year with posts by the current head tracker, Paul Raeburn. But they won’t really be blog posts any more. They’ll be journalism, because they’ll be assigned and edited.

Doing the assigning and editing will be the new regime at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, home of the notable science journalism fellowship program. Director Phil Hilts retired earlier this year, and the new director is quite a catch for MIT and Knight: Pulitzer-prizewinner Deborah Blum, author of (among other books) The Poisoner’s Handbook, who also writes Poison Pen, part of the Well aggregation of columns at the New York Times. She wrote the Elements blog at Wired, too, until taking a book leave in May.

Deb Blum is also, I am delighted to point out, the first woman to head the Knight program. Hurray! About time, and her accomplishments make her a very smart choice indeed.

deborah blum

“What we’re hoping for is more depth analysis, some deeper tracking of trends,” she told me in an email describing plans for the last quarter of the year at the Tracker. There are “a lot of important issues in science journalism that we’d like to see explored here, for instance, the use of crowdsource funding at places like Beacon. Does it work and what does it portend. That’s just an example off the top of my head but I think there are some very interesting stories to be told.”

She will not be formally leaving her teaching job as the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication until mid-2015. So Wade Roush is Acting Director of the Knight program in the interim. Roush spent 7 years as an editor at Xconomy, which specializes in news about high-tech entrepreneurship and innovation, and before that was an editor at Technology Review, also based at MIT.

We are told that the Tracker might be resurrected in some form once plans for new ventures at the Knight program get invented. The Fellowship program will continue, but augmented by planning for “a new MIT initiative designed to boost public engagement in technology and science through new forms of storytelling,” according to the Tracker post announcing the changes. Details TBA.

Farewells from Trackers

Current Trackers wrote valedictory posts and received commiserative comments. Charlie Petit, in a post that is also a candid window into the uneasy life of a freelance writer, described how Boyce Rensberger, then directing the Knight program, came up with the idea of the Tracker blog about science journalism and invited Charlie to write it. That’s what he’s been doing since April 2006; 7815 of those 10,000 posts are his, and he promises more before month’s end.

Faye Flam’s farewell was about how being a Tracker gave her a direct connection with readers. I’ve admired Flam’s writing for number of years, particularly impressed with her blog Planet of the Apes for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she was a reporter for several years. Planet of the Apes was about evolution, and I can’t even imagine her mail and phone calls. Brave, very brave.

Flam spoke “of writing directly for readers rather than writing to please an editor.” For me, that’s the very definition of blogging. It illustrates the difference between the Tracker today and plans for the Tracker in the last three months of this year (and possibly its future revival?)

What is blogging?

I haven’t thought much about the difference between blogging and journalism since I began this blog in 2009. And for my purposes here at On Science Blogs, I’m not rigorous about about the definition. Thomas Insel’s blog, for instance, which I discuss below re: Robin Williams, is almost certainly written by someone else and vetted before posting. That would make it not truly a blog.

I have done journalism and I have done blogging, both for many years, and the differences between them are huge. With blogging, there’s nobody backstopping you, nobody catching your errors, nobody urging caution and double-checking–but also nobody wrecking your carefully wrought structure and POV and beautifully honed phraseology. It can be a form of high-wire work without a net. Exhilarating but also risky.

That is not to say that very fine science writing can’t be done on blogs; it is, every day. But the absence of infrastructure and oversight makes blogging very different from journalism. Here at On Science Blogs I write about what I feel like writing about. It’s the complete freedom that’s different (and delightful) about blogging–even though it means that sometimes I fall off a cliff.

Wade Roush told me in an email he thinks the difference between blogging and journalism is a semantic one. I strongly disagree.  Deb Blum emailed me: “I think part of the issue is the evolving nature of blogs. The NYT calls my Poison Pen a blog and it’s both assigned and edited. [The situation was d]ifferent at Wired but I don’t think it’s one size fits all.”

Nope. Blogs aren’t evolving. Marketing departments have seized on the term, I guess because they believe the label can make a piece seem fresh and plugged in. A publication can call its content anything it wants, of course. But Poison Pen is what we formerly called a column. Calling it a blog doesn’t make it so. If it’s edited by somebody else, it’s not a blog. If the writer has to confer with an editor on the subject of a piece, it’s not a blog.

Paul Raeburn is a talented journalist, and his editors will be pros. I’m looking forward to his posts post-August and expect to learn from them. I may even quote the pieces, as I have in the past. But come September, what we will be seeing at the Tracker will no longer be blogging. It will be journalism.

This is not a complaint, by the way. Editors have saved my bacon more than once. But journalism is a collaborative product. A blog is naked writer, going it alone, gulp. That’s the whole point.

RIP Robin Williams: Depression, bipolar disorder, and creativity

Nassir Ghaemi, a doc and blogger at Mood Swings, one of the many Psychology Today blogs, complains that much of the writing about Robin Williams’s suicide attributed it to depression. Williams, he says, actually suffered from bipolar disorder, a different disease.

To say “suffered from,” is true enough, but bipolar disorder was also at the heart of–was perhaps even responsible for?–Williams’s  comic genius. Depression is hideous, soul-wrecking, nothing remotely redeeming about it. But bipolar disorder, formerly called manic-depression, is uniquely fascinating because it seems to have an upside–an upside that can be very up indeed. Ghaemi says “‘Depression’” is somewhat acceptable; manic-depression is still mostly taboo. Even mental health clinicians, including many on the PT [Psychology Today] site, downplay or denigrate it. But it exists; it provides great gifts; and it kills.”


At Beautiful Minds, Scott Barry Kaufman denies that Williams’s mental affliction had anything to do with his unique talents, although it was responsible for his suicide. “This romanticism of mental illness needs to stop,” he says, denying that there’s any support in the medical literature for “cutesy connections to genius.”

About that, it appears he’s wrong, or at least wrong about no connection between bipolar disorder and creativity. The most recent review, an open-access paper from 2012, concludes that research “provides strong support for links of bipolar disorder of varying levels of expression with lifetime creative accomplishments and creative pursuits.” Needless to say, this being human biology, it’s not a simple one-to-one relationship. The review suggests a number of avenues for clarifying research.

See also reviews by two major figures in the field, Nancy Andreasen from 2008 (open-access), and a 1995 SciAm review by Kay Redfield Jamison, who practically invented the contemporary study of bipolar disorder and creativity. Not open-access, alas.

Naysayer Kaufman wants more funding for mental health, and no wonder. The bioblurb says he is “Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he investigates the measurement and development of imagination.” This is a SciAm blog.

Vaughn Bell, at Mind Hacks, is dismayed by press treatment of Williams’s suicide because it is now an established fact that well-publicized suicides drive up the suicide rate among the vulnerable. Bell says, “sensationalist and simplistic coverage of suicides, particularly celebrity suicides, regularly leads to more deaths.” At The Conversation, Mike Jempson is upset about the reporting too, and so is suicide researcher Sharon Mallon.

Thomas Insel, who directs the National Institute of Mental Health, doesn’t mention bipolar disorder in his blog post about Williams. Insel’s is one of the better blogs from public officials, which I always assume are written by minions. But this post was limp, simply using Williams’s suicide as an opportunity to urge greater attention to mental health issues.

That’s Insel’s job, so I suppose I should cut him some slack. But the post could have said something illuminating about the relationship, or not, of mental afflictions to addiction and creativity. A missed opportunity.

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