Why Ed Yong is the Future of Science News (and You Could Be, Too)

(Update added at end.)

Last week in my “Improving Science Journalism” post, I recapped an argument that I had previously made in an opinion column for the Guardian newspaper and in a speech at ScienceOnline2011: namely, that editors and writers could vastly better their coverage of science—and promote more public understanding of it, and maybe stave off the competitive threat from online public relations voices—by broadening their approach and rethinking what constitutes science news. Blah, blah, lots of talk, so what? Even if we all agree that the press release-driven pack journalism that now passes for science news is unfortunate, who is really doing anything about it?

Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science (Credit: Discover)

Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science, that’s who. Rather than nod and dismiss my screeds as undoubtedly drunken ravings, he took my criticisms to heart and started thinking about how he might approach science news differently. The irony is that Ed already routinely brings not just exquisite quality to his writing of science news but also abundant background information and a penchant for drawing the appropriate connections to familiar things and phenomena in readers’ lives. He might be one of the writers who least needs to change.

Nevertheless, the first product of Ed’s creativity is now on display. He keyed off of a new paper on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which have widely been seen as a more practical, less controversial alternative to embryonic stem cells for future research and therapeutic uses: researchers Ryan Lister and Mattia Pelizzola and their colleagues have now shown, however, that human iPSCs are prone to many more functional mistakes and abnormalities than embryonic stem cells are (Nature: dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature09798). For the sake of comparison, here is the press release issued by the Salk Institute about Lister and Pelizzola’s work (“Cell programming leaves a ‘footprint’ behind“) and here is L.A. Times coverage of the same story (“Some cells hold onto their past, researchers say“).

Departing from the usual mold, Ed did two things. First, he updated and reissued an older story about earlier evidence that had suggested this problem might exist with iPSCs (“Reprogrammed stem cells are loaded with errors“), blending the news about Lister and Pelizzola’s with that background. Then, even more creatively, he used the online tools at Dipity.com to create an interactive timeline recapping the history of reprogrammed stem cell research. In fact, the timeline was noteworthy enough that Ed was instantly able to syndicate it to the Guardian.

So, what do you think of the result? I’d be curious to hear your impressions in comments, as would Ed (so please consider adding your thoughts there at Not Exactly Rocket Science, too.)

Personally, I love that Ed created such a rich journalistic package for this story; readers who want a deep understanding of the science here will get it. On the other hand, as Ed acknowledges, it took him a long time (about seven hours) to do all the research involved in making the timeline. It’s also in the nature of timelines on fast-moving fields that they can become obsolete fast (Ed has already updated the timeline at least once). Those two considerations might make it difficult for most journalists to consider doing something precisely like this very often and for lots of stories. It’s also true, though, that as journalists accumulate more of a backlog of material on which to draw, the easier it may be for them to pull together something new on demand.

The point, however, is not to say that what Ed did here is exactly what all science journalists should be doing hereafter. Far from it. The world still needs simple science news, too. Yet the universe of journalistic options beyond simple news, timelines and so on can be extremely large, if more of us start experimenting and finding new ways to bring all our intelligence to the job of telling compelling stories about science.

All of the foregoing is one reason why Ed represents the future of science news. But in light of this tweet from Ed

Hmm. Apparently, I wrote a post tonight at the pace of 1 word per 3 seconds. I wonder what the average is? #geek #ohjustgotosleep

—I’m also inclined to think Ed deserves the same compliment that my idol, Perry White of The Daily Planet, paid to Clark Kent in the 1978 Superman movie:

Perry White: Lois, Clark Kent may seem like just a mild-mannered reporter, but listen, not only does he know how to treat his editor-in-chief with the proper respect, not only does he have a snappy, punchy prose style, but he is, in my forty years in this business, the fastest typist I’ve ever seen.

Update (added at midnight): Over at Not Exactly Rocket Science, I’ve left this comment, which I hope doesn’t come across as too lukewarm or critical:
I’m awed to think that my remarks did anything to inspire you along these lines, Ed. Thanks for daring to experiment.
Beyond complimenting you on doing this timeline, though, I think all of us with markers in this game need to mull over what we can learn from your experience with doing it. Yes, it’s a first-rate piece of science journalism and a treat for readers. But as you’ve noted, it took a lot of time to research and produce, and it keeps screaming out to be updated. So maybe—maybe—we should conclude that a timeline like this is not something we should routinely try to emulate, at least for research topics that are “live” enough to demand ongoing, timely attention. Maybe those are better handled by some kind of wiki or, as you’ve suggested elsewhere, I think, by freelancers who aren’t chasing any one particular news peg or deadline.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to discourage people from doing what Ed has done here, or to imply in any way that Ed’s timeline is a failure. (If it were, I only wish my failures were this brilliant!) Rather, this was an experiment, and we should try to draw real lessons from it.
Thanks again, Ed.
Lister, Pelizzola, Kida, Hawkins, Nery, Hon, Antosiewicz-Bourget, O’Malley, Castanon, Klugman, Downes, Yu, Stewart, Ren, Thomson, Evans & Ecker. 2011. Hotspots of aberrant epigenomic reprogramming in human induced pluripotent stem cells. Nature: dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature09798.
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21 Responses to Why Ed Yong is the Future of Science News (and You Could Be, Too)

  1. Also a huge fan of Ed Yong, and his timeline was most impressive. The fact that he manages to do this while also having a fulltime job (at least it’s in science communication) makes his output doubly impressive.

    I’ll tell you what concerns me: that one day soon Ed will keel over and die of exhaustion from years of juggling his day job with saving science writing from the general turmoil of the publishing industry at large. :) And that’s always the sticking point, isn’t it, in conversations about the future of science writing? Who is going to pay a living wage to folks like Ed (and you, and Carl Z, and the hundreds of other supremely gifted science writers out there) to continue producing quality stories, and also reinvent the medium?

    BTW, loved your post on moving away from pack journalism. The stories I find most interesting to both read and write is not the straight “news” formats, but the byways, historical (and human!) contexts, and broader frameworks in which that research takes place. May this, indeed, be the future of science writing.

  2. Ed Yong says:

    Thanks John. I’m flattered and humbled (isn’t it odd how some things do both?). Your talk was inspiring and thought-provoking and while have yet to balance out the time, effort and financial viability of this approach, I look forward to giving it a go. FWIW, the timeline has since been picked up by Boing Boing and Science News too.

    What I’m interested in is whether editors at mainstream places would accept pitches from freelancers for this sort of extra-value stuff to complement existing stories, rather than the story itself. And I suspect that the rate-limiting step there would be people’s acceptance of a different class of product, rather than my willingness to supply it.

  3. Dave Mosher says:

    I was thinking the title of this post years ago, John, but I never wrote it down in the interwebs. Thus, it is hearsay :)

    Anyway, I often find myself both envious and admiring of Ed’s able efficiency, flexibility and humor in delivering great content about science. A serious role model, for sure. To echo Jennifer Ouellette a little bit: To this day, even after questioning his wife over dinner, I still haven’t figured out how Ed juggles a demanding full-time job AND a blogging gig AND freelance writing gigs. Ed: Please start a 24-hour live video feed so I can spy on you and absorb your Superman-like powers.

    Jokes aside, I am wholehertedly for experimentation to tell compelling stories. But that doesn’t magically happen. It requires time. Often that presents a seemingly impossible sacrifice, since we can’t magically expand the duration of a day. Do we lose sleep? Ignore our significant others? Go freelance? Live on less money?

    Perhaps the sacrifice shouldn’t come from writers. Maybe employers should plan for Google-like play days to find new tools and learn new ways of reporting. Or maybe I’m crazy.

  4. Ed says:

    My plan to monetise the Dipity timeline is this: current, the Guardian, Science, Boing Boing, Nature and more have syndicated it. Tomorrow, I’ll replace all the links with a link to my blog, the images with my shouting face, and the text with “YOU WANT MORE OF THIS? THEN PAY ME BITCHEZ!!”.

    Then I sit back, watch the cash and glory roll in, and buy a second home.

    • John Rennie says:

      Ha! It’s the new science journalism variant on the “South Park” underpants gnomes scheme:

      1) Create timeline.
      2) Post.
      3) ???
      4) Profit!

      Ref.: Cartman, E., Parker, T., Stone, M. Non-stochastic mechanisms of financial remuneration among subterranean lingerie collectors: consequences for fiscal stability of dirty hippies. Journal of Applied Dumbassery (Dec. 16, 1998) 2(17): 1017-1024.

      • Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

        Isn’t that a big part of the problem, though? Ed’s work is consistently awesome, and the things that John outlined in his speech also sound good – but is there any financial incentive for newspapers/magazines to pay for that kind of thing? Especially when people are blogging for free?

        I can understand the very tangible non-monetary benefits of science-blogging for those of us in research or policy-related fields, but is there any compelling reason (other than awesomeness) for journalists and/or their media overlords to become more Ed-like?

        • John Rennie says:

          Good point, Travis, and yes, there are reasons. Think about it this way:

          The prevalent “big paper o’ the week” model for commercial science journalism caught on because it was (a) relatively cheap and easy to do on a deadline, (b) satisfied the appetites of the science-interested public, and (c) roughly paralleled the “something important just happened” format of more general news reporting, which allowed it to blend into the rest of news products. We don’t talk about that last point much, but I think it’s an important consideration, nonetheless. Everybody likes variety, but when you buy a particular magazine, watch a program or whatever, you probably want the variety within it to be somewhat predictable.

          In the past, lots of us have grumbled about this state of affairs in science journalism but there was little to be done about it, precisely because this low-effort/reasonable-return/consistent-value formula did work so well. But thanks to the rise of digital media, that’s less true. Two realities have tattered the old business models for journalism. First, too much news (and what is really opinion or p.r. but can pass for news) stands revealed as a commodity that the audience wants and expects to get for free. Second, the audience is taking advantage of the diversity of media options out there, so individual media outlets have less of a lock on a share of that audience. Together, those problems chew away at the potential for both circulation and advertising revenue.

          So publications now really have to do something different if they’re going to survive. I hope it’s not the case, but the harsh reality might be that even with tremendous innovation, commercial media won’t be able to comfortably support as many writers and others as in the past. But if commercial publications don’t do something different, they’re going to be nibbled to death quickly by smart bloggers, aggressive p.r. writers and others who are willing and able to deliver a form of “big paper o’ the week” news that’s more than satisfactory.

          The trick for for publications is that they need to find new ways to deliver good science stories that have those previously mentioned virtues of being (a) cheap and easy, (b) popular and (c) compatible with the rest of their offerings. Without those qualities, they won’t have a formula that can scale up practicably. (Trust me, publications need and want formulas.) But those approaches are out there. If nothing else, simply by taking a more flexible approach to how recent or imminent something must be to qualify as news—which I’d argue is fully merited for most science—the options for opening up journalism that is both affordable and more original increase greatly.

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  7. I also like Ed Yong’s stuff. But his comment (and Jennifer’s) highlights the problem we always come back to: the financial model that sustained science journalism in the past is broken. As we all know, back about 20 years ago, newspapers with hefty ad revenues could afford to spend on science reporting; now, the newspapers are sinking fast or already gone, and there’s no one else to take their place. If no one will pay Ed (or the rest of us) a living wage to produce these stories, reinventing the medium may not help.

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  9. Ed Yong says:

    In response to the many comments here about whether anyone will pay for innovative journalism, I can confirm that at least one organisation has offered to pay me as a freelancer for creating these timelines. Obviously, I can’t give any details yet as they’re being ironed out but I’m optimistic about it. And I got permission to mention this much, so that I could make a bigger point – the odds that someone will pay for something are substantially higher if that thing actually exists.

    Or to put it another way, the odds of something cool happening in Step 3 of the underwear-gnome business plan may be remote but they’re zero if Step 1 never happens. Virtually everything I’ve done on the Internet has involved some sort of blind “let’s-see-if-this-works” punt, and then trying to capitalise on any ensuing opportunities.

    Or to put it yet another way, quoting John Pavlus, everything is generative.

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