Monday, 10 March 2014 00:00

The Good Words—SciWriting You May Not Know About but Should

Written by  ASCB Post Staff
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good-reads-logosNinety-five American newspapers had weekly science news sections in 1989. In 2005, there were 34 and in 2012, 19. Traditional newspaper science reporting—it isn't coming back. Gone too are TV science reporters as Americans are for the first time as likely to get science and technology news from the Internet as from television. Good riddance, says a new species of online science writers, "content curators," and scientists themselves who are populating a brave new ecosystem of web sites, blogs, e-pubs, and even "bijou" print issues to chronicle mid2d21ST (*mid-second decade of the twenty-first century) science.

So what's the taxonomy of the creatures inhabiting the new science-writing archipelago? Many "traditional" science news outlets have remade themselves into multimedia platforms, viewable on everything from your phone to your toaster (Wi-Fi equipped). We hesitate to even call them traditional but in this category we would put New York Times Science (catch James Gorman's new video series), Scientific American (SciAm blog site is a major driver), and Science News (just remade for an eye-popping tablet format). But we wanted to highlight a few of the stranger beasts now prowling the scientific journalism scene. Here's our start for what we intend to be an ever-growing list of new ways and new places to read about science:

Mosaic is the UK Wellcome Trust's brand new "What on earth is it?" entry in bioscience journalism. Mosaic only officially launched on March 4. It's a website with a science magazine-like feel plus daily Mosaic blogs and even Mosaic-produced videos. The editors are fans of what is now known as "long form" journalism but used to be called anything over 900 words. Mosaic is into interactive features (very hot). At the moment, they are running a poll on their Facebook page, asking the world for the 50 Big Questions for science to answer. "Where are my keys?" is not eligible. Mosaic has a "Things We Like" click-through to other people's posts and blogs but everything else is Mosaic commissioned or staff written, i.e., original. Everything on Mosaic is also republishable anywhere under a Creative Commons-attribution license.

The stable of freelancers and staff writers currently listed looks to be first rate. Next up is a Rose George feature on menstruation, a wonderfully Rose George subject (If you don't know her name, stop everything and read George's The Big Necessity. But not while eating.) Mosaic's mission is to produce in-depth reporting on biomedical science but apparently they have an elastic mandate from the Trust. "It covers subjects that fit with the Trust's mission and vision, but isn't limited to the research the Trust funds." One week in, it's hard to say where Mosaic is going, although we wouldn't mind a little more hardcore bioscientific reporting, even if it was Wellcome Trust supported.

HHMI Bulletin
You could also compare Mosaic with another pioneer in new world science communication/journalism, the HHMI Bulletin. The Bulletin is from another big nonprofit funder of biomedical research, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The Bulletin largely sticks to HHMI people for its subjects and sources, but then HHMI people are a preselected bunch of fascinating scientists.

We're not sure what comparison would do justice to Nautilus. It's is a flashy, largely longform, online science magazine but with a novel twist. You can buy it as a glossy "high end" quarterly in print! When it was launched 11 months ago, Nautilus had a strange send-off from New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye with the headline, "A Magazine or a Living Fossil?" Overbye's point was that the glossy science magazines of yore (15 long years ago) are all gone to bones or to skin and cyber bones and yet here comes Nautilus, online and in premium-priced print. Well, if dinosaurs became birds, then Nautilus can be whatever it wants to be with writers like Virginia Hughes on synesthesia and Ed Yong on the origin of the eukaryotes. Did we mention that most Web pages are still remarkably ugly and that Nautilus is beautiful?

Just over a year ago two of the founders of Twitter launched Medium, an online platform for nonfiction writing. It's hard to characterize the genre just by looking at article titles, but Medium's self-description "for curious people with a technical bent" seems fair. With a team of elite Web editors, Medium is poised to become "a magazine killer," wrote Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic.  A sampling of their longform science stories like "23 and You" and "Untested. Unregulated. Unsafe?" presented in their sleek design is proof that you may never want to turn another glossy page again.

Aeon is an online longform (see Mosaic above) website launched just over a year ago, offering great science stories every week in the Nature & Cosmos and Being Human sections. You can also load their nice long articles like "Ant farm" and "Die, selfish gene, die" straight to your Kindle.

If you have an attention span longer than 140 characters, you should check in with Longfrom. Outside Twitterdom it is nearly impossible to keep up with all the new and reinvigorated traditional outlets for science journalism. Longform can help. The Longform team (with assistance from crowd-sourced submissions) "curates" (i.e., picks) quality longform journalism from around the Web for your deeper attention. They collect on all topics but maintain a separate science section, so you can load up your browser's or iPad's reading list.

Pacific Standard
Started as a magazine of ideas with a heavy emphasis on the social sciences called Miller-McCune's, it was renamed Pacific Standard to reflect its left coast frame of mind and a new broader mandate. Part of that new beat now includes bioscience and a spirited defense of "weird" research that turns out to be rather valuable. Pacific Standard also seems to be taking the Wellcome Trust at its word by republishing a story from Mosaic by Michael Regnier on Alzheimer's. If you're worried about your memory, you really did read this story before.

The Atlantic
A more unlikely candidate for exemplary 21st-century science reporting than The Atlantic can hardly be imagined. Founded in 1847, The Atlantic was for more than a century and half the Boston Brahmin voice of literature and thoughtful journalism. Needless to say, the magazine nearly died in the early part of this century, but it has made a comeback as, among other things, an online forum for great science writing. It can be hit or miss, but The Atlantic has published some delightful examples of science journalism like "The Mystery of the Second Skeleton" and "How Your Cat is Making You Crazy." The Atlantic could be your new favorite piece of mail or go-to app.

Slate was the original online magazine, launched in 1996 by Microsoft to cover politics, arts, and culture. Its beat now includes much more health and science news. Now owned by The Washington Post Company, Slate tends to publish short articles like "How Gobbledygook Ended Up in Respected Scientific Journals" that are often argument-driven, but has recently been running longform pieces as well, like "The Nazi Anatomists." With a sidebar of catchy titles, the only bad thing about Slate is that it's hard to stop reading.