It is almost time for WCSJ 2009

An old saying states that birds of a feather flock together, but the science journalists’ fauna, at least the one I’m more familiar with, tends to be made up of individualists rather than of team workers (with the exception of a few groups, such as the one in the Science Divulgation General Direction, at the UNAM). But aside from those few bunches, the rest of us operate, tsk tsk, from quite personal trenches.

Given the fact that we envision future problems for science writers (gulp), there’s been long and sometimes even deep thoughts in different forums about the urgent need of opening our minds to collaboration, of finding strength in numbers, of grasping the power of the mass or, as they say nowadays, of crowdsourcing.

That’s why I’m as happy as a worm in an apple because soon I’ll be on a mission to London. Starting next monday, some 700 journalists from all over the world will gather in the british capital to argue long and loud (and hopefully bright) about the nuances of our hardy craft.

Part of the charm comes from the fact that the trip will be supported by european foundations that offered many travel scholarships so that people from developing countries such as myself could participate in the Sixth World Conference of Science Journalists.

The program is bursting with everything but the kitchen sink, and even breakfasts and meals will have dialogue and discussion. There will be some five plenary sessions, 31 parallel sessions, 11 practical workshops and a bunch of post-conference trips to several meccas of european research. It will be, yes, an odyssey filled with activities.

The speakers list is filled with important names, starting with Nobel prize winner Rajendra Pachauriand also includes some of the great names from science journalism, such as the American Deborah Blum, winner of the Pulitzer prize, and Andrew Revkin, environmental writer from The New York Times(I’ll happily add here british author Ben Goldacre, from Bad Science). We’ll have of course many british academicians but also journalists from Asia, Africa, the arab world and Latin America.

Aside from listening to the planet’s main experts in the journalistic coverage of science, this gathering will give us the opportunity to see each other face to face, instead of just through email or printed references.

I do hope to morph into an able sponge so that, getting rid of my ancient age cowwebs, I mercilessly squeeze the most of this opportunity, which will also give me a chance to show my fellow journalists some of the work we do here. I’ll keep you informed about my adventures.

This blog post originally appeared on http://www.notasdeciencia.com/en/contenido/en/note/journalists-conference.

The quick and the dead

About 180 writers, scholars, legislators and journalists involved in science and technology communication gathered 22 May in the Pacific resort of Acapulco to discuss for a whole day the challenges of our trade, and try to find mechanisms to convey our society the knowledge of science’s benefits.

Well, did we find them? Sadly, I think we didn’t. For a lenghtier summary of the seminar in english, please go here: http://bit.ly/DfAr3. In this post I’ll just put on my philosopher hat and try to figure out what happened there.

There were good intentions everywhere. There was enthusiasm. There was even a breath of some freshness. There was also a kind of low level buzz that murmured: “Haven’t we gone through this all many times before? Haven’t we?”

To be sure, I think this was the first time the summons came from two very different entities. The Foro Consultivo Científico y Tecnológico (FCCyT, http://www.foroconsultivo.org.mx/home/) is like a consulting body that gathers ideas from research and production communities and takes them to an upper body in order to formulate policies and programs related to scientific and technological research. And the Sociedad Mexicana para la Divulgación de la Ciencia y la Técnica (Somedicyt,http://www.somedicyt.org/) is more like a loose body of science communicators, both from media and from higher education institutions. Bot the FCCyT and the Somedicyt decided it was a good time to gather people from all over Mexico and lock them together in a room to discuss possible futures.

While I sat there, taking notes, recording what I could, talking to people, hugging old friends, making new friends and in general trying to get the idea of what this was about, I slowly realized not many of those present there were really ready to transform their day to day activities to adapt to the future. They were there trying to find how to survive the waves while still doing the same.

I’m growing restless, reading about the pressures and issues that science journalism is facing, for instance, in the United States (an excellent and recent take can be seen here: http://bit.ly/3bztG), but I saw that very few were actually concerned about what was going on there. Correction: the main guest, Pere Estupinyá, did, but of course he lives in Washington, works for the NIH, blogs from the MIT and writes for the Knight Science Tracker. He should know.

What I concluded at the end of the nice exercises we had there was that I was seeing the difference between quick individuals and slow organizations (this is not a critique of organizations, I’ve had my share of managing and I know it is hell trying to move ahead without sinking). Many good ideas came from many people: it’s difficult to have so many talents together and not to get the brain gears giving off sparks, but in general the tone was: ok, let’s put these ideas in writing, discuss them in one or two committees and then take them somewhere else, higher, for another round of discussions. Yawn.

I told the audience I wanted to instill fear in their hearts and brains so that they embraced collaboration and networking and crowdsourcing as a salvation from the abyss. Many just moved in their chairs waiting for me to finish, because I exceeded my time limit. Well, I did, but I’m not really that sorry because I felt like a kind of Cassandra, spelling doom and not being heard.

The point of the seminar was to try and find ways of getting science content to the public, of ensuring a correct appropriation of science and technology products by the public at large. What I feel came out was the perception that there needs to be a network of peers. Good. Now, who’s going to build it? And who’s going to assume some responsibility about it? Juan Pedro Laclette, head of the FCCyT, rightly said the forum had agreed to work with Somedicyt and to gather the writers and journalists. Another meeting? Sure: the FCCyT will help with half the cost, but the other half better comes from the Somedicyt or from another instance, perhaps the wished for journalists association. When? I really don’t know.

The fact is we do need to network; we do need to collaborate; we do need to work in teams, virtual but well built. We need to think about the future and to be ready to burn the bridges if need be to survive and thrive in the future context, whatever it brings. But I don’t know if the thrust, the push, will come from an institutional body.

From what I’ve been reading here, I know some countries in Europe, Africa and Asia have overcome obstacles such as these and have created powerful or at least well coordinated collective bodies. I think we might, could and should learn from others, but I can’t speak for everybody. I’m not even a member of Somedicyt (although Estrella Burgos urged me to send the application) so I’m not entitled to a collective voice.

But I’ll say this. I will personally try to plant a seed that might grow to be a group of science writers/journalists in Mexico. I’ll do my best to help and push and provoke and agitate the waters and push again. I know that in a few years, those who won’t move, wont’ change or won’t adapt, will be left behind. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen to us. So please help us, help me. I know we can do much, much better. And I know this is the place to ask. Thanks to you all.

So what is next?

A few days ago, talking with a Microsoft officer, he said somewhat surprised that small companies are coping better with the present crisis than middle sized ones. Why? “Small companies live always in such uncertainty, and are always ready to change in a minute, that for them this crisis is hard but not unusual”, he said.

Science journalists, or at least many of the ones I’ve known, may at some times build relations and connections, but in a day to day basis they act as lone wolves. It’s understandable: hunting spaces are scarce and competition is hard; collaboration seems a recipe for disaster, a threat. So in a way I imagine each science journalist, each lone wolf, as a micro-business, a minority of one (remember George Orwell).

If we applied the words of the Microsoft officer to these micro entrepreneurs, we might say this: “Science journalists live always in such uncertainty, and are always ready to change in a minute, that for them this crisis is hard but not unusual”. Does this ring a bell? I think it does, at least as far as Mexico is concerned. Sure, data show more physical spaces for science stories; yes, public awareness is growing; yes, politicians now have a space in their minds for science, at least at the verbal level.

But uncertainty is there. The sword of Damocles. CNN threw out its science team, and in Mexico the Reforma newspaper cancelled its weekly science page, promising there will still be science stories on its pages (I wonder where: the paper also eliminated its books supplement, and the cultural space is now tucked in the back pages of the entertainment section). I can see the future, and it does not have more science journalist jobs: it has less research, more wired news, less analysis, more punch lines; less education, more fun. Oh yeah.

But getting back to the science journalism crisis, I think it’s crucial to keep our cool.

  • It’s a crisis for print journalism in the broadest sense: just yesterday we read about the demise of another important daily in the US, the Rocky Mountain News.
  • This crisis, as has been mentioned elsewhere, is not due to a lack of profitability at the individual level: it’s due to the fact that many media are public now and investors demand more and more returns in ever shorter terms (and of course we can see the results of this in the US-led financial mayhem).
  • All printed media must reinvent themselves to take into account, at heart, that complex variable called the Internet.

A couple of hours ago, while I drove back home after dropping off my kid at school, I heard on the radio some loud anchor telling the audience that because of atmospheric pressure, today the sun’s rays would be particularly dangerous. He wisely advised to wear long sleeves and to avoid going outdoors. Whew!

Why can this happen? Why has some ignoramus the right to spew his badly chewed notions about science publicly? Why don’t we have more smart voices on radio, good science journalism on the air waves? There may be many reasons, of course, and for the time being I’ll just mention a couple of them: first, media niches are occupied by those who fight for them; if we science journalists want to avoid such ignorance to mine the educational process, we have to fight for those spaces. And we have to do it not in our terms, but in the terms of the media owners. I vividly remember the selling motto of an entrepreneur: “In this world you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate”.

Second, journalism in general is having a crisis because, listening to the interests of hurried investors, of political lobbies, of commercial areas or of any other pressure group, it has slowly left out its responsibilities and has served its audiences more and more noisy crap. Exceptions noted, of course.

A most worrying trend in the upcoming scenario is that, for many reasons, cuts have nothing to do with merits. The survivors are there not because they’re the best, but because they are quicker, smarter, more flexible or sometimes more willing to do anything to be kept inside.

Some years back, Pete Hamill wrote in his formidable News is a Verb that the only recipe that might bring journalism back from its ashes would be to fight hard and fast to recover relevance and pertinence. A newspaper that’s deaf and dumb to its own public, that ignores its public’s interest, will hardly survive.

In this context, I’d say this is the time to abandon our sad and dark crevices, our hard-earned little niches, to seek intelligent ways to collaborate and evolve. Africa and Asia are perhaps starting to see the benefits of collective work in our field. But it’s time to build church (so to speak) at a global scale; it will surely be useful to share our experiences, to learn survival skills by being flexible and reinventing ourselves not each day, but each moment. And the more we can enjoy the process, the better.