What are we looking for when we turn to science blogs?
That question is prompted by a post from Colin Schultz, who blogs for Smart News at Smithsonian Magazine. In the post, which he titled, "Writing in an Hour: Story Ideas From a Journalistic Blogger," he makes the case for quick blog posts. "I write each of my stories in an hour or less. Sometimes I’ll take longer if I’m doing something bigger. But, in general, I have an hour to research and write each story." The post is a recap of a talk he gave in June at the Canadian Science Writers' Association's annual meeting.
Schultz calls this "journalistic blogging" and he explains it this way: "It’s a job. I don’t just write what and whenever I want. I have an editor, I have deadlines. I work part time. I write 12 stories each week." He works fast because he gets only 40% of his income from Smithsonian. Time, he correctly notes, is "the biggest and most important constraint in this kind of quick turn-around blogging." I'd take that further: Time is the biggest constraint in any kind of writing, whether it's blogging, conventional journalism, or investigative reporting. Schultz, who understands the importance of earning readers' trust, says the quick posting is his solution to the problem of balancing "accuracy, novelty, and time."
My initial reaction was to doubt whether Schultz could consistently produce interesting posts in such a limited amount of time. I set myself the task of doing a few posts in less than an hour each, and I think I was able to write something worth reading despite the time constraint. So I'm willing to agree with Schultz that it's possible to write quick posts that add something to the conversation. In my case, however, most posts take far longer to write. I've been thinking about this one for two or three days, off and on. I've been fiddling with it for about two hours this morning, and I'm only part way through it.
Before I started writing this one, I read Schultz's post twice, and I went back over it slowly, again, to look for the bits I wanted to quote. I had Twitter and email exchanges with Smithsonian.com's digital editor, Brian Wolly. And I searched through the Tracker for other posts that I thought might be relevant to link to for this discussion. I spent 15 years at The Associated Press, writing under intense time pressure. I can write fast. But what really takes time, in my view, is the thinking.
I asked Wolly about a couple of short posts that Schultz wrote recently, one on Mars's moon Phobos, and a July 4th post on backyard grilling. Each is three paragraphs long. Wolly said the posts "were the product of a fair bit of thinking, tossing around links and deciding on an angle. Both took about 45 minutes to go from an idea to a draft." I'd say they reflect a little bit of thinking, and a little bit of Googling; that's why they took only 45 minutes. Schultz has a knack; the posts are eminently readable. And he enlightened me on one out of two. I didn't know that Phobos's orbit was slowly shrinking, but I did know that cooking meat over fire went way, way back.
It's clear that Schultz, as he said in his post, sometimes spends much more time on his pieces, as he did in this interesting take on the tornado that struck Oklahoma in May. Schultz is good at what he does. He's getting attention, and he deserves it. After reading the tornado post, however, I'd like to see him devote more time to longer posts. Maybe that means that Wolly has to pay him more. Or ask for a few longer posts per week, rather than a dozen, to allow time for more thinking and more analysis.
But that's my view, and I don't run the site. Wolly says he's getting what he wants. "The current mix of quick form aggregation and longer-form hidden gems is exactly what I have in mind for the site," he told me in an email.
Many of us are trying to find the right mix in science blogs, to balance accuracy, novelty, and time. My thoughts about how to handle Tracker posts–when I should write short, and when go deep–change daily.
An here's another new site that's experimenting: NOVA Next, a new online news site affiliated with the television program NOVA. In March, I took a look at NOVA Next, which says it wants to run "big stories, the sort you’re used to hearing from NOVA." But I didn't find too many of them. NOVA Next, too, is struggling with limited time. When I looked at it today, I could see that the mix now includes more longer stories than it did in March, something its editor, Tim de Chant, had promised.
NOVA Next's short posts–a post yesterday on Phobos was only one paragraph long–do something that I initially disliked, but which de Chant has persuaded me might be useful. Rather than summarizing posts from elsewhere, it quotes from them directly, with a link to the source. See, for example, this post on two moons of Pluto:
Nadia Drake, writing for Wired:
"Formerly known as P4 and P5, Pluto’s tiniest moons now have official names: Kerberos and Styx.
The names were among the top three selected by voters during a two-week polling period; they have just been approved by the International Astronomical Union’s official nomenclature committee.
Thus, from this day forward, the two tiniest of rocks orbiting the overgrown-snowball-formerly-known-as-a-planet will conjure the tales of a three-headed dog guarding the gates of the underworld (Kerberos), and the river that doomed souls must cross (Styx)."
The votes didn’t come without celebrity endorsements. In February, when voting began, William Shatner suggested Vulcan as one of the names. Vulcan won handily, with over 170,000 votes. Second place went to Cerberus with more than 99,000 votes.
Only the last graf was written by NOVA Next. I thought this was too much borrowing, but I've changed my mind, largely in response to a comment de Chant appended to my post. "We're experimenting a bit here with what I hope is a fairer model of curation," he wrote. "Rather than rewriting what other people have written—providing no incentive to click through to the original piece—we're pulling out interesting bits from the originals, placing them in block quotes, and adding commentary, additional links, or video where appropriate. We want people to follow the link to the original, which runs counter to many aggregators/curators out there."
And it's one more way to balance accuracy, novelty, and time.
I'm now about
three four hours into this post. That's not counting the thinking that led up to it, or the email and Twitter exchanges. I think I've said what I wanted to say. With more time, I'm sure I could say it better.