KSJ Tracker September 7, 2012

Arizona Star: Tom Beal crossing the finish line. 100 Science Stories in 100 days.

For a former editor and general assignment guy pretty new to the science beat the Arizona Daily Star's Tom Beal has amassed an output several times larger than the norm. A big chunk of it came this summer in a marathon effort that ran under the running hed, 100 Days of Science. Sure enough, one story a day since early June. The last is due Monday Sept. 10. I ran a post on this already while in Tucson for a meeting. It merits a further round of applause.

      Surely a few organizations will think about giving this effort a prize, whether or not it fits the written standards of award eligibility. AAAS? How about NASW? Maybe it'll get him to join! One can't call much or maybe any of it investigative journalism, not in the Gotcha! sense. And the only science-related institutions in Arizona that will be unhappy with it, one guesses, are ones that that didn't make the cut for inclusion. But it certainly gives Arizona newspaper readers a head full of science at a scale and consistency I've hardly ever seen. A few other writers got involved, but it was mostly the same byline day after day after day...

    Last Sunday the paper ran an editorial on it, explaining its genesis as a brainstorming session (ie, a few newspaper people sitting around shooting the bull about how to mark the state's centennial). I can't say I've read more than a small fraction of them, but those I did read are solidly done, often riveting and muscled with well-explained science. Some of it is right-now science, a good deal is history. Astronomy, a big deal in Tucson with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory headquartered in town and atop Kitt Peak, and with the U. of Arizona an astronomy power and with many other observatories sited on the state's high, clear-air and dark-sky peaks, is a series staple. But Beal got to most everything from anthropology to zoology.

  Here is a full listing of the stories. The most recent entry is, no surprise, about astronomy and specifically a slick instrument in the works and called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. Most of the "100 days" stories are labeled as such. The paper plans to package them all as an e-book.

   I sent Beal a few questions. His answers are more than worth sharing:

 How much of this we written and stashed well ahead of time, and how much pretty much on the fly? I’m still finishing the last three pieces today. I started June 3 with about 30 in the bag, then took 3 weeks of vacation in July, so at one point I was four weeks or so ahead, but since then I’ve been working on a few-days-ahead basis.

About what share stemmed from suggestions from the committee that brainstormed for ideas and how much were mostly or all your idea? I tried to incorporate all of the topics given to me by the committee, but found I could consolidate many of them into single pieces. My biggest coup: incorporating seven programs at three universities into a single piece about solar research at Arizona universities.

Any stories you wish you could have included but could not, for any reason? I sat down with Jim Gentile (who organized the committee) and Dick Powell (both) of Research Corp. before starting and expressed some concern about the list. They, understandably, said they did not want to go through the exercise with a committee again but that we should do what we thought best. So I ignored a few topics that brought big grants to our universities but did not produce any significant science, but only after contacting the principal investigators on the grants and asking them if they’d had any scientific breakthroughs. Some expressed surprise they were even on the list.

 I was able to add about 25 topics as a result of the above. I think I got most of the important stuff in, but I know there is creative research going on that probably tops some of the topics I addressed and I’m sure I missed some of the historical stuff. I have a leftover list of about 30 topics that I’ll look into as I have time. I was tempted to propose a “Science 2.0” feature to my editors, but thought better of signing on for such a thing right now.

   What kind of reaction did it get among readers? Readers loved it. I’ve gotten lots of email and several actual letters from readers close to my age (62). My bosses have gotten compliments and we’ve had a lot of letters to the editor.

 Did research institutes start lobbying to get in on it? Some lobbying but not much. Most of it came not from institutions but from local scientists who thought I had slighted their particular field. Lots of good ideas for the future and some that I managed to shoe-horn into the series.

Was it invigorating, exhausting, both....? It was both. I went into it thinking, especially with the historical pieces, that I could knock out a couple of these each day while I pursued my “real” stories, and I did that, especially when I was stockpiling for vacation. Most, however, required more time and additional reporting. I ultimately came to the conclusion that, even though these are brief pieces, they should be “real” stories too. The historical pieces needed perspective and all of them needed updating. My best archival source was my own newspaper. I received a note from Jim Erickson at the University of Michigan, whom I hired to be our science writer when I was city editor here in the mid-80s, saying he’d enjoyed the stroll down memory lane I provided him.

Were you able to keep up on breaking news? I noticed you recently ran news stories on budget problems for federally-supported astronomy.  I continued to watch my beat as I wrote the series, made easier by the fact that I was in contact with a lot of old and new sources because of the series. I had been waiting for the NSF/AST portfolio review to be released  because I knew it would have a big impact on the “legacy” instruments on Kitt Peak. I wrote about that the day before the NSF teleconference with Jim Ulvestad and Daniel Eisenstein that produced the national news about it. Just braggin’

 We didn’t roll the breaking news into the series. I think that kind of labeling would have been confusing.

Anything else? I would recommend this exercise to any writer out there, although I would suggest a top 25 or so. It was a great way for me to broaden my source pool and to learn a bunch of stuff.

I had written on science topics over the years, but my degree is in English lit. and I covered government and politics for much of my career here. I was drafted into this beat when we lost our fulltime science writer and couldn’t replace him about 4 years ago. It is still supposed to be a parttime thing, but it occupied most of my time last year -- when I wasn’t covering the Republican presidential primary or writing a historical series on Arizona towns for the Centennial or a series on “gastropubs” for our Features section, which gave me a chance to buy good food and craft beer for my friends and family on the company’s dime.

- Charlie  Petit



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