Last week, as part of NYU’s Kavli Conversations, Brian Switek and Shaena Montanari joined moderator Robert Lee Hotz of the Wall Street Journal to discuss their very different paths into science communication. Here are some things I learned about how to become a paleontology journalist.
Get Your Degree First
You can always switch from scientist to journalist mid-career. Shaena Montanari studied geology and marine biology before eventually getting a PhD in comparable biology. Only later did she pick up science communication. She is still a paleontologist, but she is also the author of 176 articles for Forbes and 41 stories for National Geographic, script writer for some episodes of a PBS Digital Studios show, and co-host of a brand new science podcast called Anthropocinema (scientists critiquing bad science in movies).
Don’t Get Your Degree
Being involved in hunting for dinosaur fossils is something you can do without a degree. Brian Switek did not finish his studies. Instead, he moved to the Four Corners area of the U.S., ripe with dino fossils, and blogged about his experiences there, mixed with his own research. His blogging became so successful that he was able to make science journalism a full-time job. Without a degree in paleontology, he is the author of five dinosaur books. The most recent, Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone,is released today.
Debunk Popular New Stories
Science journalists often respond to new “findings” in the media with a “Well, actually…” article, debunking the hot new story. Shaena Montanari’s debunking stories are often not responding to science articles so much as they are to wellness trends. For example, she recently questioned the safety of the new trend to brush your teeth with “detoxifying” charcoal toothpaste. She knows it is these debunking stories that will get the most clicks.
Do Not Debunk Popular New Stories
Brian Switek has had experience writing debunking articles, such as his answer to the Geological Society of America’s paper about the “Triassic Kraken,” which Switek called out for being bad science delivered poorly. His article includes at least one *facepalm* in reaction to the Kraken story. However, he admits that these days he tries to focus on stories that are more positive. Perhaps what went unsaid in the discussion at NYU is that when you’re relying on news outlets to pay your rent, you can’t afford to burn bridges by calling out one of their other journalists for being sloppy reporters. So you do a story about something else.
Use the Non-Polarizing Public Enthusiasm for Dinosaurs to Get People To Read About Other Important Issues
No matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, pretty much everyone loves dinosaurs. And luckily, you can teach almost any subject through dinosaurs: physics, disease, computer science, gender issues, chemistry…
Shaena Montanari often writes about climate change through the lens of paleontology; while Brian Switek recently wrote a piece that begins, “The government shutdown managed to shut even dinosaurs down — and no temporary reopening will undo the damage, scientists warn.” If dinosaurs is your beat, your opportunities for story ideas are seemingly endless.
Write Full Time
Robert Lee Hotz says that Brian Switek “invented himself.” He started blogging about evolution in 2006 and won a $500 scholarship for his work. The following year, he started writing original research-based posts. This is when traffic to his blog, Laelaps (named after the T-Rex found in his home state of New Jersey), really started to boom. He joined ScienceBlogs. This led to a gig writing for Smithsonian.com, Wired, and eventually Scientific American. He’s been writing full-time for nine years. It’s a real pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps kind of success story.
Do Not Write Full Time
According to Science, Shaena Montanari went from “digging up bones to digging up stories” full-time, but that doesn’t mean that she is doing freelance journalism full-time in the same way that Switek does. She is currently an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation as well.
There is something romantic about having so much success with your hobby that you can quit your full time job, especially Switek’s story which involved seeing the Milky Way for the first time and deciding right then and there that he was going to move to Utah and make writing his full time job. However, there is something to be said about having the job there as security. If not a job, then a healthy savings account, a working spouse, or a support system who can catch you when the stories are drying up. Switek admits that it has been very challenging lately to make ends meet with just the money he gets from writing, especially since news outlets are paying less or don’t have a freelance budget at all anymore. Freelancing full time can be stressful.
Find the Right Platforms for You
Both Montanari and Switek have had blogs on major websites like Forbes and Scientific American, but they are also both on social media. Here is their advice:
- There has been a shift. It used to be social sites would drive you toward content. Now, the content lives on the social platform. If you’re using Instagram, your story lives on Instagram.
- If you’re using Twitter, why not take that blog post you wrote and instead of linking to it from Twitter, tell your Twitter followers two interesting things that there was no room for in your blog post?
Tips on Getting Started in Science Journalism
- Sign up for Nature Alerts and/or Science Alerts. They’ll send you the latest papers with related images and who you should talk to in order to write your article.
- Do not only interview those people. Also find other people who have written on the topic in the news or in journals, as well as postdocs who haven’t even published yet.
- Make sure that your sources are diverse. Using the “Request a Scientist” feature on 500 Women Scientists, you can find a female scientists (and even include under-represented minorities) from any discipline to make sure your article is not only using white men as sources.
- Use “The Open Notebook,” a platform for people in the sciences to see behind the scenes.
Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone by Brian Switek is on sale starting today from Riverhead Books! In this natural and cultural history of bone, Switek explains where our skeletons came from, what they do inside us, and what others can learn about us when these wondrous assemblies of mineral and protein are all we’ve left behind.
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