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July 21 2011

14:30

With the end of NASA’s shuttle program, science journalists are rethinking the space beat

At 5:57 this morning, Eastern Daylight Time, the space shuttle Atlantis returned to earth, and NASA’s space shuttle program, for all intents and purposes, came to an end.

There’s been a lot of discussion about what that will mean for the people employed by NASA and its subsidiary organizations. But what about the journalists who have been covering them? What happens to this very particular brand of beat journalists after the end of the shuttle launch program?

“Those of us who cover launch and mission operations certainly face quite a bit of uncertainty,” Todd Halvorson, Kennedy Space Center bureau chief of Gannett’s Florida Today, told me.

Halvorson has it a little bit better than some his fellow space journalists, whom he called the “nucleus of people in the NASA press corps.” He’s stationed in an actual trailer-type office at Cape Canaveral, and Florida Today is located right on the Space Coast. But the outlook for some of the other journalists covering space full-time looks a lot bleaker.

In 2009, the Houston Chronicle laid off its full-time veteran space reporter, Mark Carreau, who had been covering the beat for more than 20 years. Carreau covered the Challenger disaster in 1986, and over his two decades on the job, spent most of his time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. And still, “they laid him off,” said Eric Berger, the Houston Chronicle science reporter who took over part of the beat.

“It said something about what the Chronicle thought of the beat,” Berger explained, “but they also laid off a lot of people in one big cut.”

In 2008, CNN laid off its space reporter, Miles O’Brien — who also covered science and technology — though Miami bureau reporter John Zarrella remains. Around the same time, Aviation Week, a NASA-and-aeronautics-junkie trade magazine, closed its Cape Canaveral bureau.

From a pure business perspective, the scale-down of the space beat probably makes sense; though there’s still much to cover in terms of space exploration itself — the end of the shuttle program is, of course, by no means the end of NASA — Atlantis’ final landing will most likely mean a plummet in reader interest in the subject of space itself. Berger, for example, who covers science as a broad beat, has been writing 50-60 percent of his stories about space in the ramp-up to the final shuttle launch, he told me. That ratio, now, will change — drastically.

“People are transfixed first and foremost by accidents,” Berger noted, “and, after that, blasting people into space. And once you get beyond that, there is not a lot of public interest in the space program.”

The space beat, in short, is losing its automatic human interest angle. Or, at least, its American interest angle. After today, with Russia continuing its space program, “launches will occur half a world away,” Berger noted — not to mention “at odd times of night.”

“Most Americans have never seen a Soviet launch,” Berger said. “The space station is really cool, but it is not particularly sexy, what they are doing now.”

Space journalism has pushed on regardless of daily breaking news about human spaceflight, Irene Klotz of Reuters pointed out. “In reality, the space launch is just one day,” she said.

At the same time, though, “it’s a different type of story now, and there’s certainly a gap,” noted MSNBC science editor Alan Boyle. “There’s no two ways around that. And so it will be a challenge for people to tune into what’s been going on.”

And that will mean a challenge, certainly, to the people whose livelihoods have relied on the existence of the space program. But beyond the personal — the profound professional consequences for the reporters at outlets both national and local that have made careers of U.S. space explorations — what happens to the shape of the space beat itself?

The space and science journalists I spoke with had a few different theories about what might happen to the type of news we see about space journalism.

  • More focus on commercial enterprises in space, as NASA shifts away from public funding to encourage more private investment and innovation.
  • More stories about robotic space exploration.
  • A new policy angle as we start to learn about funding issues, rather than simply the next manned mission.
  • Attempts to get people jazzed about the International Space Station, an amazing feat of human engineering and one of the coolest untold stories out there.

In other words, not all is lost when it comes to the space beat, as these journalists were eager to remind me. The space program itself is still very much alive. NASA aims to build a heavy-lift launch vehicle — which will continue human expeditions beyond Earth’s orbit. President Obama has set a 2025 goal for a mission to an asteroid, followed by, it is hoped, missions to Mars. Our storied explorations of space are certainly not ending.

Still, for journalists like Halvorson, Boyle, and others, the launch of the U.S.’s last shuttle launch was certainly bittersweet. As Halvorson put it: “It was pretty emotional watching Atlantis blast off on the last shuttle launch. Terribly emotional. People who have been tied to this program for that many years…all feel the same way. You go about being professional and you go about your job, but yeah, it sucks.”

Image via NASA.

September 17 2010

15:00

Network effects: The Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger on newspapers and blog networks

Last week, I wrote about the Guardian’s new network of science blogs, which — in a first for the paper — is allowing its (growing) cadre of bloggers to publish directly to the Guardian’s site. The effort, though new for the Guardian, isn’t necessarily new for media organizations in general. In 2008, Eric Berger, a science reporter at the Houston Chronicle — and author of the paper’s SciGuy blog — assembled a team of scientists to contribute to a network of blogs whose topics include climate change, the environment, astronomy, and more. The goal: “to provide a neutral space for scientists and the general public to meet and speak on the issues of the day.”

The “.sphere” experiment — the blogs had titles like Atmo.sphere, Cosmo.sphere, and Evo.sphere — “had some successes and failures,” Berger noted in a later blog post. Some of the blogs fizzled; new ones were born. And one of the biggest determinants of success was, unsurprisingly, the dynamics of authorship: the people at the blogs’ helm. As the project evolved, the focus went from group contributions — several scientists, and some volunteer lay people, writing the content and guiding discussions — to blogs that are written “mostly by individuals.”

I spoke with Berger about that shift. We focused on science blogs; the lessons, though, are relevant to any news organization looking to extend its reach through tapping the talents and expertise of independent bloggers.

Personal interest leads to quality blogging

Blogging requires passion — about the subject matter and about communication itself. Dave Winer’s notion of a “natural born blogger” is instructive not just for amateur bloggers, but for those networked with professional sites, as well. ”People have to want to do it; they have to be interested in it,” Berger says. “And if they like doing it, then they’ll do it more, and they’ll do it better. Because if you’re writing about stuff that you’re interested in and enjoying what you’re doing, it’s going to come through in your writing. It’s going to show your readers that you’re engaged — and going to make them more prone to be engaged, as well.”

Conversation is key

The common conception of the scientist locked in academia’s ivory tower is one held not only by many members of the public, but by some scientists, as well. There’s an occasional tendency, Berger points out, for scientists to see themselves and their work as isolated from the rest of the world. (That’s a tendency, I’d add, that can afflict journalism, as well.) Success in blogging, though, requires getting down to solid ground. “You’ve got to have someone who wants to have a conversation with the public about topics that the public is interested in,” Berger says. And, when it comes to guiding a blog, “a big part of it is convincing the scientists that it’s worth their time not only to write blog entries, but also to interact with people in the comments.” Many scientists have no interest in that, he notes — so the trick is finding the ones who are willing to join the fray.

“You’ve got to find the right scientist” – someone who understands the public with whom they’re conversing. Scientists in particular are used to communicating with peers, Berger notes. But “it’s different with a newspaper — it’s an audience of lay people. A lot of people are looking at the website when they’re at work – and so they’re looking to amuse and to educate themselves.” A good blog network will be populated by writers who strike a balance between those two goals.

Emphasize the news hook

In addition to looking for Winer’s “natural born bloggers,” you want scientists who are able to marry the expertise of their fields with the ability to connect with the public. “Generally, it’s the people who write more to a general level” who are most successful at blogging, Berger says. “People are not going to read a blog that is primarily educational,” he notes. And “most people aren’t spending their free time on the web to get astronomy lectures, I hate to say.” Instead, in general, “people want stuff either that’s related to the news of what’s happening or that has some kind of popular hook. It’s difficult for science as a topic to compete with things like sports or religion — or politics, of course — which are some of the most popular blog subjects here and elsewhere.” To make it compete, you need writers who are able to refashion science from a niche topic into one of general interest — by moderating content and by writing with, for lack of a better word, flair.

Good source = good blogger

Since communication is so important to the blogging equation (see point one), experts who make good sources might also make good bloggers, Berger notes. “If I’ve interviewed someone in the past, and they’ve been really helpful, or have explained things in a good way, or been willing to return calls quickly, then that person would be a good candidate – or at least someone to suggest” as a blogger, Berger says. Often, he points out, the PR people at universities have a good sense of their faculty’s comfort with external communication; they can be a great resource in finding academics who’d have both the interest and the ability to become good bloggers.

Don’t try to control (too much)

A good blog network, Berger says, depends in large part on a willingness to experiment — not only on the part of the bloggers themselves, but of the network leaders, as well. Perhaps the primary principle is trial-and-error. “I had some hits and I had some misses,” he notes of his two years of network-ing, but by being open to trying out different bloggers and formats and content areas, the network is also open to unexpected successes.

“You kind of have to let people do what they do, when they can,” Berger says. “Different people are going to write different things. Some people are doing it because they want to write, and they’re interested in saying their piece on things; other people are interested in educating. You just kind of let people do what’s to their strength.”

December 02 2009

02:11

Journalists use RSS to track rivals, news, tweets & other info

This post sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

RSS is an incredibly useful way for journalists to keep track of beats by watching what is being published online, whether on news sites, blogs, Twitter, saved Google search terms, etc.

I spoke to three journalists about how they use RSS for research and reporting. They also each gave one really good tip for diving into RSS.

For those unfamiliar with RSS, Wikipedia has this to say about RSS:

RSS (most commonly expanded as “Really Simple Syndication” but sometimes “Rich Site Summary”) is a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated works—such as blog entries, news headlines, audio, and video—in a standardized format. Web feeds benefit publishers by letting them syndicate content automatically. They benefit readers who want to subscribe to timely updates from favored websites or to aggregate feeds from many sites into one place. RSS feeds can be read using software called an “RSS reader”, “feed reader”, or “aggregator”, which can be web-based, desktop-based, or mobile-device-based.

Eric Berger

Eric Berger has been a reporter at the Houston Chronicle for 10 years and has been covering science for the last eight years. He has been blogging about science since 2005, creating a community to discuss science at SciGuy.

“When I first started blogging I found science blogs and used RSS as a means to keep track of the flow of information,” Berger said. “It’s too difficult and time-consuming to visit 100 blogs a day.”

Berger uses Bloglines, a popular RSS feed reader, to follow around 80 Web sites and blogs. He estimates seeing 300 new items a day.

“Back in the dark ages (five -six years ago), if I was working on a story I might be solely focused on that and not seeing what else what happening in science,” Berger said. “Now it’s impossible to escape that.”

He follows scientists of various disciplines, so he can keep track of various scientific communities. He also collects news releases via RSS, which sometimes turn into blog entries.

“If that strikes a chord in the community, then you can spin it into a story for the newspaper,” he said.

One Tip:

“Just experiment with it [RSS] and put new feeds in and don’t be afraid to add or delete feeds. Your feed reader shouldn’t be static, your list of feeds should fluctuate with what you’re working on.”

David Brauer

David Brauer covers media and occasionally politics for MinnPost.com.

Using RSS became a critical part of Brauer’s job in March of 2008, when he started writing a aggregated morning briefing for MinnPost.com.

“You have to make sure to pay attention to local news sources,” Brauer said. “The only way to do it is with RSS. RSS makes it very efficient to know what’s going on in the area I cover.”

Brauer no longer does the morning briefing, but RSS has remained vital in more general work. He is subscribed to 138 feeds in Google Reader, primarily local media feeds such as public radio, tv stations, alt weeklies and of course, the local newspapers.

“It’s one of the tools I use most as a reporter. RSS and Twitter,” he said. “RSS is good for checking things I already know to check; Twitter is good for finding things I wouldn’t have known to follow.”

His feeds are organized with 24 tags, categorizing feeds into sections such as sports, tech, big, little and suburban, public radio, local aggregators, local blogs, local papers, college journalists, national and politics.

“I see over 1,000 new items a day, but experienced users know you can just mark all items as read and move on,” Brauer said. “Be somewhat aware of balance so you don’t spend all day in RSS.”

One Tip:

Brauer suggests that journalists look into the sync features offered by many RSS readers, and to make sure that your RSS reader of choice is available for multiple platforms. (Google Reader has Web and mobile versions that sync.)

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is an editor at Vital Business Media and a co-founder of Technically Philly.

Blanda started using RSS around 2005, with Bloglines.

“It was coolest thing in the world that I didn’t have to put up with email and could still get content sent to me,” he said. “When I figured out you could get feeds of Google Alerts (and now Twitter mentions) it really spiraled out of control.”

Most of his ideas for stories at Vital come from media news feeds he gathers. He also runs Technically Philly part time and uses RSS to gather information quickly and get a large cross-section of sources.

“Our readership is very active on social media and blogging, so I have alerts for people’s names, companies, locations in Philadelphia, etc.”

Blanda uses Google Reader instead of Bloglines now, attracted by the social tools Google has been adding recently. Users can follow friends, share stories and comment on content together.

“I can see what my friends think is important too,” he said. “Most of my college newsroom was using Google Reader and it became a better way to stay in touch and shoot story ideas back and forth.”

He keeps 377 subscriptions organized by purpose, so for Vital he has folders by industry and for Technically Philly he sorts by beat and general news.

“I check all of the feeds related to my job everyday, every story,” Blanda said. “The other stuff, I get to it when I can, if not, no big deal. And sometimes I declare bankruptcy and mark all as read.”

Blanda can’t estimate how many news items he gets in a day: “It [Google Reader] always says 1000+ (unread items). I’d say I check around 500-600 a day.”

One Tip

“My one tip would either be to get other people on your beat to share on Google Reader or to not forget Yahoo Pipes as a way to filter info…something I haven’t taken enough advantage of. With enough work you could always be sure to get relevant information.”

Do you use RSS to research and report? How do you organize your feeds and fight information overload? What creative uses do you put RSS to? Can you offer other tips?

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