Lessons from Reporters - by on Wednesday, January 16, 2008 7:29 - 0 Comments

Popping the Hood on Science Journalism: How Wired’s Science Team is Pushing Transparency

In late December we reported on a Wired science writer who , partly inspired by our project, decided to take
radical transparency in his reporting to a new level.

Alexis Madrigal, joined by Brandon Keim, are "popping the hood on Wired science" – or more appropriately, retrofitting the way they report science for web 2.0.

The cliffsnote version: The two built a Wired Science page on Facebook, began sharing what they read via Google Reader (Alexis) or Del.icio.us (Brandon) and Twitter what they are reporting about. The hope is that they will "create a more interactive experience for readers, so they aren’t just reading what we are writing but feel that they are shaping the news," said Alexis

One month into it I wanted to catch up with Alexis to see how things are going and add it to our ongoing "Lessons from Reporters" list. If you are thinking about getting into this – read this interview! Alexis has good advice and ideas for you to pick from (some of which I highlighted in red for easy browsing).

David: So tell me again exactly how you are retrofitting what you do.

Alexis: We set up a Twitter feed that people could subscribe to know what we know and find out what we are reporting on. This way if a reader knows anything they can chip in. We built a Facebook page and started sharing documents and also started sharing articles that I found interesting from my RSS reader. [Editor’s Note: Alexis should check out ReportingOn.com].

Since I did that, several other people at wired have put similar information online.

One thing that is important to know: We have great support from our editor Kristin P. and Evan Hansen,
It has been difficult because we have to find the time to do this and that is the hardest part, to continue developing the ideas, building the infrastructure and finding the right tools.

Tell me about the day-to-day of beat blogging. You mentioned that it takes a lot of time?

I think that with Twitter, and I am not an expert, my impression is
— the more the better. Upon Self reflection I could do a better job
reporting on Twitter. One of the things that is hardest about that
particular platform, you don’t see a return immediately because of the
way the stream works. If you Twitter a question, don’t expect 10
responses right away  — as opposed to a blog post or if you post a

I think the issue with Twitter is; at what point do you become a
person who is known as ‘always Tweeting about a subject,’ so you become
a place people go to shape science news? I haven’t hit that threshold
yet – but I can see that threshold. At the least, providing that kind
of transparency is good.
[Editors Note: Laster Alexis and I talked
about Twitter clients. He was just using the web interface – which can
be difficult to update often. I suggested integrating Twitter with his
gchat client, so it’s as easy as checking your email.]

What about the other tools you are using?

Ideally we’d like to having something on the Facebook page once a
week that will drive people to the  page and have people engage with
each other. The Facebook group is great because
it exposes the network of readers that are reading Wired science. The
most successful networks expose networks that already exist — that’s
what facebook does — because of its lack of anonymity — thats
something we want to do more of.

Can you give me an example of something you’ve done?

One of the things that we’ve done, part of the disruption was the
holiday period (an aside), was a top ten list of new organisms of 2007.
When I finished the list and before it went live I posted the list to
the Facebook page. One thing that could drive people there; unique content, content that is pre-press, which is a classic fan club style move. Along those lines, I have shot some video of Wired’s office, in a kind of ‘bring your reader to work day.’

I’ve noticed since we started doing this stuff we’ve gotten less
snarky comments (we still get some), but we get less angry "how could
you report on this?" type comments, because the readers see who we are.

What has been surprising since starting this?

I thought we would get more uptake in the
beginning. I’m surprised at how much work it takes to keep people
engaged and how easily people will fall out of it.
That has been
surprising to me. Essentially what we are offering is access into a
publication with millions of views a month and you can bring stories to
us at any time. Yet most readers are like "oh," and don’t go from
there. I was expecting more people to be more interested in the new
shaping process.

So what’s next for you? Do you have new features you want to add?

The new features are going to be directly and obviously interactive.

We are thinking of doing some debates
: reader versus reader, or reader versus expert. Then perhaps create Reddit widgets so people can vote on who won the debate.

And for a period of time — people will debate these things and the best edited version will hit the blog.

And I haven’t run it past my editors: but the people who win the
debates from the readership might become admins on the science Facebook

Because of who we are, we can try to get high profile people to get
involved. Maybe get readers to feel like they have access not just to
the journalists (us) but the scientist themselves, the journalist is
just a conduit. Thats something we very much would like to do.

Something else that, on our side of the equation, could have the biggest impact – Journal article tagging:
there are thousands of papers published every week – the ones that get
the most attention are the ones that have public relation articles
attached to them that spin them certain ways. One of the things we want
to do is have a vehicle for readers to tag journal articles they find
interesting, so that we can get outside of the PR treadmill.

[David] That’s an interesting beat-specific twist on something
I’ve encouraged the beat bloggers to look into: Have resources send
them links to articles related to the subject using a social news site.

This is probably something that all beat bloggers may encounter. There are two groups within the readership, your lay reader and then there are the specialists. In  our case the specialists are very specialized. That makes for an interesting sort of "addressing the audience problem."

I think that’s a big thing, how do you address both those
constituencies? That seems like a problem and a huge opportunity at the
same time. The hardcore scientists are really high value readers in
terms of news production, so the tagging idea is a way to tap them

What tool are you going to use for this, Del.icio.us?

That’s the hangup. There is all this open access problem, most of
the science is behind firewalls, so we are not sure what the tool is. I
guess if they tag the abstract then we can do the leg work. Del.icio.us tags has been suggested, and it actually came to us through one of our readers:
I posted this question on the Facebook page and a reader suggested
getting creative with del.icio.us which is still our number one choice.

What other ideas are you working on?

The last thing we are working on: First we are doing blog profiles of our readers. They can show us the science blogs they have and we will cover them.

Then we are trying to figure out how to incorporate the wiki medium.
There are a few approaches I think we can take, one that would be cool
but hard to work is if we have readers contribute to articles
wiki-style. That might mean a rough draft that would normally go to the
conten editor would actually go to the Wired science page — a
pre-release that people could edit wiki style.

The problem is that news is time sensitive and it could be tough to build that into the process.

Or more generally: Have a Wired science wiki where people could
contribute ideas or things they are thinking abou, similar to
Geekepidia, but a functioning wikipedia instead of a static magazine
format so that it would be more interactive.

What advice do you have for other beat bloggers?

I think it pays to manage expectations within an organization.
Starting small for us was the way to go because I think it really does
take time to build momentum. It’s pretty hard for publications that
have dedicated readership to build a community that is actively
contributing to the news. We want to get people excited internally and
externally, but I don’t want to promise the moon and deliver nothing.

Also: Put more thought in the beginning with the tools. Right now I
have all this stuff on Google Reader but now we are moving to
Del.icio.us.  Also, I don’t know if I would have used twitter as a
microblogging platform — maybe I would have chosen a regular blog – I
feel that its so transient that its hard for people to see what’s going

There should be regular content update. Build in time into each week to really work on some of these longer term things.  Have a dedicated push time for your Facebook page or whatever tool you are using, build it into your weekly or daily schedule.

You mentioned earlier and I want to ask: Do people lose interest quickly?

Yes, but when we do something new people regain interest. It’s very
easy to assume that what you are doing will be of interest, but when
time passes I’ve learned that’s not true – you have to drive interest.
You have to make it worth people’s wild. They have limited time, so you
have to provide real ways of interacting and provide things they
wouldn’t get elsewhere.

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About BeatBlogging.org

BeatBlogging.org was a grant-funded journalism project that studied how journalists used social media and other Web tools to improve beat reporting. It ran for about two years, ending in the fall of 2009.

New content is occasionally produced here by the this project's former editor Patrick Thornton. The site is still up and will remain so because many journalists and professors still use and link to the content. BeatBlogging.org offers a fascinating glimpse into the former stages of journalism and social media. Today it's expected that journalists and journalism organization use social media, but just a few years ago that wasn't the case.

About the Author of this post
Patrick Thornton is the editor and lead writer of BeatBlogging.Org. He is @pwthornton on Twitter.