Science Writers 2009: Day 1

The first full day of the Science Writers 2009 conference will be hard to top.  I’m exhausted, but I feel like I am taking a lot of really excellent information away from the sessions I attended today.  After the morning plenary, which I missed because I was unpacking my previously-lost-by-United-Airlines bag, I attended two sessions on using video (one was a hands-on workshop) and a third on social media and journalism.

Using Video:

During the first session, “Why Science Writers Should Embrace Cheap Video Cameras, YouTube, and Final Cut Pro,” speaker, Andrew Revkin of the New York Time’s DotEarth blog, spoke about the value of adding video to print media.  He couldn’t attend the conference in person, so he gave his presentation via skype, standing in front of a chalkboard featuring some rather impressive looking calculations, which some audience members saw as reminiscent of CBS’s Big Bang Theory. Revkin said that, with video, you can reach people who might not read the article, but would search YouTube for information.  On his DotEarth blog, Revkin not only uses video to tell his stories, but also encourages readers to share their videos, and he incorporates them on the blog. Revkin feels that the fear of video journalism hurting traditional journalism is unfounded, in that video can sometimes tell a story much more vividly.  Revkin encouraged the audience to increase their video utilization, even going so far as to suggest that since videocameras are so small these days, there is really no reason not to keep one with you whenever you go out to work on a story (the Sanyo xacti and the Cannon G10, which is technically a still camera but shoots video, were offered as examples).  He encouraged the audience not to be afraid to get close to people when filming so you can get good sound and a better image.  Fellow Panelist, Craig Duff, director of Multimedia for TIME.com concurred adding that he sometimes he wishes he could break the zoom on people’s cameras so that they would stop relying on it.

In Duff’s presentation, he shared his personal mantra for web videos, “Webby, Wiki, Sticky.”  He says all videos need to be webby, in that they need to be short and web appropriate, wiki, in that they should teach/inform the viewer, and sticky, in that the videos need to keep people engaged and not bore them.  He added that while going viral isn’t the goal, if something funny happens while you are filming a science story, by all means, put it up on YouTube. It is important to remember that there are multiple audiences out there, so not everything has to be cool/funny/etc.

Examples of how video can be used to make science seem cool came from Brian Manlow, the science comedian.

Marc Airhart, a science writer for the University of Texas, discussed the value of creating slideshows, with audio, for telling stories.  He uses a program called Soundslides, which is very easy to use.  In the next session, I went to a workshop on slideshows, where they taught us how to use Soundslides (via the free demo).  I didn’t love this program — I felt it had too many limitations for being a paid application.  However, the session was still valuable in its discussion of slideshows.  During the session, I made this one using Final Cut Express:

It really only took half an hour, and that included choosing pictures, figuring out what I was going to say, and recording the audio.

At the end of the session on using video, the presenters each shared a bit of parting advice, for those about to venture into the world of video journalism:

  • Have fun. It can be a lot of fun to present stories in different ways.
  • Pick something you are passionate about.
  • Show the audience something. If you can’t explain it, don’t shoot it.
  • Don’t be afraid — the more comfortable you get with the tools, the better your work will be.
  • When using zoom, remember that everything is amplified, including the shake of your hands. If you must use zoom, use a tripod.

Using Social Media:

The next big session I attended was called “The Secret Life of Social Media.”  In this session, David Harris, editor-in-chief of symmetry magazine and deputy communications director at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, provided an excellent breakdown of social bookmarking sites.  These sites, such as digg, slashdot, reddit and stumbleupon, are intended to crowd-source the selecting of good stories.  Theoretically, votes from users drive an article to the top of the list, and to the attention of other users.  However, it doesn’t always work that way.  Harris explained it thusly:

  • Digg is like a gang — it has a strong hierarchy, and the dominance of an idea depends on who it comes from. If you want success here, you must partner with the powerful.
  • Slashdot is like organized crime — a small, tight group controls the information. The key here is to post good stuff and get attention (working your way up).
  • Reddit is like an ADHD direct democracy — any story can get to the top, but to stay there, lots of people have to like it. You have to get people’s attention quickly here.
  • StumbleUpon is like a book club — the ideas don’t have to be fresh, and success is more closely linked to the quality of the work.

Harris shared his slides, which can be found here:

Alexis Madrigal, writer at wired.com, also talked about crowd sourcing of content selection, and the importance of being a “useful node in the network.”  This fits well with my personal mantra for social media, “Be Useful.” Alexis’ slides are available here:

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4 Responses to “Science Writers 2009: Day 1”

  1. Frank Stone Says:

    A very nice Topic. Thanks alot hope you go for the detail next time!

  2. DNLee Says:

    sweet. thanks for sharing. I sometimes try video, and it seems to be well-received. But it is involving. I’ll try to do more.

    • Brooke Layne Says:

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m very new to blogging, so for me, everything is evolving. 🙂


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