1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 2 July 2009 at 11:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

It’s over! Whilst tomorrow will see many of the delegates going on a variety of trips, today was effectively the end of the WCSJ. It’s certainly been an interesting week, and today was no exception.

I began this morning with a session on the future of science journalism. Hosted by Robert Lee Hotz, science columnist for the Wall Street Journal, it was probably the highlight of the week for me. Discussing the issues were Laura Chang, science editor for the New York Times, editor of The Times James Harding, former editor-in-chief of Scientific American John Rennie, and Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s head of newsgathering.

Common themes were that the current problems of science journalism are shared by general journalism and the wider media. The combination of the internet and falling advertising revenues will bring about a “mass extinction” of media outlets, according to Rennie. Those that want to survive need to evolve.

Chang told us about the NYT’s efforts to become an information portal in addition to a news source. Information about health forms a big part of this, and page views for the NYT website Health section have tripled as a result.

It’s not just health that gets the hits however. Both Chang and Unsworth mentioned the Large Hadron Collider as a massive science story – indeed, the BBC’s coverage received so many views that their stats counter broke!

Whilst this is all good to hear, it’s unclear how it makes any money. Of course, as Unsworth pointed out the BBC don’t need to worry about this, but everyone else must come up with new business models. No one had any real answers – if they did they would be implementing them – so the future of science journalism still remains uncertain. Even so, it was great to see such excellent speakers speculating on what might happen.

After this it was back to the book stall for a bit before I went to steward a session on the coverage of climate change and it links science, policy and politics. Again, because I was working I couldn’t make very good notes. One of the speakers was Richard Black, environment correspondent for the BBC, who made a very good point about the real environmental story: us.

The growth of the world’s population leads to an increase in resource use and more and more expansion in to natural habitats. Climate change and other problems can be linked directly to this issue, but we rarely see articles calling for a slowdown in growth.

Next was my final stint on the book stand. Everything was reduced to £1 and I managed to shift all of the books, though eventually we did end up giving the last few away for free. These rather unpopular volumes still took a while to get rid of, despite not costing a penny!

The last event of the conference was the farewell party. For some unknown reason this was Wimbeldon themed, which meant us stewards had to change from our garish orange polo necks to white ones, and don a tennis visor. Slightly silly, but I guess that’s just how these things work.

I’ve had a great week. It’s been hard work, but good fun, and I got to witness and take part in many thought-provoking discussions. My whole body aches, I’m extremely sleep-deprived, but I’d definitely do it all again. The next conference is to be held in 2011 and hosted by Cairo. I’ve no idea what I’ll be doing then, but I hope I can attend!

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 2 July 2009 at 1:19 am by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Another action-packed day at the WCSJ! I began this morning on the registration desks, welcoming delegates who had not yet registered and directing various lost looking people to where they needed to go. This was followed by another few hours roaring trade on the ABSW book stand, where various science books were now being sold for the low, low price of three quid.

After a brief – and I mean literally five minute – lunch, I went along to the ABSW’s session on how to publish a popular science book. Chaired by Sara Abdulla, Chief Commissioning Editor at Nature, and featuring the author John Gribbin, agent Peter Tallack and Penguin editor Will Goodlad, the session focussed on moving from an idea in your head to a published book, and all the steps in between.

All the panellists stressed the importance of writing a detailed outline that you can peddle to agents and publishing companies. This allows you to present your ideas in full without having to write the entire manuscript first! Anything that helps you stand out from the crowd is an advantage, especially in a world where, according to Abdulla, up to one million books are looking for an agent at any one time.

Part of the discussion revolved around books written by scientists versus those written by science journalists. Publishing companies like to have a “name” behind the book to increase marketability, and the book buying public supposedly like to hear about research directly from the scientists doing it. Having said that, there is still a place for journo’s who want write something more substitutional than a feature piece.

If they can’t find a publisher though, they could always do it themselves. On the topic of self-publishing, the panel were mixed. Goodlad thought it was a good idea – despite the questioner asking if it made him worry for his job – simply because there are so many books out there, and traditional publishers can’t put them all out. Gribbin meanwhile said he was “too lazy” to self-publish, and the general consensus was self-published books can’t achieve real commercial success.

Immediately following this session was another that asked “Is the growing influence of PR on science journalism in the public interest?” Ben Goldacre was there, along with Simon Denegri, Chief Executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities, Andrew Jack of The Financial Times, and John Clare, Managing Director of Lions Den Communications. It was chaired by Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust.

I was actually working on this session as a steward thus I wasn’t able to make notes, so please forgive my lack of details. Goldacre gave his usual entertaining spiel, pointing out stories masquerading as science that had been manufactured by PR agencies, whilst Denegri and Jack were made slightly less inflammatory comments. Clare had a decent go at defending the PR industry, despite technical difficulties that left him without his Powerpoint presentation for a while, and me running about in search of a technician. I’m not sure how much of it I bought though.

The audience responses were interesting. The journalists complained that PR often won’t let them speak to the scientists they want to, especially if the story is bad news, and that their editors force them to write up the PR-produced stories as news, else it will be passed to a non-specialist and end up even worse! Also present were various press officers, who complained that they don’t like being tarred with the same brush as PR, and that “P” is badly defined anyway. It made for an interesting and heated session – not just because the room was sweltering!

After some more book selling and some general milling about I head off, along with everyone else, to the Gala Reception at the Natural History Museum. Whilst a very impressive location, the acoustics weren’t quite suited to the various speeches given, and it was hard to hear what was being said. The food however was excellent, including a mini fish and chip canapé!

Another enjoyable if lengthy day then. Tomorrow is the last proper day of the conference, and I’ll try to blog as much as I can. See you then!

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 1 July 2009 at 12:38 am by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Apologies for the lateness of this blog post, but I’ve only just got in from the post-WCSJ pub trip. I spent most of today on the Association of British Science Writers stand selling books – quite successfully I might add – but I did get to see some of the rest of the conference. As it’s late, I’ll resort to bullet points:

  • Science Minister Lord Drayson gave his and the government’s support to the WCSJ.
  • The BBC’s Pallab Ghosh believes that science journalism can change the world.
  • The panel discussing whether science journalism is in crisis concluded “yes”, “no” and “maybe”. They stressed that whilst traditional funding models (i.e. advertising) are drying up, “new media” offers new possibilities. How these possibilities are funded, I’m not quite clear.
  • Quentin Cooper of the BBC’s Material World gave entertaining introductions to conference sponsors, who were as exciting as you might expect.

That’s about all I managed to scribble down during my day’s escapades. I’ll try and come up with something a bit more substantial tomorrow!

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2 Comments » Posted on Monday 29 June 2009 at 10:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

I will be spending all this week helping out at World Conference of Science Journalists at Central Hall Westminster, so you can expect nightly blog posts on my activities that day. This morning, I headed down to Westminster at noon to begin setting up at the conference. This mostly involved boxes. Lots of boxes.

A quirk of architecture – a flight of five stairs – made moving said boxes an almost farcical affair. To get everything to the exhibition hall, we had to take the goods lift from the ground floor to the third floor. A short circuit of the building later to a regular lift, it was down from there to the first floor. Repeat as necessary.

Besides the various materials needed for the exhibition stands, we also had to put together around 800 delegate bags. This required an assembly line of various leaflets, but when the bags were ready they had to be taken to the reception area. Whilst everyone else toiled away stuffing bits of paper together, the job of shifting them all fell to me. So if you’re attending the WCSJ, when you pick up your nicely packed delegate bag, remember that I personally lugged around every single one of them!

Not much in the way of science then, and I unfortunately had to miss the conference reception at the Science Museum. It’ll be an early start tomorrow, but I’m hoping to blag my way into at least a few sessions. All will be reported in the evening.