An Interview with Eva Wolfangel

Eva Wolfangel was told repeatedly to forget journalism and find another career. But today she is the European Science Writer of the Year. A freelance science journalist from Germany, Wolfangel received the award in 2018 for stories that covered a range of topics — from the life and work of Russian cosmonauts to the use of biometrics to identify bank customers. In its nomination of Wolfangel, the German Science Journalists’ Association, WPK, said: “Time and again, Eva Wolfangel proves that even in the difficult and unemotional field of technology journalism, you can produce pieces that surprise and touch people. With great creativity, clarity of thought and expression she finds unusual ways of addressing ‘unwieldy’ topics.” 

Here, Showcase talks to her about her career path and career tricks. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Eva Wolfangel

Tell me a little about your career path. How and when did you get the writing bug?

The writing virus actually infected me at school, and it’s one of the only constants in my life. I wrote in high school for the school newspaper, and my teachers still rave about the letters that I wrote to them with excuses when I sometimes skipped school. At the same time, I wrote as a freelancer for local newspapers — most of all court reports, because I already found those stories the most exciting.

Afterwards I studied Cultural Studies, History and Literature in Berlin and worked as a freelancer for various newspapers. But at that time, I started to have my first doubts. I saw how much competition there is in journalism. There are so many great journalists, but so few jobs. And freelancing paid worse and worse. That’s why I started working in a bakery at night during my studies. Making bread was fun too, so from then on I told everyone provocatively: I’ll work all my life as a baker. But then that virus came back.

 Again, I was told to find another career. “Forget about journalism, it has no future.” That’s what the consultant of a career counselling service from the employment office said to me after my studies. But it only aroused an unbridled energy in me: I wanted to be a journalist, I knew I was good at it. But in 2003 at the height of the last major newspaper crisis in Germany I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

So, I started from the bottom-up as an editor of a local daily newspaper in southern Germany. The editor-in-chief appreciated me and gave me great freedom — allowing me to design a few weekly pages on scientific topics alone. I was my own boss. And in 2008, I was awarded with the German Aerospace Journalism Prize for those pages. Until then, only the big media outlets had won this prize. Some of their editors had never even heard the name of that small local newspaper I was working for before.

This success spurred me on. I quit my job and became a freelancer, expanded my focus as a technical journalist and trained myself further. I stretched myself out to the big magazines. It was an exhausting time, and I kept thinking about giving up. But the virus only grew stronger — and finally it worked! Today I write for most of the major German and Swiss media outlets. It took a lot of perseverance to get here, but it was worth it. And I learned two important life lessons: Listen to your heart and not to naysayers — and networking makes the world a better one.

Do you have any organizational tricks — both in reporting and writing — that help when you’re covering a huge issue?

Good question! These are undoubtedly the moments that still stress me the most to this day: starting to write after a lot of research with so many notes on paper on my writing desk — and everything has to fit into a single story! And this story has to be nicely structured and fun to read.

Two tricks help me, but the first one is becoming harder and harder to implement with the growing number of jobs I have as a freelancer. First, if possible, I try to do all the research in one go. So, I try to conduct individual interviews and on-site research as close together as possible. Then ideally, I start to write a first draft of the story immediately.

But that’s what I’m struggling with these days. I usually have too many requests for articles, meaning that I often have to research and write in parallel.

And second, it helps me to write in an environment where I cannot spread all the notes around me. Those mountains of material provide a mental block. In fact, the drafts for my best stories were actually created on the train, where there is nothing else to do and a bad internet connection. On the six-hour-journey from Stuttgart to Berlin (which I take often), I can easily write the first version of a story, including the beginning and the end as well as the relevant scenes. You have those scenes in your head (at least if the research is not too long ago).

Of course, there is still a lot of work to do: Verify the writing with the notes, add further facts from the research and so on. But if most of the story is there — especially the creative parts — then the hurdle is much lower to continue working on it. That’s my trick against writer’s block.

Let’s talk about the European Science Writer of the Year Award. Were you surprised to learn that you had won?

Oh yes, I was very surprised! At every single step of this process: My professional organization had nominated me for this award for Germany (every European country can nominate one writer) in January. Already I thought: What me? For Germany? Wow, I’ve achieved everything I can achieve. But then a few months later I found the jury’s mail in my inbox that I was among the finalists. Again, I thought: Is that true? That cannot be!  I should be one of the three best science writers in Europe?? Yes, and the biggest surprise came on stage when I suddenly heard my name …

Of course, such a decision is always a bit subjective and you need luck as well. The other two finalists are excellent science writers and do an impressive job — and certainly the other 20 nominees from all over Europe as well. I am delighted that the jury honored my stories and my commitment to combine science journalism, technical topics and creative writing.

That’s great! Do you have a ritual or life philosophy that you believe has led to your success?

I am convinced that an important aspect is my openness to surprises. Ideally, I don’t think in terms of results, but am open to what is to come. Of course, this is not easy at all as a freelancer, and I often ask myself: Is it right to invest so much time in this conversation for example or that encounter without being able to plan at that moment what will become of it? Will it pay off in the end?

Although the daily journalistic routine with its deadlines tempts you not to take the time for a closer look, this is my formula for success: I spend a lot of time at scientific conferences to track down developments. I take every opportunity to meet researchers in the margins of conferences for a background discussion. It is an investment, but it’s worth it. All my widely discussed reports have had such an origin: a background research with time and openness to the unexpected.

But I am convinced that this is only possible if you are really interested in a topic. Nature has endowed me with an incredible curiosity, which intuitively brings me again and again into situations in which I experience exciting things from people. I just can’t help asking about it and digging further and further if I’m interested.

This may be difficult as a freelancer, but as an employed editor it is probably impossible in many cases: It will be hard to convince an editorial team that you are immersing yourself in a topic “simply out of interest” and without a concrete publication idea. In view of the cost-cutting measures and the crisis of journalism, there are hardly any such jobs left in the editorial offices.

Therefore I am very happy about my great freedom as a freelancer. And all I can say for the editorial offices is: Create more jobs like this again! It pays off.

Wolfangel on a story assignment in Tokyo. There, she had two additional arms that she controlled with her feet.

Can you give me an example of a time when sheer curiosity eventually led to a story? Did this happen for any of the stories that garnered the European Science Writer of the Year Award?

Yes, the story on computer security is an example. I learned about it on the sidelines of a conference, the EuroScience Open Forum ESOF. And that’s just another tip: Don’t only attend the official lectures at these conferences, but also address researchers in between. Because I keep noticing this: For researchers, it is not intuitive what is worth reporting, what is a “story.” Only a few of my stories have their origin in official press releases, most of them are based on these coincidental encounters and extensive subsequent research.

In this case, a privacy researcher told me about the Israeli startup, which emerged from the secret service and applies espionage technologies to millions of unsuspecting bank clients. The next step was to convince an editorial team that I wanted to visit this startup on site and not only interview them via phone. When it comes to sensitive topics, I learn much more when I meet people onsite personally and also have time to wait and try again and again when I realize they want to hide something from me if they are just reserved.

In that story — and your others — I was impressed by how well you described today’s technology (even comparing a computer screen to Minesweeper). How do you go about breaking things down for a reader?

I think one of my big advantages is that I haven’t studied the subjects that I typically write about. As a cultural scientist I write about computer science, technology, the technologies of the future in general and how they change our lives.This makes it easier for me to keep an independent view and to ask the right questions: Those that are crucial when it comes to the implications of these technologies. At the same time, despite my critical view, I am a fan of new technologies and believe that if we apply them in an ethical good way and think them through well as a society, this will be a great future. And I see this as my responsibility: To ask these questions and to make this debate possible. Of course, I’ve also become an expert on my subjects: I’ve been writing about artificial intelligence, robots, virtual reality and so on for several years now. This in turn helps me a lot to be able to better assess topics and developments: Is it a hype or is there something behind it? Is this study serious?

And when it comes to breaking things down for the public, the first step, of course, is to understand for yourself what it is all about — and then to find the appropriate comparisons for it. I watch the places I research and the protagonists very closely. I look for comparisons rather than descriptive adjectives, because this is much more concrete and also easier to understand. It is not always easy to find a good symbol or a good comparison, and I am actually thinking about it consciously. My tip here is to have enough time for research to be able to take this perspective. I usually don’t find these comparisons during an interview but during the breaks when you seem to do “nothing”.

In general, when looking for new story ideas, what is the most important aspect? What criteria does a good story have?

For me, a good story needs good protagonists as well as a good topic. Of course, this is especially true for reportages — the style I simply like best. And this is often overlooked: that it is not enough to have a good idea or to have discovered an exciting development. That’s just the first step. Then it’s a matter of finding the right protagonists and the right perspective. Good protagonists are often not the people who come to mind first. And then — and this is probably the most difficult thing — you have to convince these protagonists not only to give interviews or — even worse — to show their PowerPoint presentations, but to interact with others and bear the fact that a curious journalist is hanging on their trousers for a few days. It’s not easy, but I think these are the ingredients for a good story.

Finally, what advice do you have for young science journalists?

Very concretely: Find a topic that really interests you and go into depth. Become an expert on your subject. Take enough time for research, even if the goal is not yet clear. Be open to chance.

And in general — as a philosophical attitude: Don’t listen to the naysayers. Be creative, try new methods and styles. Keep distance to people who say: “we have never done this before, we do not do it now” or “we always do it that way, there is no other way.”

And for all young freelancers who are struggling to be noticed by magazines and newspapers: Hold on, if you are convinced that freelancing is right for you (it doesn’t fit to everybody). I think it’s wonderful, but the start is tough — and I often thought, “journalism doesn’t work for me, I give up”. I am terribly impatient and therefore I advise you to be patient: it takes a long time to be seen. Take care and believe in your ideas.