Learning From the Best

We all know that science journalism faces many challenges these days, but one that I think deserves more attention is the shrinking number of mentoring and training opportunities for early-career journalists. CASW has been looking for ways to address this, and we hope Showcase will be a step in that direction.

Learning on the job from experienced colleagues is an extremely effective way to build skills. And it has the added benefit of ensuring that journalistic principles, as well as best practices specific to science journalism, are passed on to the next generation. I was very lucky to find a mentor early on who was willing to coach me on everything from sentence structure to career goals. And a four-year stint at a local newspaper early in my career helped instill a strong commitment to journalistic principles.

But the chance of starting out in a newsroom surrounded by seasoned journalists is much narrower for those entering the field today than it was 20, or even 10 years ago. Staff positions are much harder to come by, and even when a young writer manages to land one, she’ll often find that time and resources for training are scarce.

And more new writers than ever are entering the field as freelancers from the start. They may not make it to the annual meeting, or have an editor with time to explain why edits were made, or get to meet a veteran journalist like Dave Perlman in the press room at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting.

Those of us with experience should be looking for ways to fill this void. We can reach out to new colleagues at gatherings like the annual ScienceWriters meeting, respond generously to inquiries from newer writers, or prioritize spending time with interns or junior staffers at our respective publications to just talk about the job and field questions.

Still, we’ll never be able to reach them all. This is one of the motivations behind the CASW Showcase project. There was no obvious place online to find a lot of examples of the best science journalism. So the CASW board set out to provide an easy way for science writers to read, be inspired by, and learn from the best work in the field.

We started by selecting some of our favorite pieces among award-winning stories. They were drawn from awards that include the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards, the NASW Science in Society Journalism Awards, the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative and Communication Awards and of course our own Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award for Young Science Journalists and Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting. Over time, we’ll build the collection with more current and previous winners of those awards, as well as other awards specific to beats within science journalism.

We’re also very excited about a feature of the Showcase site called Storygrams. In partnership with The Open Notebook, we’ll provide in-depth analysis of a select few award-winning stories. With funding from CASW, The Open Notebook is working with top editors, writers and journalism professors to break down what is great about these stories and produce annotated “story diagrams” of them. Check out the first one, of Cally Carswell’s High Country News piece, “The Tree Coroners,” annotated by Tom Yulsman. The idea is to give science writers insight into how the best science journalism is done. We’re also working with journalism professors to build the series into a teaching tool for students.

Our hope is that this will be both inspiring and helpful for writers of any experience level, but especially for those early-career journalists who don’t attend a journalism program or start out in a newsroom full of experienced journalists.

Betsy Mason is a CASW board member and freelance science journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is co-author of a blog about maps at National Geographic called “All Over the Map.