How Science News has been a training ground for young science journalists
When I was hired as a summer intern at Science News in 2017, I was equal parts excited and anxious. I’d heard the job had a steep learning curve. But given that physics and astronomy writer Marcia Bartusiak, my graduate school mentor, had gotten her start as a Science News intern — and Marcia was pretty much everything I wanted to be when I grew up — I’d decided to brave the gig.
Though he retired shortly after I arrived, former Science News editor in chief Tom Siegfried still occasionally appeared in the office during my internship. A few times, he edited my stories. During those edits and over lunch breaks, Tom proved to be a font of advice for the trainee science writer: Carry a notebook everywhere. Don’t overstuff a sentence with too many ideas. Don’t start stories with a question; it is a journalist’s job to tell readers something, not the other way around.
That advice served me well as an intern and later as a Science News staff reporter — although I did recently break the no-questions rule to make a fart joke. (Sorry, Tom.) And when I started researching the origins of Science News for my history of the magazine, I discovered that the publication has served as a training ground for science journalists from the very start.
When Edwin Slosson took charge of Science Service in 1921, science journalism was still a nascent field. So Slosson found himself editing a lot of newbie science writers. He, like Tom, “also dispensed advice, liberally, like salt over a bowl of popcorn,” according to historian Marcel LaFollette. In 1950, Science News Letter posthumously published some of Slosson’s science writing maxims.
A few of Slosson’s tips were about hooking readers. A writer should always imagine, he said, “that your reader is interrupting you every ten lines to ask, ‘Why?’ ‘What for?’ or ‘Well, what of it?’” When it came to untangling complex scientific concepts, Slosson warned, “don’t overestimate the reader’s knowledge and don’t underestimate the reader’s intelligence.”
A few of Slosson’s pointers were a bit more arcane. “Don’t regurgitate undigested morsels,” he advised. “It is a disgusting habit.” Perhaps Slosson meant writers should not simply echo jargon used by scientists. Or that reporters should not repeat ideas without considering their validity and context. Either way, it’s certainly one piece of writing advice I’ve never forgotten.
In the decades since Slosson’s editorship, Science News has upheld his legacy of bringing up new science journalists. Barbara Culliton, a former editor at Science and Nature and former president of the U.S. National Association of Science Writers, cut her teeth at Science News in the 1960s. Being a cub reporter for the magazine was great, because she had “an opportunity right off the bat to start writing real stories and talking to real people,” Culliton says. “That was a great advantage in actually learning content, in meeting scientists, in getting to know other journalists. It was really the foundation that has built my career and a lot of others.”
Several current Science News staff members, including astronomy writer Lisa Grossman and senior neuroscience writer Laura Sanders, are former interns. Other internship alums have gone on to write for publications such as National Geographic, BuzzFeed and the Washington Post. Laura Helmuth, editor in chief of Scientific American, interned at Science News in 1999.
“You aren’t treated like the intern. You’re treated like just another staff writer,” Helmuth says. “It’s terrifying at first, but also very empowering.” Helmuth recalls how Science News staff helped her hone story ideas and connect with researchers. “The Science News internship was considered one of the very best for training you how to be a really good reporter and writer.”
The internship, which dates to at least the 1970s according to our records, is still something of a crash course in science journalism. “It focuses on the nuts and bolts of science writing — getting the science right, while wrapping it in a story,” says news director Macon Morehouse, who mentors Science News interns. One big goal, she says, “is for interns to come out with a real facility, or at least improvement, in how they can handle the bread-and-butter science story.” That includes getting comfortable covering unfamiliar fields and turning around stories on tight deadlines.
“It was a really good learning experience,” says Jack Lee, who interned at Science News in 2020 and is now a communications fellow at the National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Md. “Macon definitely gave advice where needed, but was also willing to let me try to figure it out on my own.” Lee recalls rewriting one story several times to meet Science News’ high standards. “That was a big turning point for me, because it was hard and probably the story that I’m most proud of, just because I stuck with it.”
Lee knew, coming into the Science News internship, that it was notoriously difficult. But he felt that if he could hack it at Science News, he could make it as a science writer anywhere. Learning how to manage edits, along with other skills like pitching stories and fact-checking, has served him well in freelance journalism, Lee says. “It opened a lot of doors.”
March 24, 2022 at 05:30PM