Covering Science in Cyberspace

March 14, 2007

Harnessing the Internet

Yesterday I tagged along with one of the “break-out” groups, as they tackled their assignment: find a controversial subject in science, and cover it using the many interactive tools of the Internet. 

One questions popped up repeatedly as we brainstormed: how would we make this idea a viable business model?

Where would the money come from?

Who would use it?

How would our users find it?

Eventually, the group (very scientifically) agreed to assume that all of these questions were taken care of, so that they could continue with the exercise.

But skepticism was apparent.

When people no longer read newspapers and stop listening to the radio, will they accept lesser substitutes to the high-quality reporting that they used to get through traditional news outlets?

Or will they seek out new ways to find this information, and in doing so, make experiments like the one we participated in yesterday into feasible business models?

March 14, 2007

Getting Personal

Making a story personal is hard, especially when it’s about the newly discovered oceans of methane on Titan, as Adam Frank pointed out.  But it seems like everyone agrees that relatinga topic to a reader can make it better.

“There is a collective yawn out there,” Matt Crenson said, “so how can we shake them up?”

As groups present their projects this morning, there has been an emphasis on how best to draw people in to their sites through personal narratives.  One group proposed to feature families affected by global warming by allowing them to blog about their experiences.  It could feature a family from Antarctica, who is literally at the icy edge of the controversy, and a farming family in middle America, whose crops may be suffering. 

Matt Crenson suggested including an “interactive-build-your-own-story-assembler,” feature about stem cells.  The website would include primary resources, like the original science article describing the breakthrough, and audio files of interviews with a source.  The reader would be able to take a quiz, and their responses would go into a story.  Correct answers would be written in black, and incorrect answers would be red.  Users can then rate other user’s story, which takes advantage of people’s competitiveness.

Even though stories like Titan’s seas can’t be easily personalized, their inherent beauty can carry them.  While relating stories to people can be a great hook, we should all remember that on a basic level, people do care about science, and some things are just too cool to not write about.

March 14, 2007

The Central Resource (how to make it)

A running theme of this symposium seems to be that there’s a need for supplemental content online - a central resource of sorts - that will keep readers coming back for more information. How might such a site be reasonably implemented?

It seems to me that there are two possibilities: each publication could create several sub-sites for consistently hot issues, or there could be some non-partisan (non-profit? Governmental? International?) site to which many different publications could link.

Several sites already have sub-sites dedicated to particular issues. The New York Times, for example, has a sub-site dedicated to climate change . Of course, it seems that the last time it was updated was in 2001. It seems a good idea to put all the related articles from a publications archives into one place, but there may be practical barriers to this.

A central issue is that it’s costly to produce supplemental content (as Vicki Valentine and others pointed out in yesterday’s web technology show-and-tell session).

One solution to this might be found in another idea that’s floated around today: the idea of responding to hot topics.

The second group suggested that their site might somehow respond to whichever stories were most-clicked on Yahoo! or Google news. They also suggested that the most-clicked topics on (or portions of) their site could change colors (which I think is an excellent idea).

Because of the high price (in money and time) of fancy supplemental material, it might be practical for sites (either within a publication or at a non-profit) to wait a minute before developing such content. That way, they could add bells and whistles selectively to those stories that actually generated interest. Or they could add fancy video side bars to stories they thought needed more attention.

The issue with non-partisan resource sites is: How could you get Science, Nature, the New York Times, the USA Today, Discover, National Geographic, and all the rest (sorry if I didn’t hit your publication) to link to the same page?

Who would they all trust to accurately portray all the information on the issue, when they all rely for their survival on being known as the Best Source themselves?

March 14, 2007

Good interactive ideas

Yesterday Cris Russell asked what “interactive” meant. She pointed out that merely clicking around a web site is little different than flipping through a newspaper or magazine.

Some of today’s suggestions have proposed excellent ideas to have readers meaningfully interact with a web page.

* Calculating your own carbon emissions
* Dueling blogs (two on one page) or Expert blogs (hopefully with expert contributions, to avoid he said/she said faux-balance of opinions)
* Coolest user on YouTube
* Interactive maps (to which users can upload their own illustrations of climate change, for example)

Also, I think it’s a great idea (nice one, Kat) to get attention-starved and under-appreciated grad students to advertise their work online. It would probably be a lot of work to set up a streaming feed from a lab, and to would require quite a bit of technical expertise. But we grad students are used to having to do all the work, and by and large science grad students are fairly tech-savvy. So a site would only have to ask, “do you want to be a celebrity?” and grad students would probably jump to do whatever it took to post information from their lab.

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This blog was written by prominent science journalists and science communicators who attended the Knight Digital Media Center Best Practices: Covering Science in Cyberspace seminar.

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