In addition to training writers from across the globe, the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT keeps an eye on what we all produce. The KS Journalism Tracker web site notes that, for the past six years, its writers have “commented on the effectiveness and balance of thousands of news stories.” The program recently lauched a redesiged web site, but the Tracker’s mission remains the same. Today it counts 30,000 hits a month, including many from Spanish-speaking readers interested in posts on Latin Amerian science journalism. The site hopes to offer the same service to Chinese-speaking science writers.
Earlier this week, Nature Boston talked Phil Hilts, the former New York Times reporter who runs the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT.
What is the thinking behind the Tracker?
(Charlie Petit’s) original idea was just to do a little round up of a bunch of stories. What he noticed was — science writers, while they know each other and see each other at meetings, they don’t really see each other’s work very much.
… He started getting into the idea that you could pick out a couple of good stories and identify them and do a little critique – and once in a while do a critique when something went wrong. (The posts) are all supposed to be relatively short. They’re starting to get a little too long and I’ve started complaining to (the writers.)…I like a mixed length and not too much analysis.
What’s the difference between an analysis and a critique?
My sense of analysis is that it tends to go pretty deep and long. I don’t really want deep and long.
This is a blog and … (Readers) go to it because they’re interested in what is going on. … If you give them this large post, it’s going to quickly put them off. Once in a while, a little longer that’s fine. But mainly they want to jump on and see two or three or four items – here are some good stories or everybody is doing this story this way.
Do you feel the need to concentrate on work from professional journalists as opposed to scientists who blog?
My idea is to work for science writers in general. When you get to this other category, I don’t know what to call them. Maybe we don’t have to call them anything. Maybe we’re all in the same business and we do it slightly differently. Some of the scientists are pretty much writing opinion. But I don’t think we need to have strict boundaries and decide who’s in and who’s out. Let’s just say everyone is in.
How do you ensure the quality of the posts when the writers are editing their own work?
“That’s why we are paying them. They have the judgment. These are all very, very senior people… That was the idea from the beginning — the most senior people with a reasonable voice and a track record.
How often do you have to correct or pull a post?
Corrections happen. When you get it wrong, you correct it…Those happen pretty often. I don’t recall pulling a post.
Conversations on the science blogosphere can get pretty ugly. How do you deal with that?
You have to sign up. The reason is we don’t want to have crappy conversations on the site. Once in a while you get comments that are a little bit off. But we mostly monitor it. We just want to keep it respectable… If it’s not, we’ll cut it out.
In the end, what you want is science writers to be in one community. That’s what this is about – science writers reading other science writers stuff and commenting on other science writers’ stuff. … It’s supposed to be like a conversation you would have in the newsroom at the end of the day.