This week I got to visit a part of London that is for me a hallowed place – the offices of The Guardian newspaper. I was participating in a workshop for the people who had been short-listed for the Wellcome Science Writing Prize, which is sponsored by the Guardian, and so made my way to its large glass headquarters behind Kings Cross.
I noted the personal significance of the occasion at the beginning of my remarks to the workshop participants. Alok Jha told me later he thought I had been joking. My sense of humour gets the better of me sometimes, but this time I was not speaking lightly. I have read The Guardian for as long as I have been reading newspapers because it was one of the papers that my father bought every day of his working life.
The Guardian isn’t everyone’s favourite read but it is mine and it was a real privilege for me to be part of it, if only for an afternoon. My remit in the workshop was to speak from the perspective of a scientist about science blogging. I told the assembled young writers how I approached it — extremely gingerly at first but with growing confidence — and then explained a little of the technical details of getting starting and staying in the game.
The other speakers at the workshop were Michael Reigner of the Wellcome Trust, who gave useful pointers on good writing, and James Randerson, The Guardian’s science editor, who outlined what he looks for when a freelancer pitches a story.
I’d like to wish anyone aiming to freelance as a science writer the very best of luck. James Randerson was up front about the tough times facing the newspaper industry, though he took care to offer some hope. He referred us to the Cudlipp lecture given by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in January of last year, which dissected the challenges facing journalism in the digital age. Though already 18 months old — the talk predated the iPad by a few weeks — Rusbridger’s analysis still seems on the money, even if the money is an increasingly uncertain quantity (a useful reminder that the scientific careers are not the only ones troubled by a doubtful future). His examination of the problem is clear-sighted but, despite the steady decline in newspaper sales, retains a sanguine eye on the future. The survival of journalism is important because, as we have been reminded in recent days, weeks and months with Liam Fox’s resignation, the exposure of phone hacking at the News of the World and of MP’s mis-use of expense claims, it serves a vital investigative function in an open society. The survival of journalism is something we should all be thinking about.
The lecture is long, but well worth reading. On a technical level it struck me that some of the difficulties — and opportunities — that the rise of the internet poses to traditional print journalism parallel those in academic publishing, a subject I have discussed recently and hope to return to. Randerson seems to have picked up on Rusbridger’s optimism and tweeted on Friday night:
@Stephen_Curry Sounds cheesy, but it has been and continues to be genuinely exciting. Feels like we are reinventing how to do news
The reinvention is due to the acceleration of news gathering and dissemination that is enabled by new technologies, but specifically involves the ability to link to sources, to engage other media — audio and video as well as the written word — and to involve the reader in reporting and commentary. The latter is something of a mixed blessing, as anyone who has perused a Guardian comment thread will know, but it is a feature that readers have come to expect.
The re-working of news also involves new ways of providing content. You can already get The Guardian on your iPhone but an app for the iPad was released earlier this week. It’s on free trial at the moment but will eventually cost you £9.99 a month. I tried it out today instead of buying the Saturday edition.
It’s too early to pass sound judgement on whether this is the future of newspapers. The interface is pretty slick and easy to use. The organisation of sections is similar to the newspaper though I’m not sure if it maps exactly to the printed edition; I couldn’t find the magazine section and so missed Tim Dowling’s funny column on family life. The layout of the front pages of each section seems a little picture-heavy to me, which limits the number of items on a single screen, a feature that slows down navigation through the content. I hate to say it but the Times iPad edition, which has gone for a more newspaper-like motif and has a denser layout of article thumbnails, feels better. But perhaps that is because the layout is more traditional so there is less of a rupture from my habitual reading experience. As a further sign of this problem of transition, I also missed the paper — the rustle and foldability — in using these screen-based versions, but that’s probably just nostalgia and will fade.
Coincidentally, parenthetically and finally, I came across another new publication for the iPad this week, a science magazine called Guru, which is produced by a team containing Stuart Farrimond, one of the short-listed science writers attending the workshop on Wednesday. This slickly designed science and lifestyle magazine is published only in electronic form every two months.
Guru is an impressive example of the power of digital technology. The magazine is created entirely by the voluntary efforts of a band of enthusiasts and is provided free. It may be an amateur effort but these days amateur efforts can easily look very professional. It made me think again about the plight of the academic author — and reader. As Research Libraries UK seek to face down journal price hikes from Elsevier and Wiley, it seems more and more like the right time to reinvent academic publishing.