Thank you for all your comments on the Marketing for Scientists Facebook group about press embargoes and their effect on scientists. Today I was lucky to get Dan Vergano from USA Today on the horn to hear his take on the matter—and get his pointed comments on the tumultuous state of science and science reporting.
Before he became the award-winning USA Today reporter that we all know and revere, Vergano had jobs as a window installer, pizza delivery boy, golf course lawnmower, wind tunnel construction crewmember, FDA clerk, and CD-ROM debugger, among other things. All of those experiences, Dan says, were good training for his career in journalism.
You might say Vergano’s formal training began when he earned a B.S. from Penn State in aerospace engineering in 1990. Then he went off to graduate school on a George Washington University research fellowship at NASA’s Langley Research Center before he switched fields and headed to George Washington University to complete a masters in science policy. He became a researcher for a PBS health-news show, a reporter for Medical Tribune before taking his current job at USA Today. Besides the steady flow of influential print articles he has written for the world about our science, Dan also writes a blog called ScienceFair.
Dan thinks fast and talks fast, and I type slow. But I think I got most of the important points down—and there were many of them!
MK: Dan, let’s jump right in. Tell me about something fun you’re working on these days!
DV: Gee, I don’t like to give away what I’m working on to people. But right now I’m doing a fun history of technology piece. The Smithsonian is going to do a demonstration of civil war ballooning that I’m writing about. There’s a lot about how technology was used back then that people aren’t aware of. It’s always fun to talk to the Smithsonian curators.
By the way, it’s very nice you’re doing this. I’ve enjoyed reading the interviews with the other fellows.
MK: Thank you, Dan! So what do you think of the notion of marketing applied to the world of science?
DV: It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing. Everybody is marketing themselves all the time. Obviously it’s a tricky thing in science. The main thing in science is to maintain a good reputation. How you’re seen by your peers is crucial to getting grants. But of course, hiding your light under a bushel is never a good idea.
Scientists are generally pretty savvy about this. They tend to be good at presenting themselves to their peers. Maybe not to the rest of the world, but certainly to their peers.
MK: What’s your take on the state of science right now, in the U.S. and elsewhere?
DV: Well you can answer that question a lot of ways. Science receives a lot of support from the public compared to a lot of things. And scientists are respected a lot more than people in our society. They are up there with firemen.
But at the same time, there is general misunderstanding of scientific subjects among the public that’s very worrisome. There are a lot of people who are concerned that people aren’t getting enough science education. It’s clear that not everything is perfect.
There’s been a concern over NIH taking cuts or flatlining. There’s an oversupply of lab space and young scientists. And there’s a lot of anxiety in science in general. We may be in for another bout of political battles over science. It seems like a return to the Proxmire days. [The late Senator Proxmire create the “Golden Fleece” awards for programs he wanted to present as wastes of Federal money—-including many serious and consequential science projects.]
It’s a strange time because there’s also a lot of support for STEM education. I was just in a room with four senators—-and it’s not often I get four senators to myself—-and they were all telling me about how they wanted to support STEM education. But the oversupply of postdocs and Ph.D.s is certainly something the whole field has to deal with.
MK: What’s your sense about how we’re doing compared to other countries? Dennis Overbye was concerned that we are being overtaken by scientists overseas.
DV: I don’t see a lot of evidence that innovation has died in the United States and gone to Europe. Dennis is a physics writer and he’s probably looking at the prospects for us getting a linear collider, and seeing that it’s likely impossible here in the U.S. If I were a physics writer I would be depressed right now unless I were in Switzerland.
But jeeze, the U.S. biomedical enterprise is a juggernaut. Other nations are trying to build something like that. And if [Dr. Shinya] Yamanaka in Japan discovers a better way to make stem cells, its not like the benefits stay in Japan. The notion that the rest of the world is innovating like crazy and that’s bad for our scientists is only looking at one side of a glass. Science is an international endeavor.
Also it’s not clear to me that the quality of research done overseas is equal to the quality of the research done here even if they are writing more papers.
MK: How would you describe the state of science journalism?
DV: Well, what I do, for writing for a mass audience—it’s not a great career choice.
Cris Russell has documented the decline of science reporting. We lost our Health and Science section [at USA Today] in August. So business is bad. [Sighs]
I do see kids getting jobs for places like Discover online. But it’s not clear to me that that’s going to lead to the kind of middle class living I enjoy. Anybody can write a blog now. I just don’t see you getting health care and being able to pay for your kids and your parents on the money you get from doing that.
And I fear that [today’s bloggers] are making the same mistakes science reporters made in the 1940s and 50s. I worry that science blogs aren’t into the culture of verification that reporters are. They don’t really call a dozen people and find out about whether the paper’s right or not. We used to do it that way back in the 40s. It wasn’t till Rachel Carson that science reporters started taking a harder look at things.
I don’t like the word “journalism” by the way. It’s a word that covers a lot of different people and a lot of different things. I usually say I’m a reporter. A journalist is a dead reporter. That’s what I was taught in journalism school. Calling yourself a journalist is putting on airs.
It’s like people who talk about “the media” all the time. Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s no such thing as “the media.” It’s just a bunch of people drinking coffee and typing.
MK: How do you think scientists should respond to these changes in science journalism? Oops, I meant to say, “reporting”.
DV: It depends on what you want! [laughs] If you want to get in the local paper, it’s easy, just go to your local PAO and tell him what you want. If you want your work to be known more widely, I think you can just send a note to a blogger directly. Like if you do work on parasites, and you have never sent a note to Carl Zimmer, you’re crazy.
Wait. If it’s a really good story you should send it to me. It’s an unusual scientist that actually contacts me with a new result.
Otherwise, I think you have to moderate your expectations in terms of mainstream press. You have to do something pretty spectacular to get coverage from us [at USAToday]. Like I don’t have a science section these days! So I have to market this stuff to editors who are interested in politics. So to use Dennis’s example, it has to be an extrasolar planet with water on it. It can’t just be any exoplanet.
MK: So how do you know when a story is ripe for USA Today?
DV: That’s the key question isn’t it? We’re doing this by feel. Is it something of such interest to everyone? Like would a guy who’s taking his daughter’s furniture to college and stops at a Hardees and buys a newspaper—would he want to stop and read this while he’s eating his sandwich?
If it’s something that’s got the attention of everybody in science, that might be enough. If it’s a big advance in a field that recently gotten a lot of press, that might be enough. There’s no set of criteria that we use. If you can imagine it in a national newspaper then it deserves a shot. It’s worth trying me——if it doesn’t make the paper maybe I can put it in my blog.
MK: Mike Lemonick raised the concern that science writers aren’t making much of a difference in educating the public. He said—and I’m paraphrasing—people remember Carl Sagan and they love Stephen Hawking but they don’t remember any of the science these writers have written about. Do you agree?
DV: Yeah I think that’s demonstrably true. Jon Miller at Michigan State has shown that the way people learn about science is by taking science classes in college. We don’t sell thinking lessons for a dollar out of newsstand.
I didn’t get into this because I thought I was going to reform the public or teach them. My interest in science reporting is to lend my training and expertise to stories that really matter: when Iran tests a nuke, you should have someone on staff who know the difference between an A-bomb and an H-bomb. When an earthquake goes off in Japan, there should be someone who’s comfortable talking to seismologists. When there’s outbreak of E. coli, you need someone who knows the difference between a virus and bacteria. Half of my beat has become disasters in the last two years.
There used to be joke among science reporters that they need someone in the newsroom who can calculate percentages!
My worry is that one day there won’t be someone on staff at the newspapers to explain it to people what it means when a dirty bomb goes off somewhere. It’s just a crime to have someone who is writing stories for millions of people who doesn’t understand the science behind the news.
MK: Is this a message for scientists? Do we need involve ourselves in disasters if we want to get in the press?
DV: Maybe—I mean that’s a great way to do it. There were a lot of people who got in the paper with the recent oil spill. But I think the main thing is to moderate your expectations for what coverage you’re going to get.
Newspaper advertising revenue has gone from 55 billion to 26 billion in five years. And people complain that there’s no astrophysicist on staff at a major paper. Well, that’s kind of like complaining that people on the Titanic weren’t lining up straight on their way to the lifeboats.
MK: We’ve been having a heated discussion on the Marketing for Scientists Facebook group about embargoes. Dennis Overbye was so fed up he said he was tempted to break the embargo with the Arsenic bacteria story and just print it; he said embargoes make it hard for him to get an informed opinion on a paper. On the other hand scientists from institutions with less press muscle favor embargoes because they help them compete for press attention. What’s your take on this issue?
DV: I’ve been wrong about the embargo for the last ten years. I expected them to just collapse. I thought that people would just start blabbing these embargoes and they wouldn’t hold. Science moving up the tipsheet release to Sunday to keep the Sunday British tabs from scooping stuff has helped.
Embargoes are just reprehensible from a peer reporting standpoint. I worry it makes science reporters lazy. It kills enterprise because everything’s spoon fed to you. I think its part of why science journalists aren’t held in high esteem among reporters because they are just spoon fed stuff. Of course it’s not simple stuff that we’re writing about. Quantum physics is not congressmen tweeting pictures of their underwear.
The argument for embargoes is that they make our life orderly. They give us time to check stuff out. They give you time to run the study past experts and get a sanity check.
According to Boyce Rensberger [long time science editor at the Washington Post, and scholar of the history of science reporting], the origins of the embargo system with JAMA, PNAS, Science and Nature were the smaller papers complaining that the larger papers were getting a jump on these studies. It does create a level playing field, that’s for sure.
MK: What about Dennis’s point that it’s harder to get an informed opinion about a paper when it’s embargoed?
DV: I don’t understand that at all. The tipsheet says here’s a copy of the paper. What you do is find people who are expert in the field and you send them a copy of the paper and ask their opinion of it.
MK: But what about the arsenic bacteria story where clearly it wasn’t well vetted by the community?
DV: Well that’s an interesting case. I called up scientists to ask them about the story. They said to me, “Well this would be interesting if it’s true.” They didn’t say, “This paper is a piece of shit”. One thing scientists don’t understand: if something is news we have to cover it, even if it’s crazy!
MK: So if there is a big enough fuss made about something, you have to cover it anyway, even if it’s trash?
DV: It’s the news business we’re in, not the perfect-statement-of-historical-fact business. If there is enough noise about something, we have to publish on it. Scientists aren’t quick to say when something is crap. So what’s going to be in the paper is this sort of lukewarm “well if it’s true it’s interesting” stuff.
However, there was a lot of fuss over the primate that was supposed to be a human ancestor, the Darwinius fossil, the “human ancestor that will change everything.” We had enough people telling us you don’t want to touch that! So we completely passed on the story. The Wall Street Journal gave it a good ride, though.
MK: Should we scientists banish the phrase “if it’s true it’s interesting” from our vocabulary?
DV: If what you really think about a paper is “this is crazy” then let me know. Or if you can’t talk about it that way because the person who wrote the paper is famous, you can tell me off the record that it’s junk.
MK: Besides embargoes, how else do people manipulate the press?
DV: In a gazillion ways. The main way is that you lie to us. There are as many ways to manipulate the press as there are ways to tell a lie. I think people see us as a bunch of dupes.
If you put yourselves in our shoes, you think about what kind of stories we would find appealing—it would make your life a lot easier. If you can make it sound important and get enough people interested in it then you’re there.
There are a lot of people who complain that scientists are bad at communicating. But I don’t think that’s the case. Well, they aren’t any worse than lawyers for God’s sakes.
MK: What’s the future of science and science reporting?
DV: I see it going from a profession to an art hobby in the next few years. I fear it will be a trade for poorly paid young people who will write stories off of press releases.
The real irony is that there’s tremendous interest in science but advertisers don’t place any special value on science stories. That value for a story about Lady Gaga is the same as a story about quantum mechanics. It’s the same penny they give us. But which story is harder to write?
If advertisers paid for ads to be next to science stories, we would still have a science section in USA Today. Look at the New York Times science section and count how many ads there are in it. There’s an ad for JR computers in the back and that’s it. They’ve decided that the ads are not going to sell their stuff if they are next to science stories. And it’s the same thing online.
MK: What are the kinds of stories that sell the most ads?
DV: Well let’s look at today’s USA Today. There’s a half page ad about natural gas and it’s next to a story about congressmen texting pictures of themselves to porn stars. There’s an ad on the front page of the sports section for seafood.
MK: Well, can we make the science stories easier to write?
DV: You’ve going to see a lot of re-reporting of press releases if that’s the case. Well—we already do see that.
My editor in chief said science is like the third favorite thing of all our readers. But advertisers want to attract 95% of men ages 41-43 who are about to buy a Lexus. That’s the degree of specificity advertisers want.
MK: Dan, thanks for spending so much time chatting with me. Is there any other advice you have for my readers?
DV: Yes! If you have your own blog, and you know you’re going to have a story out you should have your own take on the story ready on your blog. Just write it in ordinary language and put it on your lab website. I think there will be a lot of interest in what you have to say about your work in your own words.
Like there a site by Mike Brown that’s really great. Where there’s a paper coming out in his field he says on his blog “here’s how I see it. The papers claims to be about this, but what I really think is important is this”. We love his stuff.
I think scientists have more opportunities than ever to get their message out. This is the internet era, man; just do it yourself!
I asked Dan one more question by email after we got off the phone, to try to get at the heart of why science sections in newspapers are failing to attract advertisers.
MK: Dan, based on what you were telling me about targeted advertisements, it seems like, ironically, the broad appeal of science reporting is part of its downfall. Maybe this a question for an editor or advertising department, but is it possible for us in the science communication community to address the needs of advertiser, and thereby bring in the funds needed to support the reporting by defining more narrow target audiences for our articles? For example, science shows on cable television sometimes target young males by focusing on natural phenomena that cause destruction and mayhem—-tornadoes, black holes etc. Can newspaper editors and reporters achieve the same kind of targeting by writing articles keyed to certain demographics? Maybe connecting ads to articles via certain keywords (e.g. “destructive”) would do the job.
DV: I don’t know enough about the advertising business to answer your last questions. I would rather they created a vehicle where advertisers who want savvy, smart, readers would support science-related stories (not just gee whiz doggers, but long-form pieces with real connections to people’s lives), no matter how testosterone-addled or not. I’m sure many venues will tell you they are doing this. Ask them how many staff writers with health care and a decent wages they are hiring. They will tell you they use freelancers or unpaid bloggers — i.e. contributing to the de-professionalization of the discipline.