Readable, Accurate and Engaging: an Interview with Terry Devitt

Image courtesy of The Why Files.
Image courtesy of The Why Files.

Off the top of my head, I can list dozens of websites that offer readers science news. But in 1996, there were very few websites devoted exclusively to sharing high-quality science writing. One of the first sites to step into that niche was The Why Files, and it’s still cranking out stories almost two decades later.

One of the founders of The Why Files is Terry Devitt, who is also the director of research communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I wanted to talk to Terry about the genesis of The Why Files, what he’s learned from running the site for so long, and how working as a science PR guy has changed since he started in 1984.

Communication Breakdown: I know you got undergraduate and master’s degrees in journalism. What drew you to science writing, as opposed to other forms of news writing?

Terry Devitt: It was a happy accident. In a former life as a general assignment reporter, I was asked one too many times by an editor to call the family of a murder victim for comment. Not wanting to spend a career doing that, I fled to graduate school and was very, very fortunate to meet Sharon Dunwoody. I was at first interested in environmental journalism, but Sharon introduced me to the broader science writing subculture and I was hooked. What could be better than having the universe as a beat?

CB: You’ve been at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for more than 30 years, first as an undergrad, then as a graduate student, then working for the university as a science writer, editor and director of research communications. How has the job of university science writing changed since you went to work for the university in 1984?

Devitt: It’s changed fundamentally, especially in recent years with the advent of social media and the need/demand for instant media gratification. We still do nuts-and-bolts science writing, but the Internet (not yet invented when I started in the business), the web, social media and the tools technology puts at our disposal have changed how we work and how our work is shared. Researchers are also much more interested in engaging with science writers. In the day, it was hard, sometimes, to get in the door and spend time with genuinely busy people. Now, they mostly seek us out and we have more work than we can manage. This is partly due to the fact that the act of making science accessible is valued, not just by universities, but also by the funding agencies and private philanthropies that support science. There are more expectations of us.

The media landscape has also undergone a revolution. There were many more dedicated staff science writers at news organizations. Now, there are so many good science writers working independently. There are probably more science writers in the world, but channeling things of value to that cohort is a challenge. I am lucky to have some amazing colleagues who are facile with social media, and they’re helping us solve that problem.

One of the things I have tried to maintain is that personal connection with scientists. If I can, I meet scientists in their native habitats where they are most comfortable and where one can absorb a little bit of the ethos of a particular project, lab or line of research. Going toe-to-toe with people who are really enthused about their work and its possibilities, and providing them with what I hope is a useful service, is what keeps me interested. The science is more complex and nuanced, but I’m a sucker for discovery and the native enthusiasm of the scientist.

CB: Have those changes made the job easier? More difficult? A little of both?

Terry Devitt. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)
Terry Devitt. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Devitt: Both. Technology is a double-edged sword. It helps us report. It helps us disseminate news and other things of interest. We’re our own publisher in many respects, with direct access to large, built-in audiences. The imagery we have at hand routinely now is amazing. On the other hand, technology means work follows us almost wherever we go. I may be the last person in Madison with a flip phone. I don’t relish the thought of e-mail chasing me wherever I go. Even with my low-end technology I get calls while snowshoeing weekends in the Wisconsin woods!

CB: You’ve also done a fair amount of freelance reporting. I find it tough to balance freelance writing gigs and a full-time day job. How do you make that work?

Devitt: I’ve stepped away from freelancing for now. I did a lot when I was helping pay for braces and college tuition for my two sons. I hope to get back in the game at some point, but the day job has become so consuming and more than a little stressful.

CB: I’m also a university science writer who does occasional freelance work. One of the challenges of that position is the need to ensure that there’s not even the perception of any possible conflict of interest. How do you handle that, and what’s your advice for other people in the same position?

Devitt: Avoid even perceived conflicts. I turned down work after noticing folks from Wisconsin on the authors’ list, even when they’re in the middle of the cast of characters. Having as few conflicts as possible bolsters one’s credibility, which is needed for both the day job and any freelance work that may come your way.

CB: In 1995, you began work on The Why Files. Can you explain exactly what The Why Files is?

Devitt: The Why Files is a popular science web project that goes back to the earliest days of the web. We posted our first story in January 1996. We publish a new illustrated story about some aspect of science or technology each week and we’ve done that continuously for about 19 years now. We also provide some modest resources for teachers and the K-12 community. The project is still going strong, enjoys amazing support from the UW-Madison community, and much of the original team is still in place. It’s my night job.

CB: What was the impetus for The Why Files? What were your goals for the project when you started?

Devitt: Out of the gate, the goal was to produce good science writing for the web, which in 1996 was a desert. We were one of the very first popular science web sites. The mission was to “explore the science behind the news” and provide readable, accurate and engaging information about science and how it is done to mass audiences. For the first decade or so of our existence, we also served as a research platform for social scientists studying the web and how people used it. If you dig deep enough into our site you can find a pretty substantive bibliography of published research on our project. We also appreciate that we have an educational role. We’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing students over time, a few of whom have gone on to successful careers in the science writing business. We’ve also had students from the sciences, history and library science contribute over the years.

CB: How did you secure funding for the project when you started, and how is the project funded now?

Devitt: We began as part of the National Science Foundation-funded National Institute for Science Education. We helped a group of folks here navigate a site visit where the reviewers had expressed an interest in supporting an effort to informally communicate science to mass audiences. They were successful and got their $10 million award for the institute. The shocker was that after landing the award, the PIs called us up and said, “OK, we got the grant. Now you have to step up and deliver for us.” We had no clue what that would be, but the web was in its infancy and we had a strong science writing presence, so the project launched as a lab of sorts for seeing what was possible in terms of seeding popular science in this new medium. Of course, on soft money once you are successful, they kick you out of the nest. Our funding has transitioned to institutional support. We’re fortunate, but I think we’ve proven to the people who support us that the investment is a good one.

CB: I know that you’re the editor of The Why Files, but I also see that current and former staff includes both professional writers and students. What does the division of labor look like in terms of reporting, writing, editing, providing images, and maintaining the site?

Devitt: Science writer Dave Tenenbaum does much of the heavy lifting. Dave is a terrific science writer and, pound for pound, one of the most prolific writers I know. Sue Medaris is our designer/illustrator. She’s one of those rare creatures that has two very deep skill sets. Darrell Schulte is the web/IT guru, and we always have a graduate student project assistant. Kevin Barrett, a doctoral candidate in botany, is our current PA. We’re assuming the experience won’t damage his career.

CB: How has The Why Files changed since you first launched it?

Devitt: The team size and configuration remain the same. We’ve obviously gone through a number of site redesigns, which are massive undertakings as we have more than a decade of archived content. When we started there were no models for good design or navigation. We have that pretty well in hand now, I think. In terms of producing good, salient science stories, the formula remains the same, but we have grown the project in other ways.

Playing off of our Cool Science Image feature, we’ve launched a CSI contest for the UW-Madison community. We’ll launch our fourth iteration of the contest in late January of next year. We get on the order of about 100 submissions each year, we award ten with prizes, produce nice hard copies of the images for the winners, and have a gallery show in association with the McPherson Eye Research Institute, part of our medical school. That’s been a lot of fun as science is undergoing a revolution in imaging and there are so many amazing, informative pictures to share. The fact that the contest engages and draws from a broad cross-section of this large university is gratifying.

CB: Do you make the stories on The Why Files available for re-use by other outlets, via Creative Commons licensing or similar? Why or why not?

Devitt: We do. We handle requests on a case-by-case basis, and our material is frequently repurposed in other venues. We’re in the business of sharing science, and as long as our material is not altered and we’re credited, we’re happy with the opportunity to reach a wider audience.

CB: The stories on The Why Files sometimes feature research (and researchers) from UW-Madison, but not always. How do you decide which stories to pursue for the site? Are you expected to cover a certain number of UW-Madison stories because of the university’s financial support?

Devitt: Story selection, believe it or not, is a democratic process within the team. We discuss ideas for features and stories and then vote. Many of our stories have no UW-Madison sources in them. While it is hard to resist the temptation to draw on the vast resource outside our door, we don’t view ourselves as a parochial operation. Our mission is to share science broadly and we draw on the best sources we can engage for a particular story.

CB: The Why Files turns 20 in the next year or so. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from running the site over the past two decades?

Devitt: I think the most important lesson for me is that sometimes opportunity presents itself and taking a risk can pay huge dividends. The Why Files has enjoyed a lot of critical success, and was the first web project recognized when NASW and AAAS began awarding science writing prizes for work in that medium. The big lesson is that it pays to be edgy, a smart edgy.

CB: Can you tell me about one or two stories that really stand out to you from the past 20 years?

Devitt: Gosh, there are so many. With The Why Files, I think what is impressive is the body of work. It’s consistently good, I think, and provides a non-commercial platform for quality, straight-up science writing. We’ve had some fun, too. We once did a parody of Mad Magazine. That was fun.

CB: Are there any particular success stories that have stemmed from The Why Files that stand out to you, in regard to the university or students who have been involved?

Devitt: One of the gratifying aspects of The Why Files is hitting all three missions of UW-Madison. There is the obvious outreach aspect to the project. We have an educational component in terms of the students we train. Although the web is no longer new and much better studied, the fact that we served as a social science lab and a source of new knowledge about the web is a point of pride. Finally, and perhaps most gratifying, is knowing that the project has some small cachet in the science and science writing communities. There is nothing like recognition from your peers.

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