Quantity, Quality, and Scope: an Interview with Siri Carpenter

(Photo credit: doctor-a/stock.xchng.)
(Photo credit: doctor-a/stock.xchng.)

MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program (KSJ) announced April 13 that it will be providing financial support to the non-profit website The Open Notebook (TON). KSJ will give TON $60,000 under a one-year pilot agreement to support the site’s mission of helping science journalists sharpen their skills.

TON is a great resource for science reporters, and science writers generally, so I reached out to TON co-founder Siri Carpenter to learn more about the agreement and what KSJ’s support will enable TON to do as it moves forward.

Communication Breakdown: What’s your journalism background?

Siri Carpenter: I got started in science journalism while I was working on my Ph.D. in social psychology at Yale in the late 90s. Toward the end of college, where I was majoring in psychology, I had had the idea that I wanted to be a writer who writes about science—but I was thoroughly assured by many professors that no such job existed, and had more or less dropped the idea and went to grad school instead. (Awesome, dogged investigating, Siri.)

A couple years later, in grad school, I was reading the science section of the New York Times one Tuesday and had the epiphany that writing these stories was somebody’s job—and maybe something like that could be my job. Pretty quickly I knew that was what I wanted, and I was very fortunate that my adviser, Mahzarin Banaji, enthusiastically supported me.

Siri Carpenter. (Photo courtesy of Siri Carpenter.)
Siri Carpenter. (Photo courtesy of Siri Carpenter.)

I didn’t know any science writers, but a friend introduced me to a natural history writer named Bruce Fellman, who edited the Yale Alumni Magazine. Bruce encouraged me and showed me one picture of the writing life, which made not being an academic somehow seem more realistic. When I typed “science writer” into a search engine (or “portal,” as they were called in those dinosaur days), I discovered that there was a National Association of Science Writers. Perceptive reporter that I was, I inferred that this meant that in fact, yes, this was a job. The NASW website had a listserv that I felt too shy to write to, but it also had a list of science writers who had email addresses—all 12 of them or whatever. I emailed a bunch of people with my newbie questions, which basically amounted to: “So, how does this work?”

Charles Seife was the one kind soul who emailed me back, and I will forever be grateful—and I always try to pay that favor forward. He shared all kinds of useful information about the profession and what kinds of directions you could take and ways to get started. He also told me about the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program, which is where I ended up getting my feet wet, as an intern in 1998 at the science desk of the Richmond Times-Dispatch under the mentorship of A.J. Hostetler, a great science journalist who patiently taught me things like what a lede was and why it was spelled that way, and how to reach sources who may not want to be reached, and why stories should have some kind of a point. I lapped it up.

The next summer, I was lucky enough to get a slot in  Science News’s internship program, with Rich Monastersky (now at Nature) as mentor. Rich was a great mentor because like A.J., he had very high standards. He also alerted me to some key concepts, including that turning in features that are 100 percent over the assigned length is discouraged.

After those two internships, I finished up my Ph.D. and then got a job writing for the magazine of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., where I worked for two years before moving to Madison, Wisconsin and going freelance, in 2002.

CB: TON’s mission statement says that its goal is to provide “tools and resources to help science journalists at all experience levels sharpen their skills.” You’re one of the co-founders of the site. You co-founded TON with Jeanne Erdmann in 2010. What was the impetus for creating an online resource like this one?

Carpenter: At first it wasn’t nearly that ambitious. Jeanne and I had become friends at an NASW meeting, maybe in 2008 or so, and we kept in touch, talking on the phone about our work and nudging each other along to get pitch letters our and pursue more ambitious stories and so on. Pretty often we found ourselves talking about stories we’d read that we admired, and sometimes we’d wonder aloud about how a writer accomplished some aspect of the thing—how did this writer think of this story idea, or get that source to open up, or wrestle so many threads into a single story … that kind of thing. At some point it occurred to us that we could do some interviews with writers to try to get “the story behind the story.” We thought that maybe by doing that, we’d learn some things that would help us be better reporters and writers. And then we thought, “Hey, maybe if we put these interviews on the web and maybe some other people would enjoy them.”

CB: TON has a lot of features, from “Story-Behind-the-Story” interviews that detail the development of a news story to the “A Day in the Life” posts that outline the daily routines of science writers. What sort of features did you have in mind when you started TON, and how have TON’s features changed over time? I’m curious about how your approach to sharing tips with fellow science reporters may have evolved, based on your own experiences and reader feedback.

Carpenter: I think Jeanne and I both still think of the story-behind-the-story interviews as the real heart of TON, the thing that feels most like sitting around a campfire and swapping stories with others in the tribe. I think we’ve done about 60 of those interviews now, and to me each one offers up new revelations—I just can’t get enough of hearing stories about how other writers go about their work and solve their dilemmas and reconcile themselves to what they have to leave on the cutting-room floor.

But you’re right, the site has slowly evolved to include a lot of other things too. After doing maybe 10 or so interviews, our vision for the site sort of started to expand, and we wanted to do more with it. In May 2011 we got our first big break—a $20,000 grant from NASW, which enabled us to begin to hire guest contributors. That spurred us to start thinking about ways we could expand the project.

We started doing reported features on specific aspects of the science writing craft, like identifying a good narrative structure, or sharpening story ideas, or crafting essays (we’ve published about 50 of those at this point). We started an advice column, Ask TON, in which we seek out answers to questions that people could submit privately, like “How do I cover a scientific meeting?” or “How do you prepare for interviews?” And we also started to build our database of successful pitch letters, which now has 80 pitch letters in it (we’re always looking for more). Later we added in more series, like the Natural Habitat audio slideshows, which we always describe as part tips-and-tricks and part voyeurism—Jeanne had the idea for that after taking a brief multimedia training course. And our friend Christie Aschwanden cooked up the idea for the A Day in the Life pieces, which have turned out to be extremely popular—I think in a profession like ours in which so many people work in solitude, there’s something especially gratifying about getting a glimpse into other writers’ work lives. We’re also about to launch a new series, called Office Hours, where we’ll do short Q&As with journalism instructors—this was another great idea of Jeanne’s, and the first installment of Office Hours should come online very soon. We have a bunch of other new projects in the hopper as well.

The other big evolution came in late 2013, when the Burroughs Wellcome Fund gave us a $5,000 grant to start up a fellowship program for early-career science journalists. BWF has continued that funding, and our fourth fellow, Julia Rosen, is just starting her fellowship now. Collectively, the fellows so far have written about 15 reported features and interviews for TON, under the mentorship of experienced science writers who the BWF funding also supports. I am really, really thrilled with the fellowship program so far—these talented young writers have brought so many fresh ideas to the site, and their stories have gotten a lot of positive attention, and it’s been a blast to work with them and with the mentors who have been so generous with their time.

We’ve also evolved organizationally, figuring out who is going to do what work and so on. Last fall, we also expanded our nonprofit’s board of directors from just me and Jeanne to also include three other people: Julie Rehmeyer, Alexandra Witze, and Ann Finkbeiner, who all generously agreed to help keep us in line.

CB: I saw on April 13 that TON has entered into a financial relationship with KSJ. According to the announcement from KSJ, the initial agreement is for one year and provides TON with $60,000 in funding. How was TON funded prior to this agreement?

Carpenter: For our first nine months or so we didn’t have any funding at all. NASW has funded TON since May of 2011, first with that initial grant and then with two follow-up grants, for a total so far of about $36,000. That money has gone almost entirely to paying guest contributors for some of our story-behind-the-story interviews and reported features. Last year, we also hired a (very) part-time copy editor, Aaron Brooks. That has turned out to be money incredibly well spent, because Aaron is extremely thorough and careful, and he is a major asset. With the KSJ funding, we’ve expanded his role to take further advantage of his skills.

In 2012, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund stepped into our lives. Thanks to Russ Campbell from BWF, the foundation agreed to fund videography for an event we staged at the Science Writers meeting a few years ago, in which David Dobbs inteviewed author David Quammen about Quammen’s book Spillover. That initial grant led to further discussions with Russ, which led to us starting our fellowship program.

CB: What will the new relationship with KSJ allow TON to do that it wasn’t already doing?

Carpenter: The KSJ funding is a major, major boon for us. For one thing, it allows us to bump up our pay rates for writers substantially—our goal is to pay writers at a level that is around or higher than the median of what other online publications in our field pay, and the KSJ funding brings us up to that level. We don’t want people to write for TON as an act of charity—our whole purpose is to help foster high-quality science journalism, and we believe fair pay is essential to quality. (This is one of the central points of a piece that Kendall Powell wrote for TON in January.)

KSJ’s support will also allow me and Jeanne to be paid for a substantial part of our work—from writing and editing and posting and publicizing articles to planning and assigning features, managing copyflow and coordinating with our copy editor, organizing the production calendar, maintaining the website, and managing all the admin-type of stuff— handling contracts, paying writers, doing the accounting and nonprofit compliance and tax stuff, and so on. Until now all of this has been a labor of love, but if you want to grow as an organization and do more, as we do, that’s just not a financially sustainable model. Having funding support for the true costs of running TON makes the whole project much more viable long-term, and makes it possible for us to build it into a more comprehensive resource.

Finally, beyond making me and Jeanne and all our writers unfathomably wealthy, this new funding will allow us to simply do more stuff. We’ll be able to do more frequent interviews and more in-depth reported features of various kinds—we have some new concepts that we’ll be launching over the coming months.

CB: What are TON’s obligations under the agreement with KSJ?

Carpenter: Very few—this is a very generous funding arrangement. TON retains complete editorial freedom, and all KSJ asks in return for being our flagship supporter is that we allow them to cross-post the TON content they support, which they will likely begin to do at some point soon. We were more than happy to agree to that content-sharing agreement because we think it can only help widen the pool of people who might see and share and draw some value from what we produce.

CB: Do you have any specific goals for this partnership over the next year? Or, I guess another way to ask that question, how will you evaluate this partnership a year from now in order to determine if it’s a success?

Carpenter: We want to use this opportunity to build the quantity, quality, and scope of resources that TON provides to the science writing community. At risk of sounding grandiose, our long-range goal is to create a truly comprehensive body of work that will be indispensable to journalists at all levels of experience—students and other newcomers, instructors, mid-career and veteran writers, news writers, feature writers, essayists, people working in multimedia, people steeped in data journalism, scientists writing for general audiences, science bloggers … anyone who wants to find ways to improve their skills in this realm. It would be impossible to ignore that it’s been a turbulent time for science journalism. Our core idea is that despite all the uncertainty, quality still matters. We want to provide resources that help people do high-quality work.

The list of topics we want to tackle is ridiculously long, and we won’t get to nearly all of it in a year. But we hope this collaboration will continue, and that it and other partnerships will allow us to eventually do all those things, and things we haven’t thought of yet.


2 thoughts on “Quantity, Quality, and Scope: an Interview with Siri Carpenter

  1. Christina

    I’m SO glad to read about this. I’ve only recently started looking at science journalism as a career choice. Much like Siri, I’m in grad school and have the idea that what I want to do can’t be done. Now, I can really explore what sort of opportunities there are in the vein of science journalism. I have a place to start!!! Thank you for covering this!!! Now, on to check out TON…


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