Extracting wisdom has never been this easy

Extracting wisdom has never been this easy

Last night, Professor Claudia Dreifus hosted Editor’s Night, which boasted a great selection of editors in international and science journalism. Eager to soak up their collective wisdom, Joanna Zhang attended the event with an open mind. 

As someone with no background in journalism, the one thing I took away from Editor’s Night is that it’s a hell of a time right now for the field. Held in Lewinsohn 602 (which took a while to find because I’m not in GS and Google Maps initially directed me to Dodge for some reason), Editor’s Night is hosted by Professor Claudia Dreifus every semester for her class SUMA K4180: Writing About Global Science for the International Media. The event invites top editors in the city, this time consisting of past and current journalists from The Nation, Business Insider, World Policy Journal, The Awl, The New Yorker, Scientific American, and New York Observer, to discuss their experience in the field and especially the area of science journalism.

An initial introduction was held, during which I realized I was the only undergrad in the room. As for the journalists, it seemed that attendees came from a variety of backgrounds, none of which were actually rooted in journalism. Instead, they had been event planners, 60s hippie dropouts, gender studies majors who initially wanted to study marine biology, social workers, and English teachers in Hong Kong. Of course, they all eventually found a collective love for journalism and ended up where they are right now through some talent, luck, and hard work.

The conversation then moved onto their analysis of the current state of the journalism field. Matt Buchanan, currently of The Awl, formerly of The New Yorker, and possessor of sweet hair, observed that “the future’s on a screen,” referring to the digitization of news media. Lizzy Ratner, editor of The Nation, added that she would cry if her writing was only in print, because the Internet provides much more exposure. As for advertising, it seems that the amount of money gained from ads is less than what it used to be. And finally, as Buchanan put it, “the men’s magazine is like, over.” This part of the discussion took on a slightly morose undertone, as pretty much everyone on the panel agreed that the field is currently in economic turmoil. John Horgan, writer for Scientific American, commented “it’s brutal out there,” and suggested you write only if you truly have a passion for it. On the other hand, David Wallis, Deputy Editor of New York Observer, encouraged the audience to consider being full time journalists because it opens up constant opportunities.

Of course, as Columbians, we’re not easily deterred by grim prospects, so how exactly do we “make it” in journalism? Getting started means having a good pitch. Several panelists recommend having a pitch list consisting of your ideas as well as the publications you would like to submit to. It is extremely important to know the voice of the publication, how they frame articles, and the readers are. Publications are generally looking for articles with creative topics. If you’re writing about a topic as constantly discussed as climate change, having an element within the piece that moves the conversation forward makes for a better reading experience (in retrospect, this sounds awfully similar to the objective of your P2 paper in UWriting).

It is also very helpful to know someone in the publication you’re targeting, and including that connection in the email subject line increases the likelihood of the email actually getting opened. A first point of contact should be made through email, and follow-up emails are always important. Wallis recommends sending a 3-day Fedex (only $8!) to truly get their attention. The lead in your email should grab attention since editors take on average 10-15 seconds reading them; in it make sure to include why you are the best qualified to write the piece, and if you’re not, who you know that can give you information to become the most qualified. In a more general sense, good journalists dig into a certain field and break the field into several smaller parts to cater to different types of publications. Finally, be persistent, and if you don’t hear back, don’t take it personally.

Overall, from the perspective of a student interested in journalism, this event was extremely helpful. While it wasn’t particularly focused on the science journalism aspect as promised, it did delve into the general aspects that’s important for any writer.