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Launching a career in science journalism
- Editor says science stories are everywhere
- Journalists advised on how to win grants
- Formula for successful freelancing revealed
By: Charles Wendo
What next after science journalism training? How does a new science journalist hit the road running? How can they earn a living in science journalism? How can they find the media outlets to publish their science stories? How can they get compelling story ideas and successfully pitch them to editors?
Six graduates of SciDev.Net’s Script programme asked these questions recently after a successful mentoring programme with Uganda’s New Vision. And they got some answers.
Prior to placement at New Vision, the six completed the Script Science Communication Skills for Journalists free online course. They won a mentoring opportunity at New Vision by successfully pitching science story ideas.
One of the mentees, Sam Wamani, said the programme was both exciting and challenging. He described the mentoring as “a great experience”. Wamani, a scientist, wrote eight news and feature stories. Of these, two were front page stories. “The first story was very challenging since I was coming to a new field,” he said.
Wamani went on: “I have learnt how to turn complicated research into a simpler format. Through my stories a lot of people got to know me; I became a local celebrity among my peers.”
All together, six mentees published 20 stories in print and online. These were news stories, special reports, features and analyses. Out of 20 stories eight – slightly more than a third — were flagged on the front page. This is considered an achievement in a region where science stories rarely make it to the front page.
When the three-month mentoring programme came to an end, the mentees asked; “What next?” To answer their questions, Sript programme and New Vision arranged a two-hour webinar on May 3. The webinar focussed on “launching a career in science journalism”.
Francis Kagolo, senior producer for news and current affairs at Vision Group, was one of the key speakers. Vision Group is New Vision’s mother compamy.
Kagolo started off by encouraging more journalists to report science. “If anyone was joining journalism today I would advise them to become science journalists because that’s where they will remain relevant forever,” he said.
Opportunities for journalists in science
There are two main reasons Kagolo sees great opportunities for journalists in science. Firstly, today the mainstream media in the region value science stories more than before. As a result, the amount of science stories in the mainstream media has increased. “Today science news is making headlines more than it did in the 1990s,” Kagolo stated.
New Vision newspaper, for instance, frequently publishes science stories in the news, health, agriculture and general feature sections. The newspaper encourages journalists to specialise so that they can report more accurately and impactfully on science. They also support and encourage journalists to take refresher short courses in reporting science.
“Due to the challenges of COVID-19 which forced us into cost-cutting, newsrooms don’t encourage specialisation. But when it comes to science we encourage journalists to specialise,” said Kagolo.
Secondly, Kagolo observed that the rigour with which journalists report science makes them good journalists that can effectively report on other topics. “When someone is a good science journalist they will be good journalists generally,” he said.
Even when science journalists leave the media for ‘greener pastures’, often they become good communicators in science-related organisations. This benefits the media because good science stories come from scientific organisations that have good communication specialists.
What editors want
Kagolo, however, encouraged journalists to originate story ideas as opposed to waiting for press releases and invitations from scientific institutions. To do this, they need to follow patterns and trends. “Many science journalists have become interpreters of science. They wait for scientific institutions to give them stories yet science stories are everywhere,” he said.
Kagolo clarified that editors of the mainstream media want science stories that address the issues that most people in society care about. Scientific developments that do not directly impact on or appeal to the public are less likely to win space. This might explain why nearly all the 20 stories published by mentees at New Vision were on either health or agriculture. Most of the challenges facing society in the region are related to health and agricultural productivity.
Making a successful pitch
All said and done, science journalists need to earn a living. How can all this learning from science journalism training and mentoring help the new science journalists to earn a living? Gilbert Nakweya, a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, had some answers.
First and foremost, the science journalist has to learn how to be a good writer. Secondly, they need to know how to pitch their story ideas to editors. Thirdly, they need good interviewing skills to get a great story. Forthly, they need to make connections with key players in science journalism. And finally, they need to know the structure and house styles of media organisations they want to write stories for.
A journalist’s pitch, he said, needs to be simple, clear and relevant to the media organisation’s audiences. Additionally, it should clearly show what is new and unique about the proposed story idea. In this regard, before pitching a story idea, the journalist needs to know what the media have already reported about the topic. Above all, the journalist needs to have persuasive skills in order to pitch their story ideas successfully.
The pitch needs to clearly answer the following questions: What is the story about? What’s new about it? Of what relevance is the story? What are the clues that show there might be a story?
Having emailed a pitch to an editor, the journalist needs to be on the lookout for a reply and act on it promptly. If a previous email is not answered, the journalist needs to send a polite reminder.
Nakweya highlighted some media outlets that publish science stories. They included SciDev.Net, Nature Africa, Havard Health Magazine and Mongabay. Others were University World News; Bhekisisa and The International Freelancer. He also advises science journalists to approach local mainstream media such as New Vision and Daily Monitor. These would normally take stories on scientific developments that are of interest to the public and policymakers.
Find a grant
Nakweya also advised journalists to be able to identify and win story grants. These are small grants, often between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars. They enable journalists to report stories that require more money than their media organisations would normally provide. Many media organisations and journalists are facing financial constraints, which is why they often need such grants.
To win a story grant, journalists need to be clear about the story they want to do and what societal problems the story would solve. They need to know the terms and conditions of the grant, and observe the timelines and deadlines. The grant application should clearly outline the activities, work plan and related costs.
To find grants, journalists need to sign up for updates from grant-giving organisation so that they know when grants become available. The World Federation of Science Journalists, for example, sends alerts to its member association. Other organisations that often share grant opportunities are: International Journalists’ Network, Infonile and Global Investigative Journalism Network.
Some organisations share grant opportunities on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Linked-In. They may also share grant opportunities through their newsletters; examples are BMGF, GIZ, FCDO, and UNEP.
Formula for success
And finally, Nakweya proposed the following as ways to succeed as a freelance science journalist:
- Create working relationships with editors and senior reporters in science journalism outlets
- Give your best in every story
- Subscribe to peer-reviewed journals to get the latest research findings
- Read other science stories in the media
- Keep learning, for example through continued training
- Always beat deadlines
- Keep your CV updated.
The message from Kagolo and Nakweya was clear: You do not need a job to earn a living as a science journalist. Editors will find space for a science story if it is well-written and addresses an issue of interest to society. Besides, some institutions are happy to offer small grants to enable journalists to report good science stories.