Ads on The Wire Science

Sometime this week, but quite likely tomorrow, advertisements will begin appearing on The Wire Science. The Wire‘s, and by extension The Wire Science‘s, principal source of funds is donations from our readers. We also run ads as a way to supplement this revenue; they’re especially handy to make up small shortfalls in monthly donations. Even so, many of these ads look quite ugly – individually, often with a garish choice of colours, but more so all together, by the very fact that they’re advertisements, representing a business model often rightly blamed for the dilution of good journalism published on the internet.

But I offer all of these opinions as caveats because I’m quite looking forward to having ads on The Wire Science. At least one reason must be obvious: while The Wire‘s success itself, for being an influential and widely read, respected and shared publication that runs almost entirely on readers’ donations, is inspiring, The Wire Science as a niche publication focusing on science, health and the environment (in its specific way) has a long way to go before it can be fully reader funded. This is okay if only because it’s just six months old – and The Wire got to its current pride of place after more than four years, with six major sections and millions of loyal readers.

As things stand, The Wire Science receives its funds as a grant of sorts from The Wire (technically, it’s a section with a subdomain). We don’t yet have a section-wise breakdown of where on the site people donate from, so while The Wire Science also solicits donations from readers (at the bottom of every article), it’s perhaps best to assume it doesn’t funnel much. Against this background, the fact that The Wire Science will run ads from this week is worth celebrating for two reasons: 1. that it’s already a publication where ads are expected to bring in a not insubstantial amount of money, and 2. that a part of this money will be reinvested in The Wire Science.

I’m particularly excited about reason no. 1. Yes, ads suck, but I think that’s truer in the specific context of ads being the principal source of funds – when editors are subordinated to business managers and editorial decisions serve the bottomline. But our editorial standards won’t be diluted by the presence of ads because of ads’ relative contribution to our revenue mix. (I admit that psychologically it’s going to take some adjusting.) The Wire Science is already accommodated in The Wire‘s current outlay, which means ad revenue is opportunistic, and an opportunity in itself to commission an extra story now and then, get more readers to the site and have a fraction of them donate.

I hope you’ll be able to see it the same way, and skip the ad-blocker if you can. 🙂

Eight years

On June 1 last year, I wrote:

Today, I complete seven years of trying to piece together a picture of what journalism is and where I fit in.

Today, I begin my ninth year as a journalist. I’m happy to report I’m not so confused this time round, if only because in the intervening time, two things have taken shape that have allowed me to channel my efforts and aspirations better, leaving less room for at least some types of uncertainty.

The first is The Wire Science, which was born as an idea around August 2019 and launched as a separate website in February 2020. From The Wire‘s point of view, the vision backing the product is “to build a constituency for science journalism – of contributors as well as readers – and drive a science journalism ecosystem.”

For me, this is in addition an opportunity to publish high-quality science writing that breaks away from the instrumental narratives that dominate most journalistic science pieces in India today.

The second thing that took shape was our readers’ and supporters’ appreciation for The Wire‘s work in general. I like to think we’re slowly breaking even on this front, indicating that we’re doing something right.

On these notes of focus, progress and hope – even though the last 12 months have been terrible in many ways – I must say I do look forward to the next 12 months. I’m sure lots of things are going to go wrong, just as they’ve been going wrong, but for once it also feels like there are going to be meaningful opportunities to do something about them.

Retrospective: The Wire Science in 2019

At the start of 2019, The Wire Science decided to focus more on issues of science and society, and this is reflected in the year-end list of our best stories (in terms of traffic and engagement; listed below). Most of our hits don’t belong to this genre, but quite a few do – enough for us to believe that these issues aren’t as esoteric as they appear to be in day-to-day conversations.

Science communication is becoming more important in India and more people are taking to it as a career. As a result, the visibility of science stories in the press has increased. Scientists are also using Facebook and Twitter to voice their views, whether on the news of the day or to engage in debates about their field of work. If you are an English-speaker with access to the internet and a smartphone, you are quite unlikely to have missed these conversations.

Most popular articles of 2019

The Sciences

  1. Poor Albert Einstein, His Wrong Theories and Post-Truths
  2. What Is Quantum Biology?
  3. If Scientists Don’t Speak out Today, Who Will Be Left to Defend Science Tomorrow?
  4. Why Scientists Are Confused About How Fast the Universe Is Expanding
  5. CSIR Lab? Work on Applied Research or Make do With Small Share of Funds

Health

  1. Why Everyone Around You Seems to Be Getting Cancer
  2. MCI Finally Updates MBBS Curriculum to Include Disability Rights and Dignity
  3. PM Modi is Worried About Population Explosion, a Problem Set to Go Away in 2021
  4. Bihar: Who is Responsible for the Death of 100 Children?
  5. What’s NEXT for the NMC Bill? Confusion.

Environment

  1. Extreme Events in the Himalayan Region: Are We Prepared for the Big One?
  2. A Twist in the Tale: Electric Vehicles Will Worsen India’s Pollution Crisis
  3. How Tamil Nadu Is Fighting in the First Attempt to Save a Sinking Island
  4. Why NGT Thinks Allahabad Is on the Verge of an Epidemic After Kumbh Mela
  5. But Why Is the Cauvery Calling?

Space

  1. NASA Briefly Stopped Working With ISRO on One Count After ASAT Test
  2. Senior ISRO Scientist Criticises Sivan’s Approach After Moon Mission Setback
  3. ISRO Doesn’t Have a Satisfactory Answer to Why It Wants to Put Indians in Space
  4. Chandrayaan 2 in Limbo as ISRO Loses Contact With Lander, History on Hold
  5. ISRO Delays Chandrayaan 2 Launch Again – But How Is Beresheet Involved?

Education

  1. NCERT to Drop Chapters on Caste Struggles, Colonialism From Class 9 History Book
  2. JNU: The Story of the Fall of a Great University
  3. Dear Students, Here’s How You Could Have Reacted to Modi’s Mockery of Dyslexia
  4. Can a Student’s Suicide Note Make Us Rethink the IIT Dream?
  5. NET Now Mandatory for Scheduled Caste Students to Avail Research Scholarship

Our choice

The state has become more involved with the R&D establishment, although these engagements have been frequently controversial. In such a time, with so many public institutions teetering on the brink, it is important we ensure science doesn’t become passively pressed into legitimising actions of the state but rather maintains a mutually beneficial relationship that also strengthens the democracy. It is not the prerogative of scientists alone to do this; we must all get involved because the outcomes of science belong to all of us.

To this end, we must critique science, scientists, their practices, our teachers and research administrators, forest officers, conservationists and environmental activists, doctors, nurses, surgeons and other staff, members of the medical industry, spaceflight engineers and space lawyers, rules that control prices and access, examinations and examiners, and so forth. We must question the actions and policies of everyone involved in this knowledge economy. Ultimately, we must ask if our own aspirations are in line with what we as a people expect of the world around us, and science is a part of that.

It would be remiss to not mention the commendable job some other publications have been doing vis-à-vis covering science in India, including The Hindu, The Telegraph, The Print, Mongabay, Indian Express, Dinamalar, etc. Their efforts have given us the opportunity to disengage once in a while from the more important events of the day to focus on stories that might otherwise have never been read.

This year, The Wire Science published stories that interrogated what duties academic and research institutions have towards the people whose tax-money funds them, that discussed more inclusivity and transparency because only a more diverse group of practitioners can ask more diverse questions, and that examined how, though science offers a useful way to make sense of the natural order, it doesn’t automatically justify itself nor is it entitled to the moral higher-ground.

The overarching idea was to ask questions about the natural universe without forgetting that the process of answering those questions is embedded in a wider social context that both supports and informs scientists’ practices and beliefs. There is no science without the scientists that practice it – yet most of us are not prepared to consider that science is as messy as every other human endeavour and isn’t the single-minded pursuit of truth its exponents often say it is.

In these fraught times, we shouldn’t forget that science guided only by the light of logic produces many of the reasons of state. The simplest way science communication can participate in this exercise, and not just be a mute spectator, is by injecting the scientist back into the science. This isn’t an abdication of the ideal of objectivity, even though objectivity itself has been outmoded by the advent of the irrational, majoritarian and xenophobic politics of nationalism. Instead, it is a reaffirmation that you can take science out of politics but that you can’t take politics out of science.

At the same time, the stories that emerge from this premise aren’t entirely immune to the incremental nature of scientific progress. We often have to march in step with the gentle rate at which scientists invent and/or discover things, and the similar pace at which the improvements among them are available to everyone everywhere. This fact offers one downside and one up: it is harder for our output to be noticed in the din of the news, but by staying alert to how little pieces of information from diverse lines of inquiry – both scientific and otherwise, especially from social science – can team up with significant consequence, we are better able to anticipate how stories will evolve and affect the world around them.

We hope you will continue to read, share and comment on the content published by The Wire Science. We have also been publicising articles from other publications and by bloggers we found interesting and have been reproducing (if available) on our website and on our social media platforms in an effort to create an appreciation of science stories beyond the ones we have been able to afford.

On this note: please also donate a sum comfortable to you to support our work. Even an amount as little as Rs 200 will go a long way.

The Wire
December 26, 2019

The gaudy-hued beast

When you wake up in the morning to news of four people who allegedly raped a woman having been shot to death by the police, it’s hard not to ask yourself what kind of country this is. It’s even harder when you see political leaders and celebrities publicly applauding this extra-judicial killing, sparing no thought for their passive rejection of the country’s justice system and endorsement of populist politics at its most abject.

As a journalist with a news organisation where impact is just as important as reach, if not more, and where conviction (rooted in facts and certain cultural sensibilities) is our coin, I also couldn’t help internalise a bit of failure for not having been able to effect change. After a team of two dozen people (on average), plus thousands of reporters and freelancers, spent nearly five years of labour and crores of rupees trying – among various things – to infuse more faith in democratic principles enshrined in the constitution, the breadth of episodes like the present one really highlight, in gaudy colours, the giant beast that confronts us.

Of course, this is somewhat self-aggrandising: some newspapers as well as numerous public and private institutions have been trying to improve the way people think for over a century. (I’m sure the idea that society simply awaits instructions on how to conduct itself is also very flawed, but I hope you know that’s not what I mean in this text.) Different people glimpse the true avatar of the challenges they face in different ways, and I glimpsed mine after starting at The Wire.

Anyway, as such disappointing episodes pile up, quickly surpassing the Ghaziabad landfill in volume as well as stench, the sensation of having failed is bound to become your best friend, and whose presence is easily compounded if your beat is not as eye-catching as politics or political economics. It affects your ability to think straight, encouraging you to accommodate misanthropic sentiments in your evaluation of other people and their words or actions, and interferes with the reward mechanisms that used to make you feel good every time you finished writing a story.

I don’t want to delineate how people deal with such emotions because, and after insisting that that there are ways to deal with such emotions, I think there is very little acknowledgment in the first place that such an issue even exists. Organisations (at least English-language newsrooms in India) that employ journalists don’t openly discuss the sort of mental make-up a person needs to remain resilient, confident and productive at once, to be able to retain enough of their conviction and strength in the face of repeated setbacks. As far as I know, there are no institutional mechanisms of redressal either.

The bit about confidence is particularly important if only because a journalism of pessimism, an endeavour utterly incapable of imagining a better future, can only be corrosive to society, and it bodes even worse for a journalist on the job to spiral into cynicism as a result of their work. So as I have no doubt that the gaudy-hued beast that looms in front of us is only going to get bigger and badder if India’s socio-political culture continues to stagnate in its current form, I also hope that people – especially, but not only, employers – recognise that not everyone can be a healthy journalist all the time. And when they’re not, it would be great, for starters, to talk about it.

Featured image credit: Donovan Reeves/Unsplash. Effects: PHOTOMOSH.

Firstpost’s selfish journalism

I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept of false balance, which is based on the conviction that there are two sides to every story even when there aren’t or when it’s not clear to anyone what the other side is. I’m also sure you’re aware of how journalism based on false balance can legitimise fake news and pseudoscience, as we used to see so often with climate change until the mid-2010s.

The problem with believing there exists a balance between two viewpoints where there is actually none is rooted in the belief that both points are equally valid, which in turn is rooted in ignorance and/or prejudice. However, it would appear there is another form of false-balance reportage that is rooted in selfishness and/or apathy – one where a publication publishes an article that, at some point, acknowledges that A and B are not equally valid but whose headline and lede declare that they are. Here’s a fresh example from Firstpost:

The lede goes thus:

After months of delay in its launch, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said that the country’s second moon mission — the Rs 800 crore ‘Chandrayaan-2’ — is designed to hunt for deposits of Helium-3 — a waste-free nuclear energy that could answer many of Earth’s energy problems.

Chandrayaan 2 isn’t going to prospect the Moon for helium-3, or any other potential sources of clean energy for that matter, if only because we don’t have the wherewithal to use such materials to produce energy. Second, the problem with C2, as with many of ISRO’s space science missions at the moment, is that there is no roadmap. I don’t know what or who Firstpost‘s sources were for it to have pieced together this BS.

However, after talking about this as if any of it made sense, the article quotes my article in The Wire to say “even if we are successful in bringing back huge deposits of Helium-3 from the moon, we are far away from having the technology to harness it”.

So what has Firstpost done here? a) It reignited the pseudo-debate over ISRO’s non-existent plans to mine the Moon for helium-3; b) it re-legitimised Sivan’s, and others’, ridiculous point of view that India should lead the way in this endeavour; and, most importantly, c) it cashed in on the fallacy even as it suggested it may have recognised that the helium-3 story is erected entirely on speculation and daydreams.

In effect, this is nauseatingly selfish and, insofar as it is journalism, apathetic. It does not have the public interest in mind; in fact, it completely disregards it. And in case someone demands to know how I can claim to know better than K. Sivan, who claimed last year that it’s important for India to be at the forefront of helium-3 mining, only that anecdote about what Bertrand Russell – a staunch atheist – would say should he come face to face with god comes to mind: “Well, I would say that you did not provide much evidence.”

Diversifying into other beats

I delivered my annual talk AMA at the NCBS science writing workshop yesterday. While the questions the students asked were mostly the same as last year (and the year before that), I also took the opportunity to request them to consider diversifying into other subjects. Most, if not all, journalists entering India’s science journalism space every year want to compose stories about the life sciences and/or ecology. As a result, however, while there are numerous journalists to write about issues in these areas, there are fewer than a handful to deal with developments in all the other ones – from theoretical particle physics to computer science to chemical engineering.

This gives the impression to the consumers of journalism that research in these areas isn’t worth writing about or, more perniciously, that developments in these areas aren’t to be discussed (and debated, if need be) in the public domain. And this in turn contributes to a vicious cycle, where “there no stories about physics” and “there is no interest in publishing stories about physics” successively keep readers/editors and the journalists, resp., at bay.

However, from an editor’s perspective, the problem has an eminently simple solution: induct and then publish reporters producing work on research on these subjects. This doesn’t always have to be of newly minted producers but could also benefit from existing ones actively diversifying into beats other than their first choices over the course of a few years.

This sort of diversification doesn’t happen regularly but if it does, it could also benefit younger journalists who are looking to make their presence felt. For example, it’s easier to stand out from the crowd writing about, say, semiconductor fabrication than about ecological research (although this isn’t to say one is more important than the other). When more such writing is produced, editors also stand to gain because they can offer readers a more even coverage of research in the country instead of painting a lopsided picture.

One might argue that there needs to be demand from readers as well, but the relationship between editors and readers isn’t a straightforward demand-supply contest. If that were the case, the news would have become synonymous with populist drivel a long time ago. Instead, it’s more about progressively creating newer interests in the longer run that are a combination of informative and interesting. Put one way, this means the editor should be able to bypass the ‘interestedness indicator’ once in a while to publish stories that readers didn’t know they needed (such as The Wire‘s piece on quantum biology earlier this month).

Such a thing obviously wouldn’t be possible without journalists pitching stories other than what they usually do, and of course editors who have signalled that they are willing to take such risks.

The blog and the social media

Because The Wire had signed up to be some kind of A-listed publisher with Facebook, The Wire‘s staff was required to create Facebook Pages under each writer/editor’s name. So I created the ‘Vasudevan Mukunth’ page. Then, about 10 days ago, Facebook began to promote my page on the platform, running ads for it that would appear on people’s timelines across the network. The result is that my page now has almost as many likes as The Wire English’s Facebook Page: 320,000+. Apart from sharing my pieces from The Wire, I now use the page to share my blog posts as well. Woot!

Action on Twitter hasn’t far behind either. I’ve had a verified account on the microblogging platform for a few months now. And this morning, Twitter rolled out the expanded tweet character limit (from 140 to 280) to everyone. For someone to whom 140 characters was a liberating experience – a mechanical hurdle imposed on running your mouth and forcing you to think things through (though many choose not to) – the 280-char limit is even more so.

How exactly? An interesting implication discussed in this blog post by Twitter is that allowing people to think 280 characters at a time allowed them to be less anxious about how they were going to compose their tweets. The number of tweets hitting the character limit dropped from 9% during the 140-char era to 1% in the newly begun 280-char era. At the same time, people have continued to tweet within the 140-char most of the time. So fewer tweets were being extensively reworked or abandoned because people no longer composed them with the anxiety of staying within a smaller character limit.

But here’s the problem: most of my blog’s engagement had already been happening on the social media. As soon as I published a post, WordPress’s Jetpack plugin would send an email to 4brane’s 3,600+ subscribers with the full post, post the headline + link on Twitter and the headline + blurb + image + link on Facebook. Readers would reply to the tweet, threading their responses if they had to, and drop comments on Facebook. But on the other hand, the number of emails I’ve been receiving from my subscribers has been dropping drastically, as has the number of comments on posts.

I remember my blogging habit having taken a hit when I’d decided to become more active on Twitter because I no longer bore, fermented and composed my thoughts at length, with nuance. Instead, I dropped them as tweets as and when they arose, often with no filter, building it out through conversations with my followers. The 280-char limit now looks set to ‘scale up’ this disruption by allowing people to be more free and encouraging them to explore more complex ideas, aided by how (and how well, I begrudgingly admit) Twitter displays tweet-threads.

Perhaps – rather hopefully – the anxiety that gripped people when they were composing 140-char tweets will soon grip them as they’re composing 280-char tweets as well. I somehow doubt 420-char tweets will be a thing; that would make the platform non-Twitter-like. And hopefully the other advantages of having a blog, apart from the now-lost ‘let’s have a conversation’ part, such as organising information in different ways unlike Twitter’s sole time-based option, will continue to remain relevant.

Featured image credit: LoboStudioHamburg/pixabay.

Some empathy for Treebeard's privilege

There’s a line from The Two Towers (2002) that’s really stayed with me:

I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.

It’s spoken by Treebeard, the Ent, to one of Meriadoc/Peregrin when asked whose side he was on: Saruman’s or the Fellowship’s. At first glance, it seems a fair answer because nobody has been bothered about the plight of the Ents since Saruman set up shop at Isengard. On second thought, however, you wonder what good it did to anyone when they didn’t bother to make their voices heard. If you shied away from political participation when it mattered, is it any surprise that you were subsequently excluded from decisions that impact you? And then, on third, it becomes pertinent to ask why the onus is on a community that has been continuously disenfranchised to speak up and make itself count. And so forth.

There are many parallels here to conversations that are had in the news everyday. Neha Sinha’s latest piece for The Wire is founded on almost the same premise: In the film Newton, the forest of Dandakaranya, its being a proxy for ecological democracy practiced by the Gond tribe that inhabits it, and the security forces’ relationship with the flora stands in for Tolkien’s Ents. It is not on the Gond to stand up and be counted.

I digress. As the headline of this post suggests, I’m on Treebeard’s side to the extent that I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side. However, I’m not an Ent in Middle Earth; I’m a privileged upper-caste, upper-class English-speaking male – an acknowledgement that needs to be articulated because, even if I choose to be on nobody’s side and extricate myself from all proceedings, my privilege will get many things done for me. And the ‘proceedings’ I speak of is the news. I don’t have to keep myself abreast of all the political, financial, economic and judicial happenings in the country. As a journalist I might have to but as a citizen, I don’t. My skipping an important political development impacts – rather has impacted – my life as much as my bunking a class in engineering college has: not at all.

I don’t want to follow the news anymore. The bulk of it is faeces-flinging, from one side of the ideological aisle to the other. The bulk of it is mostly posturing unto the fulfilment of myopic goals, aimed at winning skirmishes but losing all sight of the war. And most of it is self-indulgent populism in that most news publishers print/publish what the people want to read; if this is not true, we’d be reading a lot more of non-mainstream writing (in English at least, the only language I read the news in). As I’ve said multiple times before, it’s important to sell. But on the flipside, I don’t see anyone even thinking about trying to sell something new. For example, as a recent dinner conversation with two friends concluded, where do you go to look for Indian literary journalism?

Of course, some news outlets – like The Wire (where I work) – are trying to move away from this featureset by ensuring that only the journalists at The Wire get to decide what to cover and what not to cover; the only other stakeholder in our enterprise is the reader, so axiomatically there are no business or political interests dictating our agenda. However, my specific ire is directed at a subset of what even The Wire has been trying to do, a subset that represents a perception of the news that no single news outlet can attempt to modify by itself. Specifically, I’m on no journalist’s side because no journalist is on my side – the side that believes that political journalism is not the raison d’être of the fourth estate.

This isn’t a call (muted though it is) to eradicate political journalism. I’m saying that political journalism is a necessary but not sufficient component of the practice of journalism. Granted, the national polity is the ultimate seat of all power in the country, the Well of Eternity from which all life on Azeroth flows. But to prioritise the coverage of it over many other topics is, to me, a quiet surrender. Journalists flock to it because it’s easy to score ‘hits’ with; you draw blood by covering politics, and ‘change the world’ therewith, because the blood flows thick and fast there. But when was the last time news organisations attempted to draw blood from suppressed veins? To put it in less sanguine terms: when was the last time news organisations tried to investigate parts of our reality where power festers but not ostentatiously?

To me, in many ways, this is the physical world and the natural laws that govern it, the world where groups of people called scientists undertake expeditions – intellectually and otherwise – to unravel the foundations of civilisation as well as destiny. Science journalism is only another vantage point, just the way politics and business are vantage points, from which to survey our lives. However, to ignore one in favour of the Others simply because the Others are easier to communicate, easier to resonate with, is a copout. In fact, I believe that the blood flows thick and fast in cis-/peri-science matters as well; many simple don’t know where to look nor are interested.

Some also argue that science by itself won’t suffice to effect change, that it has to be coupled with policy, i.e. with an outside-in gaze. However, this is mostly the view of science from politics’ point of view, whereby political considerations influence our engagement with science. What is lacking is the other way round: where, for example, there is a public debate about why people who clean the toilets in a household can’t also cook in the same household, where a confrontation is encouraged between the chemistry of disinfectants and the socio-cultural beliefs rooted in caste traditions – instead of sidelining scientific knowledge to the margins.

This clause I’ve marked in italics is an indictment of the media, not of anyone else, because the media space is where it is the most lacking. Where activists and their allies on the ground might be going from door to door explaining how disinfectants work to the uninitiated, where educationists and young schoolchildren will be teaching each other about the deleterious effects of burning sulphur-laden firecrackers during Deepavali, most journalists have briefly cited this or that bit of research and moved on to discuss the social, cultural, political, etc. implications. In other words, it’s not that scientific knowledge alone must dictate our public life; that would be disastrous. It’s that, at least in my opinion, science gets less space than it truly deserves in the way we compose, and consume, our news.

Instead, our ideas of ‘newness’ within the context of journalism, at least in India, have become boxed in. ‘New media’ has become limited to the use of unfamiliar mediums to communicate the same thing we were communicating before in new ways. From what I’ve seen, there is a vanishing amount of introspection in most newsrooms about why we cover news the way we do, how the invention of different communication technologies influenced that decision, and what parts of the hitherto sidelined topics do new technologies open up.

If we don’t ask this question more often of ourselves as journalists, I fear political news is going to remain the mainstay of mainstream journalism in India, a traffic-hogging bully that shoves other, possibly more meaningful points of view down.

Featured image: Treebeard in ‘The Two Towers’. Source: YouTube.

Some empathy for Treebeard’s privilege

There’s a line from The Two Towers (2002) that’s really stayed with me:

I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.

It’s spoken by Treebeard, the Ent, to one of Meriadoc/Peregrin when asked whose side he was on: Saruman’s or the Fellowship’s. At first glance, it seems a fair answer because nobody has been bothered about the plight of the Ents since Saruman set up shop at Isengard. On second thought, however, you wonder what good it did to anyone when they didn’t bother to make their voices heard. If you shied away from political participation when it mattered, is it any surprise that you were subsequently excluded from decisions that impact you? And then, on third, it becomes pertinent to ask why the onus is on a community that has been continuously disenfranchised to speak up and make itself count. And so forth.

There are many parallels here to conversations that are had in the news everyday. Neha Sinha’s latest piece for The Wire is founded on almost the same premise: In the film Newton, the forest of Dandakaranya, its being a proxy for ecological democracy practiced by the Gond tribe that inhabits it, and the security forces’ relationship with the flora stands in for Tolkien’s Ents. It is not on the Gond to stand up and be counted.

I digress. As the headline of this post suggests, I’m on Treebeard’s side to the extent that I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side. However, I’m not an Ent in Middle Earth; I’m a privileged upper-caste, upper-class English-speaking male – an acknowledgement that needs to be articulated because, even if I choose to be on nobody’s side and extricate myself from all proceedings, my privilege will get many things done for me. And the ‘proceedings’ I speak of is the news. I don’t have to keep myself abreast of all the political, financial, economic and judicial happenings in the country. As a journalist I might have to but as a citizen, I don’t. My skipping an important political development impacts – rather has impacted – my life as much as my bunking a class in engineering college has: not at all.

I don’t want to follow the news anymore. The bulk of it is faeces-flinging, from one side of the ideological aisle to the other. The bulk of it is mostly posturing unto the fulfilment of myopic goals, aimed at winning skirmishes but losing all sight of the war. And most of it is self-indulgent populism in that most news publishers print/publish what the people want to read; if this is not true, we’d be reading a lot more of non-mainstream writing (in English at least, the only language I read the news in). As I’ve said multiple times before, it’s important to sell. But on the flipside, I don’t see anyone even thinking about trying to sell something new. For example, as a recent dinner conversation with two friends concluded, where do you go to look for Indian literary journalism?

Of course, some news outlets – like The Wire (where I work) – are trying to move away from this featureset by ensuring that only the journalists at The Wire get to decide what to cover and what not to cover; the only other stakeholder in our enterprise is the reader, so axiomatically there are no business or political interests dictating our agenda. However, my specific ire is directed at a subset of what even The Wire has been trying to do, a subset that represents a perception of the news that no single news outlet can attempt to modify by itself. Specifically, I’m on no journalist’s side because no journalist is on my side – the side that believes that political journalism is not the raison d’être of the fourth estate.

This isn’t a call (muted though it is) to eradicate political journalism. I’m saying that political journalism is a necessary but not sufficient component of the practice of journalism. Granted, the national polity is the ultimate seat of all power in the country, the Well of Eternity from which all life on Azeroth flows. But to prioritise the coverage of it over many other topics is, to me, a quiet surrender. Journalists flock to it because it’s easy to score ‘hits’ with; you draw blood by covering politics, and ‘change the world’ therewith, because the blood flows thick and fast there. But when was the last time news organisations attempted to draw blood from suppressed veins? To put it in less sanguine terms: when was the last time news organisations tried to investigate parts of our reality where power festers but not ostentatiously?

To me, in many ways, this is the physical world and the natural laws that govern it, the world where groups of people called scientists undertake expeditions – intellectually and otherwise – to unravel the foundations of civilisation as well as destiny. Science journalism is only another vantage point, just the way politics and business are vantage points, from which to survey our lives. However, to ignore one in favour of the Others simply because the Others are easier to communicate, easier to resonate with, is a copout. In fact, I believe that the blood flows thick and fast in cis-/peri-science matters as well; many simple don’t know where to look nor are interested.

Some also argue that science by itself won’t suffice to effect change, that it has to be coupled with policy, i.e. with an outside-in gaze. However, this is mostly the view of science from politics’ point of view, whereby political considerations influence our engagement with science. What is lacking is the other way round: where, for example, there is a public debate about why people who clean the toilets in a household can’t also cook in the same household, where a confrontation is encouraged between the chemistry of disinfectants and the socio-cultural beliefs rooted in caste traditions – instead of sidelining scientific knowledge to the margins.

This clause I’ve marked in italics is an indictment of the media, not of anyone else, because the media space is where it is the most lacking. Where activists and their allies on the ground might be going from door to door explaining how disinfectants work to the uninitiated, where educationists and young schoolchildren will be teaching each other about the deleterious effects of burning sulphur-laden firecrackers during Deepavali, most journalists have briefly cited this or that bit of research and moved on to discuss the social, cultural, political, etc. implications. In other words, it’s not that scientific knowledge alone must dictate our public life; that would be disastrous. It’s that, at least in my opinion, science gets less space than it truly deserves in the way we compose, and consume, our news.

Instead, our ideas of ‘newness’ within the context of journalism, at least in India, have become boxed in. ‘New media’ has become limited to the use of unfamiliar mediums to communicate the same thing we were communicating before in new ways. From what I’ve seen, there is a vanishing amount of introspection in most newsrooms about why we cover news the way we do, how the invention of different communication technologies influenced that decision, and what parts of the hitherto sidelined topics do new technologies open up.

If we don’t ask this question more often of ourselves as journalists, I fear political news is going to remain the mainstay of mainstream journalism in India, a traffic-hogging bully that shoves other, possibly more meaningful points of view down.

Featured image: Treebeard in ‘The Two Towers’. Source: YouTube.

Talking scicomm at NCBS – II

I was invited to speak to the students of the annual science writing workshop conducted at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, for the second year (first year talk’s notes here).

Some interesting things we discussed:

1. Business of journalism: There were more questions from this year’s batch of aspiring science writers about the economics of online journalism, how news websites grow, how much writers can expect to get paid, etc. This is heartening: more journalists at all levels should be aware of, and if possible involved in, how their newsrooms make their money. Because if you retreat from this space, you cede space for a capitalist who doesn’t acknowledge the principles and purpose of journalism to take over. If money has to make its way into the hands of journalists – as it should, for all the work that they’re doing – only journalists can also ensure that it’s clean.

2. Conflicts of interest: The Wire has more to lose through conflicts of interests in a story simply because there are more people out there looking to bring it down. So the cost of slipping up is high. But let’s not disagree that being diligent on this front always makes for a better report.

3. Formulae: There is no formula for a good science story. A story itself is good when it is composed by good writing and when it is a good story in the same way we think of good stories in fiction. They need to entertain without betraying the spirit of their subject, and – unlike in fiction – they need to seek out the truth. That they also need to be in the public interest is something I’m not sure about, although only to the extent that it doesn’t compromise the rights of any other actor. This definition is indeed vague but only because the ‘public interest’ is a shape-shifting entity. For example, two scholars having an undignified fight over some issue in the public domain wouldn’t be in the public interest – and I would deem it unfit for publication for just that reason. At the same time, astronomers discovering a weird star billions of lightyears away may not be in the public interest either – but that wouldn’t be enough reason to disqualify the story. In fact, a deeper point: when the inculcation of scientific temper, adherence to the scientific method and financial support for the performance of science are all deemed to not be in the public interest, then covering these aspects of science by the same yardstick will only give rise to meaningless stories.

4. Representation of authority: If two scientists in the same institute are the only two people working on a new idea, and if one of them has published a paper, can you rely on the other’s opinions of it? I wouldn’t – they’re both paid by the same institution, and it is in both their interests to uphold the stature of the institution and all the work that it supports because, as a result, their individual statures are upheld. Thankfully, this situation hasn’t come to be – but something similar has. Most science journalists in the country frequently quote scientists from Bangalorean universities on topics like molecular biology and ecology because they’re the most talkative. However, the price they’re quietly paying for this is by establishing that the only scientists in the country worth talking about apropos these topics are based out of Bangalore. That is an injustice.

5. Content is still king: You can deck up a page with the best visuals, but if the content is crap, then nothing will save the package from flopping. You can also package great content in a lousy-looking page and it will still do well. This came up in the context of a discussion on emulating the likes of Nautilus and Quanta in India. The stories on their pages read so well because they are good stories, not because they’re accompanied by cool illustrations. This said, it’s also important to remember that illustrations cost quite a bit of money, so when the success of a package is mostly the in the hands of the content itself, paying attention to that alone during a cash-crunch may not be a bad idea.

GM crops, etc.

There’s been a flurry of stories in my inbox since India’s GEAC cleared a variety of GM mustard, developed by Monsanto, for commercial utilisation in India. It’s an important step, bringing a potentially valuable – as well as potentially damaging – crop closer to being introduced in the market. However, thanks to disasters associated with previous GM foodcrop introductions like Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, the introduction of GM mustard isn’t going to go down smoothly. Then again, if a writer doesn’t want GM mustard to be introduced, then the burden of proof is on her to convince me, or any reader for that matter, either that GM mustard is bound to fail as a crop or that it is being introduced in a manner that’s become typical of the Indian government: through half-measures and seldom in a way that suggests the state is ready to face all possible consequences, especially the adverse ones.

On the other hand, how does it make sense to grate against Bt cotton and Bt brinjal in order to discourage the introduction of GM mustard? Doing so suggests an immensely pessimistic determinism, an assumption that we will never produce the perfect genetically modified crop. Notwithstanding Monsanto’s transgressions in the past, I do think that GM is the future – it has to be to keep feeding a planet of more than 7,000,000,000. And apart from optimising food storage and transportation, the demand for food is bound to grow with more people coming out of poverty. To insist at this point to switch to organic farming, which involves methods that may be locally sustainable but doesn’t have the mass-production capacity of conventional agriculture that this world has become addicted to, en masse and abandon GM options is nothing but foolish.

Yes, we make mistakes, and yes, we’re faced with some very difficult choices, but let’s start making decisions that go beyond the local ecology and local impact – not by abdicating local economies and people but by doing all of this in a way that no one loses out. Again, not going to be easy. I’m not sure anything in this sphere can be. Finally, yes, I’m aware that I’m speaking from a position of privilege; I stand by my comments. Oh, one more thing: The Wire‘s science section has also imposed a moratorium on non-reported GM pieces. I’m really keen on taking the conversation forward, not drowning a platform with The Wire‘s import in volleys exchanged between pro- and anti-GM camps.

Featured image credit: PublicDomainPictures/pixabay.

If Nautilus is so good, why is it doing so bad?

From UndarkAward-winning Nautilus enters rough waters

For all the good news and accolades, however, murmurings within the science writing community suggest that not all is well at Nautilus. Rumors of delayed or entirely absent payments to the magazine’s fleet of freelance contributors have reached a crescendo, as have complaints that editorial staff continue to solicit work knowing that the publication may not be able to make good on promised fees. One Nautilus freelancer, who asked to remain anonymous because thousands of dollars in fees are still pending, received a note a few months ago directly from the magazine’s publisher and editorial director, John Steele, offering assurances that the funds — which were for a feature that the magazine published last year — would be on their way by the end of January. That deadline came and went without payment, the freelancer said, and follow-up emails to Nautilus have not changed things.

How translatable are Nautilus‘s troubles to the theatre of Indian journalism? By itself, Nautilus is one of the best science magazines out there. While many have gushed about its awesome content, I like their pieces best when they stick to the science. When they wander into culture and philosophy, I find they lack the kind of depth common to writing published by 3 Quarks Daily, The Baffler and Jacobin. Its illustrations however are undeniably wonderful. Multiple reports have suggested that Nautilus’s online traffic is booming and that its print editions have been well-received. So what happened?

In some ways, Nautilus‘s origins are reminiscent of The Wire‘s. The former’s launch was enabled by a $5 million grant (over three years) from the Templeton foundation. The latter launched on its own steam –  with $10,000 (Rs 6 lakh) and bucketloads of goodwill – but a $600,000 grant (i.e. Rs 3.95 crore, over one year) from the Independent and Public Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF) in its second year has allowed it to scale up considerably.

While grants to media start-ups are definitely awesome, they are likely to be accompanied by expectations of growth that the grant alone won’t be able to ensure. In such cases, a majority of the grant can’t be used to fuel growth as much as to keep the company alive long enough for it to conceive and implement an alternate business model that will then fuel growth. If the Templeton foundation set such targets for Nautilus, then I suspect the magazine screwed up here somewhere.

Second: by Undark‘s own estimates, Nautilus has burned through over $10 million in three years. That’s a lot of money and it makes me wonder if it took on too much too soon. Again, I don’t know how far off the mark I am here because I don’t know what the agreement between Nautilus and Templeton was. But if it had anything to do with Nautilus being unable to sustain growth, I wouldn’t be surprised. While the magazine comes across as a great idea, some things are possible only beyond a certain scale. For example, it’s possible that Nautilus would be better off if it had 140,000 people paying it $15 a month to read the print editions; that’s $2.1 million a year. And the profits can be maximised – and reinvested to solicit more, better writing – if, for the first one or two years, they cut back on the illustrations. It’s always more important to pay for what you’ve used*. It helps build long-lasting relationships.

The cutting-down-on-illustrations bit wouldn’t be so bad because, as we’ve learnt from The Wire, if the writing is good and the reporting and analysis substantial, a publication will do well even without bells and whistles. But if the writing lacks depth, then no amount of tinkering with anything else on the site will help. I agree that Nautilus was going for something more than what most science writing outlets had to offer, but my sense is that the magazine wanted to offer more from day one when it might not have been possible.

Additionally, staying above water for long enough to have a sustainable, over-the-horizon business model of your liking has another important implication: independence.

I’m not privy to the grant agreement between Templeton and Nautilus. The one between The Wire and IPSMF does not contain any requirement, specification or clause that prevents The Wire from publishing anything that it deems appropriate. On the other hand, notwithstanding the terms of Nautilus‘s relationship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is apparently in talks to ‘absorb’ the magazine, the magazine has not found a way to become completely independent yet. To be sure, it’s not that Nautilus and AAAS won’t get along, or that Nautilus‘s content will become untrustworthy, but that nothing beats a journalistic publication being fully independent. To perfectly comprehend the benefits of this model, I recommend reading the story of De Correspondent.

This is also The Wire‘s aspiration: not paywalls as much as a reader-contributes model in which we produce what our readers allow us to and trust us to.

What De Correspondent‘s trajectory highlights is the development of a way to more efficiently translate emotional appreciation to material appreciation. Evidently, De Correspondent‘s model requires its readers to have a measure of trust in its production sense, ethics and values. If its readers paid $X, then $X worth of content will be produced (assuming overheads don’t increase as a consequence); if its readers paid $2X, then it will scale up accordingly. And it is this trust that Nautilus could have built if it had gone slower in the first few years and then bloomed. But with AAAS, or anyone else, acquiring Nautilus, and there being no word of the magazine planning to do things differently, it’s either going to be more of the same or it expects to secure a large funding boost.

And it is for all these reasons that I can connect with Paul Raeburn’s comment on the Undark article:

Nautilus has burned through … some $10 million in foundation grants in five years. But that’s just the foundation funding. Nautilus is also, in effect, being subsidized by writers and illustrators who work for it without pay. We can only guess, but it seems likely that the pay that never went to contributors amounts to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies for Nautilus. It’s time we recognized that many online publications – Undark not among them – are being subsidized by writers. And we should stop subsidizing them.

(Paul Raeburn and Charlie Petit founded the erstwhile Knight Science Journalism Tracker, now subsumed by Undark. Also, and of no relevance whatsoever, Petit once quoted my blog on the pages of KSJT.)

Such persistent subsidies will only postpone the finding of a good solution or the meeting of a tragic end, neither of which is good for anyone publishing stories worth reading. At the same time, writers should be understanding of the fact that independent media initiatives are in their infancy – on top of operating in a region with its own economic and professional troubles (I can’t emphasise this enough). This doesn’t mean they should be okay with not being paid; on the contrary. They should expect to be paid for all services provided but they should expect reasonable amounts. One freelancer I’d once sounded out for a story asked for $1 a word. This might be okay in the US and in the UK/Europe, but Rs 64 a word in India has no bearing to ground realities. Of course, I do laud the freelancer for having been able to secure such rates in the past (in other countries) as well as for valuing his own work so highly.

The Wire publishes about 300 original articles a month (excluding in-house content). The average length of each article is around 1,500 words. Some of our contributors write for us pro bono because they recognise the value of what we are trying to do and our constraints – and because the response they receive is gratifying. But assuming we had to pay for everything we ran, this means commissioning costs Rs 22.5 lakh a month if we pay Rs 5 a word and Rs 90 lakh a month if we pay Rs 20 a word. Excluding these numbers, The Wire needs X readers to pay Rs Y each a year to cover its running costs (with X estimated as conservatively and Y as liberally as possible). Including these numbers, The Wire will need 1.45X to 42X readers (for Rs 5 to Rs 20 a word) to pay Rs Y each a year. Now, IPSMF + donations from readers has allowed us to expand our audience to up to about 8.5X. But do you see how far afield we will have to go to be able to pay Rs 20 a word and break even (let alone turn a profit)?

In fact, not just us: this applies to all news publishers in India considering a reader-pays model, whether the start-up funds come from philanthropy or angel investors. This is the essential conflict that manifests itself in different garbs, forcing publishers to display crappy advertisements and/or publish ‘trending’ dumpsterfire. As the search for the holy grail of sustainable, high-quality journalism continues, the bottom line seems to be: Pay better, get better in return.

*Except when writers insist on waiving the fees because they can afford to.