Interview with Dawn Stover: Education and Career Guidance in Science Writing

Interview with Dawn Stover: Education and Career Guidance in Science Writing

Dawn Stover is an editor for Popular Science magazine, a leading science and technology publication. She started her college journey as a Biology major at Carleton College, and found a way to blend her love of both science and writing in the field of Science Writing. She went on to get her M.A. in Journalism at New York University.

Ms. Stover has been with Popular Science for seventeen years, but she also worked for Harper's magazine and Science Digest, and as an adjunct instructor with New York University's Science and Environmental Reporting Program.

She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Society of Magazine Editors.

About Ms.Stover & Her Career

How did you become involved in the field of Science Writing?

During my junior year of college, a friend talked me into writing for the college newspaper. I loved it so much that I was tempted to pursue a career in newspaper writing, even though I hadn't taken any courses in journalism. My other love was science; I was a Biology major who originally intended to become a veterinarian. So I looked for a way to reconcile my dual interests in biology and journalism, and that led me to science writing. Because I had no formal training in journalism, I attended a graduate program at New York University (the Science and Environmental Reporting Program) to learn the skills I needed. While I was still in grad school, I took an internship at a magazine and found that I liked magazine writing even better than newspaper writing.

What would you consider two or three of the most interesting stories that you've written related to the environment? How did you get the idea to write them?

One of my favorite stories was about the federal government's search for a way to mark nuclear waste storage sites so that future generations of people will be able to recognize them as dangerous areas to be avoided. The people designing a marker had to come up with concepts that would be intelligible thousands of years from now, when human language and culture may be completely different from what it is today. Other stories that I've written have called attention to global changes, such as glacial melting and deforestation, that threaten the survival of many species today. These are important stories, but difficult to tell because they're depressing and overwhelming at times.

These particular stories were sparked by scientific reports I read, but ideas for stories can come from almost anywhere. If something seems interesting or surprising or funny or poignant to me and my colleagues, it will probably appeal to our readers as well. Often my best ideas come from my personal experiences.

Prior to becoming an editor with Popular Science, you worked as an instructor at New York University, and held several different journalism positions. How have your prior experiences influenced your career and your success?

I think it's healthy to work for a number of different media outlets, because each of them has a unique voice and style. I particularly enjoyed my stint at Harper's magazine because I worked with some high-caliber writers and editors there, and strayed outside science writing for a couple of years. However, my career is atypical because I've stayed so long at one publication (17 years at Popular Science). The main reason for that is because I chose to become a telecommuter in 1991, and have since worked from my home in a log cabin in southwest Washington state. (The magazine is headquartered in New York City.) I've loved every minute of the lifestyle this has allowed me, but it has limited my career choices and my job experiences. I've compensated for that by covering a lot of different beats at Popular Science and occasionally freelancing for other publications.


About Science Writing

Tell us about your primary responsibilities as the Science Editor for Popular Science. What do you enjoy the most? What are some of the most challenging aspects of your job?

Unlike most magazine staffers, I don't currently have responsibility for a specific section of the magazine. I write and edit features, mostly about the life sciences and space exploration. I also write shorter items for the news and pop culture sections of the magazine. One of my most important roles is as an information clearinghouse of sorts; I try to keep up with the latest trends in science and technology, and make sure that my colleagues and I are on top of the news. I also spend a lot of time reading articles in other publications, both for informational purposes and to look for new writers. Probably the best part of the job is when I'm reporting a feature story, because that's when I get to visit scientists in the field and learn about the exciting work they are doing. The hard part is turning my notes into something that's compelling and entertaining to read.

Where do environmental journalists work?

Many cover the environmental beat at newspapers-writing about pollution, endangered species, urban sprawl, and a variety of other topics. Others work for environmental magazines such as Audubon, Sierra, E, and On Earth. Most of these magazines are published by nonprofit organizations. Some write or produce reports for TV and radio, such as NPR (National Public Radio) and CNN. Some work for companies that publish environmental news online. Some write books. Others teach environmental journalism at colleges and universities.

Popular Science is a widely-read magazine, with a circulation of over 1.5 million, and it is considered to be the largest science and technology magazine on the market today. What are some unique aspects of working for such a successful publication?

It makes my job a lot easier because I find that people are usually very willing to spend time talking with me; some of them are even subscribers. Also, it's satisfying to know that your work reaches a large and very diverse audience. However, that sometimes makes it difficult to characterize your reader, and to tailor your writing for him. Working for a magazine that is widely known and is one of the oldest in the country also means that you have to be extremely vigilant about accuracy. One serious mistake can ruin a reputation that has taken decades to build.

What important contributions do you feel the field of Science Writing has made to society?

I think science writing has given readers a better understanding of the world around them, both the natural world and the technological world. Science has major impacts on our everyday life, for good and ill, and it's important that readers be able to make informed choices.

Would you say that there is a significant difference between Science Writing and Environmental Journalism?

Yes. First, let's take the distinction between writing and journalism: Journalism is just one type of writing. Science or environmental writing also includes everything from public relations to technical papers. Within the subset of journalism, the distinction between science journalism and environmental journalism is a blurry one: There are a lot of science journalists who regularly write stories on environmental topics, and there are a lot of environmental journalists who regularly cover science in their stories. So I see a huge overlap between science journalism and environmental journalism. What you call yourself simply depends on what you see as your primary beat.


Education In The Field: What To Expect

Tell us about you education, including degrees, certificates or other training. Do you feel that your education experience is typical of other Science Journalists and Writers?

I have a B.A. in Biology, and an M.A. in Journalism (with a certificate in Science and Environmental Reporting). Beyond that, my only formal education consists of a few writing and editing seminars. I know a number of science journalists who followed a similar path. Most of the environmental journalists I know, though, are newspaper writers who did not attend grad school.

Do I need a graduate degree in journalism to get a job as an environmental journalist?

No. Many people in the field learn the craft on the job. However, journalism courses are very helpful for learning the skills and professional standards of journalism.

How can students improve their chances of success in the field?

Write, write, write! And try to get your writing published wherever you can. Clips are more important than credentials in this profession.

In your opinion, what are the top schools or programs in the United States for Science Writing and/or Environmental Journalism?

In my (admittedly biased) opinion, the best science writing programs for graduate students are at New York University and the University of California, Santa Cruz. For environmental journalism, Michigan State University has a great program. And for a general master's degree in journalism (which may include a course or two in science or environmental journalism), the most respected programs are at Columbia University, Northwestern University, and the University of Missouri, Columbia. But there are lots of other great graduate programs in science and/or environmental journalism. The Society of Environmental Journalists has a list of environmental journalism programs , and the University of Wisconsin has a list of science journalism programs.

I would not recommend that anyone major in journalism at the undergraduate level. You don't need four years to learn journalism, and you'd be better off pursuing a degree in science, history, literature, or a foreign language.


Jobs In The Field: What To Expect

What kinds of jobs are available in the field of Science Writing? What kinds of work do entry-level graduates usually do?

Within the larger field of science writing, there is a broad range of jobs available. To name just a few: newspaper or magazine journalist, TV or radio broadcaster, book author, writer for a newsletter or technical journal, freelance journalist, university science writer, public information officer, publicist, technical writer, corporate consultant, etc. Looking specifically at journalism, the type of entry-level job depends on the medium. At newspapers, for example, most people start by taking a reporting job at a relatively small weekly or daily paper. At magazines, most people start as an editorial assistant, an assistant editor, or a researcher. Some brave souls start out as self-employed freelances, writing for a variety of publications.

What's the pay scale for someone just starting a career? How about for those at the senior level?

Again, this varies depending on the category of science writing chosen. A good source of information about pay scales at magazines is the annual editorial salary survey done by Folio, the magazine of the magazine business. The 2002 survey reports that the salary for an editor-in-chief, the top position at a magazine, can range from $26,000 to $290,000 depending on the size and frequency of the magazine. A typical salary for an entry-level position such as assistant editor is $25,000 to $30,000, while a typical salary for a senior editor is around $60,000.

For freelance writers, the standard rate today is still about $1 per word. The largest magazines pay several dollars per word, and many smaller magazines pay less than a dollar.

Do you have any advice regarding how students graduating college can land that first great job? Is it helpful to have internship experience in the field?

Yes, an internship is very helpful. That's how I got my first job after grad school. When my internship at Harper's ended, my supervisors at the magazine didn't want to let me go. At Popular Science, we have hired several interns as full-time staffers after their internships ended. Even if an internship doesn't lead directly to a job, it's valuable experience that looks good on a resume. And it's a chance to find out what sort of workplace is the best fit for you.

Other than an internship, the best route for landing a job (as in any field) is to tap the people you know. Former professors, alumni of your college, friends of friends...anyone who can help you get a foot in the door.

Also, it's really helpful to have published clips, even if they're just in the college newspaper or a local weekly. The best internships are those where you get a chance to write for the publication while you're there.

What professional organizations represent science and environmental journalists?

How is the job market right now? How do you think it will be in the next 5-10 years?

For a while, there was a big boom in jobs as dotcoms hired many writers to help produce text for their sites. But in the last few years, it's been a tough job market. At magazines, the sluggish economy has meant fewer ad sales, which in turn means fewer editorial pages to fill. A lot of media companies have gone through downsizing and early retirement programs. It's also a tough market for freelance writers, because pay rates haven't kept pace with inflation. I think the situation will improve over the next few years. Over the long term, though, I'm concerned that the audience for long, thoughtful, beautifully written articles is shrinking-and being replaced with an audience that has little time for reading and little interest in serious issues.

If a student is an environmental activist, does that disqualify them from getting a job in journalism?

You won't be able to work for mainstream media organizations, such as daily newspapers, if you have an axe to grind. These organizations expect you to be objective. If you can't do that, you may want to work for an advocacy organization or publication instead.


The Industry

As an editor and writer of feature articles for Popular Science, you've probably seen a lot of trends in the science and technology markets. What, in your opinion, are some of the emerging issues that will be hot topics in the next few years?

It would take days to name them all, but here are a few off the top of my head: nanotechnology, cloning, climate change, fuel cells, missile defense, water shortages, emerging viruses, electronic voting, and privacy.

What do you consider to be some of the greatest challenges facing professionals in the field of Science Writing and Environmental Journalism today?

One challenge, as I mentioned earlier, is that people seem to be losing interest in reading. The trend is toward shorter, art-heavy stories. As journalists, we need to find a way to make our work as compelling as ever, without sacrificing depth and accuracy. We also need to advocate for literacy (including scientific literacy).

Another big challenge, perhaps even more difficult, is how to sustain interest in reading about global, seemingly intractable problems like climate change and habitat loss. Environmental stories, by their very nature, are often perceived as "downers" by many readers.

A third challenge comes from the fact that journalism organizations have experienced a lot of consolidation and downsizing in recent years. Many companies are unwilling to invest in the time-consuming reporting that's required to do in-depth investigative pieces. Consolidation also means the loss of independent voices in the media.

A fourth challenge is access to information. The Internet opened up huge libraries of documents to reporters, but now the federal government is clamping down on freedom of information. For example, environmental journalists can no longer get access to information about toxic chemicals released into the environment by industrial facilities, because the government claims this information could be used to threaten national security.

Finally, environmental journalists are under constant pressure to prove to sources and readers that they are not environmentalists. This often leads to "he said, she said" stories that give readers the impression that scientists are evenly divided on an issue, which is a disservice to readers. I find it odd that environmental journalists are not allowed to take a position on whether, for example, water pollution is a bad thing. Nobody expects reporters covering the police beat to have a neutral position on crime, or political reporters to have a neutral position on democracy vs. dictatorships.

How has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

As with most industries, it has had a huge effect. It has opened up an entire realm of information that was not previously accessible. Also, it has provided new ways for publishers to disseminate information to the general public. One potential drawback is that young people today are growing up with the impression that all information (and music) should be free. They may be reluctant to pay for subscriptions to newspapers and magazines in the future.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about the educational and career outlook for Environmental Journalism majors, click here.

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