ScienceOnline2010 - interview with Tyler Dukes

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years' interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.

Today, I asked Tyler Dukes to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

I'm a journalist working as a Web producer for News 14 Carolina in Raleigh, N.C., and I do freelance science writing on the side. I grew up mostly in eastern North Carolina, not too far from the Outer Banks, and I've lived in the South my entire life. I wanted to be an engineer when I left for N.C. State University. But that changed after 2-and-a-half years of class, a rapidly declining GPA and an increased leadership role at the student newspaper.

Looking back now, I think I bristled at specialization. I loved understanding the basics of complicated science and technical topics, but when I dove deeper I thought about all the other neat science I was missing out on. That curiosity is a skill in journalism, especially science journalism; but in engineering, it's a distraction.

In short, I'm a southern science storyteller, which means I wax poetic about the chemistry of barbecue while I'm out cooking a pig for a football tailgate.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

When I came back for a victory lap (read: fifth year) at N.C. State after four years and a stint as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, I got the gig as Science & Tech editor there. That meant a whole year of chasing stories about campus research and science issues affecting the community. I covered the phenomenon of disappearing bees, interviewed the chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and sprinkled in some in-depth general news stories along the way.


In the months while I languished between graduation and full-time employment, I discovered blogging and podcasting. I even created a short-lived series on beer in the Triangle (another one of my passions). In late 2009, I revamped my personal blog, Write -30-, which is all about the changes in the journalism industry.

I've also spent the last two years at News 14 trying to figure out how to use social media to make the journalism at the station better. I've learned a lot, but as a side effect I've met a crazy amount of awesome people. It's actually how I first learned about ScienceOnline.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

Right now, I'm doing more freelance science writing in my free time, which is even more fun than I figured it would be. I'm also periodically blogging about whatever journalism topics that happen to interest me at any given moment.

At some distant point in my career, I'd love to be a staff writer for a science and technology magazine. But the future of journalism is really hard to foresee right now, so I'm a bit unsure about what jobs will exist in 10 years and which ones I'll be qualified for. Regardless of the medium, I'll be happy enough to continue my vain attempts to satisfy my insatiable curiousity.

I'm also planning my wedding in June, which is way less fun than I figured it would be. But my soon-to-be wife is awesome, so it's definitely worth it.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I love how science communication requires you to think like both a scientist and a writer (at least if you do it right). I spent a long time in college rewiring my brain to understand Java, electron physics and differential equations, so I feel like I'd be doing my student loans a disservice if I didn't put that partially rewired brain to good use.

When it comes to the Web, I love the chaos it creates. News organizations, for the most part, have taken their credibility for granted. Reporters and editors assume, right or wrong, that it's the newspaper masthead and the history behind it that gives them that credibility. They've seldom been challenged or forced to prove why anyone should trust them, and the result is a rapid decline in their audience's confidence.

Bloggers, on the other hand, are forced to prove to their readers why they should be trusted. It's not enough to have a Web site. They have to build their audience and their credibility over time, and the result of that process tends to be a more quality product in a lot of ways.

This is a really valuable exercise for science journalists and reporters in general, and we're seeing it reflected even with more traditional reporters. That's why there's more and more emphasis on reporters working to build their "personal brand," independent of a newspaper or television station.

The Web has made credibility more personal, and that's a good thing for everybody.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

When I first started at News 14 Carolina, our social media presence was nonexistant. We had a few blogs here and there, but there was no unifying strategy or plan to embrace these technologies. We started small, with a few Twitter accounts and a Facebook Page where we really worked to engage our audience in actual conversation. What we really wanted to do is show the news directors and our general manager that these were valuable uses of our time that needed to be integrated into the station's workflow. The case we made, with both research on how people use social media and actual data from our own social media brand, was that we needed to bring our content where people are on the Web.

After about a year, the impact was really clear. Facebook grew from one of our top-20 referring sites to our No. 1 referring site. That's higher than Yahoo and Google. Now that we've made our case, a lot more of the newsroom has started to come on board. More people are signing up for Twitter and creating fan pages on Facebook with the intention of connecting with viewers. They don't see it as extra work, but as a way to make their work more valuable. That's very rewarding to me.

Personally, I've found my blog, Twitter and Facebook to be invaluable tools for reaching out and connecting with more people in journalism and science. These are people I might never come into contact face to face, and I've really been amazed by how accessible this technology makes everyone.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

Most of the science blogs I read before ScienceOnline were the offshoots of more traditional news publications. Short Sharp Science on New Scientist and Wired Science were some of my favorites. I've also followed technology blogs, like TechCrunch, Engadget and Gizmodo, for a while.

Many of my favorite blogs now I discovered after meeting the bloggers at ScienceOnline. Your own Blog Around the Clock, Deep Sea News, Ed Yong's Not Exactly Rocket Science and Ben Young Landis' blog are all in my Google Reader now.

Oddly enough, I came across Deep Sea News back in June 2009 when I was researching a story I did on the Cameron Village sewer monster. They had a story (and identification) on the creepy lifeform before any traditional media outlets. Now I'm a pretty frequent reader.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference - a session, something someone said or did or wrote - that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

I'm a big fan of journalism conferences. There's nothing like getting out of the newsroom for a few days to rub elbows with some great reporters and editors and draw inspiration from their advice and work.

But the thing I loved about ScienceOnline was that it pulled together three very different groups -- scientists, science communicators and science journalists -- for some very frank (and often contentious) conversations about a shared goal: how to use the Web to increase the public's understanding of science. Through Twitter, blogs and Facebook, those conversations started before the conference even began. By the time we all showed up, people were familiar with each other's work, which helped the discussion flow more freely. That conversation continues today, and I can honestly say I got more out of ScienceOnline than any conference I've ever attended.

It was so nice to see you and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again soon.

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