Scientific writers come in Trojan horses

A bunch of friends inside the Trojan Horse. I am the guy in the bottom center. © Ivan F. Gonzalez

My last post was about the “Science Salsa Method” to become a better science communicator. In that post I mentioned an awesome Commencement Speech by Robert Krulwich.

This speech in front of the Berkeley Journalism School’s Class of 2011 takes half an hour to watch. My friend Jessica Carrilli of “Jessica’s Blog of Bad Advice” made me realize that not everybody has the time to watch it.

If you don’t watch it, you may not know what “looking for friends in low places” means. Let me explain what I meant:

Krulwich paints this picture for the newcomers in journalism:  You are outside the fortified city of Troy and want to get in – to get a job as a journalist in a company. Traditionally you wait on the sandy beaches and send cards to the people inside the fortress until somebody  trows you a key from the high towers and you are allowed to enter.

In the golden age, If you could get yourself into the New york Times or WSJ, and you gave your life for the company, the company would take care of you. That is no longer the case. Krulwich reminded us that “A job at NBC, ESPN, New York Times, NPR, may look safe today – but things change. They always change. And companies won’t protect you from that change. They can’t. And these days, they don’t even try.

As an alternative he proposes this: “Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something.”

The example he used was science journalism. Some people started with a blog, and now “They are becoming not just science writers with jobs, they are becoming THE science writers, the ones people read, and look to… they’re going places. And they’re doing it on their own terms! In their own voice, they’re free to be themselves AND they’re paid for it!”

Krulwich advice continues: “So for this age, for your time, I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.

Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy.  Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.

And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.

And maybe that’s your way into Troy.

There you are, on the beach, with the other newbies, looking up. Maybe somebody inside will throw you a key and let you in… But more likely, most of you will have to find your own Trojan Horse.

And maybe, for your generation, the Trojan Horse is what you’ve got, your talent, backed by a legion of friends. Not friends in high places. This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.

The bold font is mine, that is what I meant to say when I said: I am looking for friends in low places!

If you want to read the transcript of Robert Krulwich’s speech, please visit this blog post by Ed Yong: “There are some people who don’t wait.” Robert Krulwich on the future of journalism | Not Exactly Rocket Science | Discover Magazine.