So you want to be a science journalist

Do you want to know a secret? You’d better sit down as I’m about to reveal all… here are my tips for budding science journalists.

Over the past few years, a number of people thinking of jumping into science journalism have asked for my advice. For this post, I looked back at the various emails and tips that I sent, and compiled them below in one handy post. Let’s dive in!

To MA or not to MA?

I found completing an MA in Journalism was super helpful as it gave me the confidence to transition from blogging in my spare time to full-time journalism. It also taught me about the various types of work in print, radio, and TV… as well as giving me the opportunity to intern in a national newspaper.

TIP: If you are interested in an MA in Journalism, there is a scholarship for DCU’s course: Veronica Guerin Memorial Scholarship.

A number of science journalists in Ireland have completed the MA in Science Communication in DCU, so that’s another option.

However, saying that… a qualification isn’t necessary to become a journalist. To grow your confidence, you could start a blog, or pitch to student papers if in college. Once you’ve written a few pieces, I’d recommend pitching to newspapers, magazines, and online sites.

TIP: It’s important to know about defamation and copyright law, especially if you self-publish. Ireland has strict laws compared to some countries so be careful!

How Do I Pitch?

TIP: Don’t send a complete article or radio / TV piece to an editor. Pitch your idea.

Below is a general template for pitches to newspapers / magazines for a feature article. You can adapt this for news pieces (remove panel) or radio packages (remove panel & change words to minutes).

Hi [Editor's Title & Name],

Short introduction sentence to email

Background: Short paragraph (one to two sentences on who you are / link to portfolio or latest article)

Idea: (for article)

Overview: Paragraph on what your idea for the article is, why it is relevant & new etc.
Method/Interviewees: Paragraph on who you plan to interview including other methods including freedom of information requests etc.
Panels: Are there any panel opportunities to go along with the piece (necessary for feature articles). The panel is a small section of information that could include lists of things (e.g. top 10…) etc. Include proposed lengths of panels
Length: Total length (in words)
Ready for Publication: What is the timeline? E.g. if research is being published the next Saturday, is that the day you should publish the piece. Is there an embargo? Include this here.

Sign off

What About Grants?

If you’re looking for science-based grants and jobs, you should check out:

  • The Irish Science and Technology Journalists’ Association (ISTJA): As well as getting to know other science journalists, members have access to apply for a number of grants each years. These include travel grants to conferences, as well as research grants for specific subjects.
  • The Association of British Science Writers (ABSW): They keep a really useful up-to-date list of grants and jobs on their website. They also run the annual ABSW Awards for Great Britain and Ireland, which is open to all Irish science journalists.

TIP: Conferences are great places to find out about innovative research, as well as get interviews with world-renowned scientists for that feature you’re working on.

Here are some Irish journalism scholarships you can apply for:

  • Simon Cumbers Media Fund: The aim of this fund “is to assist and promote more and better quality media coverage of development issues in the Irish media”. There are two rounds of funding allocated every year. The latest round is opening this month.
  • BAI Sound & Vision Funding Scheme. This TV and radio scheme “provides funding in support of high quality programmes on Irish culture, heritage and experience, and programmes to improve adult literacy”. E.g. a series of radio shorts, full-length TV or radio documentaries. You need to get a station to agree in advance to air your work during peak hours if funding is granted.

 Any Other Resources?

  • Highly recommend the Guardian’s ‘Secrets of good science writing‘ series which includes great tips on pitching to editors, writing different types of articles, conducting interviews, and avoiding common mistakes. Make sure to check it out!
  • SciencePod offers to link journalists and organisations looking for content through a virtual newsroom. You can register here if you’re a writer, editor or proofreader.

But the Bottom Line?

My main advice on money is to make sure to get paid. These days with unpaid internships, and exploitative websites, I know that can be very hard. At the start, I did write a few online articles for free. But when I got paid once, that was it… I wasn’t going to do any more free work.

TIP: It is really important to ask the editor what you will be getting paid BEFORE agreeing to write for a newspaper or magazine.

In terms of print, rates vary depending on outlet (local versus national newspaper, general versus expert magazine etc) and experience (both as a journalist, and previous expertise e.g. science degree).

To give you an idea of the variety of rates out there, here’s what I typically got paid for two different article lengths. These date from 2015 (as I mainly worked in radio after that), but I doubt they have changed too much.

  • 800 word feature: Between €400-€600 depending on the specialist magazine. Common lengths for my magazine features were 800 words, and 2,500 words. Longer articles, as well as those that require a lot of research, were paid more.
  • 1,300 word feature: This is usually the length for a newspaper feature. Newspapers don’t pay as well as magazines, but your story will often get more coverage, and readership. The rate varies from €200-€500 as it depends on the outlet, prominence, and section or supplement.

TIP: The London Freelance branch of the National Union of Journalists is a great resource in terms of freelance rates. Their members submit rates anonymously for all types of media outlets. Another database of freelance rates is ‘The Freelancer‘ by Contently (Thanks to Sabine Louët for this link). These are mainly from the US, but UK rates can be found there too.

Any Other Questions?

If you have any questions about science journalism, just leave a comment below, and I’ll try to answer them. You can also give me a shout via Twitter or email.

One last thing… if you’re interested in how I became a science journalist, here’s a talk on my career given to undergraduates as part of Cool Jobs 2014 in the Science Gallery: