Run Home to Start Writing: an Interview with Ivan Oransky, Part One
From family practice to cancer research, there are many career paths open to medical doctors. But few take the path chosen by Ivan Oransky, who became a journalist after earning his M.D.
Oransky has worked for news outlets from Scientific American to Reuters Health, and has most recently taken a position as global editorial director for the online news service MedPage Today. Somehow, he’s also found time to create two blogs, Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch, that focus on little-discussed – but often important – aspects of science communication.
Given the varied nature of his career so far, our conversation ran pretty long. So I’m splitting it into two parts. This post includes our discussion of why he took the MedPage Today job, how managing online news has affected the way he approaches editing and what it was like to tell his parents he was leaving medical practice for journalism. The second post, which can be found here, focuses on his work as a blogger, the perils of the Ingelfinger Rule and what he’s learned by teaching other people how to be reporters.
Communication Breakdown: After four years as executive editor of Reuters Health, you took up your new position at MedPage Today July 15. Reuters tries to reach a broad audience, whereas MedPage Today focuses specifically on reaching physicians and the medical community.Why did you make the move?
Ivan Oransky: MedPage Today is already the industry leader when it comes to medical news for health care professionals, thanks to the news team that Peggy Peck has built. The company is ambitious and nimble, with an extremely strong business model, and it wants to grow. The chance to lead that growth isn’t the kind of opportunity that comes along very often in journalism today.
CB: MedPage Today has been online since 2004, and has had partnerships with CNN and MSNBC. Are you considering any changes to MedPage Today’s model – expanding its video offerings, partnering with other news outfits, etc.?
Oransky: MedPage Today has had a number of successful partnerships, with outlets from ABC News to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, whose John Fauber continues to do tough investigative reporting for us. We’ll certainly continue to look for other ways to combine forces with other news organizations. We’ve also expanded our video offerings significantly, thanks to a team led by former ABC News medical unit director Roger Sergel. Those will also continue.
My main push for the next little while will be on engagement. More than a third of U.S. doctors are registered with our site, and I want to hear from them, making the site more of a conversation. One of my plans is to create a health care provider blog network, much as Discover, National Geographic, and Scientific American have in science. This is a really good, untapped niche. It’s also a really good way to find stories and develop deeper sources – and do even better journalism.
CB: MedPage Today prides itself on bringing the medical community up to speed on new research findings. I mean, the site’s slogan is “Putting breaking medical news into practice.” Are there any specific research or policy areas that you’d like to see an increased emphasis on?
Oransky: I’m not sure there are particular areas that the site needs more focus on. The team does a fantastic job of covering the waterfront. We’ll continue to make sure to bring our users the information they need to help patients make decisions, and having more voices on the site will gives us even better insights into the areas that are most important to health care providers out in the field.
CB: Okay, now I’m rewinding a bit. You were a student reporter as an undergrad, serving as executive editor of the Harvard Crimson. Then you went to medical school, getting your M.D. in 1998, and interned for a year at Yale. But by 2000 you were back to reporting – working as editor-in-chief of Praxis Post. What made you decide to leave medicine for journalism? And what is, or was, Praxis Post?
Oransky: I kept up my journalism habit during medical school, serving as co-editor-in-chief of Pulse, the former medical student section of JAMA. I had the great fortune of working under then-editor George Lundberg, whom I’ve been grateful to call a mentor for nearly 20 years. During my medical internship in New Haven, when my classmates would be lucky to make it through the door post-call before falling blissfully asleep, I would run home to start writing. And places like the Forward and American Medical News actually gave me regular columns. So after my internship, I figured maybe journalism was worth trying full-time. If it didn’t work out, I could go back and complete my training, then be a happily practicing doctor who did some writing now and then. That was 14 years ago, and so far, so good.
Praxis Post was a scrappy little webzine of medicine and culture dreamt up by Sarah Greene – who has archived it on her site, please go check it out – and Mary Crowley. Mary and Sarah – who had earlier created the much-loved HMS Beagle – gave me my first full-time job after I left medicine, as founding editor-in-chief of the Post. We had a terrific time, doing important journalism for physicians, everything from investigative reporting to profiles of doctors, including a gastroenterologist who moonlighted as a wine critic. Brill’s Content called us “Vanity Fair for doctors,” and in our first full year of publication, we were a finalist in the Online News Association Awards’ General Excellence category. Sadly, Praxis Post stopped publishing once its parent company, Praxis Press, was sold.
CB: I’ve known attorneys who made the switch from law to journalism, but you’re the first M.D. I’ve met who made the switch. Was it tough to tell your folks, after completing medical school, that you’d decided to trade a career in medicine for a career in the newsroom?
Oransky: I’ve had easier conversations with them, that’s for sure. In my family, you went to medical school unless you didn’t like the sight of blood, in which case you went to law school. It probably helped that I moved back home for several months while figuring out where I’d land. It’s difficult to stay angry at someone who will be at the breakfast table the following morning. But the fact is, all my parents ever wanted was for me to be happy, and when they saw how much I was enjoying journalism, and that I seemed to be supporting myself – well, once I was able to move out, of course – they knew I was doing what I really wanted.
CB: Do you ever wish that you could still be involved in clinical work or medical research as a practitioner?
Oransky: There are pangs every now and then, when I meet up with medical school classmates and we shoot the breeze. I have an appointment as a clinical assistant professor of medicine at my alma mater, the New York University School of Medicine, so theoretically I could wander the hospital halls and stay involved. Larry Altman, the former New York Times medical correspondent whose job I fantasized about having almost as soon as I started reading the Times, also has a clinical professorship at NYU, and used to serve as an attending on the wards at Bellevue, one of its main teaching hospitals, a month a year to stay current. But in general I’m quite happy to leave the doctoring to my colleagues who’ve been out there practicing. And I was reading more medical studies per month in my work at Reuters Health than many doctors have time to read in a year, so I feel pretty up-to-date.
CB: In 2002 you went to work as a deputy editor for The Scientist, and stayed there for almost six years. What did you learn in that newsroom?
Oransky: My time at The Scientist really taught me how to be a trade journalist, and how to be a manager – both of which I continue to learn in my current role. I started there as web editorial director, a job Praxis owner Vitek Tracz asked me to take on. My boss at the magazine, editor-in-chief Richard Gallagher, started a few months after I did, and from the start it was clear we both had big visions for a biweekly magazine for life scientists that many loved but whose profile was uneven. We relaunched in January 2006 as a gorgeous monthly, pushing narrative, investigative features alongside essays from scientists about cutting-edge basic research. Readers noticed, and so did FOLIO and the American Society of Business Publication Editors, both of whom gave us a slew of awards. We were able to accomplish all of this because we were leading an enormously talented and dedicated staff of specialty journalists.
CB: You then spent a little over a year as managing editor, online, for Scientific American. Scientific American focuses on a broad audience of people who are interested in an array of sciences, whereas The Scientist focuses on “life science professionals.” Was that a difficult switch to make?
Oransky: Not particularly. Scientific American’s audience isn’t exactly the mythical “general interest public.” It has a long history of diving deeply into scientific subjects, and that attracts an audience enthusiastic about science. They may not be practicing scientists, but they’re willing to spend a lot of time with a magazine that explains things to them and challenges their thinking. The Scientist was doing that too. Our goal was to be a literary trade magazine, and I think we were succeeding. So there was actually a fair amount of similarity.
CB: At Scientific American, you were focusing solely on online content. You could push out stories immediately, didn’t have to worry as much about word counts, etc. Did that change the way you approached your reporting, writing or editing?
Oransky: One of the things that I started doing more when I was commissioning stories was to think of the whole package, and stop focusing on word counts. As long as editors and freelancers have a good relationship and can discuss how a story is evolving, I think project fees and day rates reflect the effort that go into a piece much better than payment by the word. Working almost exclusively online crystallized that for me. Sometimes the best way to tell a story was through a slideshow with extended captions. Here’s an example that grew out of an NASW Pitch Slam, on one of my now-favorite subjects, bears.
Working on the web in 2008 and 2009 also meant being thrown into the world of social media. I’ve always learned best by doing – the old “see one, do one, teach one” medical school mantra – and that was certainly true of Twitter and Facebook. Both platforms became excellent reporting tools quickly, in the case of Facebook as soon as I joined. Many reporters think of social media as yet another broadcast medium. It certainly can be, but only if you build an audience by highlighting work and resources that you didn’t come up with in addition to your own. But I think its power as a way to engage your audience, build sources, and find untold stories is much, much more important.