A License to Be Curious: an Interview with Seth Mnookin

24 February 2014 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

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Photo credit: Pawel Kryj

Seth Mnookin is a science writer. (I know, because I asked him.) But that seems kind of limiting. As a newspaper reporter he’s covered everything from rock n’ roll to the crime beat in Florida. As a magazine reporter, he’s written for outlets ranging from Vanity Fair to Wired. And while he’s the author of The Panic Virus, about the spurious link between childhood vaccinations and autism, he’s also written books about professional baseball and the Jayson Blair scandal.

Clearly this is someone worth talking to.

Over the course of a couple phone conversations, I asked Seth about becoming a reporter, failed freelance pitches, and how he got drawn to science reporting in the first place. You'll also spot references to Miley Cyrus, E.O. Wilson and Joey Ramone. Read on.

Communication Breakdown: How old were you when you decided that you were going to be a reporter, and why did you want to be a reporter?

Seth Mnookin: I started working on my high school newspaper in my freshman year, and just loved it right off the bat for a bunch of different reasons. It satisfied my obsessive nature, because you needed to make sure everything was accurate, maintain a consistent style, and adhere to journalistic rules and guidelines for things like headlines and captions. But I think what I responded to most was the way that it allowed me, even in high school, to kind of operate almost as an undercover agent. It gave me access to all sorts of fascinating cool things and people I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to reach.

For example, I was able to interview Kevin McHale, who played for the Celtics at the time. That was exciting for me. And during the presidential campaign in 1988, I was able to talk to campaign people for both Dukakis and Bush. That was really cool. It was a license to be curious about anything I wanted to be curious about.

CB: Did the reality of being a professional reporter meet your expectations?

Mnookin: Yeah. The main thing I did in college was work on the newspaper. I majored in the history of science, but spent most of my time on the paper. A lot of what I was doing at the time was writing about music. Again, here was a way for me to talk to musicians and go to concerts for free. I focused on those areas of journalism that allowed me to dive into the things I wanted to dive into.

CB: You’ve worked for a variety of news outlets, and covered a wide range of topics: science, crime, politics, pop culture, you name it. Does the beat you’re covering affect the way you report a story? If so, how?

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin (Photo courtesy of Mnookin)

Mnookin: In some ways, yes. If I’m working on a story about someone at the Whitehead Institute [for Biomedical Research], I’d make sure I was up to date on what they were doing and what was going on in the field. But if I was writing about an album, I’d make sure I was familiar with that artist’s previous work and what’s going on in that genre. I think preparation is consistent for all beats, whether it’s reading scientific papers or listening to records.

One area where I think there’s a difference is the way you interact with sources. It’s going to be different if you’re interacting with a policeman at a crime scene versus when you talk to a patient going through an experimental treatment versus talking to a politician. But for the most part there are more similarities than there are differences.

CB: How has reporting in general changed since you broke into the field in the mid-1990s?

Mnookin: The Internet. When I was starting out, it was the early days of the internet being a mass technology. In fact, one of the first places I wrote for after college was an online music publication called Addicted to Noise.

When I started, if I wanted to reach someone I had to pick up the phone and call them. That was always the first approach. You could do some research online, but not the same way you can now, where you can find almost anything you need to do background for a story while sitting at your desk. I spent a lot of time calling sources and trying to learn about subjects by talking to sources. I miss that aspect of it. Now, if you call a source and ask them to explain something, they’ll probably tell you to look it up online.

CB: What’s better about reporting now? What’s worse?

Mnookin: What’s better is the access we have to information…to say it has increased exponentially is downplaying it. For example, if I want to describe what the world was like in the mid-nineteenth century I can look at all of The New York Times’s archives from [that era] without going into a physical newspaper archive. The internet gives us access to an incredible depth of information.

And I don’t know if this is “worse,” but when I was starting out, even though the newspaper industry had already begun to take a downturn, there were opportunities all over the place. On top of that, you had all of these online and print publications that didn’t necessarily have a coherent business model, but were paying reporters real money. There were huge, huge opportunities for people at the beginning of their careers. That’s just disappeared. For people starting out today, you don’t have the same type of chance to learn on the job in the way that I did.

In the late 90s, there were probably 20 or 25 really good metro dailies that any newspaper reporter would aspire to work at. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, The Palm Beach Post, The Denver Post, the Austin American Statesman – most metro areas had at least one strong daily paper. A lot of those papers have been absolutely decimated. It’s not that there’s less news today than there was 15 years ago. I don’t think we fully understand what the repercussions of this change are. Newspapers were so important for reporters. It’s where people learned their chops.

People starting out today, writing for blogs for example, don’t have the safeguards I had. When I started, I had three levels of editors to make sure I didn’t fall on my face. It not only kept me from screwing up, but it helped me learn how to do things the right way and why I should do things that way.

CB: You’re now a science writer, but you spent years covering other beats. When did you first start covering issues related to science and medicine, and what was the story that pulled you in that direction?

Mnookin: From when I graduated college until around 2007 or 2008, I wasn’t really writing about science. There were a couple of times I interviewed for science writing jobs, but didn’t get a job offer.  In 2006, I had a book about the Red Sox that came out. And through no fault of my own, that ended up doing quite well. That gave me a chance to choose my subject matter a little bit more than I would have been able to otherwise.

After that, I just started pitching stories that I could sink my teeth into. And that’s how I ended up writing The Panic Virus.

CB: Were you a dad at that point yet? It seems like childhood vaccination is a subject a new parent would be interested in.

The Panic Virus

The Panic Virus

Mnookin: I was neither a father nor an expectant father when I started working on it. But by the time it came out, my son had been born.

But one of the inspirations for it was that a lot of my friends were first-time parents or expectant parents, and issues related to vaccines kept coming up in conversation. I was surprised that a lot of my friends were making decisions about vaccines based on instinct or intuition. It wasn’t that I knew one side was right or wrong, it’s just that I was interested in the fact that this was a topic where my peers were making decisions but not necessarily looking at the evidence. I was curious about why that was, and about the underlying reality of the situation.

CB: Do you think of yourself as a “science reporter,” or do you think of yourself as a reporter who happens to cover science? Is there a difference? Should there be?

Mnookin: I think of myself as a science reporter now. I haven’t really done anything else since I started working on The Panic Virus. What appeals to me about science reporting, instead of other things I’ve written about, is that there is – at least for me – an intellectual challenge that goes along with the reporting challenges. For me to write about any of a hundred different topics that all fit into the heading of “science reporting” I’d have to learn an entirely different area. And I find that challenge extremely satisfying.

I think I’d enjoy being in school now more than I did when I was actually in school. In some ways, I’ve been able to create a career path where I can keep on learning about new things. A lot of times I feel like what I’m doing is a combination of reporting and learning, and I love that.

And I think a “science reporter” is different from a “reporter who writes about science.” If I assigned you to go write a story about Miley Cyrus, you’d be writing about someone in music and writing about music, but you wouldn’t be a music critic – you’d need to have a whole store of accumulated knowledge to write about the Ring Cycle [Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen”] or some newly unearthed Glenn Gould recording. Your readers would expect you to have the background that allowed you to talk critically and knowingly about music. Ideally, the same is true of science writing.

For instance, I could assign someone to write a profile of E.O. Wilson, and regrdless of whether or not they’d trained specifically to write about biology, they could probably do a decent job writing that profile. But if I wanted someone to cover a purported new discovery, advance, technology, clinical trial, whatever, I’d want someone who has the background to understand what’s going on. Do they know what the null hypothesis is? Do they know how clinical trials work? Do they know the limitations of sample size? I think there’s a certain knowledge base you need to be a science reporter. It’s not impossible to learn on the job, but if you are learning it on the job, I think it’s important that you have a mentor to help you.

CB: What separates a “long-read” feature idea from a good book idea?

Mnookin: The easiest answer is having a publisher willing to pay for you to write a book. The Panic Virus started out as a magazine pitch, and I couldn’t interest anyone in letting me write about it. It was only then that I decided to put together a book proposal.

I also think you need to make sure that whatever type of book you’re thinking about, that you not only have enough compelling material, but that there’s a pretty compelling reason for you to write about it in 80,000 or 100,000 words instead of 5,000 or 10,000.

CB: In addition to writing newspaper and magazine articles, you maintain a (periodically updated) blog, also called The Panic Virus. A lot of your posts there – which cover the nexus of science, medicine and the media – could have been articles or editorials for other (paying) online outlets. Why blog?

Mnookin: Well, I wrote a blog post about Katie Couric, who had done a really awful show about HPV. I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and from when I starting writing it until it was posted took about two hours. If I was going to write for someplace else, it would have taken days, at least [to get edited and posted online]. When I get hit with an idea that I want to get out there, but don’t have much time to devote to it, I can use the blog.

CB: You teach in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. You write books. You report and write magazine and newspaper articles. You maintain a blog. You’re married with two young kids. And, from what I can tell, you do all of those things really well. How do you balance all of those responsibilities without shortchanging any of them?

Mnookin: I don’t know. I’m glad you think I’m doing those things well. From my perspective, it often feels like I’m treading water, especially on big projects. Figuring out time management is something I need to improve. Part of it is figuring out what’s most important or what’s non-negotiable and making sure that you are able to do those things, instead of just working on whatever’s in front of you.

You can’t do everything, so you need to prioritize. I try to be a little bit selective in terms of where I devote my time.

CB: I’m curious about the MIT gig. You were a successful reporter and author. Why did you decide to take a university position?

Mnookin: That’s an easy one to answer: health care. I truly do love teaching, and it was a great opportunity, but a real animating factor was that I have a family – my wife is a writer also – and I felt more confident going forward if one of us had a job with benefits and a regular salary.

On top of that, it’s kind of insane what a great job it is. It’s intellectually stimulating and also gives me time to do other work. I promised myself that taking the job wouldn’t prevent me from being a journalist.

CB: Have you found that there are unexpected benefits to teaching? Has it influenced your reporting or writing in any way?

Mnookin: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure if it’s influenced my writing. But I think one benefit is that, when talking to someone else about how to do this job, it makes me think more deliberately about how I do this job – whether it’s about writing, or structuring stories, or interviewing or whatever. Actually, I think it’s influenced my organization, because that’s something I work on a lot with my students.

CB: Here’s a question on behalf of novice freelancers everywhere: Do you still have story ideas that get shot down by editors?

Mnookin: Of course! All the time. Often times I’m pitching ideas that are sort of longer ideas that aren’t as pegged to breaking news, so there’s not the same kind of urgency. Sometimes I’ll sit on an idea for a while and then pitch it someone else.

I had a piece that was rejected a couple years ago, and I kind of thought, OK, I’ll regroup and pitch it somewhere else—but I sat on it for a while, and then someone else wrote about it for The New York Times Magazine. That happens a lot.

CB: What’s your advice for freelance reporters trying to break in to major news outlets?

Mnookin: Right now it’s definitely a buyer’s market. There are a lot of really good writers out there, and the space for good writing – depending on how you look at it – is probably shrinking as opposed to expanding. It’s tough. In general, the best thing to do is try to find some personal connection. That doesn’t mean you’ll get an assignment, but it means that at least the right person will see the pitch, and the pitch will get judged on its merits.

If you’re going to make a blind pitch, never try to be humorous in your pitch letter. It’s a situation where people aren’t expecting humor, so it doesn’t always register right away. It might get you remembered, but probably not in a positive way.

Always try to be concise, and do your basic research beforehand to make sure that publication hasn’t done that story in the past year or two – and that their competitors haven’t either.

I’ve been in that position as an editor, and editors have more things to do than they have time to do them. You don’t want to give editors a quick way to dismiss you.

CB: Okay, the last question is about your work as a music critic in the 1990s. Of all the music stories you wrote, which one was your favorite, and why?

Mnookin: I did a couple of stories about [Morphine singer/guitarist] Mark Sandman. I interviewed him a couple times over a couple of years and the band altogether at least once. We got to know each other a little bit, and in some ways he was an incredibly intimidating interview. He didn’t want to deal with any bullshit, understandably, so was very quick to cut you off. But once he knew you were sort of taking things seriously, he was just so interesting and smart and willing to engage – he’d go well beyond the sort of traditional celebrity interview.

Also, I got to work some with Joey Ramone, and that was obviously a lot of fun. I got to MC a show that he was doing, and that was incredibly cool.


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