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July 15, 2015, 9 a.m.
Audience & Social

The New York Times’ “Summer of Science” aims to make science journalism mobile-friendly and fun

The New York Times hopes to generate interest in science with a project that focuses on short, social- and mobile-friendly content.

The New York Times wants to take readers to summer science camp. But instead of experimenting with Mentos and Diet Coke or potato guns, the Times is giving readers a closer look at Pluto, solar-powered planes, and tips on how to grill the perfect steak over molten lava.

Welcome to the “Summer of Science,” an experiment that aims to make science a little more accessible.

In the past, the Times’ science coverage has been fairly traditional, following new research and advances in space through NASA, or providing analysis on topics like prevalence of shark attacks and the re-emergence of Ebola in Liberia.

Newer sites have taken a less traditional approach in trying to make connect readers with science coverage. Science stories come with a built-in curiosity gap that promises a little more educational value and (potentially) less clickbait. So while many outlets have photos from Pluto, BuzzFeed also provides hangover cures, Vox offers the science behind fireworks, and Mashable brings you tiny Brazilian frogs.

“Summer of Science,” however, aims to broaden that portfolio by covering stories in new ways and focusing on subjects that might not normally get attention from the science desk. Swarms of ghostly toxic jellyfish hitting the shores in Hawaii and Guam may not rise to the level of a 800-word story, but its combination of interesting + eerie makes it good for sharing.

“We’re eager to play around with different possibilities to represent science stories and science journalism to our readers,” said Heather Murphy, digital deputy editor for the Times science desk, which has 28 people on staff including reporters and editors.

Murphy is one of the Times’ new “digital deputies,” and is charged with thinking of ways for each reporting team to reach new audiences.

She said the science desk plans to explore new topics and new formats over the summer, to see what resonates with readers and to evaluate how such content could be incorporated into regular coverage. “One of the delightful things on the Internet is seeing how much people love science and how much people share science,” she said.

Cynthia Collins, social media editor for the Times, said that Summer of Science stories are performing better on mobile than typical stories on nytimes.com: Seventy percent of their traffic comes from social, and the readership skews younger than the normal Times demographic. On Facebook, the science desk’s page is seeing increased engagement, with more comments and traffic back to stories.

Visuals — which can show the colors of the northern lights from space or illustrate brain surgery on a fly — perform well on social platforms. The science desk manages its own Twitter and Facebook accounts. If a post starts to gain traction off the site, Collins’s team amplifies the response by pushing it out through the Times’ main social accounts.

Among the stories that found big audiences through social: Zookeepers mimicking Chris Pratt in “Jurassic World,” an illustration of how people with the same body mass index can look different, and an account of how astronomers investigated the identity of the couple in the famous V-J Day photo.

The science desk also has another advantage: Michael Roston, former senior staff editor for social media at the Times, now works on the science team.

A modular, blog-like design anchors the “Summer of Science,” with a wide display that gives text and images more breathing room, and an infinite scroll.

The design is the result of a new layout tool, “conversation pieces,” that facilitates short formats, said Sam Dolnick, a senior editor for mobile at the Times. The tool encourages Times reporters to think of stories in their most minimal elements: A few notes, salient quotes, or a single striking image. On the night of the Met Gala, it was used Met Gala to highlight what celebrities were wearing. Rome bureau chief Jim Yardley kept a journal of his travels with the Pope through Latin America.

Science reporting presents particular pitfalls in the digital age. The spread of “bad science” — or, in the case of John Bohannon’s chocolate hoax, fake science — can have real consequences for journalists and for the public’s understanding of topics like the environment and personal health.

The Times often decides not to cover stories because the research behind them isn’t rigorous enough, Murphy said. Other times, it attempts to stop the spread of bad information or research. The web has made it easier to share science stories, just like every other kind of information, and Murphy said Times science editors and reporters want to be responsible for what they add to the discussion.

Summer of Science is a way to promote good science and grow the science section’s audience — from hobbyists and newcomers to biologists and astronomers.

“We’re trying to make sure we present complicated science in a way that is understandable to anyone,” Murphy said, “regardless of their science background.”

Photo of Pluto courtesy of NASA.

POSTED     July 15, 2015, 9 a.m.
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