"Electric Shock" by Cynthia Graber. Published by Matter. $0.99. Available online and for Kindle, iPad, and others.
by Seth Mnookin
Last spring, Jim Giles and Bobbie Johnson, a pair of British journalists who'd written for everywhere from The New York Times and The Guardian to Economist and Wired, announced their intention to launch Matter. It felt, to many of us in the science-writing racket, like a quixotic effort: Was there really pent-up demand for in-depth, independent reportage that covered breaking news about science within the parameters of long-form non-fiction?
To answer 'yes' to that question required ignoring decades-long secular trends in journalism. Legacy news organizations ranging from CNN to my hometown paper, The Boston Globe, have been jettisoning specialized science reporters since the late 1990s. As profits disappeared and newsroom budgets shrank, "in-depth" projects became rarer and rarer. This is hardly a surprise. Nuanced, investigative reports have always been the equivalent of newsroom money pits: They require (relatively) highly paid reporters and editors, they don't produce a lot of copy relative to the amount of effort needed, and they don't typically deal with subjects advertisers want to be associated with. (Can you think of any companies that'd be eager to pitch their wares alongside this excellent Times series on the abuse of developmentally disabled patients in New York State group homes? Me neither.)
Even the existence of the very small handful of outlets -- namely Atavist and Byliner -- that were successfully producing the type of work Matter aspired to create seemed to raise questions about Giles and Johnson's project. Atavist, in particular, was already highlighting work by well-known science writers (including DtU's Deborah Blum and David Dobbs) and had run some of the best science stories of the past year, including Jessica Benko's "The Electric Mind" and Matt Power's "Island of Secrets." What hole, exactly, would Matter be filling?
My first direct contact with Matter came last summer, when Giles got in touch with me to discuss the project. By that point, the Matter Kickstarter campaign had exceeded its initial $50,000 goal by more than $100,000, and Giles and Johnson were well on their way to their planned fall launch. Despite my reservations, I was, for purely selfish reasons, rooting for the endeavor to be a success. (In addition to writing long-form pieces about science myself, I teach in MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing, a year-long master's program that emphasizes long-form reportage.)
Then, in October, Jim asked me if I was interested in editing a piece. There were a lot of good reasons for me to decline: My family was in the middle of a difficult move; November is my busiest teaching month; there are a number of projects of my own that I'm woefully behind on. Still, I agreed to read the first draft of the piece Jim wanted me to work on, if only so it wouldn't seem as if I was summarily saying no.
Bad move on my part: The piece, a wonderfully rich profile of Michael Levin, a Tufts professor using bioelectrical signals to prompt regeneration, was enthralling -- and, as it happened, I'd recently met the writer, an award winning radio and print reporter named Cynthia Graber who's spending the year at MIT on a Knight Fellowship. Levin's tale was both fascinating and inspiring: He's Russian-Jewish émigré whose single-minded obsession has led him to the brink of discovering one of medicine's holy grails. Equally inspiring to a writer/journalist who sometimes wonders whether there's an audience for the type of work I find most rewarding was that fact that Cynthia had hunted down this story and reported it to within an inch of its life -- and she'd done it all without an assignment, or even any real prospects of one. She'd spent hours upon hours talking with Levin; she'd been in his lab and interviewed his colleagues and collaborators and students; she'd even researched centuries of history of bioelectricity -- and then, when she was done, she wrote it all up and sent it, unsolicited, to Matter. If there was any way I could be a part of helping this work see the light of day, I was going to do it.
Michael Levin in his lab at Tufts. (Photo by Kathi Bahr)
"Electric Shock," the result of Cynthia's Herculean efforts, came out today. It's available for 99 cents -- and for that price, you get access to the gorgeous online version (which includes pictures by Kathi Bahr), an ebook that can be read on Kindles or iPads or your ereader of choice, and access to an exclusive Q&A with Cynthia. It's a piece of work I'm honored and proud to be associated with. It's also the type of thing that makes me more optimistic about the future of my profession. There's no question that the media is in the middle of a painful, difficult period. But "Electric Shock" underscores how seismic change does, in fact, bring new opportunities for those willing to look for them. Five or ten or twenty years ago, I'm not sure Cynthia would have ever written this piece in the first place -- and if she had, I don't know if it would have seen the light of day. There are tiny number of print publications that run stories that are more than 5,000 words long. Would any of them have been interested in a profile of a biologist who is happiest when he can read and think in peace at a South Florida resort that caters to the elderly? And if one of them had, would its editors have given a reporter who'd never written anything approaching that length the chance to show what she was capable of?
Maybe, in the end, Matter will prove to be a quixotic effort; maybe Jim and Bobbie really are tilting at the windmills of user-generated, bite-sized, easy-to-digest content. But after working on "Electric Shock," I'm willing to do whatever I can to prove that my initial skepticism was wrong.
Addendum: If you haven't read it already, you should also check out Matter's first piece, a stunning exploration of people who amputate healthy limbs. It was written by New Scientist correspondent Anil Ananthaswamy and edited by former Harper's and current Oxford American editor Roger Hodge. DtU's own Carl Zimmer wrote about it here.
Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book, The Panic Virus: The Truth Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy, won the 2012 National Association of Science Writers Science in Society Award. Follow him on Twitter.