February 21, 2019
Navigating the Industry as a Science Journalist with Joss Fong
Throughout her career, Fong has covered a wide variety of topics including the economy, astronomy, technology, as well as the environment.
This year, she is looking forward to further exploring topics such as climate change, artificial intelligence, and genomics through her video content.
Fong and I recently spoke over the phone in regards to her experiences as a journalist, topics she plans on covering before this decade draws to a close, as well as Vox’s Netflix series that premiered last May.
You graduated from New York University from their Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. What inspired you to become a Science Journalist?
I was interested in that program because I had been blogging for an organization called Media Matters for several years.
Media Matters is kind of a political organization. [The position] was a conservative media watch job. I was watching a lot of Fox News and I was assigned to climate change; watching what they said about climate change and writing about it when they got it wrong.
They always got it ridiculously wrong.
I found myself really enjoying writing those pieces about climate, environmental policy, and interviewing scientists. I thought, “Hey, it would be really cool to be a science journalist or a science writer.”
I was never really a scientist. I didn’t have an undergraduate degree in science and I didn’t have any of the credentials. I didn’t have any journalism experience beyond blogging for this website, so I applied for the [Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting] graduate program.
It was interesting because most of the students in my class had science degrees. They had done their undergraduate degree in some sort of science or engineering, then decided to turn to writing.
My background was the opposite. I was in writing and then I tried to turn to science a little bit.
It worked out well. I really loved the program.
It was also at NYU that I had decided to focus on video instead of writing. I had found writing extremely painful. I still do. It’s the worst.
I would labor over every word and sentence knowing that a lot of people are really good at writing already. It’s just a skill that a lot of people have. Not many people were good at video, so I decided to make the switch.
What are a few areas of science that you are particularly interested in?
If you look at the stories I do, they’re kind of all over the place. I’m interested in all things. I’ll get distracted by sports or economics or whatever and wander off into a different topic.
This year I’m looking to focus in on climate change, artificial intelligence, and genomics. I’ve dabbled a little bit here and there in all three of those topics and would like to focus a little bit more because I think they’re really important.
How smart is today’s artificial intelligence? by Joss FongSource: How smart is today’s artificial intelligence? | Vox
Is there any one topic that you’ve covered that you feel particularly passionate about?
[Laughs] I wish there was! I wish I could be more single minded.
I find myself a little bit more distractible than that. It’s not that there is any one topic area.
In general, I’m just really interested in exposing people to scientific methods more than they are in typical science journalism.
Usually, you’ll see a science article and the headline will be the conclusion. They’ll talk about the results, and you don’t really hear about the method or design of the research that lead to those results. I think that is a missed opportunity. Methods are so creative and so interesting.
I try to kind of look for that in every story that I do; focus on the how instead of the what.
That’s what I get more fired about than any particular topic area.
Going forward, do you have any major goals as a journalist?
The general goal of being more creative and pushing our format a little more. I think it’s really easy to settle into a standard way of doing things.
With our motion graphics in After Effects, it’s easy to produce every video from my desk from the office.
How dead is the Great Barrier Reef? by Joss FongSource: How dead is the Great Barrier Reef? | Vox
I’d like to push that a little more; try different formats or videos that have completely different styles to keep innovating. If we don’t, I think we’ll get passed up.
A lot of old YouTube channels in the science explainer space relied heavily on whiteboard illustrations. At first, they were sort of fun and cool. Over the years, they never evolved. I find myself less interested in them because there isn’t any novelty.
I think we’re verging on getting a little stagnant. It would be cool if we could keep innovating in terms of the voice, the format, and the style. Even getting into weirder topics, because YouTube does embrace strange content.
You are also one of the founding members of the Vox video team. As it currently stands, the YouTube channel is a little less than 500 thousand away from 6 million subscribers. Did you see it growing to where it is today when you initially started?
No. I really don’t know what I expected.
It was really good timing for Vox to get into video because most of the news out there hadn’t really dipped their toes into video in a significant way. They were especially reluctant to invest in YouTube because the ad rates are so low.
For example, you’d see the New York Times doing video but really just keeping it on their website. They were just trying to get views on their website and neglecting YouTube.
All that was out there on YouTube in terms of news organizations was Buzzfeed, which was more nonsense than news.
Then there was VICE, which was a network of documentarians who were doing really good work.
There was a really nice space for Vox to come in and pioneer explainer format because there weren’t a lot of news organizations in that space.
There were a lot of independent YouTubers, and there still are, who are more successful than we are there. I didn’t expect we would find the following, but it was definitely the right timing for it.
What was the process of getting it off the ground?
Vox was just launching their website and I think they knew from the beginning they wanted a video program.
The newsroom was full of writers. No one had done video and we didn’t really know what it was supposed to look like.
The first year was a lot of experimentation. For a long time, we were working a lot with the Vox.com writers for videos. You would hear their voices in the animation.
After awhile, we decided it would be more efficient as video producers to actually research, report, and write our own stories – which is something that was new [at the time].
I think a lot of news organizations treated their videographers and their video producers as a bit of a service desk. They would pair them with a writer and [the videographer] would do the production work.
We found a lot of success in empowering video producers to pitch and write stories. That’s been a really big part of our success and we arrived at that through experimentation.
The style and tone were really just a combination of the early producers we had on staff; myself, Johnny Harris who does Borders, and Estelle Caswell who does Ear Worm.
The secret rhythm behind Radiohead’s “Videotape” by Estelle CaswellSource: The secret rhythm behind Radiohead’s “Videotape | Vox
Those things didn’t exist back then, but we were all making videos together, borrowing things from each other, and forming a style that people know as Vox now.
Our videos are quite different from one producer to the next, but somehow they have a cohesive kind of tone that people recognize.
Last year Vox released a series on Netflix called “Explained.” How was it different working on a TV show vs. a video for the YouTube channel?
It was so different.
When we got that show, Estelle and I were cast to make the first two episodes. They were kind of pilots, but not really pilots because Netflix had bought the show. It was happening.
We were the first two, which meant there wasn’t a real strong organization set up for the show yet. It was a bit of a whirlwind process.
One of the most important things I learned was when you are making something for Netflix – or any TV channel – the legal side is a much bigger factor in terms of making sure you have all of your location releases, your appearance releases. It’s also important to make sure all of the footage is licensed so you’re not fudging it on copyright and fair use issues.
Additionally, Netflix’s location release is apparently scary to people. UC Berkeley wouldn’t let us film on campus because they wouldn’t agree to the terms of that location release.
It ended up being kind of a crisis because I had to switch locations at the very last minute for one of my interviews.
We had to rearrange it and I only had a half hour instead of an hour with the main scientist from my piece. It ended up working out okay, but it was very much like, “Oh boy.”
This was a whole other thing we don’t necessarily worry about too much on the YouTube side. In the worst case, you take down the video. Netflix is not going to tolerate something like that, so they are going to make sure everything is completely buttoned up.
That meant a slightly different way of storytelling as well, because we use a lot of sound footage in our YouTube videos. It’s a really important part of how we do explainers. You can’t do that too much on TV because of the legal issues.
We also didn’t get any feedback about the performance of our show. Netflix doesn’t share their analytics at all. On YouTube, the numbers are right there for everyone in the world to see.
Explained trailerSource: Explained | A new series from Netflix + Vox |
The journalism industry is changing rapidly, especially with the rise of social media. What are some of the changes you’ve noticed and how have they impacted you directly?
It’s crazy how fast this industry changes.
Being at the whims of giant technology companies is an uncomfortable position to be in. It never feels like we’re quite settled, especially in terms of supporting our work financially.
When we first started, Facebook wasn’t really a thing and then it became a huge thing. Then it went away.
There was a whole wave of Facebook Video views that fortunately our team was skeptical of from the start. Facebook was paying publishers to create live videos with the Facebook Live thing.
From the start I was like, “Live videos are boring, there’s a reason we edit. No one wants to watch that, let’s not invest in this.”
We really shied away from being tugged around by Facebook too much, knowing from the start that the Facebook Video view counts were fake. They’re so inflated.
I think we were smart in focusing on YouTube.
What advice would you give to an aspiring journalist looking to get their foot in the door?
Make sure that you’re special in some way.
One of the things I really wish I had done was have a minor – or even a major and have journalism be the minor – in statistics or Mandarin Chinese. Something where you can look into the future and be like, “There is a serious lack of American reporters who can understand Chinese.” China is only going to become bigger as a news topic and that would’ve given me a serious competitive advantage.
Make sure you don’t just have a journalism specialty, but some other thing such as a science degree, engineering, or computer science. Something that gives you a few more options, given the job situation is unclear and there is going to be a lot of competition.
Do you have any final thoughts or anything else you would like to add?
I think getting into video is not quite the safebet it was when I started grad school, but it’s a really exciting medium to work on.
People are starting to understand more that video can be so compelling as a way of doing journalism or any educational content at all.
There’s so much good video being produced now it’s an embarrassment of riches for anyone who watches YouTube. It’s crazy. Everyday I find a new channel that I should’ve been subscribed to and I never was. There’s so much.
Joss Fong’s latest video, “When forensic science fails”Source: False Positive: When forensic science fails [Full version] | Vox
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