Science and the art of journalism

John McCrone

John McCrone describes himself as an obviously senior writer whose journey to feature writing is the usual long story.

It is and it isn't: McCrone did start as a cub reporter where half his days were spent filing clippings, but graduated to agency writing with Australian Associated Press, was a computer and technology magazine writer and editor, wrote four science books - as well as features.

Eventually you mature, he says. When features get too small you start writing books…

A novel desire

McCrone has always admired Tom Wolfe, well-known as an exponent of narrative journalism before he turned his hand to fiction. McCrone says fiction was at one stage the staple of his reading diet, but from the age of about 25 he has read almost entirely non-fiction.

I actually wanted to be a novelist at 19 or something, and I started three or four books. I got bored after three pages. I thought 'I can’t be bothered … I’m not excited… I like reading but…' In the end it’s just a chore.

You can’t beat real life – especially as the world’s become so much more complicated. I ended up specialising in science – there’s so much there that fiction seems to pale in comparison.

The perils of science …

Science writing is hard to do well, McCrone says.

You are going into very complex areas and you have to make it very simple. I was quite disappointed with science writing in the end – I saw that being dumbed down all around me. I did stuff for New Scientist for years, and by the end I just got totally fed up with their approach.

It’s one of the big reasons I gave up and came back here and did stuff that I think was more honest and straight. Science is all about pretending to understand things in simple terms – it’s like the whole genome project, the neuroscience brain mapping projects – they all made things seem much simpler … they actually had very simple mental approaches themselves, they hadn’t gone deep. They’re not doing anything too fancy. That to me is quite disappointing.

Despite the disappointment, McCrone keeps his hand in via his website, It's described as an attempt to define a new logic based on asymmetric dichotomisation or symmetry breaking.

If that sentence ties your head in knots, it will also give you an insight into what life as a science writer is like. The attempt has taken 25 years, and counting.

And the joy of journalism

[Scientists] are experts in a small domain … but they don’t have the overview. I chose to be a journalist in the end because – if you want the whole story, I was going to go back to be a scientist before being a novelist – I had to choose between the two. In the end I worked out that journalism does everything for me. You do something different all the time – you can go and stick yourself into other people’s lives. You can go where you want, you’re not confined to a small niche and you’re getting the big view and you’re getting the small view.

If you’re a scientist, you have to build yourself painfully up from the beginning, specialise in something very small. If I’d gone back to university I’d be doing the time clock of a weta or the breeding habits of gambusia, the mosquito eating-fish. It would be something really tiny which would bore you out of mind for five years. Once you’d done that apprenticeship you’d be allowed to do something slightly more complex and by the time you’d retired you could start talking about the big questions.

I just wanted to get into the big questions right from the start. Don’t fritter away your life – get straight in there.

Features a 'privilege'

Features must suprise and engage the reader, he says, and which means considerable research and employing a variety of writing techniques.

To carry someone right through a long piece takes more technique. There’s quite a few different sort of mental templates you might use.
That’s where I’m lucky, I’ve got a whole week to do the one article. No-one else in the paper has that luxury of time – that’s a privilege. In the old days people might have had two weeks to do what I do, so like everyone else I have to do more than I used to. A week for an article to me seems quite speedy, but in the modern world, no it’s not.

Writing features is certainly speedier than books, one of McCrone’s tomes took him five years.

It was 300 pages long and I could have written 1,000 pages, so by that stage I thought it was time to move on. Now I’ve got a website, which has probably got five books worth on it – you can spread forever on there. It’s satisfying, but it’s not commercial.

Stories to capture emotion

Whereas Mike Crean focuses on the heart-warming and the historical feature, McCrone's are widely varied, from think pieces to simple background features. Leaky homes, answering the Lord’s call, and a day in the life of an MP are all in a week's work. While the content may be different, the desire is the same - to capture the reader with a mix of information and emotion.

First it’s got to be different every week. People don’t want a sameness, if you’re writing a feature you’ve got to surprise people. I’m always looking for something that captures peoples’ emotions as much as anything else. You want to tap right into the heart of what people care about. It’s usually things to do with personal identity – things which say ‘what is it like to be a Kiwi’, everyone wants to read that.

The trick is to put the reader's interests first, he says.

If you’re thinking about who your readers are, and they are a certain age group, a certain lifestyle, a certain income and all the rest of it, you think well what are the things that trouble them? What would they be interested to know about?

You want to write about stuff that either exactly captures something about their own lives that they’ve half thought of and they’re pleased to see it actually articulated, or something they’ve been interested about that’s on the other side of the fence. A world they don’t know about but they’d be interested to see from the inside. You’re always thinking from your reader’s point of view, what would they be most tickled by?

A recent piece on the drug P tickled readers not for the lurid exposition of Christchurch's dark underbelly, but the chance to give simple background to a regular news story.

The P one was really popular. What they liked about that was that it was very simple and straightforward. We have stories every week about drugs or some story like that and the feature is a chance to actually step back and give all the simple background – the stuff that gets missed out of news stories and that people don’t really know the ins and outs of. That sort of thing works because you’re stepping abck and giving people that total picture – a sort of helicopter view which puts the news into context.

Demanding job

Writing two-to three thousand word features isn't everyone's cup of tea, and McCrone says the job has fairly high turnover.

They’ve had trouble in the past keeping people in the feature writer job because each week you come in, and you’re basically starting from scratch in an area you know nothing about. If you’re a reporter you get a beat – so you’re doing police every week, you’re doing council every week, you’re doing environment every week – you build up a set of contacts, a set of story ideas, you have a familiarity.

I come in – I usually do stuff which I know nothing about, that’s what keeps me interested – that just means you’ve got to read everything that’s been written, an extra day’s work to get up to speed.

It’s the secret of being a journalist – you go in and are quite up-front with people. You say I’m stupid, I don’t know anything, tell me about … I’m going to ask you really dumb questions. Most people don’t dare ask those questions. That’s the opportunity you have as a journalist, to drop in on people’s lives and ask the really basic stuff. And also, hopefully, ask some of the strategic big questions which people don’t have time to think about.

Mainlander a big canvas

Standard news writing is a highly standardised format - most newsworthy at the top, followed by next most relevant fqact and reaction down to least relevant. It allows sub-editors to cut from the bottom to fit stories into available space. In the Mainlander section of The Press the writers have greater scope and freedom with the way they write.

It’s a big canvas you’re painting … the composition gives you the broadest sweep, and then you’ve got nice little detail, you’ve got time to sort of fiddle round. So you re-write everything three or four times, whereas a news story you just bang it out and it’s gone.

McCrone generates about 70 per cent of ideas for his stories, with the remainder assignments from features editor Ewan Sargent. The freedom appeals.

You go with your own mood. You get away with it if you deliver. You earn the privilege, so long as you don’t abuse it. It’s a good job.

Editors come in useful he says, not for putting their own words in place of the writer's, but for helping balance the styles and stories in the section.

A section’s got five or six features. A good editor will have a mix – if someone’s doing the heavy feature, you want to do the light feature; if someone’s doing the out-of-town feature, you do the urban feature. A good editor is someone who can make that balance, that’s where you really need to work in with other people.

McCrone returned to New Zealand in 2004 has been writing for the Mainland section since September 2007. The year has flashed past, he says.

It’s become a blur … the [stories] I've really enjoyed are the ones that are finding out about New Zealand and finding out about Christchurch and what Kiwi identity means. I was away for so long it’s interesting to catch up on the history of a place and the meaning of a place and where it’s going. Anything to do with that – I never thought of being Kiwi as being distinctive. Then you come back and you realise – ‘I am. I recognise the South Island … the way I am is the way people are down here'. Whereas around the world I just thought I was a bit odd and didn’t fit in.

Libraries and the digital revolution

McCrone marvels at the way his profession has changed over the last 15 years:

I couldn’t live without Google now. Even to check a spelling I’ll use Google. Any time I put a fact in a story I almost instinctively Google it … It’s unbelievable how much that’s changed life. Libraries – I used to be a big library user – I used to spend weeks in the British Library, which is a beautiful place, but it took literally three days four days for the books I wanted to actually arrive.

That’s only fifteen years ago – that was the pace at which things worked in the old days. When I first was a cub reporter I was in charge of the filing system for the office. At least half a day putting paper clippings into different files. Things were rigorous in those days, and I carried that habit over as a journalist. I used to accumulate boxes and boxes of Xeroxed files. I literally had a roomful of Xeroxed articles all very neatly labelled and stacked and now completely useless cause I can Google stuff faster than I can find it on my shelves. It’s a different world now.

Does more information equal better writing?

Has writing changed in digital age? Does the fact that other people have access to the range of information that you do as a writer change the way you write? McCrone isn't sure:

The hard thing to work out is whether you do things better because of it. You think ‘I wasn’t that much worse in the old days – I got the information somehow’. How you got it – when you had to go round and see people on foot – or even use the phone and things – it’s hard to know whether that has made a big change to the quality of what people produce.

It’s fascinating to me because I lived through it and I always was an early adopter of anything new. The first thing that happened with the internet was that you could suddenly get into touch with the top people in fields. There were a few years when I was purely going to libraries and photocopying and to speak to someone who was a top professor was a real chore. You had to write letters … there was no email; to get papers would take six months. If you were writing a feature next week there was no wat you could get their latest thoughts.

Within the space of five years I was in daily correspondence with people and you could find your way to people who were exactly what you wanted. That changed a lot of things for me as a science writer – it shifted up several gears because of who you could get access to.

As a specialist writer, I think possibly the internet has even more impact. My website is so niche now… For the paper I’m actually going in the opposite direction. Having to write in the most general way, in the most accessible way – it’s the opposite end of the spectrum.

Is digested analysis lacking in New Zealand?

With more and more information available - not only to journalists but to the general public, is the feature, with its mixture of information plus thought, is becoming more important. Do we need more considered takes on the world and less columnists? Is that what's missing in New Zealand newspapers?

I certainly think so, but I would say that. It’s a question of how much people pay for it and what format they’ll pay for it. Advertising pretty much pays my wages, and subscription pays twenty or thirty per cent of them. The argument would be people should pay 80 per cent of wages and the advertising could fade away and you’d get much more of that weighty analysis.

People think only a very few people will be bothered trying to digest the world as it is and therefore [feature writers] will be a vanishing species. Other people realise they can’t do without proper, digested information and say it will come back into fashion.

I’ve been stunned by how good the journalism is here in New Zealand. For the size of the population we probably way out-punch everyone else. I think that’s because there is a slightly old-fashioned approach – we are interested in the big issues and want to understand them, whereas in England I saw things become very simplified, very tabloid. Celebrity news dominates – completely dominates. The big daily papers are celebrity news start to finish – all seriousness is going out of them.

Trivialisation of news and the rise of the blog

Analsyis is available to the interested reader, McCrone says, in a corner of cyberspace known as the blogosphere. Ideally newspapers should fill the middle ground - well-thought out analysis for a wide audience.

There’s a real trivialisation going on in the world – but that’s balanced by the special interest groups. With blogs and things, that’s the counterbalance. If you want really interesting analysis you’ve got it, but it’s in very specific domains.

Hopefully newspapers will be in between those two levels – it’s intelligent but general. Hopefully there’s a niche there. No-one’s going to pay for the stuff I do online – it would probably be too long and wouldn’t fit the format very well.

Teenagers on the dark side

One of McCrone's recent features is the about the end of the emo craze – with illustrations by his teenage daughter. It came, as may interesting features do, from personal observation.

I was watching neighbourhood kids actually making the change. I’m interested in styles and trends. It’s really just a think piece, what is it all about? Why does everyone hate emos? Why would you put on such an irritating persona? It’s getting in behind the psychology.

Teenagers have long been annoying to and criticised by their parents – was this the latest step in a long formed evolutionary staircase?

What’s different about it is that they’re so weak and wimpy. It’s that sort of spinelessness about it which really irritates people. Most teen images are quite strong – punks and skinheads and teddy boys and all the famous old ones, they were all about standing up and waving two fingers at you. Emos are all sort of limp and in the corner and sorry for themselves.

Even Morrissey was doing it in a ‘I’ll smack you in the face with my daffodils’ sort of way – belligerently – he was emo in a much more aggressive way. He would be a legitimate forerunner, but emo’s more from the US – that’s another reason it’s annoying…

Structure is the puzzle, the feature the fun

Writing anything of considerable length that keeps the reader's attention to the end can be a real challenge - McCrone's standard attack is to collect more than he needs and drop what isn't needed.

I fill my head with so much stuff that structure almost becomes not a problem. The difficult thing is to connect the dots when you have very little – and you must connect the dots. When you’ve got so much the problem becomes leaving most of it out. You’re left with just telling the bare bones. I’m not sure if everyone does it that way, but it is that sense that you’re leaving so much out you’re desperate to get the key points across and the story’s told.

It becomes a habit I guess. You can’t see to the end of something, the story does have a bit of a life of its own. As long as you start at the right ends it sort of shakes itself down and most of it gets left out at the end.

You’ve got to have one central question in your mind. Features are long, but you’ve still got only one thing that people go away remembering. You’ve got to get that fixed in your head and let the story flow from that. The more focused you are about what the central question you’re asking is, the easier writing it becomes. You’re not confused all the way through – you’re one side or the other of that question, even as the feature takes you through different voices, different bits of information.

August 2008