Mixing storytelling and science: Behind the scenes at Hakai Magazine

Behind the scenes
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Behind every great writer is a great editor. Shanna Baker, the senior editor at Hakai Magazine – which explores science, society and the environment from a coastal perspective – is on a mission to make her feature writers the best storytellers they can be.

Storybench sat down with Baker to talk about how she shapes fresh and surprising stories about our coastlines.

How did you get started as a science journalist?

I wouldn’t label myself as a science journalist quite yet. I think I commit acts of science journalist, but I would consider myself more of a storyteller, than a journalist. And I happen to use science as a tool to understand a topic better.

I studied creative writing nonfiction and journalism at university. From there, I got a couple work terms at newspapers and was an editorial assistant at a magazine, and that’s where I learned about whole editorial world. I did a broad base of science courses at university and I was always fascinated by biology. I got a good baseline of a lot of things, but I am not an expert. I had a hard time narrowing down my focus, I loved everything and wanted to know everything, and journalism seemed like the natural place for me to go because I can talk to people who are far smarter and more accomplished than me and get to learn what they’re working on. At my first magazine job, though it wasn’t a science magazine, I would often write about science because i was naturally drawn to it, and so it was the natural progression when I joined Hakai four and a half years ago.

What are some techniques you’ve learned along the way to become a better storyteller?

One thing that comes to mind is that when you first start writing about science or anything, you do all your research, you’ve got so much that you want to share with the reader, that there is this inclination to do an info-dump, to put a big chunk of information into your story but that becomes a roadblock for the reader. You’re reading along, enjoying this narrative and then you hit a big, dense chunk of explanation, so what I’ve learned over time is to meter out the information to try to layer it in more seamlessly. A lot of new feature writers tend to run into that problem.

Also, use quotes sparingly and know why you’re using quotes. Quotes can be important for pacing, but a lot of writers can overuse them. They can also be really plotting in the story.

When you’re in the field, be really conscious of all your senses, jotting down the sights, the smells, the sounds, the types of things you just can’t get from afar. Writing it down because often times when you get back to your desk three months later when you go to write the story, those things won’t be at the forefront of your mind anymore, so having them in your notebook and going back to them can be really valuable. Our memories are so fallible, at least mine is.

A selection of Baker’s own articles for Hakai.

How did you make the switch to editor from writer?

It was just a natural progression for me. My first position with a magazine as an editorial assistant, I showed aptitude, and moved up to assistant editor. Because I was showing that I could write well, then I was asked to edit other people’s stories, and gradually worked on longer and more complex stories until features became my specialty. I think that’s awesome the way it works. Writers who an editor admires will say we want you to apply what you know to this person’s story and you start getting editing experience that way and build from there.

I love editing and helping writers what it is that they’re trying to say and help them ensure that a story reaches its potential. It’s an objective thing – every story can be told 20 different ways.

I find writing to be a sweet, agonizing process, I love the creation on the page, but I also find it a challenging and arduous one. I don’t think i could personally solely write all the time, I really admire the freelancers who can. I think it’s important for editors to do some writing so they remember what it’s like to have reams of information, to be staring down a blank page and to negotiate that. I really like both, it’s a different way of approaching it. I think a lot of writers, fresh into the industry, maybe don’t understand at first how much value an editor brings, a lot of people have a hard time seeing the holes in their story or seeing the pitfalls, but I can tell you that editors have a really important role to play in a lot of fine journalism you see in the world.

You’re also a photographer, how do you think of photography as a storytelling device?

I think photography is a beautiful compliment to writing. It has impact that you can’t achieve with writing. But on the other hand, a written story can get at nuance and complexity that a photo can only hint at, so I don’t ever think i would choose one over the other. I think they work together so beautifully. What makes a photograph a compelling way to tell stories is that it’s immediately arresting if the photographer has done their job properly.

A photograph can be really demanding and demand attention, snag somebody’s interest and be a portal to a longer story or conversation. It can be the inciting factor. But a photograph is open to interpretation, the way a well-written piece of journalism shouldn’t be. There’s room for misunderstanding, or filter to our world views that cloud how we read it. I think a photograph can’t tell you the whole story, and a photograph is an art of exclusion, you can’t show somebody the entire scene and the entire context. A photograph is a single moment, a single place. It doesn’t have the ability to tell the whole story.

When you’re composing a shot, what do you look for?

It depends on what it is I’m trying to say or trying to capture. Gesture is huge. Gesture, composition, lighting. It’s like when you’re interviewing someone for a story, and they’re giving you that one incredible quote, and it just gives you that little spark of electricity, where you just go, ‘Yeah! I got it!’ That moment where the gesture is right, the expression is right, the action is right, there’s the right juxtaposition, the right lighting, you just feel it.

Can you give us an example?

My most recent trip for journalism was to Gujarat, India. I was photographing a herder with his camels, and there was this beautiful moment where a herder reached over and snuggled with one of his camels and just the affection that was implied, the deep connection that was implied in that photograph… It was a beautiful moment, and I had that reaction, ‘Yeah! I got it!’

What are some of the other places you’ve traveled for journalism?

I went to Niger in West Africa. I went to Indonesia. I’ve been to Australia and India, as I mentioned. In my previous life with British Columbia Magazine, I did a whole bunch of travel around the province, like up into northern B.C. rivers. With Hakai, I’ve traveled around the Great Bear rainforest and around other parts of Canada.

For three of the places I mentioned, I was chasing longform narrative stories. The one in Australia was about saltwater crocodiles and how this really innovative conservation initiative has enabled saltwater crocodiles to come back from overhunting. They’ve made this impressive recovery, but now there’s the potential of conflict between the growing human population with the growing saltwater crocodile population. It’s a question of how do you seed wilderness to a predator. Humans, especially in North America, aren’t used to confronting predators on a regular basis in our cities. People are finding saltwater crocodiles in their pools and where they go kitesurfing, swimming, and surfing. Personally, I’m really interested in human and wildlife interaction stories. I look for feature stories that have layers and bigger picture takeaways.

When you’ve been given the privilege to go somewhere in person, then I feel it’s my responsibility to suck out every potential opportunity that presents itself within that travel. I try to talk to everybody I possibly can and to be constantly observing out in the world, and taking notes. Just trying to maximize the time away, and then when I come back in the evening, I’ll try to type out any thoughts because often times you can’t capture everything in your notebook on the run.

How did you get started at Hakai Magazine?

The founders decided to base the magazine in Victoria, where I was working already, and I was lucky to know the editor-in-chief through my last job. And it just happened kind of magically that she was starting up this magazine right when I was looking for my next opportunity. It’s a great fit because I feel like I’m a storyteller, and there’s a really strong emphasis on quality storytelling and a big emphasis on craft, not just imparting information. I believe strongly in the value of the magazine and the importance of talking about our coastlines and tackling the big issues that surround that. It was a fit in terms of the types of stories that I like to work on, in terms of what they needed from an editor that matches my skill set, believing strongly in the approach of the magazine, in terms of its ethos.

We’re super lucky because it’s a fully-funded magazine by the foundations, and we don’t have to worry about pleasing advertisers or sponsors. It’s an incredible place to work because we get to treat our freelancers the way we would want to be treated. They can focus on the integrity of the stories we’re telling, and quality of what we’re putting out in the world, and less about the problems other magazines face these days.

You work with a lot of freelancers. What pitches and story ideas do you love to see from them?

A good pitch is a good pitch. There’s also a difference between a feature story pitch and a news story pitch. For a feature pitch, I’m looking for something that is fresh or surprising or new… something grabby, something that makes us take note. I’m looking for evidence that the writer is familiar with the subject matter and is invested in it somehow, looking for evidence that the writer can actually write. Sometimes people just dash off their pitches without carefully crafting their sentences. I’m looking for typos and looking for logic. If we’re working with someone we haven’t worked with before then those are flags for us, that indicates that there potentially won’t be enough care and attention put into the final story. We look for if there is an actual story here.

A lot of times people will pitch a topic not a story. Do you understand what a story is? Are there interesting characters, is there tension, are there layers? We’re looking to know, why tell this story now, why has this story time come?

A lot of writers are understandably reluctant to spend a lot of time on their pitches because there is no guarantee of a job or income form them, but you can really tell if someone has invested the time researching their subject to know well enough what kind of potential the story holds, and where they’re going to take it. Our editor-in-chief calculates that to write a good feature pitch you need to do about ten hours of research beforehand. That’s hard for people to hear, but that is often what it takes.

As the editor for the Coastal Job series, what’s the process?

We’ve been doing Coastal Jobs for almost a year now, we’ve done maybe ten of them. We just put out a call for pitches, people will suggest ideas to us, and then we’ll assign them. The few that we’ve written in-house are ones that we’ve just stumbled upon these people in course of doing research for other things and thought you’re not a character in our story but what you do is very interesting, and we file them away for future consideration. It’s been a combination of in-house generated ideas and pitches from other people. That’s a good place to try out the magazine if you were thinking of pitching Hakai at any point. It’s a pretty straightforward assignment. A lot of times, writers that are new to a publication and will come in with a big feature, and sometimes that works, but often times writers are more successful if they suggest something smaller to begin with a relationship with an editor before jumping into something bigger.W

What does an average week at the magazine look like?

Most of what I do is usher feature stories along to publication. I’ll have multiple stories at different stages of completion, so once the substance of editing phase is over which can be a very lengthy process, and many iterations back and forth between the writer and editor. I’ll get the writer to annotate. Once I have the annotated file, it goes to the fact checker. The fact checker will have the story for a couple weeks, then it comes back to me. I have to go through the fact check and make any necessary changes. Then, I usher the story to copy edit. The copy editor looks at it, cleans it up, and sends it back to the writer for a last look. Then it goes to the art director, then to the proof reader, and to our narrator. So I’m constantly juggling stories depending on where they’re at in production.

It’s not uncommon for a story to take about six months from about the time it’s first submitted to the time it’s ready for publication. Sometimes longer, often longer. News stories move at a much more rapid pace. We come to an editorial meeting every week, where we bring pitches that we think have promise, and we discuss them as a team to decide on which ones we want to pursue. There’s a feature story pitch session, and also a news editorial meeting that happens separately.

How does Hakai increase readership?

Predominantly through social media. We’ve got a part-time social media manager who does a really excellent job at getting our stories out onto Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, and other aggregating sites. He has his pulse on where the eyeballs are. That’s important for us, and we’ve continued to see growth. Our editor-in-chief is really good at getting out to conferences and events and networking with people. Social media is definitely the key and the word of mouth that comes with that.

What’s your advice to a writer trying to break into science and environmental reporting?

Get really comfortable reading scientific papers. That was a barrier for me because they’re so impenetrable at first, so get comfortable with that. Ask a lot of questions, but also do your homework in advance. If you’re going to interview somebody, try to have a good grounding on what kind of area of expertise they hold and what their perspectives might be. Not every biologist is going to be able to tell you about the nuances of urchin spines. Everyone has their specialty, so knowing how to target the right people who hold the right information for you is an important thing to get comfortable with.

Also, whichever story you’re working on, if it’s a story that’s quite local in scope, always try to think about what the big picture is. What about this subject matter would be significant to someone across the country. What are the universal truths that lie within the story, what is this indicative of or illustrative of? So always be thinking broadly about any topic that you cover to try to move beyond the local. Be curious, read broadly, and don’t tie your own self-worth up in your pitches and your stories because it’s a tough industry, and you’ll get rejected a lot, and you’ll get criticism a lot. But it doesn’t mean that you’re not a good writer, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a story worth telling, it’s just so many factors that are involved. Grow a thick skin, but be receptive to constructive feedback.

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