In June, the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing chatted with Andrew Moseman, ’08. Andrew is the online editor at Popular Mechanics. He has also worked at Discover Magazine and blogged for the Big Think. You can check him out on the web at http://www.andrewmoseman.com/ and on Twitter at @Agmoseman.
GPSW: First tell us about where you live, and what made you decide on New York City.
Andrew: I live in beautiful Brooklyn, New York, above an adorable family and down the street from Prospect Park. New York City just happened to me. I’d never lived in the Northeast prior to attending MIT, but during the harried final days of internship searching during our spring semester, I landed one with the Web department at Discover Magazine, which is NYC-based. So, in May 2008, I presented my paper at Thesis Day on a Friday, moved to New York on a Sunday (which involved an Amtrak breakdown in Rhode Island, don’t ask), and started work on the Monday. Been here ever since.
GPSW: You’re an online editor at Popular Mechanics. What does that entail?
Andrew: Well, I’m the online editor at PopMech, so it entails a lot. I assign and edit all the material on our site that’s done by freelancers, which is probably most of it. I schedule the content from the print magazine to go up on the site and prep it with Web-friendly headlines, decks, and keywords. I run our social media accounts, with some help from trusty intern/assistants. I hound the editors for story ideas and stories for the Web. I write now and then. I look at our metrics and try to figure out long-term strategy, as far as where the site needs to go. And so on.
GPSW: What are your most and least favorite parts about working there?
Andrew: This is going to be one of those situations where it’s the same answer for both, so my apologies in advance. PopMech is not strictly a science magazine like Scientific American, New Scientist, or Discover. Science is just one of our main content channels. The magazine also covers new cars and automotive repair, home improvement, gadgets, military and weapons, outdoors, and more. This variety keeps things from getting boring. It can also make you crazy: There’s no way, even with a large staff, to keep up with everything that’s happening in all those fields. So I have to remind myself now and then that it’s OK to do just the great work that you can and not worry so much about catching every story in the wind.
GPSW: I’ve heard there are automotive fringe benefits to working at Popular Mechanics. Is this true?
Andrew: There are fringe benefits—they keep test cars around for longer-term test drives. The senior editors get dibs, though, so you have to be quick about it as a younger person if you want to borrow the BMW 328i or the Ford Edge.
GPSW: What’s been your favorite project so far (and not just at Pop Mech)?
Andrew: You said “favorite,” not “best,” so I’ll choose the time I was blogging for Discover and got to interview producer David X. Cohen and voice actor Billy West, two of the key forces behind Futurama, before the show went back on the air in 2010. Take that, more serious projects.
GPSW: Any advice for students wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Andrew: If you’re looking into magazine publishing, what they tell you about getting your foot in the door through internships and knowing people is absolutely correct. I interned at Discover and Popular Mechanics, then worked full-time at both places thanks to connections made. So don’t just work hard with your head down and expect to get noticed; grab the opportunities to make editors and other folk remember you.
That said, I always hated listening to people bloviate about the importance of networking and who you know. Kind of gloomy if you’re not the kind of person who has a thousand Facebook friends. The good news for you and me is that it’s not some great force that overrides everything, allowing hacks who happen to be good at cocktail parties or Twitter to ascend the ladder unchecked. It matters that you’re good. And simple reliability’s not nothing, either. Editors remember when you make our lives easier.
GPSW: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Andrew: I don’t know. But I hope there are rocketships, bizarre bugs, occasional weekend trips to the beach.
GPSW: Dark, milk, or white chocolate?
GPSW: Anything else you’d like to say about science writing?
Andrew: Don’t mail it in.
Pity the poor folks who have to spend their days writing about things that never really change, like the dog-and-pony show of our national politics. But in science, every day there’s a stack of new press releases trying to draw your attention to things that often are legitimately new and frequently are legitimately interesting. Yet, on the Web, I see primarily two things. First, paint-by-numbers daily science reporting, in which some discovery “sheds light” on an issue and comes with a canned quote about how it could lead to this drug or that futuristic way of producing energy. Second is snark, which protects the writer from having to take anything seriously.
There is wonder in the way things work and the way people figure things out—something that goes deeper than the grant proposal sentence, and probably the reason people get into doing or writing about science in the first place. Don’t forget that.