Meet the Journalist: New Scientist managing editor Rowan Hooper
Rowan Hooper, New Scientist’s managing editor, talks about modernising the title for a digital age, its close relationship with PRs and the state of UK science reporting today.
New Scientist has been covering the latest scientific and tech breakthroughs since 1956. But what’s your scientific background? And how did you get into journalism?
After reading ecology at university I became totally gripped by the wonders of evolutionary biology, and I did a PhD in that subject (at Sheffield). I was also desperate to live abroad, so I moved to a lab in Japan, which I absolutely loved.
After a few years as a biologist, however, I found myself wanting to write more than I wanted to do science, and I started writing for an English-language newspaper, The Japan Times.
I then got a job at the paper in Tokyo and it was there that I learned the ropes. Many people these days learn about journalism on Masters degrees. But I learned it at the newspaper, and later at the magazine.
You joined New Scientist in 2005. How has the title changed over the past 12 years? And what do you think about the state of science reporting in the UK today?
When I joined New Scientist the website was quite separate from the print product, with a separate team of editors and reporters who produced online copy. One of my jobs was to integrate the two separate teams and start the process of making us more digital savvy.
I am not a hand-wringer about the state of science journalism in the UK – I think on the whole we produce very high quality stuff. Just look at the science output of The Guardian, Buzzfeed UK, The Economist and the BBC, for example. There’s some great work being done.
Of course, the tabloids can let us down. But that’s more their political agenda than a particular failure of science reporting.
You also became the creative director for New Scientist Live at the start of this year. Would you please tell us a bit about what this involves?
This was awesome. New Scientist Live is our annual festival of ideas and discovery, held in London. In 2017, it was our second year and I was responsible for coming up with ideas for talks and booking people for the stages and the show floor.
It’s a massive, four-day event and there is a huge amount going on. I interviewed three astronauts on stage, we had a live link-up with the International Space Station, we had [Canadian author] Margaret Atwood talk about science, Demis Hassabis of Google DeepMind spoke about Artificial Intelligence. And we had a colony of the world’s most amazing mammal – naked mole rats!
It was an absolute blast and we had more than 30,000 visitors over the four days.
How would you describe the typical New Scientist reader? And is there anything about the readership that’s surprised you over the years?
Our original editorial in 1956 said we were aimed at all men and women who were interested in science, and that’s still our aim.
The typical reader is someone curious about the world and someone who wants to understand what’s going on in the world of science, technology and medicine and be equipped for the future. But it’s very diverse. We’ve got people who’ve been reading us for 50 years, and also children who are super keen on science.
Climate change and the potential applications of CRISPR gene editing technology have been hot science topics in 2017. But which stories have resonated most with your readers this year?
A massive story for us was one we broke in August – the detection of gravitational waves caused by the collision of neutron stars. It’s very deep physics, but people love that stuff.
What’s your relationship like with PRs at New Scientist? And what stories are you most interested in hearing about?
We work closely with press officers putting out press releases. But the stories we like best are ones that we are offered exclusively.
A press officer might have an unusual story and know that New Scientist will be able to do it justice, and offer it to us exclusively. Those are the ones we like the best. But we’re also happy to hear about other cool stuff that’s happening.
As an evolutionary biologist, you must share the national passion for David Attenborough. How are you enjoying the new season of Blue Planet?
I’ve interviewed him a couple of times – he’s a legend. The new Blue Planet is making me itch to go diving.