I wasn't choosing to become a publisher when I came up with the idea for Newswise ( www.newswise.com) in 1990 and started it one year later. I chose to create something, and I didn't know exactly what it would be. The dream changed over the last 11 years, although the original concept remains intact (see sidebar below). It might be more analogous to a library than to publishing. It's online, and the whole phenomenon of online technology has shifted so much of what we (journalists) do and how we do it--manage information--that the old metaphors might not fit.
I was a biochemistry researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the middle of my second postdoc in 1976, when I decided to abandon lab research and pursue the more creative (for me) and people-oriented career of science communication. I became a journalist and for 15 years continued doing that, even after starting Newswise. Over those years, I wrote for scores of publications, mostly as a freelancer based in Washington, D.C.
Actually, I was at FASEB (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology), working in the public affairs office, when I came up with the idea for Newswise after a lunch conversation about computers with a friend. I suggested that FASEB create a collaborative resource for science and medical news releases from research institutions. The response was, "Do it yourself." So I did, and as Frost said, "That has made all the difference."
Choosing to start Newswise was more about creating something than getting a job or changing careers. It's more about having a goal and achieving it than finding a stable salary with benefits. It was very risky. No investors risked anything, but many people contributed. The point is that if you take on something like this, and scientists do it all the time when they take on a project, there is a lot of responsibility and risk and not a lot of security.
I don't think of myself as a role model or someone to give advice to a younger person who wants to achieve something or change careers. It's not possible to help you find a map or algorithm for the maze, because the maze keeps changing. However, I will share my experience. I think the success of Newswise is mainly the result of hard work, a good idea, and good fortune.
Newswise: What it is ...
Newswise is a collaborative resource for journalists. It gathers research news (science and medical news releases) into one virtual place. This allows journalists to use information-management tools to access information from research institutions. We deliver the news in a digest form (such as the Newswise DailyWire). It goes to journalists via e-mail, so they can review it quickly to select the stories that interest them on our Web site, where the articles are in a full-text searchable database.
I started Newswise as "SciNews-MedNews" from an extra room in my D.C.-area home in 1991. We began on CompuServe because the World Wide Web didn't exist yet. CompuServe might not sound like a good place to be today, but in 1991 it was the best international network, especially for journalists. The Journalism Forum created a hub of thousands of international journalists and hundreds of science and medical reporters.
The Web and the way it has captured the imagination of almost everyone (especially journalists) have fostered the growth of Newswise. Now we have a staff of 10 people working all over the United States and the world, with the headquarters office in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Do you remember what it was like before e-mail and the Web? It wasn't so long ago, but if it occurred before you started working, you might not have experienced its impact on the workplace. Over the last 20 years, I've been through nine computers and five operating systems (Osborne [cpm], 286-386-486 [dos - windows], Power Mac [mac os], G3, and G4 [mac osx]) while I morphed from a science/medical reporter and into an online Web site editor-publisher.
Online technology made it possible for me to create a small business on a shoestring and expand it to a major online resource for journalists. It was possible because I started before it was "the thing," before the Web even existed.During the first 3 years, we offered the service free to institutions who contributed stories. Meanwhile, I earned a living as a freelance reporter.
You don't have to follow the M.B.A. model, create a business plan, find investors, and search for investment capital. It might have been easier if I had, but I didn't want to work for someone. Investors would be bosses, I feared.
Firstest without the mostest: If you decide to create something, such as a business, and you don't have a lot of resources, it helps to be there first. While it was a struggle in the beginning, it helped that an online resource for journalists was a novel idea, and that I was the first. I received lots of affirmation that it was a good idea, even from institutions and their public information officers who declined to participate, despite the fact that the service was free early on. Those who participated received results.
Furthermore, I love what I'm doing. Over the years, that's the most important factor that has kept me going. An added pleasure is in the relationships with the people involved, from the journalists who use our service to those at the institutions who are the source of our news. Some have been working with us for 10 years. (The Johns Hopkins University Medical Institutions was our first client).
Heart: Scientists of my generation didn't speak much about the heart unless, like me, they were working on myosin structure or some such architectural piece. Maybe there's more open-heartedness today in the laboratory; I hope so. At a certain point, I just learned to follow my heart in my career. Science didn't help me much in my career decisions or in dealing with people. I didn't have to leave my brain in the laboratory, but I became a more complete and happier person.
Scalable dreams: Another feature of Newswise that keeps the juices flowing is its evolution from concentrating on science and medical research to becoming a hub for journalists looking for a broader spectrum of research. That includes social and behavioral sciences and business research. We are a resource for knowledge-based news, and we access a broader spectrum of journalists. So, while we started as a niche service, we now have become a resource that more journalists use and other professionals also value.
Protean transformation: Robert Jay Lifton has suggested that one of the markers of people in our era is that we experience such rapid, serialized, and transforming changes in our lives. Perhaps this is not so true of young people today, but for me, it is the defining characteristic of my life. Perhaps today, we should just speak of possibility. Starting a business or committing to create something is a way of leading a more exciting life.
Give yourself possibility.