Off the Page appears regularly on the Magazine Awards blog. Today we catch up with Julia Belluz, whose blog–Science-ish–published by Maclean’s, won gold in the inaugural National Magazine Award for Best Blog earlier this year.
NMAF: Tell us a bit about Science-ish, what you consider its publishing niche to be, and who your readers are.
Julia: Coffee is good for your health! Coffee is bad for your health! Vitamin D will save your life! Vitamin D will kill you quicker! I created Science-ish in response to bewildering and contradictory claims like these that float around in the popular discourse.
This confusion doesn’t end with individual health choices. Politicians frequently make assertions about health that aren’t necessarily informed by evidence, as do journalists, celebrities, and anyone who thinks they can get away with it.
So the blog is a sane place where readers can learn about the actual science behind the headlines. My readers tend to be doctors, nurses, students, policy wonks, researchers, and anyone who is concerned about health and science.
NMAF: What makes an online media outlet such as Science-ish not only trustworthy but indispensable in a news world where there exists so much information and content?
Julia: As a health reporter, I see a great deal of pseudoscience-based journalism in my field, which does nothing to elevate the discourse about science and instead confounds people. To be sure, science is far from perfect. There are a lot of systemic problems with science—the limitations of peer review, the perverting influence of industry, etc.—but I think the act of going back to primary sources and scientific evidence and seeing if there’s something to glean is a worthwhile exercise.
I want to say that every blog entry is balanced, but I don’t think that’s a good word because I’m always taking a stand after reading and interviewing a lot and thinking about the arguments and counter-arguments that I have encountered. I hope that sets Science-ish apart and resonates with readers.
NMAF: What do you think is the significance of having Science-ish win a National Magazine Award, not only for you as a health and science journalist, but also for the medium of online magazine publishing?
Julia: It’s a great honour to be recognized by peers who work across subjects and venues in journalism. It seems to be increasingly true that readers can expect good writing and reporting in many places—blogs, web pages, etc.—and it’s wonderful that the NMA recognizes that with its new online awards categories.
NMAF: You’re currently a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. Can you tell us a bit about the program and what you’re working on there?
Julia: The fellowship was designed to be a cultural exchange where journalists could learn more about science, studying alongside future researchers and scientists at MIT, while scientists could learn from visiting journalists. Right now, I’m learning about how science is made, and how it’s applied (or not) in public policy and decision-making. I’m also looking at the forces that shape what science gets done (or not). I hope this will inform my understanding of the interplay between research, policy, and practice, which is very important at a time when we’ve never generated more research, yet in many cases, we’re failing to apply or capitalize on that knowledge.
Julia Belluz is a three-time National Magazine Award-winning journalist. Her profile of the writer Ian Brown, published in the Ryerson Review of Journalism, won her the NMA for Best Student Writer in 2007 and also won a Silver in the profiles category. Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, the Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Follow Julia on Twitter @juliaoftoronto.
Who will win Best Magazine Blog of 2013? Submissions open next week for the 37th annual National Magazine Awards. Deadline: January 15, 2014.
Off the Page appears regularly on the Magazine Awards blog. Today we catch up with Sierra Skye Gemma, winner of the 2012 National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer.
[This post has been updated to include the new deadline for the Prism International Creative Non-fiction contest deadline: Dec 5.]
NMAF: Earlier this year you won the National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer for a story called “The Wrong Way” (The New Quarterly), a personal essay and critical meditation on the stages of grief. Tell us a bit about how you developed this story and why you decided to submit it in the annual non-fiction writing competition from TNQ?
Sierra: The Wrong Way came out of an assignment in a Creative Non-fiction course with Andreas Schroeder. I had never written a personal essay before and when I started I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to say. Not exactly, anyway. I looked up Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief because I thought it would explain my experiences. I thought I could structure my essay according to the stages, but I realized that Kübler-Ross’s theory didn’t apply to my life at all. My essay then developed as a sort of antagonistic call-and-response with conventional grief theories.
I sat and wrote it in two sittings, straight through from beginning to end. I didn’t move things around after that and I barely edited it. That said, I had bits and pieces of it already written. Little vignettes that I hadn’t known what to do with before, like the story of buying my son the fish and aquatic frog. I had also taken extensive notes when my sister died and I wrote down lots of dialogue. Maybe that sounds weird; maybe not, if you’re a writer. But what do you do with a short “scene” between siblings that, when read on its own, seems to make light of the death of another sibling? Well, I guess you build an elaborate home in which it can live. The Wrong Way was that home for many of my disjointed experiences with grief.
I submitted the essay to The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest because Andreas Schroeder told me to submit it to a contest (and not through the slush pile of regular submissions); he thought the essay was good enough to win. The New Quarterly’s personal essay contest seemed like the obvious choice. The lesson here? Always listen to Andreas Schroeder.
NMAF: What was the significance for you as a young writer winning that contest and then the National Magazine Award?
Sierra: Winning both the contest and the NMA gave me confidence in my writing, which I never really had before. Winning the NMA also got my work noticed. After I won Best New Magazine Writer, the essay was selected to appear in the Best Canadian Essays 2013 anthology, alongside some very successful writers. It is an amazing honour that I feel would not have happened without the National Magazine Awards.
NMAF: As a writer and also an editor of PRISM International, a literary magazine published by the Creative Writing Program at UBC, you are in a good position to survey the landscape of Canadian literary arts. What are the challenges and rewards of devoting yourself to this industry?
Sierra: I think the greatest challenge to being an editor of a literary magazine (or a writer for that matter) is money. There is not a lot of money in literary magazines. Small lit mags live and die by the decisions of the Canada Council for the Arts and the various provincial Arts Councils. They live and die by the seemingly small financial decisions of their staff. They live and die by their contest entries and subscriptions and by the ebb and flow of their donations. Editing and managing a literary magazine is not a career for the lazy or the extravagant. It takes a lot of careful, cautious, and sometimes tedious work to keep a literary magazine alive.
That said, it is so emotionally rewarding. I have been a reader for the past two Creative Non-fiction Contests at PRISM and I will be a reader again this year. The emotional rollercoaster that this work has taken me on is intense. You feel the author’s highs and lows. I’ve cried and I’ve laughed until I’ve been in tears.
Although I’ve also read for other contests and other magazines, it is PRISM’s Non-fiction Contest that really makes it worth it for me because the stories are real and they matter. They matter to the author, who is risking so much to share; to the readers with whom the stories will resonate; to the editors, who have the responsibility for creating the long list and the short list; and to the contest judge who has to make the toughest decisions.
Our Creative Non-fiction Contest deadline is coming up on
November 28th [Update: December 5] and I can’t wait to start reading again!
NMAF: What are your immediate goals as a writer, and what are you working on these days?
Sierra: This summer I received a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada to perform research for a novel set in 1950’s California. I spent three months in northern California—taking notes, visiting museums and farms, interviewing seniors and experts, and exploring the countryside—so my research is nearly completed.
I’ve been meaning to finish my outline and start writing, but I’ve been a little distracted by another project that I have been working on for over a year: a humorous and irreverent parenting book that I’m co-writing with blogger Emily Wight. We have completed our non-fiction book proposal and one sample chapter, but I’d like to get a few more chapters done before I launch into the novel.
Sierra Skye Gemma is an award-winning writer and journalist working towards an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Aside from the National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer, this year Sierra was also honoured with the first-place award in creative non-fiction in Rhubarb’s Taboo Literary Contest, a long-list nod in House of Anansi’s Broken Social Scene Story Contest, and a BC Arts Council scholarship. She is an executive editor of PRISM international, western Canada’s oldest literary magazine. Her work has been published in The New Quarterly, The Vancouver Sun, Plenitude, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @SierraGemma.
The National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer
Meet the finalists for Best New Magazine Writer
A Writer’s Guide to Canadian Literary Magazines
Your Guide to Fall 2013 Canadian Magazine Writing Contests
More Off the Page interviews
At last June’s MagNet magazines conference in Toronto, a golden panel of industry experts gathered to present a session called “Going for Gold: How to Create Award-Winning Content,” moderated by Deborah Rosser, president of Rosser & Associates.
The panellists were:
- Carole Beaulieu, publisher and editor-in-chief of L’actualité, winner of more than 50 National Magazine Awards since she became EIC in 1998;
- Sarah Fulford, editor-in-chief of Toronto Life, the most-nominated magazine at last year’s NMAs and former winner of Magazine of the Year (2007);
- David Hayes, freelance writer (nominated for 14 NMAs during his career, winning a gold and a silver award) and member of the board of directors of the National Magazine Awards Foundation (NMAF);
- Domenic Macri, art director at Report on Business and winner of 6 NMAs for his design and creative direction;
- Patrick Walsh, editor-in-chief and brand manager of Outdoor Canada, winner of 21 National Magazine Awards since 1987, and former president of the NMAF.
Risk and Reward: The moderator began by asking each of the panellists to present the story of a challenging piece that won a National Magazine Award, and what lessons they took from the experience.
Sarah Fulford spoke about how breaking the rules helped Toronto Life to a surprise NMA win for best magazine cover of 2008. Sarah said she and her then art director Jessica Rose, whom she hired with this specific challenge in mind, took big risks on a cover about gun violence in Toronto, as they bucked the conventions for cover design with small cover lines and other elements reflecting thinking outside the box. The issue sold well on the newsstand and also impressed the NMA judges that year, as they gave it a Gold.
Domenic Macri spoke in a similar vein about a magazine cover that won Gold the following year, 2009, at the NMAs. The Julie Dickson cover presented a challenge because the editors had agreed not to put her portrait on the magazine cover. Domenic showed the audience several of his drafts and mockups that he went through on his way to finally developing the final cover, saying that what he learned from the experience was although there are certain elements required of a good cover, “you don’t have to take the same approach all the time. I think we won the award because we came up with new directions, and because of the words.”
David Hayes mentioned an episode from 1990 when a feature story he’d written for Toronto Life wasn’t entered for an NMA that year, and after talking with his editor, who said he wasn’t able to enter the piece that year due to budget constraints, he learned that he could enter the NMAs himself. Several years later he took that experience to heart when he again discovered that an editor wouldn’t enter his story, so he entered it himself and it ended up winning Gold. “You never know what the jury will decide,” he reminded the audience, “so as a writer if you are proud of your work you should enter it.”
Patrick Walsh described the story of a controversial article he commissioned about the death of a hunter in Newfoundland, called “Another Fine Day Afield.” As an editor he felt that the story hadn’t been covered well in other media, and though it would be a legal, financial and editorial challenge to pursue the story for Outdoor Canada, he decided to take the risk. The risk paid off when the magazine story he published was picked up by CBC’s The Fifth Estate and NBC’s Inside Edition, and his writer Charles Wilkins won a Gold National Magazine Award in Sports & Recreation.
Carole Beaulieu also touted the benefits of taking risks and believing in the work you produce. She talked about a piece from last year she commissioned from a writer about Pauline Marois. Although Quebec news had been saturated with stories about the premier, Carole felt there was room for more if they could find the right angle and give it the right depth. She sent her writer to spend time with Mdm Marois at her hairdresser’s, achieving a kind of intimate portrait not yet seen, and L’actualité created a newsprint insert–what it is now calling a “mini-book” and making a semi-regular feature for the magazine–to accommodate the 16-page story. And at this year’s NMAs, “L’éttoffe d’un premier ministre,” by journalist Noémi Mercier, won Gold in Profiles.
Quote-Unquote: On the significance of winning a National Magazine Award and why we strive for award-winning content.
Sarah: “An award is useful for communicating to our stakeholders that we are successful. It adds momentum to what we do every day at the magazine… We create content to satisfy our readers, not to win awards. But it is our creators who get the awards and the cash prize, and for an editor, that’s an honour.”
David: “As writers, what we have is our reputation, and what we create should stand on its own. Awards are a feather in your cap, not the cap itself.”
Patrick: “We won because the story was beautifully written, because it was longform [5000 words]… We also took risks and winning the award was a measure of that.”
Carole: “I think we should always believe in what we do. Successful magazine stories have that ‘wow’ factor, and with everything we do we try to achieve that. You know that story matters, that content matters. If you believe you achieved success then you should enter, because then you’ll know if your peers [the jury] agree; that it made them say, ‘wow.'”
The Bottom Line: The moderator asked each panellist to distill one piece of advice for winning a National Magazine Award.
Domenic: Strive for strong collaboration between editorial and art in creating your content. Success is a product of a strong team.
Carole: Don’t take things too seriously. Trust your instincts and never give up on a great story.
Sarah: The most successful pieces are the ones where the creators were passionate and took risks.
Patrick: Be strategic, because the more you enter the more you are likely to win. If your aim is to win awards then enter as much as you can.
David: Advice to writers: write well. And advice to editors: hire writers who write well.
In Summary: Accept challenges, take risks, think differently, be passionate, find (or be) the best creator, work together, never give up on a good story, believe in your work and enter as much as you can. That, and always strive for the ‘wow’ factor!
On behalf of the Canadian magazine industry, thank you to the panellists for sharing your wisdom.
The National Magazine Awards gala, held on June 7 at The Carlu and hosted by Zaib Shaikh, drew more than 500 guests from the Canadian magazine industry for dinner and a presentation of awards in 47 categories.
Bizbash named the NMA gala as the #4 event among media and literary events, and #45 overall for 2013. Read more.
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