Journalist Spotlight: Alex Kasprak, BuzzFeed
Alex Kasprak is a science writer with experience as both a scientist and as a science communicator. Before turning to writing, he studied fossilized chemicals in ancient rocks in an effort to shed light on dramatic periods of environmental change during mass extinction events.
As a writer, Kasprak has focused on science communication and outreach over traditional journalism. He has written features for NASA’s Visualization Explorer and worked for two years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the primary writer and content producer behind three of NASA’s websites geared toward elementary and middle school-aged kids.
Now at BuzzFeed, Kasprak has written hundreds of science stories on topics that range from the realities of human courtship, near-death astronaut experiences in space, flatulence, dinosaurs, booze, marijuana and, obviously, animals. He firmly believes that Pluto should not be a planet.
We talked to Kasprak recently about his career in journalism and what it’s like to work for BuzzFeed. Here’s what he had to say.
Did you always know you wanted to be a journalist or did you have another plan?
Being a journalist wasn’t really on my radar when I was going through high school and college. Pretty early on as an undergrad at Skidmore College, I decided that I really liked geology and that I would love it if I could teach it someday at a small college like Skidmore. I finished all the coursework and internships needed to get into grad school and was ultimately accepted into a Ph.D. program in geology at Brown University. Academia ended up not being for me, so I took my master’s degree and left. In a panic, I looked into other jobs that people with a science background and writing skills could do. I Googled “science” and “writing” and learned that “science writing” is totally a thing. I applied to one-year science writing program at Johns Hopkins University and was awarded a fellowship to attend. Ever since then I have been writing about science for a living.
Where was your first job in journalism?
My first unpaid gig was an externship with Earth magazine where I pitched and wrote earth science stories while working on my program at JHU. I also got my first paid gig during that program, as a weekly writer for the NASA Visualization Explorer app.
What type of stories do you focus on at BuzzFeed?
I generally cover shorter, lighter science stories or produce sort of “best of” lists of science facts and other science culture stuff for BuzzFeed. I typically don’t cover a single scientific study or breaking science story but focus instead on collections of science stories and facts about a specific topic or theme. Creepy animals, weird phenomena, outlandish ideas about humanity, evolution, consciousness, and stories with a strong visual component are always popular. I don’t have a specific beat per se, but I spend a lot of time writing about space, astronauts, and fossils.
Do you pitch story ideas or are they assigned most of the time?
I pitch almost all of my stories myself. BuzzFeed gives us a great deal of freedom in that regard.
What do you like most about your role at BuzzFeed and is it as fun to work there as it seems?
I like that BuzzFeed allows me to experiment with bringing more science to their pretty considerable audience. Not only do I get a great deal of freedom on the topics I choose, but also I have the freedom to figure out new and creative ways to convey information or tell a story in a new way. I also have more of an opportunity to inject weird humor into my posts in ways that other outlets might avoid, which is always a hoot.
BuzzFeed is probably is as fun as it looks. Though we don’t have a full-time kitten room for our pitch meetings and we have only a handful dogs in our office at any given time, I am always surrounded by a ton of cool and brilliant people whose interests are all over the place. Everyday is both challenging and fun. Also, one has to imagine that from a probability standpoint, the likelihood of there being a kitten room at BuzzFeed on any given day is probably orders of magnitude higher than most other offices.
What’s your advice for anyone who may want to pitch you?
People pitching stories to me should be familiar with the TYPE of stories that BuzzFeed Science writes — we rarely do single study findings, and most of our stories try to evoke some sort of human emotional response outside of simply “gee wizz, that’s cool.” Also, I will also always reject any pitch that is clearly just an effort to get me to advertise something corporate. That is not my job, and there is a whole other division of BuzzFeed for advertisers anyway.
What should they always do?
A strong pitch to me would involve not only an idea, but also why people on the internet would want to share it with a friend when they are done reading it.
Pitch products or corporate campaigns. They should also avoid writing an entire post for me and ask me for my thoughts on it. It’s not a super efficient way of doing things, and BuzzFeed actually has a place for community members to write stories for the site directly.
What advice do you have for members who respond to ProfNet queries?
For me, I can never have too much information about why a given expert is indeed an expert in his or her field. It also helps to see that the expert is good with interviews and, best case scenario, has as good sense of humor as well.
What type of experts do you prefer?
My favorite experts are people who research quirky, specific, and esoteric things but who can also make those weird things appeal to a broader audience. One of my favorite interviews from ProfNet was with a professor of mechanical engineering who had an incredibly detailed knowledge of Star Wars and a very creative way of relating his expertise to that genre. He helped me write a post answering absurd science questions about the Star Wars universe.
How do you use social media and what is the best thing about it?
I use it both to promote my own work as well as keep a pulse on what’s happening in science journalism and with the world in general. The latter is my favorite part about social media.
Can you tell us about one of the most memorable moments you’ve had covering a story?
Without question it was working on a series of stories about retired astronauts. I got to speak with a number of insanely qualified and absurdly brave astronauts and have them tell me all kinds of crazy stuff about almost dying in space, about how gross some aspects of astronaut life were, and different mistakes that can happen, both big and small, while on missions. These were things that they probably couldn’t have said while still employed as astronauts. I could listen to those men and women for hours and not get bored.
What advice do you have for new journalists and even for those who aren’t so new to the field?
I think it’s important to be passionate not just about your own success, but also about some topic that you can really make your own. I got into science writing from science, so I already had a strong interest in fossils and evolution. I think building those specific interests and areas of expertise helps a great deal.
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Evelyn Tipacti is a audience relations specialist at ProfNet. She is a former broadcast journalist with years of experience behind the television camera and radio mic.