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Déjà Vu Moments

by A. Maureen Rouhi,
September 29, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 39

IT HAPPENS OFTEN: I'm listening to National Public Radio or reading the Washington Post, and déjà vu overcomes me. Of course, the story is familiar; I've seen it in C&EN.

At C&EN, we are relentless in finding stories that readers should know about or might be interested in, and I daresay we have a good nose for what's interesting and important. I base this claim partly on our stories' echoes in the greater media landscape.

Consider, for example, the segment called Animal Pharm in the July 18, 2007, edition of NBC's "Nightly News with Brian Williams." We know it was inspired by "Big Pharma Chases Dogs and Cats" (C&EN, June 25, 2007, page 31) because an NBC news producer contacted the reporter, Associate Editor Rachel Petkewich.

More recently, Associate Editor Bethany Halford's "Pyrotechnics for the Planet" (C&EN, June 30, page 14) spawned "Chemists brew 'greener' fireworks" in "CNET News" and "Greener rockets take off" in the Washington Times. We know because both stories referenced Halford and C&EN.

More often than not, we don't know whether a story that sounds familiar is traceable to C&EN, but the temptation to assume so is sometimes irresistible.

Take the NPR story "Clorox Enters Booming Market for 'Green' Cleaners." As soon as I heard the first few words of the broadcast on Feb. 6, I thought, "Hey, that's Mike's story," recalling "Greener Cleaners," the cover story of C&EN's Jan. 21 issue, by Assistant Managing Editor for Business Michael McCoy. I couldn't believe my ears: Within the first 37 words, the NPR piece mentioned the words "Clorox" and "GreenWorks," just as McCoy's story did.

Similarly, stories reminiscent of Halford's Earth-friendly fireworks appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as on MSNBC and FoxNews.

We can't say whether C&EN inspired any of these. It could be that news organizations simultaneously but coincidentally were pondering Earth-friendly cleaners in the cold of winter and Earth-friendly fireworks in the heat of summer. It could also be that the mainstream reporters just happen to subscribe to PressPac, the American Chemical Society's weekly press package that brings to the general media's attention items from ACS's journals and C&EN. Through this service, reporters can read advance copies of C&EN stories up to six days before publication.

Like a boom box, PressPac is invaluable in getting our stories to reverberate to the general public. And we are delighted when others acknowledge our work, as "CNET News" and the Washington Times did with Halford's pyrotechnics story and as the San Francisco Chronicle did in its "Sports doping detection a never-ending science," which cited Senior Correspondent Marc Reisch's Aug. 11 story "Drugs at the Starting Line."

Michael Woods, manager of science writing at ACS's Office of Public Affairs, points to other C&EN PressPac items other newsgroups have used: "Perfecting an Artificial Pancreas" (May 5, page 46) was picked up by the U.K.'s Times Online, which receives 5 million unique visitors daily. "To Catch a Cheat" (Sept. 8, page 23) and the Sept. 22 cover package on anti-HIV vaccines and drugs were picked up by the online service Medical News Today, which receives 1.8 million unique visits per month.

At times, however, the déjà vu moment cannot be explained by PressPac. A case in point is the front-page item in the March 14 Washington Post "Non-European PhDs In Germany Find Use Of 'Doktor' Verboten." C&EN's European correspondent, Sarah Everts, broke this story. C&EN posted an item online on March 4, which appeared in print on March 10. Being a news story, it could not have appeared in PressPac.

However C&EN stories break through, we find great satisfaction in knowing that we bring stories to C&EN's audience that appeal to a wider public.

In the coming days, you may read or hear about how chemists are figuring out why breast milk is good for babies beyond its nutritional value. If it sounds familiar, perhaps it's because you've read this issue's cover story, "Unraveling Breast Milk," by Associate Editor Jyllian Kemsley (page 13).

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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