Joshua Rapp Learn
Joshua Rapp Learn, School of Journalism '13, is a freelance science journalist.
What made you want to pursue a career as a journalist?
I was tired of vagabonding aimlessly around the world with little purpose after doing it for most of my 20s. Journalism gave me a purpose.
What did you originally see yourself doing when you first enrolled in journalism school?
Writing longform features about exploration and discovery.
When did you first become interested in environmental reporting/science journalism?
I’ve always loved National Geographic and BBC documentaries with David Attenborough, or The Nature of Things with David Suzuki. I studied archaeology and cultural anthropology in my undergraduate degree, and traveling fueled my curiosity about the world.
What's something that people misunderstand about science journalism?
A lot of the time people think I’m traveling all around the world for every 500-word article I write. While I do travel, it’s mostly on my own dime – I didn’t get to go to the western Ghats just to write about some salacious new frog sex position (external link) researchers discovered, unfortunately.
What's something people misunderstand about being a freelancer?
The most common misconception of freelancing is how much hustle it involves, especially if you want to make a serious living out of it with an income that can afford more than a bamboo hut to live in. You occasionally get commissions, but 90% of my work comes from pitches I put together. When you do get commissions, it usually isn’t from the big glorious publications like National Geographic or Discover Magazine since they’re spoiled with good pitches. Relatively obscure media can pay pretty well.
What is the most rewarding part of your job right now?
I love having the freedom to write about what I want to. If I begin to get concerned that I’m writing too many short pieces, it’s on me to put together better longform pitches, or get more contacts of editors who accept that kind of stuff.
Writing about science, discovery and exploration also keeps me sane because it isn’t always negative like hard news. It’s nice to speak to people who are making positive changes in the world, and improving our understanding.
What's the most interesting story you've ever pursued?
Perhaps the longest running story I’ve ever pursued came from catching a lizard on a hike in the Andes in Patagonia in 2008. I was stunned when I found the thing—I had no idea they could be found that far south, at that altitude. I was just near the base of Mount Fitz Roy on the Argentine/Chilean border. It wasn’t warm either. Despite the sun, I was bundled up in a sweater, scarf and tuque.
Over the years I saw research on how related species can survive such cold temperatures, and how they evolved in the Andes. I eventually put together a longform pitch about it and landed a story (external link) in The New York Times. My photo of that original lizard I caught in 2008 even ended up in the article!
As someone who writes about science, do you have a fact or story you've picked up that you tell to impress people at parties?
Party stories are all about animal sex. Take squid—species like arrow squid have alpha males then sneaker males, two very different body types that evolved with successful but contradicting reproduction strategies. It gets rather graphic, but the alphas basically do things the missionary way while the sneakers hang around and wait for their chance when the males aren’t paying attention. The females have a secondary sperm storage receptacle near their mouth… anyway, it gets rather graphic (external link) .
What’s one of your favourite memories from j-school?
I can’t say for sure that I went to j-school. I think I just spent enough time at the Ram in the Rye or the Imperial drinking with future and current journalists that the faculty decided I’d earned a degree.
For real though, probably working on my master’s piece in the Guna Yala in Panama. I lived in an affordable bamboo hut on one of the village islands, motoring or rowing between the Caribbean islands speaking to people about the impact that a new paved road was having on Guna culture and community.
Any memorable School of Journalism professors during your time at the university?
Definitely all the ones that dragged me, against my will, to the bar after class to teach me how to get through journalism as a “career choice.” Jokes aside, my advisor Paul Knox was an inspiration and Lisa Taylor gave me a job and taught me how to teach as TA. Lindsay, Sally, Janice and Gary showed me how to turn hallway mischief into b-roll.
What advice would you give to current journalism students?
Pitch, pitch and more pitch. My only focus in j-school still was to get a job so I didn’t have to put up bouncy castles at carnival shows around Toronto anymore on the weekends. But once you get a real job, you may eventually realize you’d really love to cover something else. Pitching freelance stories on the topic you love is the best way to get you into that door and keep you inside. You may make more money sometimes writing stuff you don’t exactly love, but you should never forsake writing a little about the stuff you love.
Also, grow a thick skin and don’t mope around when publications ghost you or give you a PFO. Just keep at it—it’s only the rest of your life at stake.