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5 Minutes with Wilson da Silva

INFLUENCING Media News | 10 March 2020

Wilson da Silva is a feature writer and science journalist who co-founded Cosmos alongside Dr Alan Finkel and previously worked as a science reporter for the ABC.

By Elliott Richardson

What do you do and where does your work appear?

I’m a science journalist and feature writer best known for my work in science and technology (although I've also written extensively on business, climate change and human rights). My work appears mainly in Australian Geographic, Nature and Cosmos.

Anything else in your career you’ve been known for?

I was the co-founder of Cosmos (along with Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel), used to be a science reporter at ABC TV and did a celebrated documentary on East Timor, The Diplomat.

Which story or stories are you most proud of?

Probably “The Politics of the Prize”, a cover story in The Australian Financial Review Magazine; I followed then Timorese resistance leader José Ramos Horta to Norway, where he went to collect the Nobel Peace Prize. It inspired me to make a documentary that consumed two years of my life but was extremely rewarding and well received.

What's your secret superpower?

Research and nuance! I have a tendency to deep dive into topics, and like to spend time with interview subjects so I can try to understand their work, motivations and even how they see the world. You can often extract nuggets of real insight and enhance the colour in a feature.

What are three top tips you can give PR pros for working with you effectively?

I would argue for sending fewer releases, but make sure that those that do go out have real meat to them; explain context, don’t be afraid of complexity (but pithily explain it) and provide links to multimedia where possible. I was a communications advisor for three years, and this worked really well for me.

How do you like to start a PR relationship if you've never been in touch before?

By building rapport. It can be via commentary on topics about which I’ve written in the past, or an understanding of my space as a science journalist. And it can be via email, LinkedIn or Twitter. Only after I’ve developed a rapport am I comfortable with phone calls. But I don’t mind a site visit if there’s interesting things being done, or a casual lunch to discuss a topic. If it's interesting, it doesn’t always lead to story immediately, but it often finds its way into what I'm writing at some point. 

What's the most important lesson you've learned about journalism?

That no amount of research is as good as actually talking to sources or experts, or going into the field and poking around! Research, though, helps background you on a topic, so you can get real value out of interviews.

How do you hunt for good stories?

Some ideas arise from reading the news or about developments, and spotting something odd, or intriguing and worth investigating. Others come from news releases, or conversations I have in the course of one story that opens the door to another.

What's been the biggest change in the industry over the past decade?

In everyday reporting, it’s been the increasingly open disdain shown to journalists by government officials, political staffers, or the catatonic fear among public servants of putting a foot wrong and angering their political masters. In the industry itself, it’s been the digital disruption that’s hollowed out the economic viability of so many once successful media companies.

What do you think is the most important issue facing the tech industry today?

Who owns the personal data of consumers, and the unregulated use of artificial intelligence. I suspect a reckoning is coming, where – in advanced democracies, at least – people will eventually ‘own’ their data, and have the power to lease it to providers; in AI, there’s a growing movement to develop principles of ‘ethical AI’, which will need to be legislated.

What's the biggest issue facing journalism?

Finding a suite of business models that can sustain it, and allow it to serve its role in a democracy.

Exclusives are everything. Discuss.

Often the case in news. But when something is really big, it’s best to stage a news conference or make it available to all on embargo, and strictly adhere to it in order to gain trust with journalists. In a big story, journalists will understand why it can’t be exclusive. But receiving exclusives is a double-edged sword: a journalist might be so keen to be first, s/he may not be as inquisitive as s/he should.

What do you wish you'd never have to explain to readers ever again?

How the so-called Standard Model of particle physics (the theory describing the fundamental forces and classifying all known elementary particles) works. I had to do that in 700 words once, and it nearly fried my brain.

Name a recent story you wish you'd written.

Cover story of The Weekend Australian Magazine by Ricky French in June 2019 on the global spread of the chytrid fungus that is decimating frogs around the world. It was one I’d been planning to write, but I could not be annoyed after reading it – the piece was excellent.

Who is the best journo in the industry and why?

Couldn’t narrow it down: there’s too many really good journalists to choose from, across mediums and specialities. I do, however, think most political journalists are overrated.

The PR fairy calls saying you can have the interview of your dreams. Who's it gonna be?

Jeff Bezos; I’m fascinated by his vision for moving industry off the Earth and expanding humanity into the solar system. But I’d settle for Elon Musk 


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