Review of "Sea Change," by Steve Ringman and Craig Welch, Seattle Times. Web site.
Review of "The Course of Their Lives," by Mark Johnson and Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Web site.
Last year on Download the Universe, Veronique Greenwood wrote a review of a story about an avalanche. Journalists write about avalanches fairly regularly, but this piece, called "Snowfall" was different. It was a one-man-band of text, video, maps, and unfolding photos. The story attracted millions of readers and earned scads of awards, including a Pulitzer. And it has ushered in an era of big, ambitious online packages of newspaper reporting. Not surprisingly, science offers some of the best stories for the Snowfall approach.
One recent example is "Sea Change," published last month by the Seattle Times. Photographer Steve Ringman and reporter Craig Welch tackled the immense but little-known disaster that is ocean acidification. The carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere doesn't just warm the atmosphere. It also lowers the pH of sea water, making the chemistry of the ocean dangerous for some species. Oyster companies are already feeling the effects of the dropping pH, and if we continue to acidify the oceans at our current rate, the ecological effects could be tremendous.
Here's a nine-minute video from the project:
The package Ringman and Welch have created has three main text stories. It starts with an overview of acidification research, which is followed by two close-ups on fisheries that are being affected--namely, oysters and crabs. (Both are economically important to the Seattle Times's local readers.) Welch reports the stories in the classic mode of environmental journalism, mixing together in-person reporting in far-flung locations with explanations of the research that revealed the scale of the problem. The photos are impressive, the videos are well made, and the visualizations--which try to convey how big the phenomenon of ocean acidification is--are fairly successful.
If you've already read "Snowfall," the presentation of "Sea Change" doesn't feel like a bolt out of the blue. But that just shows how much our expectations have shifted. Just look back seven years to a similar series called "Altered Oceans" from the Los Angeles Times, to see what I mean. The authors, Kenneth Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling, won a Pulitzer for their efforts, which were even more ambitious than "Sea Change." Rather than focus on one way we're ravaging the oceans, they set out to create a picture of all of them, from pollution to climate change.
Although it came out in 2006, the "Altered Oceans" package of stories holds up well today. But the packaging is showing its age. The fancy front page takes you to five stories that are nothing but text. There are also animations and photos, but they're squirreled away in slow-loading pages. After looking at one of these pages, I discovered there was no way to find my way back to the front page again. Seven years of programming advances made "Snowfall" possible--and now raise our expectations for such ambitious online pieces. (Welch recently discussed the making of "Sea Change" with the Columbia Journalism Review.)
From the mountaintops of "Avalanche" and the open oceans of "Sea Change," we take a claustrophobic trip indoors with "The Course of Their Lives." It's a four-part series from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about medical students dissecting the cadavers of people who donated their bodies to science. There's no news here, no warning of an impending disaster. Instead, reporter Mark Johnson and photographer Rick Wood faithfully follow students through a remarkable experience--getting to take apart another human being, down to the brain and guts. Wood and Johnson both bring an emotional sensitivity to the project that makes reading it a deeply moving, human experience.
While I would heartily recommend "The Course of Their Lives," I would also point out some shortcomings. I don't want to belittle the piece by talking about them; they're worth talking about as a way to ponder the kinds of decisions that newspapers make when they create Snowfall-esque stories about science.
Some of the bells and whistles attached to "The Course of Their Lives" don't add much. The videos are mostly of talking heads, who sometimes speak stiltedly. Distilling people's words down in compelling written prose remains a superior technology to a video camera that's simply switched on.
I was also underwhelmed by the interactive anatomical diagrams that went along with the stories. They're meant to illustrate the lessons that the students learned about the cadavers, organ by organ. But who actually needs to see lungs light up on a diagram of a body to know what lungs are? The powers of visualization, both online and in apps, are spectacular. (My favorite anatomical example remains this ebook about Leonardo Da Vinci's anatomical sketchbooks.) But there's no point in using those powers simply to check off a box in a to-do list. It's another lesson that we should respect the technology of prose.
Ironically, the prose itself in "The Course of Their Lives" also felt a bit antiquated. American newspaper journalism long ago settled on a certain style. The paragraphs became short, and the sentences shorter. The words needed to be plain and serviceable. There were perfectly good reasons for this approach--but a lot of them had to do with the physical properties of printed newspapers. Stories couldn't be made of densely packed paragraphs, for example, because editors would need the freedom to cut off sections of stories at the last minute to make them fit their available space.
These were good reasons, but they had some odd consequences. Along with their standard fare of short news pieces, newspapers would also prepare a few massive, long-form pieces--Pulitzer-bait, essentially--but these pieces often retained the staccato structure of short news stories. In these sprawling pieces, that style read strangely. And once New Journalism's masters like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese turned magazine features into a new art form, the adherence to the old style in newspapers became even more peculiar.
Today, as newspapers and magazines shift online, that style has grown even more out of date. If you read stories from publications that got their start online, such as the Atavist, you never find the staccato style of old newspaper stories. There's no need to adhere to it.
Thus "Sea Change" and "The Course of Our Lives" serve as illustrations of journalism in transition--created by people trying to figure out how to bring the best of the old world of newspapers and leave the rest behind.
(Photos: Top-Steve Ringman, Bottom-Rick Wood)
Carl Zimmer writes the "Matter" column for the New York Times and is the author of 13 books, including Evolution: Making Sense of Life.