Vision Quest

KQED’s new science program offers a glimpse of the future

Josh Rosen, a producer with San Francisco public television’s Quest science program, likes to say that his job is to chronicle things that are either so far away or so tiny that you can’t see them — like nanotechnology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. “I do the TV,” he says, “about things you can’t see.”

His success at no-see TV may not just be about thinking up entertaining visual metaphors. Quest, a grant-funded project run through KQED, offers a glimpse of what may be the future of science journalism.

The woes of traditional print science journalists are well-documented: shrinking newspaper habitat leading to endangered science writers, a proliferation of science-news-you-can-use, and a preference for well-fed creatures and dieting humans over hard science. Paul Rogers, the twenty-hour-a-week managing editor at Quest, knows all this about as well as anyone, since he also happens to be a four-day-a-week, Pulitzer prize-winning science reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. Says Rogers:

Here’s the problem at newspapers: almost all newspaper editors got Ds and Fs in science. They think stories about nanotechnology and dark matter are boring. But what they don’t realize is a lot of people have degrees in this stuff. There’s a disconnect between editors and their audience.

Popular science magazines do an admirable job, but they’re generally poor at the whole new media thing. Quest illustrates about as well as anything the difference between newspaper/magazine ideas of multimedia — sending a reporter out with a cheap digital camera or a digital voice recorder — and the real potential of multimedia: professionals in radio, TV, and Web working together on science stories conceived in visual or audio terms.

Quest wrapped up its first season at the end of September, and even its staff members were surprised by the results. The most popular segments were hard science, led by the show about nanotechnology. For season two, which began in October, they shifted priorities to put more emphasis on hard science. That’s encouraging for the future of popular science reporting via new media.

“Very few reporters would volunteer to do a story about physics,” Rogers told me. “Everybody wants to do the story about sea otters or sharks. But what we’re finding is that if we do our homework, there’s a good story and a big audience. And that gives us confidence.”

It’s not just the emphasis on hard science that sets Quest apart. It’s the way it’s done, and the way the stories come about, that realistically could serve as a model for newspapers and media outlets nationwide. (In an indication that PBS agrees, KQED’s former number two, John Boland, who played a crucial role in shaping Quest, moved to Washington in 2006 to bring the same ideas to the national level.)

First of all, Quest is multiplatform, and in a really good way. It creates original content for TV, radio, and the Web, then promotes one medium on the others. The idea is that each platform appeals a bit more to a certain demographic, but that if the content is good, you can convince your audience to play around a bit with different mediums. The Web acts as the catch-all, with an archive of all the audio, video, and extras. The TV and radio segments attract a fairly traditional PBS audience, but the Web has more potential to bring in readers and viewers who may not turn to public broadcasting. And Quest has capitalized on that by offering its videos in an easy-to-embed format and sending them out via an almost viral marketing campaign to science and technology Web sites. (The embedded format allows people to watch or listen without clicking away from the site they’re on.) Rogers says that 500,000 people downloaded programs in the first six months of season one.

There’s also an innovative education component to the show. One of the producers is an expert on the California state teaching curriculum, and is involved from the beginning of the editorial process in selecting stories that offer teaching opportunities, and then in crafting the story to serve as a lesson for kids.

Quest also manages to be what senior executive producer Sue Ellen McCann calls “cross-editorial.” The producers and editors from each medium all meet weekly to discuss story ideas, and each brings a different background and different idea of storytelling. These editorial meetings aren’t just about asking what the story is about, they’re about asking the best way to tell it, the best visuals, the best sounds, and the best teaching opportunities.

When an idea emerges from the meeting, it goes into an internal Wiki that’s edited by the program’s roughly fifteen full- and part-time staff members. Although they all work in different departments (TV, radio, interactive, education, etc.), everyone—from intern to managing editor—comments on every story at every stage in its development. Somehow, instead of turning this into a stagnating illustration of the too-many-cooks maxim, it strengthens the ideas. Rogers and McCann have the final say, but they seem as excited about the group effort as anyone at the station.

Quest also has a group of sixteen “partners” — scientific or environmental organizations that offer expert advice, logistical support, and story ideas. Some of these partnerships raise an eyebrow from a journalistic standpoint — you wonder, for example, how fairly Quest reporters can cover the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, a partner that is home to plenty of controversies, including, at the moment, a director who’s also leading a very contentious public-private biofuels deal at UC Berkeley.

Rogers and McCann say it hasn’t been an issue, but they’re probably spared from having to make overly tough decisions more frequently by the show’s long lead time (it’s hard to do controversy in HD two months after the fact). Still, Rogers sent a memo to each of the partners before Quest launched, clarifying KQED’s editorial guidelines and establishing a just-because-you’re-our-partner-doesn’t-mean-we’ll-let-you-see-the-tapes policy.

Still, the TV pieces typically shy away from controversial topics in favor of more explanatory journalism. Quest tends to cover local environmental stories, and a piece on the biofuels initiatives at Berkeley — a big story not just locally but nationally — is conspicuously absent. News-wise, it has been more nimble on the radio, tackling stories like the resurgence of nuclear power advocates in California and a battle in Marin over whether an oyster farmer can keep his farm in a wilderness area.

This lack of journalistic bite seems somehow less important than it would in many newsrooms. After all, part of what makes Quest exciting is that it’s pioneering ways to use digital technology to smartly cover hard science for a reasonably mainstream audience. It’s more explainer than watchdog, a guide to a universe of stories that are relevant to our lives but which are mostly ignored by even the best traditional media.

Eric Simons is a freelance writer and student at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

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Eric Simons is the author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession (Overlook Press, 2013), and the editorial director at Bay Nature magazine.