Like most newspapers around the country, The Seattle Times has cut staff and shaved resources in recent years to balance the ever diminishing budget of the modern newspaper. But unlike many of its counterparts, the Times has managed to continue publishing strong science coverage, maintaining both a science and an environmental reporter and producing impressive enterprise work, like last year’s investigation into methadone, a highly addictive painkiller offered disproportionately to Medicaid patients.
So it’s surprising, but not out of character, that when the paper unveiled a new splashy multimedia piece this past weekend—in the style of Snowfall and Riptide—the story it displayed was a mammoth work of environmental reporting. And unlike Snowfall (or Riptide or whatever that horse racing thing was about) the intensive resources drain is not in service of a swishy narrative, but crucial, hard-nosed journalism of global consequences.
Reported by Craig Welch along with photographer Steve Ringman, Sea Change looks at ocean acidification, a process caused by the rising levels of stored carbon dioxide in the Earth seas that Welch calls “the lesser-known twin of climate change.” Some of the basic effects of ocean acidification, most notably the decline of the oyster population, have been widely reported on, but the Times team chose to use the project to explore the phenomenon at scale. Using a Pulitzer Center grant, the team criss-crossed the Pacific, reporting on Alaska’s depleted crab industry, the migration of an oyster farmer to Hawaii, and a researcher in Papua New Guinea’s Solomon Sea using pockets of carbon bubbles to peer into the ocean’s future.
The travel budget alone makes this project a kind of journalistic unicorn—its existence in an age of depletion is newsworthy. But by getting at ocean acidification from so many angles, Welch paints a sobering portrait of an event that is “helping push the seas toward a great unraveling that threatens to scramble marine life on a scale almost too big to fathom, and far faster than first expected.”
Here’s why: When CO2 mixes with water it takes on a corrosive power that erodes some animals’ shells or skeletons. It lowers the pH, making oceans more acidic and sour, and robs the water of ingredients animals use to grow shells in the first place.Most of the bells and whistles come from the quality of the reporting and images rather than fancy web packaging: The multimedia components of the project are simply and effectively presented both in stand-alone pages and interspersed throughout the writing. And it’s clear the Timesis thinking of the piece as a kind of living document: Welch has three related articles in the works, including an investigation into the politics of acidification and a number of additional multimedia pieces. The project debuted along with an editorial calling for political response: “The longer the fossil-fuel-burning world waits to act, the longer it will take to undo the damage,” wrote the paper. “Environmental impacts compound over time.”
“What does well in disturbed environments are invasive generalists,” said Ken Caldeira, a climate expert at Stanford’s Carnegie Institution for Science, who helped popularize the term ocean acidification. “The ones that do poorly are the more highly evolved specialists. Yes, there will be winners and losers, but the winners will mostly be the weeds.”
CJR spoke with Welch about how the piece made it from conception to digital life.
How did you first decide this topic was worthy of such an ambitious piece?
In 2009, Steve Ringman and I went to Willapa Bay to do a story on the collapsing of oysters, and back then scientists—theoretically, without a preponderance of evidence—were linking it [to ocean acidification]. Last year they were able to do experiments and publish research that showed that [acidification] was the problem. Six months later, they published the research about pteropods dissolving.
When Steve and I talked to our editors about why we wanted to do the story, what we said is that people don’t grasp the scale of this problem. There’s been an awful lot written about ocean acidification: It’s not like if you google it you don’t find stories. But they’re always about one study. But I don’t think you get the global scope of it. If you put all this information together in one place, you start to get a sense of the scale of the problem. Then we approached the Pulitzer Center with a proposal, and they bit almost immediately.
With such an expansive story, how did you keep it relevant to the Pacific Northwest?
I think it was our former executive editor, David Boardman, who said that in order to tell this story in a way that people are going to get their arms around it, you have to bound it by something. He said keep it to the Pacific Ocean—keep it just in our waters—instead of dealing with the oceans at large, because it’s just too big to think about that way. I think that helped everybody: It’s a gigantic body of water, but it’s our body of water.
We didn’t worry about making it local because the whole thing started here. When we were in Papua New Guinea talking about to science journalists, one of the women was talking about how ocean acidification is one of the biggest problems in the world and nowhere do people understand it better than in Washington State. We didn’t worry about it being local, because it was already local; what we needed to do was show that it wasn’t just local.
It’s a stunning story, but it’s rare to see so many resources devoted to a single project—let alone a straight-up science piece. How did this happen?
I agree, I’m very lucky. I also had very little to do with it. Our managing editor [Kathy Best] likes to say, “If you go to Iowa they write about farms, if you go to New York they write about media and celebrity.” The environment is everything here; it’s too important to the people that live here and too important for our readership to cut it.
Also, you need to have visuals. You can’t write about the ocean from your desk. You don’t get what you need to show readers what’s at stake. People here know that pictures are important. And they know that writing from a place gives you a sort of visceral feel for it. It’s nothing like what it is when you see it in person.
If it had been merely a feature story, I don’t think [the Times] would have invested the time or energy to do it that way. I think they realized, while it’s not a straight up investigation, it’s a really important story for everyone to understand. That’s what I kept telling my editors: It’s not just about oysters. It’s about everything in the ocean.
How did you prepare for the physical demands of the reporting?
I had skyped with Katharina Fabricius [a coral reef ecologist who studies carbon bubbles in Papua New Guinea] and told her we would be interested in going along with her on her next expedition. Then we secured the grant and I called her back and she was like, “Oh, you both have at least 30 hours of diving experience—right?” And then I was like, “Uh, no. But I can learn really quickly.”
Steve and I basically just scrambled. He was on vacation in Mexico, and he dove every day. He took his camera, and we started working in the Puget Sound. When we called her back she said, “This is not a place to be a rookie—we’re a long way from medical facilities.” And I promised her we would be safe. And then when we got there it was awesome. The diving was way easier than in the Sound because it was so god-awful cold and there it was 85 degrees.
What was the development of the website like, and how did you guys think about structuring the multimedia component?
Our website did not support much of this. Part of their thinking is that if they make the investment now, then we’ll have some sort of base to build off of; this is a kind of template they could alter with future projects.
They realized that this is a science-based thing, and they wanted to give more of a profile to people wanting to discuss it. There’s a part of the website where we’re working with lessons plans with the schools. Part of the theory is this is a project that’s going to be around for decades, and this project is going to have relevance for decades. That’s maybe why everyone worked so tirelessly to produce it. There are only two names on the thing, but the number of people it took to do this—there were probably 20 to 25 people: editors, photo editors, Web designers, producers, and all of those people worked their tails off because they actually believed in the story. I think people got really excited thinking they actually might be able to do good on a big scale. It sort of reminds me what being in a newsroom is all about.