Thames credits Stan Thompson, a “persistent” reader, with first piquing his interest in expanding science coverage at the Observer three years ago. “The United States, including North Carolina, is falling dangerously behind in growing a high-tech work force, and it’s only getting worse, Stan told me,” Thames wrote in a column explaining the genesis of SciTech. “Science is no longer on the minds of our children when they contemplate exciting careers. Schools alone can’t raise that awareness. Mass media should also pay more attention to the topic.”
With the help of Mayor Bill Thunberg of Mooresville, a small town near Charlotte, Thompson ran an impressive campaign to create a science feature for the Observer and the six other newspapers owned by the McClatchy news company throughout the Carolinas.
“Stan had done his homework,” Thames wrote in his column. “He knew that a package produced in the Charlotte newsroom theoretically could be shared with other McClatchy papers in the Carolinas, say, The News & Observer in Raleigh or The State in Columbia. Soon he was in those cities, lobbying those editors, too.”
They also collected letters of support from members of academia throughout the Carolinas. In one, Erskine Bowles, the president of the University of North Carolina system, wrote, “Within five years, 90 percent of the world’s scientists and engineers will be living and working in Asia. We need to act decisively to keep North Carolina competitive.”
Thames met with other McClatchy editors to discuss Thompson’s proposals, but tight resources conspired against the creation of the new section. “Reluctantly, we broke the news to Stan and his supporters,” Thames later wrote. “We also promised to keep looking for a solution.”
In 2008, a year after putting the science feature idea on hold, Thames said he found inspiration for how to fund it after downloading a podcast of the NPR show Science Friday. While listening to the show (which, incidentally, was about the shortcomings of science coverage in the media) he began to think about how one could apply the model of direct and exclusive funding used by public radio to support high-quality content in a newspaper. As he put it: “If NPR can find a way to support a weekly feature on science, why can’t a newspaper?”
Thames began a search for someone in the local community who would be willing to underwrite a science and technology feature. Finally, he struck a deal with Duke Energy, an electric power company that is headquartered in Charlotte and services the Carolinas and the Midwest. Duke agreed to fund SciTech in both the Observer and the News & Observer in return for a block of ad space along the bottom of the entire two-page truck acknowledging Duke’s sponsorship. Alongside the ad space runs a prominent disclaimer informing readers that Duke plays no role in the editorial process, which is handled independently by the Charlotte and Raleigh newsrooms.
“Duke understood the concept immediately,” Thames said. “To their credit, they understood how important it was to make it clear what they were and weren’t doing. Here’s what this funding means, here’s what it doesn’t mean.”
In January 2010, SciTech was born. It was not, however, the first project aimed at improving science coverage in the Carolinas. An initiative to combat the decline in local and regional science journalism called Science in the Triangle (SIT) was launched in April 2008 as a partnership between the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science and Blue Pane Studio, a web design firm. Located in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, the project describes itself as an “evolving experiment in community science journalism and scientific-community organizing.”
Christopher Perrien is one of SIT’s founders—along with the president of the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, Bill VanDeman—and currently acts as general manager and business manager of the site. Perrien, a business development executive at IBM, described the project as an aggregation point or a community bulletin board for locals “where you go to see what’s happening around here and in the Research Triangle.”