the observatory

Reviving Science Coverage in the Carolinas

Weekly newspaper section, community-journalism project deliver fresh content
March 11, 2010

At a time when weekly newspaper science sections are as rare as a single top quark, two North Carolina newspapers recently teamed up to prove they still have a place in the modern media.

In January, The Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer jointly launched SciTech, a two-page, weekly feature focusing on scientific research and technology in the Carolinas. The launch is a rare reversal in the otherwise rapid decline in weekly science sections, which fell from a peak of ninety-five in 1989 to thirty-four in 2005. Due to limited resources, creating the new section was not easy, however.

“It’s been a while since we’ve been able to grow our newspaper,” the Observer’s editor, Rick Thames, said in an interview. “The idea that we could add two color pages to Monday was a head turn.”

The feature supplements the day-to-day science coverage in the two newspapers, which is already more comprehensive than most local publications, according to Thames. So, rather than allocating staff to work on SciTech, the Observer uses local freelancers to produce most of the content.

“There is this incredible reservoir of freelance writers who want to write about science,” Thames said. “We’re using a lot of them now, and the content is fresh.”

Fresh and local, emphasized Ann Allen, editor of SciTech at the Observer. Although SciTech takes about 30 to 40 percent of its news from the wire, “the copy we generate ourselves is all local,” she said. “The main story is usually about someone in the Carolinas doing interesting, engaging science. We want to put a face on it. We want to show people that this is something that’s happening in our area that people like them are doing.”

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Recently featured in SciTech was an article about University of South Carolina professor Tim Shaw’s recent expedition to Antarctica to study the relationship between the composition of icebergs and climate change. This week, the section features a profile of Kevin Grace, a student at North Carolina State University, and his work in the electric motors lab at NCSU in Raleigh. The section also runs weekly interviews with local science bloggers like Craig McLain, a native of Durham, North Carolina, who blogs at

Since the January launch, public response to SciTech has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Thames. “We have been deluged with e-mails of thank-yous from readers we didn’t even know we had,” he said.

Allen agrees. E-mails pile up in her inbox every week on Monday when SciTech is published, but she finds the new workload refreshing. “There has been a phenomenal reaction; it’s tough finding time to keep up with responding to the public,” she said. “But we’ve seen so many cutbacks recently, its’ a real pleasure to do something new. I’m having fun.”

Before SciTech, the Observer never had an official science section, Thames said: “we’ve always blended science news in with the rest of it.” In the last two years, however, the paper has cut more than a third of its total staff reducing the newsroom to around 150 journalists. Its news hole has decreased accordingly, and the normally four-section newspaper now runs only three sections on Mondays, not including SciTech.

At one point, the News & Observer had five staff writers working on science-related content, according to Sarah Avery, who is now the only health and science writer at the paper and the editor of the SciTech pages there.

The Charlotte Observer newsroom generates the majority of the SciTech content printed in both newspapers, but the sections are edited and printed independently by each newspaper. The News & Observer will often include more stories pertinent to the Raleigh community, for instance. In particular, the paper focuses on the Research Triangle region of North Carolina, a thirteen-county area that is home to a large number of industrial, academic and non-profit research institutions. As Avery puts it, “I try to make sure there is a Triangle presence in the section here.”

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.”

The current focus is to engage “scientifically attentive” people in the area with posts about upcoming events in and around the Research Triangle Park, like the recent ScienceOnline2010 conference.

In June of 2009, the Research Triangle Park joined SIT as an unofficial partner “for the promotion and understanding science and technology in our Research Triangle region,” Perrien said. Much of the current funding for SIT comes from the Research Triangle Park, through direct support for the blog, and from the Web development work that Blue Pane Studio does for the Research Triangle Park. The studio recently launched an iPhone app designed to support SIT and the Research Triangle Park’s community building efforts, for example.

Perrien said the blog has successfully moved out of what he calls the “volunteer fireman stage” and currently supports three part-time freelancers: Sabine Volmer, DeLene Beeland, and Bora Zivkovic, plus one video journalist, Ross Maloney. As of now, there is no formal relationship between SIT and local newspapers like the Observer and the News & Observer. They do share some of their freelancers, however. Both Volmer and Beeland often contribute to the SciTech pages.

In late February, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit picked up an article that Vollmer wrote for SciTech about a Japanese inventor visiting North Carolina. Petit prefaced his post by pointing out that:

The Tracker, before the Raleigh News & Observer got rid of its science staff of one or maybe two (other than health and medical writers), used to see a steady flow of distinctively original reporting in it on high tech and science generally. Thus it is notable to find a piece today, even though from a writer labeled as a correspondent, which usually means freelancer.

Vollmer wrote to Petit the next day explaining that she was, in fact, one of seventy newsroom employees that he News & Observer laid off or bought out.

In that sense, new initiatives like the SciTech section and Science in the Triangle are somewhat bittersweet—replacing only some of what’s been lost. Still, they are very welcome and important steps in the right direction.

Thomas K. Zellers is a CJR intern, currently studying economics and environmental science at Fordham University.