The QUEST team gathers sound and pictures to portray the work of Chelsey Juárez, a University of California at Santa Cruz doctoral candidate in forensic anthropology, who developed a technique to help identify the remains of migrants who die crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Photo courtesy of QUEST/KQED.
It’s not exactly the kind of headline normally associated with PBS or NPR. But when our TV story about giant Humboldt Squid spreading up the California coast was featured a couple of years ago on Boing Boing—the irreverent, wildly popular blog of tech, culture and games—we cheered. We knew we had arrived, especially when 48 hours later, more than 200,000 people had watched the piece online—roughly three times as many as watched on TV a few nights earlier.
Think about science journalists, and clichés are abundant. The science reporter is the rumpled, socially inept character in the corner cubicle, surrounded by stacks of papers, busily reading journals and pitching storiesthat editors and executive producers don’t understand. Quarks? T-cells? Can’t we do something instead on the calf with the funny birthmark?
Since 2006, KQED, the main PBS and NPR affiliate in the San Francisco Bay Area, has been working to bring the science and environment beats into the 21st century. While keeping science front and center, we’ve been experimenting with ways to expand the stories we cover and how we tell them. By using emerging media platforms, we connect with fresh audiences.
While the science beat is old—dating back to even before Sputnik—the approach we take is new. KQED had a storied 50-year history of producing high-quality radio and TV pieces, but it didn’t have a local show focusing on the scientific and environmental wonders of Northern California, which is home to Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, Google, Apple, Napa Valley, the world headquarters of the Sierra Club, and countless other sources of innovation, fomentation and experimentation.
With a start-up grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, KQED—motivated in part by alarming statistics about students’ understanding of science—spent a year gathering input from scientists, journalists, museum curators, and science teachers. It created QUEST, a weekly series aimed at recasting science and environmental journalism for new audiences, using new tools and new expectations for its journalists. Now in production on its fifth season, the project has been held up nationally as a way forward for public broadcasting and other media outlets to stay relevant in an age when young people not only have given up landlines for cell phones, radios for iPods, and newspapers for blogs, but most recently, televisions for online video. “You’ve got to go where the audience is,” says QUEST executive producer Sue Ellen McCann.
As others have cut back on science and environment coverage, QUEST has assembled the largest team of journalists covering local science and environment issues of any media outlet in Northern California. Between its debut in February 2007 and the end of November 2010, QUEST has produced 414 TV, radio and Web stories. The weekly 30-minute TV show features stories from Mendocino to Monterey County, an area with about eight million residents. There is also a five-minute weekly QUEST radio story on KQED-FM and educator guides are produced for teachers. Any of the TV or radio pieces can be found on our website, and Web visitors can follow local scientists who blog or can download Google maps embedded with photos and videos for local hikes featuring everything from earthquake faults to birding areas. Rolled out this year, a Web-only series called “Science on the SPOT” has five-minute presentations on topics such as the science of Bay Area fog and the genetics of albino redwood trees.
Distributing Science Stories
A big part of QUEST’s strategy is finding those who are frequent visitors of websites like Boing Boing. So every QUEST TV and radio story is uploaded to iTunes. The TV stories are posted on YouTube. QUEST producers put all the content, which is shot in high-definition, into a video player that can be easily embedded into any website or blog. Like dandelion seeds blown by the wind, stories spread digitally far and wide.
When the QUEST TV team put together a story about the physics of big-wave surfing, for example, producers went out to Mavericks, a famous surfing spot about an hour south of San Francisco, where the waves can reach 40 feet high. They filmed Grant Washburn, a world-class big-wave surfer. They brought physical oceanographer Toby Garfield to the beach to explain why the monster waves are so big. And after mixing in some surf music and shiny graphics, they researched the top surfing websites in the world and sent e-mails showing their proprietors how to embed the video story for free. They did the same with Bay Area newspapers. And when the waves hit their peak in the spring and an international surf contest sprung up, the newspapers and surf blogs embedded the QUEST story with their text stories online. Every time a reader clicked on the QUEST player, it registered a hit back at KQED.
Those who watched on surf blogs—who also learned about energy transfer, bathymetry and wavelength—represent younger, more diverse, and different audiences than the ones public broadcasting normally attracts. In short, they represent hope.
This distribution model works. In QUEST’s first season in 2007, 18 percent of the audience watched the TV show on a computer; in 2008, 27 percent watched on a computer, and by 2009, 50 percent or more of the audience for some QUEST episodes watched on a computer. And this growth in online audience didn’t cannibalize the TV ratings. They remained about the same.
QUEST’s stories have been distributed nationally as well. Pieces about the giant plastic garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, the physics of baseball, and Silicon Valley’s burgeoning electric car industry were co-produced with “PBS NewsHour.” In August 2010, NPR’s “Morning Edition” aired a five-part series produced by QUEST and Climate Watch, another KQED project. It explored Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ambitious plans to provide 33 percent of California’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020—along with all the pitfalls and problems, from inadequate transmission lines to environmental concerns that big solar arrays will harm desert tortoises and other endangered species. In October, NPR aired nationally QUEST’s three-part consumer guide to the surge of electric cars about to hit U.S. showrooms.
Collaborating on Science Reporting
QUEST also has experimented with new models of collaboration among journalists. On its first day, the staff of 15 employees was brought out of separate departments at KQED—TV, radio, education and interactive—to sit together on the third floor. Assigning editors didn’t hand out story ideas. Instead a wiki—a collaborative internal website like Wikipedia—was set up where every staff member, from the newest intern to the executive producer, was encouraged to enter ideas and critique or contribute to ideas already there.
QUEST concentrates its coverage on nine topics—astronomy, biology, chemistry, engineering, environment, geology, health, physics and weather. These were chosen to be in sync with California’s public school science curriculum standards. Sixteen community partners were enlisted—from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to the California Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Geological Survey to the Girl Scouts—to suggest story ideas and provide feedback. Some stories now play on flat screen TVs on the walls of Bay Area aquariums and museums. One 30-minute QUEST special about the state of science education in California schools was embedded on the National Science Teachers Association website. At some of the partner locations, QUEST producers have hosted public lectures and film festivals with scientists.
To report science and environment stories, QUEST producers have climbed inside the massive towers of the new Oakland Bay Bridge to explain its engineering, gone on expeditions for great white sharks, mapped earthquake faults, and worked in laboratories with researchers seeking to find everything from a cure for AIDS to the identities of migrant workers who die alone in the desert. David Perlman, the veteran science reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, once said that covering science, environment and medical issues “is like attending a never-ending graduate school of unlimited diversity, with a faculty that is most often eager to instruct and patiently explain.” And it is.
Reaching out to the community has not been without challenges. At first, we had a delicate dance with partners to ensure the project benefited from their advice but we retained our journalistic independence. We learned we needed to involve the education team early on to make sure we included key facts to help stories meet state education standards. By the third year, we realized that many schoolteachers and community partners most wanted KQED to train them how to shoot their own video, make their own interactive maps, and create their own audio pieces with slideshows for their websites. So we did.
Money also is a challenge. The show costs about $2.5 million a year to produce. Funding comes from the National Science Foundation and an array of other donors. QUEST would love to travel farther and wider—to Lake Tahoe, the northernmost ancient redwood forests, the deserts of California—but can’t afford it. Yet the project has built a significant audience on the radio, TV and the Web and has won five Northern California Emmy Awards as well as national awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Now KQED has begun an effort to replicate this multimedia reporting model at other PBS and NPR affiliates around the nation. Not all of the seven stations in this initial effort—including affiliates in Seattle, Tampa, Philadelphia and Nebraska—will be able to raise the money for a full-blown TV, radio, Web and education series. But we’re convinced that using even some of the QUEST techniques can help them produce more compelling stories for broader audiences. Why can’t TV producers share their audio with radio reporters, for example? Why can’t every station create a wiki for story ideas, including notes and experts’ phone numbers for any staff producer to see? Why can’t a station create slideshows with radio stories and work with local museums and nonprofits to distribute them in e-mail newsletters to members?
QUEST might flame out like other journalism experiments. But so far—from rocket ships to giant squid—it’s been a wonderful ride.
Paul Rogers is the managing editor of QUEST and the environment writer at the San Jose Mercury News. For more, go to www.kqed.org/quest.