2018 Feature, Medium Newsroom winner

Project Nora

About the Project

Meet Nora the polar bear, born in a concrete den in a zoo in central Ohio:

She was the size of a squirrel, deaf and blind. Translucent fur barely covered her pink skin. Soft paws paddled against the straw, and her nose led her in one direction: toward her mother.

Hear her wail as her mother abandons her and meet the five zookeepers who must make an impossible choice: to scoop her up, wrap her in a blanket, and raise her themselves. Nearly all hand-raised polar bears die. The women’s audacious effort, as they snuggle tiny Nora to their chests, explores the mysterious connection between humans and animals and, by extension, our role as stewards of her species.

This is not just a cute animal story. We’re drowning in those. When Nora moved to Portland, Oregon, around the time of her first birthday, we approached the concrete habitat of the city’s most famous local creature with a deeper purpose.

What have we done to the planet? What is our obligation to set things right? What if our best intentions are not enough?

Reporter Kale Williams’ clear-eyed reporting showed for the first time that Nora’s unnatural upbringing left her confused, stir crazy and lame. The rarest and most fragile of captive animals, Nora became an internet sensation in a calculus of conservation, marketing, education and profit. Her fans had no idea that she was fed antidepressants each morning. Or that her bones were cracking. Or that, as far as anyone could tell, she had no idea what it meant to be a bear.

Like all zoo animals, Nora is a walking compromise. No matter what the zoo did, Nora would never thunder across an iceberg, haul a seal out of the water and crush it on the snow. But the fate of her wild cousins is perhaps equally compromised, thanks to a broader kind of human meddling.

There was no perfect home for her, not anymore.

Project Nora was an extraordinary undertaking for our scrappy regional newsroom. We published just weeks after Nora left Portland for a new home in Salt Lake City, reporting and writing the fifth installment essentially on deadline.

We also produced a 30-minute documentary and a full complement of materials for children and teachers: a children’s book, board game, puzzles and discussion questions.

The response was staggering. The story attracted nearly 200,000 unique visitors who spent an extraordinary 19 minutes on the Nora project site. We also logged 1.2 million video views on Facebook and YouTube.

Half of Americans don’t believe in human-caused climate change. Facts alone are of limited use in moving people to reflection and action. The best way to do that is through the power of connection. And that is what Nora and her story offer.

For its exhaustive reporting in four states, for its evocative storytelling, and for its engagement with readers on perhaps the most important issue of the century, we proudly submit our project for your consideration.