A few years ago, scientists determined that ocean acidification – caused by the same carbon dioxide that leads to climate change – already had changed sea-chemistry enough that it was killing Pacific Northwest oysters.
This was a global first, a harbinger of things to come, and The Seattle Times produced several stories about the phenomenon. But somehow the wider significance – that the ocean was changing dramatically and faster than projected – seemed not to register. The stories were too complicated, focused too much on oysters, didn’t lend themselves to pictures. So, in 2013, we set out to rectify this problem with our most ambitious multi-platform series ever, “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn.”
Seattle Times reporter Craig Welch and photographer Steve Ringman traversed the world’s greatest ocean – moving from a research expedition in Papua New Guinea to a crab boat on the Bering Sea to a stilt village in Indonesia – to capture and explain one of the planet’s greatest environmental threats.
In Papua New Guinea, they watched as scientists examined an unusual series of underwater vents – “pinprick holes in the sand that exhale curtains of Champagne bubbles” – offering a snapshot of CO2’s impact. Ringman used a jerry-rigged studio to capture the color and granular detail of two ceramic tiles: one placed near a healthy coral reef, the other near those carbon-dioxide bubbles. Placed side by side, the effect is beautiful and horrifying.
Combating the subject matter’s inherent complexity would require creativity – in reporting, writing, photography, graphics, presentation. The goal: present a compelling interactive package readers could consume in many ways.
To do so, our journalists scrambled for analogies – how many bowling-ball sized chunks of CO2 were dumped in the ocean daily? Graphic artists conveyed this information in colorful ways – a tiny GIF of trains dumping boxcar loads into the sea every second. Video editors synthesized hundreds of hours of raw footage into irresistible narratives. Designers combed through it all for the perfect two seconds of footage to run on a loop with each story. Artists hand-drew more than a dozen marine creatures for a page describing precisely how each would be affected by changing oceans. Photo editors chose images that made the stories absolutely riveting.
Everyone learned new skills on the fly. A Web developer spent months writing code to make sure “Sea Change” worked on multiple browsers and platforms. A Web designer incorporated videos, motion graphics and text in ways The Seattle Times had never tried. Our reporter and photographer got certified to dive, conducted dozens of on-camera interviews – sometimes in foreign languages – and learned to write video scripts. Video editors produced a dozen short movies, including a visually stunning nine-minute narrative that melded scenes from above and below water and from laboratories, fishing boats, tide flats and offices in four states and two countries. The team behind those videos proved so adept that PBS NewsHour ran a seven-minute segment relying on their work for all but the narration. (Ray Suarez provided the voice.)
Yet for all its elegant writing and signature visuals, the series’ driver was deep reporting. Welch analyzed hundreds of studies, scoured budgets and reports, and interviewed more than 175 people, more than 100 of them ocean scientists. He interviewed some dozens of times and broke new ground on almost every front – on threats to commercial species, including crab and the fish used in McDonald’s sandwiches; on the way acidification could move through the food chain; on the pace of change along the West Coast; on the promise and limits of evolution. His research showed in his accounting for complexities and contradictions, without sacrificing clarity.
Reaction has been phenomenal. All of the material hewed so tightly to the science that ocean acidification experts around the globe hailed the series as masterful. The governor applauded the work in a speech. The series was discussed on the floor of the U.S. Senate and at international climate conferences.
Reaction among journalists was equally enthusiastic. The Columbia Journalism Review extolled the series as “crucial, hard-nosed journalism” in which “most of the bells and whistles come from the quality of the reporting and images rather than fancy web packaging.”
And work didn’t stop after publication. We did live chats on our website and on Reddit. We gave radio and magazine interviews. Our engagement editor worked with school classrooms, which adopted Sea Change as part of their science curriculum. Students posted blog items on the Sea Change blog. Our reporter traveled from Alaska to Washington, D.C., giving presentations to schools and community groups.
Most important, for a problem understood by fewer than 10 percent of Americans, “Sea Change” provided an invaluable service and a call to action. We can think of no better example of a newspaper explaining such an important and complex topic while staying true to the ambiguities of the science.