The Observatory

The western frontier

By Curtis Brainard
May 23, 2012

American media may cluster in the east, but the west is still the land of pioneers, even in the domains of multimedia and long-form science journalism.

Two young trailblazers—Quest, a multimedia science and environment series created in 2007 by KQED, a public radio and TV station serving northern California, and Pacific Standard, a research-oriented, bimonthly magazine launched as Miller-McCune in 2008 and headquartered in southern California—deserve a special mention for their recent work.

Let’s start with Quest and the unique contribution it made to a long, ongoing story about one the California’s most intractable environmental concerns. On May 14, state officials released the final draft of the Delta Plan to restore the long beleaguered Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a vital estuary that provides water to Central Valley farmers and most of the state’s residents. The plan is the product of the Delta Stewardship Council, formed in 2009 to resolve problems with water management and ecosystem decline.

The plight of the Delta, which has buckled under the stresses of agricultural demand and the needs of a growing population, has received a fair amount of coverage over the years. Articles have looked at subsidence due to groundwater pumping, pollution, earthquake vulnerability, and the decline of salmon, smelt, and other native fish.

Release of the Delta Plan’s final draft, which will be reviewed next week, wasn’t big news, however. It was the sixth iteration in a long, fraught process. As the Sacramento Bee reported:

Over the next many decades, elements of the plan could include better flood control, water conservation, species protection, habitat restoration, ground and surface water storage, invasive species control and many others.

With such a hefty list, its not surprising that previous drafts have brought in about 10,000 comments from the public from about 250 separate people or groups.

“We can’t wait any longer to get started,” said Joe Grindstaff, executive officer of the Stewardship Council during a conference call with water reporters Monday. “The situation with the Delta gets worse with each passing day.”

To look forward, and understand where to go, one sometimes has to look back, however. Such was the reasoning behind a fantastic multimedia project launched by Quest just days before the release of the latest Delta Plan.

The project focused on two “ecological detectives” from the San Francisco Estuary Institute, who used extensive archival and historical sources to chart the sweeping ecological change that has taken place there. Working with the two scientists, Quest constructed a wonderfully engaging interactive map that takes readers on tour of two centuries of man-made change. According to the Quest’s report:

By layering together this historical information in space and time, researchers have created a detailed map of the land types, waterways, and plant communities of 200 years ago. The map reveals an interconnected ecosystem of incredible complexity: rich, riverfront forests in the north Delta, lush wetlands and branching channels in the central Delta and a varied, seasonal floodplain in the south Delta.

This map doesn’t provide a literal blueprint for remaking the Delta today. But understanding the physical and biological processes that once made the ecosystem flourish could dramatically improve habitat restoration efforts to come.

The saga taking place in the Delta is a subject that also hasn’t escaped the notice of the newly minted Pacific Standard magazine. Launched in 2008 by philanthropist Sarah Miller-McCune—who founded the academic publishing company SAGE with her late husband, George McCune—the publication has spent the last five years producing excellent, research-driven journalism focused on solutions to today’s largest social challenges, from climate change to global hunger.

In the March/April 2012 issue, Editor-in-chief Maria Streshinsky announced that the publication was changing it’s name from Miller-McCune in order to emphasize its strategic location. With countries of the Pacific Rim becoming increasingly important to global politics and economics, and its own offices sitting a mile from the ocean, the magazine’s editors realized they had a special point of view.

“Our stories won’t be solely about the West,” Streshinsky promised, but they will come “from a Pacific perspective and a Western sensibility.”

The magazine’s new incarnation arrived on May 1. In addition to the new name, the publication has taken on a matte, instead of glossy finish, and added a number of items to its table of contents. They included a page in the back called “Who Funded That?” which lets readers know who paid for the research data and studies underpinning its articles, as well as a new department in the front called “Culture Lab,” which examines “what research can tell us about pop culture.”

In between is the usual, impressive selection of feature stories. Reflecting the magazine’s new identity, the May/June issue includes a fascinating piece about the significance of the US “turning to face the Pacific rather than the Atlantic.” In it, Bruce Cummings, chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago, argues that the Obama administration has made “a series of defense-policy moves that amount to the most significant transformation of American’s military position in the world since the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed.”

A significant transformation may be underway at Pacific Standard as well. In its early years, the magazine received numerous plaudits from critics such as the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which called it “a treasure chest of well-crafted, deep and original science reporting” and a “refuge for long-form journalism.” But it struggled to make a similar splash beyond the scholarly community.

In 2010, the Los Angeles Times’s media reporter, James Rainey, noted that while the magazine had “gained a toehold with academics, government officials, and journalists,” it was “virtually unknown to the general public.” To “expand its appeal beyond its wonky base,” Rainey suggested, the magazine would “need to venture further from its roots and tell compelling stories using everyday characters from outside academia.”

While keeping an emphasis on the research-driven reporting makes its work so unique and trustworthy, Pacific Standard appears to be moving in that direction, covering a wider variety of political, economic, and cultural topics. The May/June issue has terrific, character-driven narrative about Dr. Jay Shubrook, a doctor in the foothills of Appalachia who is turning diabetes treatment “upside down” by recommending that his patients consider going straight to insulin injections before traditional first-step remedies like diet, exercise, and medication.

Maybe that’s still a bit wonky, but outlets like KQED Quest and Pacific Standard are pushing multimedia and long-form science journalism forward in the West. In doing so, they’ve joined the ranks of occidental standard bearers like the Colorado-based High Country News. With once trusted papers like the Los Angeles Times laying off their environmental reporters, they have also proved that we still need pioneers.

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