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.”
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 DeepSeaNews.com.
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.