The Next Generation of Online Storytelling: Sea Change

December 2, 2013

By Conor Risch

© Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times

Pink salmon swim through Finch Creek, near a salmon hatchery on Hood Canal, Washington.

The side-by-side pictures couldn’t be more clear in their illustration of the effect of ocean acidification on sea life: In one, readers see the multicolor blossoming of baby corals on a ceramic tile that was placed by an ecologist near a healthy coral reef. In the other photograph, readers see the sludge-like green and brown of algae and seaweed growth on a tile placed near fissures in the ocean floor that are leaking acidifying carbon dioxide (CO2) from submarine volcanoes lurking beneath the seafloor.  

The photos appear in “Sea Change,” The Seattle Times’s recent long-form report on ocean acidification (aka OA). It’s the newspaper’s most ambitious digital production to date: a specially designed and built website combining text, still photographs, video and animated graphics. (The story also ran over a three-day period in print, with a full cover image and special sections.)

The photographer who shot the images, The Seattle Times staffer Steve Ringman, traveled halfway around the world with writer Craig Welch to Papua New Guinea to get them. The Times’s team made the journey, with partial support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, to get a firsthand look at how rising levels of CO2 in the ocean, which acidifies the water and robs sea life of nutrients essential to its growth and survival, could affect local waters in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The region is where fishermen bring in half the nation’s catch of seafood, accounting for significant portions of local economies. The rising CO2 occurs as the ocean traps gasses from the atmosphere, linking ocean acidification with greenhouse gas levels. (While some people debate whether climate change is even happening, ocean acidification is widely accepted because the scientific evidence is virtually irrefutable.)

The reporters decided to join Australian ecologist Katharina Fabricius and a group of scientists for a research trip to Normanby Island, Papua New Guinea, in early 2013, because the water chemistry at that location, Welch writes in his story, “is exactly what scientists predict most of the seas will be like in 60 to 80 years.” Oyster populations in the Puget Sound are already on the decline due to ocean acidification, and there are also implications for Alaska’s crabbing industry, pollock fishing and the entire ocean food chain.

The digital presentation of “Sea Change” required a significant investment of time and resources, with picture and text editors, designers, developers, video editors and other staff—19 people in total—coming together to create the site. Katrina Barlow, the digital editor and designer for the project, says it was the first time she felt that, from a design perspective, “we could own the piece and feel as proud [about the digital product] as we did about the print product.

“Print design has been so evolved and so advanced, and I always looked at Web design and thought it fell flat,” Barlow explains. With “Sea Change,” however, The Seattle Times delivered a rich, sophisticated digital user experience. The still photographs Ringman created first in the South Pacific, then later in Hawaii, Alaska and near home in the Puget Sound region, were “probably one of the single most important pieces in the design,” Barlow relates. “The entire design was hung off of that element.”

To capture the still images and video in Papua New Guinea, Ringman brought a compact studio setup with strobes and Plexiglas, and an underwater housing the newspaper purchased for the project. “You try to preplan, and you try to imagine what it is you’re going to be around,” Ringman says. The small studio made it possible for Ringman to capture the scientific images that helped deliver a compelling visual story. “It was weird and hard bringing all that junk along, but I envisioned that and it worked out,” he says. Ringman and Welch were also dive certified in the cold waters of Puget Sound for the trip, with Ringman shooting underwater photographs and video of the reefs, sea life and scientists at work.

“We had a lot of conversations in advance about what we would see and what we would hope to see,” recalls Photo Editor Fred Nelson, who has worked with Ringman for a number of years. “In this case you were combining storytelling and nature photography, and also you’re creating a body of evidence to make a case, so on some level it’s kind of like evidence photography.” Ringman has shot video for stories since the release of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and he and Welch interviewed subjects on camera throughout their stay in Papua New Guinea.

Ringman, Welch and The Seattle Times staff knew the story would be big, but nobody planned on building a website for the story until Ringman and Welch returned from their trip. “When we came back, we started to show our enthusiasm about what we had, and the enthusiasm [around the newsroom] started to pick up,” Ringman recalls.

The reporters continued working, with Ringman adding imagery from an oyster hatchery that a Puget Sound-based oyster company opened in Hawaii after young oysters began dying at alarming rates in the acidified waters of the Sound; then traveling to Alaska to photograph pollock and crab fishing. His trip included an unplanned extended stay aboard a crabbing boat in the Bering Sea, which had Nelson concerned. “I was a little worried about him out there, and felt sympathy for his predicament, but on the other hand I knew he’d be working the whole time and making great pictures, and he did,” Nelson says.

The Seattle Times
’s digital team began working on the “Sea Change” site over the summer. One of the debates that arose centered on the video that sits at the top of the story on the website, Ringman recalls. Some were concerned that audiences would just watch the video and not pay attention to the full story. They settled on an overview video, with several “snack videos” peppered throughout the site to provide additional depth to the reader experience. Building a brand new website meant that the images weren’t required to fit into existing placements, Barlow notes.

Ringman worked with Nelson on the still-image edits, which were then handed to Barlow. Editing for this type of digital presentation differs from print, Nelson says, because you are dealing with “a more linear reveal of one picture after another,” versus the chapter-like flow of print, which presents the text and images in a series of spreads. “In some ways [digital] is more cinematic,” Nelson says.

While the “Sea Change” digital project was a huge undertaking, “the quality of the images makes the building of that site and the telling of that story infinitely easier and more effective,” Nelson says.

“One of the things I value about good design is that it can elevate the conversation, which is exactly what ended up happening with this story,” Barlow adds. “For me it’s really letting the content dictate the design, and I think that’s why everyone was so pleased with how [‘Sea Change’] came out.” The “level of enthusiasm [around the piece] is not going to be easily forgotten,” Barlow says, adding that this type of production will “probably become common with our long-form stories.”

Because The Seattle Times readers are “tuned into the environment,” it made sense to take the step to create a presentation like this for a science story, Ringman says. “Having the enthusiasm of the people here in the building and then knowing that our audience was going to appreciate it, that really helped.”

As part of the release, The Seattle Times partnered with PBS NewsHour to produce a video based on the portion of the story devoted to crabbing, which was aired nationally. Welch and Ringman are still reporting, Ringman says, and The Times will add three more parts to the story before the end of the year.

“I think it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on,” Nelson says. “It really was a drawing together of the paper,” Ringman adds. “It was a beautiful thing.”