A different kind of journalism

The Great Turtle Race embraced everything web. It was interactive, participatory, solution-oriented, immediately accessible, updated several times a day, visual (videos, photos, charts, maps), and animated. It seeded and linked social networking, and had lots of context and continuity. It was useful and entertaining.

Fifteen years ago, if I had done a story about the plight of the gigantic, ancient Pacific leatherback turtles, 90 percent of whose numbers have disappeared, it would have appeared as a 4,000-word magazine article. Up until last year, it would have appeared as a multimedia story: some combination of video, still photos, audio, graphics, and text.

In April 2007, the story appeared as The Great Turtle Race. Its main focus was a game: 11 leatherback turtles outfitted with satellite transmitters, swimming from their nesting beaches in Costa Rica to the Galapagos.

It was about as real as a leatherback turtle race can get. Researchers put satellite tags on the female leatherbacks nesting on Costa Rican beaches, as they have for several years in their efforts to find out where leatherbacks migrate. (One way to help save the species, whose Pacific population is likely to disappear in 10 years at current rates, might be to designate migration corridors where fishing fleets, which kill a lot of turtles accidentally, cannot operate.) Computer programmers zeroed-out the turtles' departure times from the beaches (a la Tour de France). Working with a graphic designer, they animated the turtles' journey. The turtles "raced" from Costa Rica to the Galapagos, where they turn south on a four-year migration to feeding grounds off the southern coast of Chile. The turtles' progress was updated every ten minutes on the website.

(NASW members can read the entire article — and the rest of the Fall 2007 ScienceWriters — by logging into the members area.)