Monday, April 18, 2005

Global Warming hits the streets

My little experiment went out with the morning paper, but whatever feedback I'm going to get is likely to be slow in coming. It wasn't exactly promoted, even though we devoted two open inside pages in the Health/Science page to my materials. No promo off the front page, so people are going to find it slowly, if at all (for those of you keeping score at home, it's the section BEHIND the automobile classifieds).

For those of you who missed me talking about this before, the GW package was my attempt to create a different kind of package: Not a narrative story, but something radically different. I wanted to present the material in a way that allowed the reader to break competing ideas down into their component parts, and my model for this was the spreadsheet rather than the inverted pyramid or the "five-graph newsfeature."

End result: 165 inches of text, the largest parts of it devoted to a chart that presented the pro and con arguments, followed by a section that evaluated the claims. Reason: I'm tired of reporting that gives me two competing voices and says "YOU DECIDE!" Look, I'm paying you for the information... help me make a better decision...

The package started on the front and moved inside to two facing pages, and nothing jumped.

And there's not a quote from a scientist or a pro or a con in the whole thing.

Why? Well, not because I didn't talk to anybody. Instead, I thought it boiled down to this: If I were to start quoting people, I'd have to become aware of the conventions of internal balance. You'd be aware of it as a reader -- how fairly did I treat the quotes? The speakers? Did my transitions and set ups betray my subjective biases? And I thought, once I start down that road, I don't know if I can keep the spirit of this package where I wanted it. I wanted everything to be about giving the reader a tool to help him or her organize their own thoughts.

What this is -- and in retrospect, I regret not coming out and TELLING people what this was -- was the result of me, Mister Non-Scientist, reading and reading and reading. Sometimes I would talk to scientists and test out observations, then edit. This was me, Mr. I Want To Understand, trying to look at all sides but reach as many conclusions as I could.

If I had it to do over again, I would do several things differently. The first thing would be that I'd write an editor's note that read "Daniel Conover began collecting information on global warming in December 2003 and spent much of the month of March 2005 reading books, articles, message boards and scientific journals with one goal: To come to his own mind on the validity of claims by all sides in the global warming debate. Treat his report as your guide to forming your own opinions." That would be more candid... but I wasn't comfortable with it because it sets the journalist up as a celebrity.

The other thing is, I would have explained the sourcing better. If you go online and check my web links box you get more than 50 links... that's probably less than half of my materials... and there just wasn't any way to cite all these things in print. Plus, when you're writing a paragraph-length summary of a position based on year's worth of reading, how do you specifically cite that?

Clearly, the best way to have done this would have used hypertext. I have multiple five- and six-inch bits explaining relevant ideas, but they're sort of scattered around because I can't link out of the chart. That would have been the best... but we're just not ready for that coversation with our web guys yet.

Anyway, I'm glad i tried the experiment. I learned stuff, and so far the reader feedback (though limited) has been good. One woman wisely asks why I didn't attribute my facts, and as I've already said, I should have taken that more into consideration.

Unfortunately, our web presence isn't particularly inspiring. I won't go into details, but we talked about this last week several times and still didn't get to a minimally acceptable web presentation until late Monday afternoon... and I'm STILL unable to download the pdf file of the chart.

If you want to see it, go to and look in the frame on the left. My package isn't mentioned in the "Today's Edition" stuff on the front at all, but it can be reached two ways: First, follow the "Global Warming" link under the frame header "Special Reports;" Second, click on "Health and Science" under the Features header. The only way you'd ever know to find this stuff is if somebody told you exactly where it was... and THEN you have to register. I recomend following the Special Reports link: the other one doesn't organize the package links at all.