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Is Mainstream Space News Adrift?

The Houston Chronicle has a new, interactive web series on America’s space program. Why don’t we see more space coverage in this format?

Posted by Jason Davis

13-06-2014 13:38 CDT

Topics: about science writing

This week, the Houston Chronicle released part two of “Adrift”, its interactive web series on the state of America’s space program. The series author is science writer and blogger Eric Berger. Part one examined NASA’s problematic relationship with the Russians over access to the International Space Station. The newest installment looks at controversies surrounding the Space Launch System, NASA’s expensive new rocket slated to carry humans beyond Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo program.

Berger delivers a solid, compelling narrative. Both parts ring in at 3,000 words each. The stories are well-sourced and include access to top NASA brass, including administrator Charles Bolden, who delivers a few eyebrow-raising quotes.

What makes “Adrift” most noteworthy, however, is its presentation. It uses a specially designed website formatted differently than the rest of the Chronicle’s stories. There are full-screen images, video clips and interactive elements to immerse readers in the story. Only a small navigation bar betrays the fact that you’re still on the Chronicle’s website. The goal seems to be creating an immersive, distraction-free experience: pay attention, this is important stuff

“Adrift” is part of a new trend in online journalism, where interactive multimedia is integrated within a feature story to enhance the storytelling experience. The technique gained steam in 2012, when the New York Times released John Branch's “Snow Fall,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a deadly avalanche in Washington. If you’ve never seen “Snow Fall,” check it out. You’ll be joining about 3 million people that visited the story, a third of which were new visitors to the Times.

“Adrift” looks pretty tame next to “Snow Fall,” which isn’t surprising, considering The New York Times dedicated a small army to its production. Critics have argued that some of these new multimedia websites have too much interaction and ultimately detract from their core stories. There’s certainly a sweet spot that must be considered, but would 3 million people have read Branch’s story if it had appeared with the rest of the Times’ content?

There’s no shortage of examples to choose from when considering stories built in this style. Just recently, I read The Atlantic’s “Fire on the Mountain,” by Brian Mockenhaupt, and thought it was riveting. It examines the deadly 2013 forest fire near Yarnell, Ariz. that killed 19 firefighters. On the lighter side, NPR did a nice job with “Planet Money Makes a T-shirt,” in which they follow the construction of a T-shirt from cotton field to consumer.

At what point does an online story become ‘interactive?’ As this trend continues, the line is beginning to blur. One of the key features common to most of these stories is a responsive design. Responsive designs allow webpages to dynamically reconfigure themselves to accommodate different devices, browsers and screen resolutions. Take “Adrift,” for example. On my Windows 7 PC, with a resolution of 1920 x 1080, it looks great. It also looks good on my Nexus 7 tablet, both vertically and horizontally. The website even fares decently on my Nexus S phone, although some of the interactive elements don’t work.

Houston Chronicle / Screenshots by Jason Davis

"Adrift" on three different screens
The content of "Adrift" dynamically resizes to accommodate a variety of screens. Top: Windows 7 PC with a 1920 x 1080 resolution. Bottom left: Nexus 7 tablet. Bottom right: Nexus S phone.

Another feature common to these sites is full-width images. Part one of “Adrift” begins with a cover shot of NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston. Photojournalists call this an ‘establishing shot’ because it sets the scene for following material. There are more photos throughout the story, including a 35-image slideshow from STS-135, the final space shuttle mission.

“Adrift” also has short videos. Some are standalone, like Berger’s short introduction piece. Others rely on the surrounding story for context. In part two, Space Launch System program manager Todd May talks about the exploration of space and the cost of SLS, which wouldn’t make much sense if you encountered it on YouTube. In this case, Berger has already introduced May and SLS, and we’re hearing his “sonorous Southern accent.” There’s nothing revolutionary about embedding videos in a story, but after already having decided to read a long-form piece, I’m more apt to watch quick sound bites than I am to sit through entire video features. Plus, shorter clips avoid drawing the reader away from the story. 

Both parts of “Adrift” also include an interactive infographic. In part two, readers can click through locations where SLS is being constructed. For me, this particular infographic drives home a larger point: SLS requires a complex supply chain and represents a lot of jobs in a lot of congressional districts.

Why don’t we see more space news presented in this format? The beauty of space images just scream for this kind of full-featured treatment. Could it simply be an extension of the already small amount of mainstream news coverage space receives? Or are news organizations still struggling to figure out how to implement the new format, meaning we can expect more space stories in the future? 

The Space Launch System (original concept)


The Space Launch System (original concept)

One standout example predating “Adrift” is The Washington Post’s “Destination Unknown,” by Joel Achenbach. The series includes four feature stories on NASA’s future, and covers some of the same ground Berger is tackling. Like “Adrift,” “Destination Unknown” is well-written and well-sourced. It covers the International Space Station, commercial spaceflight, the Asteroid Redirect Mission and the robotic exploration of our solar system. That last topic is particularly important, as many stories on NASA’s future seem to imply human exploration is the only thing the space agency does. It will be interesting to see the angles Berger selects for the rest of “Adrift”. 

Outside of the mainstream press, there are more publications already embracing this new format. MATTER magazine comes to mind. MATTER’s content is published through the Medium platform, which allows anyone to create stories in this new format. I gave Medium a try last week, reposting my ISEE-3 spacecraft piece to see how it looked. I thought the result was impressive.

Medium, which was created by the co-founder of Twitter, doesn’t have to worry about advertising revenue. This makes for cleaner, prettier stories. It’s easy to see why traditional news organizations are slow to embrace the format, when so much of their revenue comes from ads. That’s a tough reality for an industry that is trying to figure out how to stay afloat in the digital age. 

“Adrift” and “Destination Unknown” are important because their publishers have large reader bases, and it’s vital that space news continues to find a home outside the space community. Unfortunately, both of these web features have negative central themes: NASA is struggling. While that’s certainly true, I hope we’ll eventually see some space news in this format that involves less doom and gloom.

For instance, consider the Voyager spacecraft. Last year, Voyager 1 garnered national attention when NASA announced it had entered interstellar space. Imagine if The New York Times were to release an interactive web series covering the history (and future) of the program. Beautiful, full-screen images of the outer planets could be featured. Interactive infographics might model the probes’ solar system tours. Video interviews with original mission scientists and engineers could augment a long-form story. The Voyagers represent a compelling, feel-good story that appeals to general audiences. 

Your move, Times.

Voyager 2 in the solar wind

NASA / GSFC Conceptual Image Lab

Voyager 2 in the solar wind
This artist's concept shows the venerable Voyager 2 spacecraft journeying out of the solar system at 15 kilometers per second (34,000 miles per hour) with the solar wind streaming past it four times faster.
See other posts from June 2014


Or read more blog entries about: about science writing


CharlesHouston: 06/13/2014 09:56 CDT

As a long time (since Usenet!) space guy and commenter... Wouldn't it be great to see how many "views" these space stories get? We see the same people (JohnD comes to mind) commenting on stories in various outlets. Do you wonder if a small group of people are the ones who read these stories? And the news from the US space program (sometimes confused with NASA) is gloomy due to some decisions that various people have made. Gloomy is the fact right now.

_OM_: 06/14/2014 01:07 CDT

...Good to see Charles is still out there, which just proves that not *all* of us vets are dead. Yet. But he does make a rather strong point that there simply isn't enough commentary from more than "the usual suspects" these days, which leads to the rather poor signal-to-noise ratio. Hell, even the supposedly troll-prohibited forums have gotten banal in their own coverage of the latest events in space, if not outright cynical/hypocritical. Ah well. Good article in any case. Here's hoping someone at the NYT actually takes up the challenge :) :OM:

Messy: 06/14/2014 02:50 CDT

Well, that's because Space Exploration is for the most part over. With DAWN not going to Pallas, that means that next year's missions to Ceres and Pluto are the LAST new worlds to be visited, possibly EVER. Also getting people to Mars is going to be nearly impossible without some major technological breakthrough. Aside from getting Orion to a nearby large asteroid, it can't get anywhere but the Moon and it's not GOING there after the Apollo 8 rerun on it's second manned mission. So what's the point? All that's left are unmanned missions to Mars, and even with that interesting science, the general public is all "been there done that." Who cares who's been recently been to the North Pole except those who physically made the trip? The space station is a marvel, but it's not news.

Rbm: 06/14/2014 04:36 CDT

I didn't see or read anything in the 'Adrift' web presentation I'd consider "noteworthy". I find many of Emily's articles more compelling. Where's the big difference from the blogs here – lack of side bar and navigation?

Chris Krupiarz: 06/14/2014 06:34 CDT

I'm torn on features like Snow Fall. It's beautifully done, but in the end the only way I could read the narrative without being distracted was by downloading the Kindle version. It's probably just not my taste in the end. What I would like to see more of is pieces like yours on ISEE-3 at Medium and one I read today by Tony Reichhardt at Air & Space: Stories a little more heavy on the narrative and less technical that can reach those interested in space and those that just like good stories.

Jeff Foust: 06/15/2014 01:46 CDT

A couple comments from someone who, if not on the front lines of this, is one degree of separation from those who are: I'm not sure I would call what the Chronicle and Post have done in their space-related features "interactive." A better term would be "immersive," which in many respects is the opposite of interactive: those large images and the formatting of the text are intended to support a traditional linear narrative, with fewer distractions from ads, sidebars, and the like. Few elements of their design are truly interactive (and, no, I don't consider playing a video any more interactive than pressing a button on my TV's remote.) The use of responsive web design to allow the feature to be displayed more natively on both a large-screen desktop and a smartphone supports that immersive quality, but makes the pieces no more interactive. That said, both the Chronicle and Post series are excellent: well-written and beautifully designed. They're also, most likely, very challenging to produce (and produce well), which is why you see relatively little use of it. Most of the articles on the sites of both the Chronicle and the Post (and, for that matter, the New York Times) use a more traditional, basic layout, without the immersive qualities lauded here. The Post is using this format for a series of feature articles about the Washington Nationals, for example, but not for the more frequent series of stories about each game. If it's tough enough for mainstream publications to do immersive design like this, it's a bigger challenge for those of us trying to operate on the margins with increasingly frayed shoestring budgets. So I'm a little more forgiving of publications not putting more content in whizbang immersive layouts, given the fiscal, schedule, and other challenges involved. I'll take insightful, well-written articles presented in relatively basic layouts—like those here at—any day.

Jason Davis: 06/16/2014 11:50 CDT

Hi Jeff, Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Perhaps “immersive” is, as you say, a better adjective than “interactive.” Interactive tends to be the buzzword I’ve seen used to describe these types of sites, but calling “Snow Fall” interactive seems more accurate than calling “Adrift” interactive. A well-written Space Review article certainly trumps a splashy, less insightful piece in my book, and I bet most of the space community would agree. But what I’m interested in is how we can get quality space stories out to a more mainstream audience, and get more people excited about the beauty of spaceflight. The “pay attention” factor an immersive story provides seems like a good way to get otherwise disinterested readers to invest their time in a long-form story. As you say, it’s not easy to build these sites, but more media outlets seem to be trying the format. As another commenter pointed out, it would be interesting to see metrics for some of these stories, and maybe that’s something I’ll look into. Jason

Torbj??rn Larsson: 06/23/2014 06:28 CDT

@Messy: "Ever" is a long time, possibly longer than the time to the next pay check. More pertinent, we are exploring worlds at an exponential increase. Last count we have discovered and explored 10's of thousands of them. (Mainly asteroids, but also thousands of exoplanets.) You mention the current version of Orion as if it would be the last iteration. Possibly, but we can't know that. If US stop exploring for some reason, the ongoing exploration by China, Russia, Europe, Japan, India et cetera is, well, ongoing. As for "the general public is all "been there done that"", you give no references. I suspect you can't, because if I remember correctly there is a recent survey that says they want to promote exploration but see no reasonable way to do that. E.g. it's a chicken and egg situation, no HLV means no optimism. PS. The point of going cis-lunar at first could be a waystation at the Moon. To moot your urgent sense of "done that". If landing is at first expensive and risky, it could be an L2 ISS derivative. It could be aiming at testing long term space habitats outside the van Allen belts protection. Its use could be as a preparation for a Mars mission and/or a Moon return (where buried habitats makes more sense, and would be analogous to Mars's moon waystation/Mars surface habitat use).

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