TV producer Amy Miller (left) said one of the early lessons for Quest’s multimedia reporting team was the “story first, platform second” approach to story planning. Above, she and a crew pry into the lives of ants. (Photo: KQED.)

KQED’s Quest becomes a ‘hub’ for stations’ science reporting

Quest is on the move. KQED’s award-winning science and environment reporting project has been as insistent about its regional focus as it has been flexible in its choice of platforms.
Now, with the help of CPB funding, it’s working with stations in six other places to help them develop regionally focused multimedia science units.

At the same time, the KQED Board recently gave Quest a vote of confidence, rolling it into the station’s annual operating budget before its sixth season, elevating it from project status.

Quest’s video, audio and web output is focused regionally, for the sake of a station’s relevance in the community, but it’s also moving toward experiments in broader-than-local distribution:

  • A series of four-minute radio modules, Coal at the Crossroads, begins airing later this month on KQED and partner stations, and they plan to offer it for national distribution. The series includes reports from four of Quest’s partner stations with uniquely local angles on coal, the country’s most plentiful and dirtiest fossil fuel. 
  • A Quest TV special on earthquakes, which airs Sept. 21 in San Francisco, leads a package of half-hour TV pilots to be completed within the next two months.  It includes segments on “induced seismicity,” the term for human activities that cause the earth to shake, and megathrust earthquakes, the most dangerous seismic threat to the country’s West Coast.  KQED and KCTS in Seattle contributed segments to the earthquake special. 
  • Quest partner stations are also producing hi-def video reports for Science on the Spot, a web-exclusive series.

A different kind of hub

Unlike the regional news-hub model pioneered by pubradio alliances such as the Northwest News Network and used by the CPB-backed Local Journalism Centers, Quest is now the hub of like-minded stations scattered across the country. Instead of sharing geography, they share the common objective of reporting locally and nationally relevant stories about science and the environment.

In addition to KCTS-TV, Quest hub stations include Cleveland’s ideastream stations WVIZ-TV and WCPN-FM, Nebraska’s NET, North Carolina’s UNC-TV, WHYY in Philadelphia, and Wisconsin’s public television and radio networks. 

KQED announced CPB’s commitment to the national hub project in April. With a grant of nearly $1 million, the partner stations aim to tackle two challenges that have long vexed public broadcasters: sharing their newsgathering and production work across different media platforms and across markets.

The funding helps the new Quest partner stations try the techniques that KQED has refined over five seasons. Quest hub stations are piloting their own local productions while also testing approaches for sharing science coverage, and the results are beginning to roll out on air.

The expansion, announced this spring, has helped KQED adapt Quest for new funding realities as its multiyear grant from the National Science Foundation winds down. Through the hub, Quest has become a source for multiplatform science and environmental reporting from “Northern California and beyond,” as its website says. With the bids for wider distribution, Northern California Quest reporting eventually will be heard and seen on pubcasting stations far beyond San Francisco, and KQED will air their stories.

The board’s commitment to Quest reflects the success that it has found with audiences and other stakeholders, said Executive Producer Sue Ellen McCann, as well as the station’s strategic commitment to science and environmental reporting. With NSF and foundation grants, KQED produced Quest on a budget of more than $2 million annually, McCann said. For the next season, KQED has allocated roughly $900,000, and it plans to raise another $700,000 from local foundations.

Local going national

For Quest’s radio collaboration, reporters looked for local angles on the economics of recycling for a series that aired on partner stations in July, according to Andrea Kissack, senior editor. “We tried to make it of national interest, but also make it organic, so ideas bubbled up from local communities,” she said. The coal series, produced through the same editorial framework, is the second of two funded through the hub. She plans to offer the series to other pubradio stations via Public Radio Exchange. 

“The challenge for us is this — how do you take content that’s relevant to your local audience and share it with other public broadcasters so that it’s relevant to their local communities?” McCann said. “We’re in the middle of trying to figure out what that might look like.” With so many different types of stations participating, each brings different editorial guidelines and technical standards to the pilot.

“As I say to this group, ‘There’s a reason this hasn’t been done very often,’” McCann commented. “It’s hard to do — it’s hard to build the trust that we’ve built with each other and to be willing to agree to disagree and move on. It’s difficult to give up editorial control over things.” 

Learning to let go editorially is a key part of the Quest production process — at least in terms of sharing story ideas and reporting material with colleagues, as veterans of KQED’s production team learned a long time ago. They post story pitches and interview notes on an editorial wiki, a central tool for collaboration among producers.

Sometimes a producer’s story idea may be picked up and reported by those working on another platform. The Quest team learned to embrace that during their first year of production, said Amy Miller, producer of KQED’s TV series. “We run into this when radio and TV want to do the same story,” Miller said. “Radio is so much more nimble than TV. . . . It took a while to build up the confidence that I can tell that story, too — I just have to find a different angle.”

McCann describes this approach, dubbed “story first, platform second,” as a key component of Quest’s production design. “We really try and let the story idea drive where it’s going to end up,” taking into account how much potential visual or aural potential the story has, how much timeliness it demands, and how much potential it has for treatment on more than one platform. 

“This is a different model of collecting, producing and delivering science programming, and it’s generally more affordable than investing in large documentaries, which are harder to do,” said David Feingold, assistant g.m. of content at Nebraska’s NET. His production team has the expertise and chops to produce TV documentaries for PBS’s Nova, but the broader approach adopted for KQED’s Quest, and its emphasis on K-12 educational material, sold him on the pilot.

With local foundation funding, NET produced its own half-hour pilot for Quest Nebraska this summer. “It did really well in the July sweeps,” he said. TV segments from other partners have been “outstanding”; he plans to run the Quest hub pilot series in February, hopefully with another Nebraska-focused special that’s in the works.

“We are very interested in making sure this works as a collaboration,” Feingold said. “We want to push it as a way of doing business. . . . If it works in science, it can apply to other content areas.” 

Comments, questions, tips?

Correction: This article has been corrected. The print edition's reference to "seismicity" should have said "induced seismicity."

Copyright 2011 American University