Backgrounder: Andrew Revkin

Andrew Revkin knows how to branch out. A science reporter by day, he moonlights as a fiddler, guitarist, and mandolin player in a grassroots band called Uncle Wade, an avocation that parallels his effort to push multimedia to the furthest bounds in journalism.

Revkin believes other journalists and editors need to broaden their thinking about multimedia, too. Unlike many reporters and writers, who confine themselves to a single medium (typically, print), Revkin has created news for both print and multimedia forms, employing film, still photography, and live audio, recorded on location.

"The key question to ask yourself," said Revkin, in a January 2004 interview with Jonathon Dube for the website, "is: Given the tools available now, how can I best enrich the experience of readers and ensure they are absorbing the essential ideas in what I’m reporting?" In his opinion, "anyone who sees the answer to that question only in black and white has not yet crossed over into the new century."

Revkin broke the print barrier in 2003, when he used audio and video footage he captured on his camcorder from three trips to the Arctic to conceive and co-produce "Arctic Rush," an award-winning 2005 Discovery-Times channel documentary, produced by Craig Duff, that detailed climate change at the North Pole. Working with condensed audio and video from the documentary, he and Web editors at The New York Times developed a three-part video series, "The Big Melt," published on the Times's science site on Oct. 10, 2005. Likewise, Revkin combined sounds and pictures he captured on the north slope of Alaska to create an audio slideshow for the Times's Web site called "Testing the Tundra," published Jan. 13, 2004.

"The elements of the story determine what means are the best ones to use to communicate it," he said in a March 2007 interview with this reporter, for BULLPEN. "Some stories have great sound, some have great pictures, and some are totally wonky."

But while Revkin may generate news in different media, his journalistic interests—and the subject matter of his work—have remained constant: he has spent almost two decades reporting on climate change.

Long before creating his Times multimedia packages, Revkin was fascinated by science. As an undergraduate at Brown University, he studied biology, and rather than pursuing a doctoral degree—he "was too ADD for a PhD," he told BULLPEN—he started his journalistic career directly after he graduated from Columbia University with an MA in journalism. Since then, he has written for Science Digest, been a senior editor at Discover, and worked a short stint at the L.A. Times. He has also freelanced for Audubon and Conde Nast Traveller. After leaving Discover in 1995, he landed at The New York Times, where he is now a science reporter.

Revkin has also written three books. The latest of these, The North Pole Was Here: Peril and Puzzles at the Top of the World (Kingfisher Press, 2006), targets younger readers in hopes of "re-enchanting them with science" and explaining global warming, Revkin said, in an interview with Seed magazine.

Although he began his journalism career in print, Revkin has come to favor multimedia because, he says, images and sound engage a reader more dynamically, pulling him into the story no matter what the subject. Moreover, he adds, multimedia often enables him to report more precisely. It's tough to take notes when you're trooping through the everglades—as he was just a few weeks ago—or when you're drilling for ice cores in the Arctic, as he did for "Testing the Tundra." Taking notes, Revkin told BULLPEN, is tricky at best when his pen ink freezes in the Arctic. The only way to document an expedition exactly is to record audio and visual footage—the raw materials of a reported story. When he's writing, he often refers to these recordings to recover details that would otherwise have been forgotten.

In addition to providing precision, for Revkin, multimedia is the most compelling way to communicate the severity of environmental issues, especially global warming, to the public. Such environmental topics do not fit into the journalistic ideal of immediacy, often devoid of a dramatic news hook. Multimedia reporting helps Revkin pull readers into environmental issues in a dramatic way, while allowing him, he told Seed magazine, to circumvent the traditional "tyranny of the news peg."

Molly Webster is a first-year graduate student in the science, health, and environmental reporting program in the department of journalism at NYU.