Environmental journalism Kelley Benham French Mark Katches Multi-media storytelling tech Tom French

About a bear: The story behind the story of “The Loneliest Polar Bear”

About a bear: The story behind the story of "The Loneliest Polar Bear"

Courtesy of The Oregonian

“The Loneliest Polar Bear” wasn’t just a heart-tugging news story. It was a suspenseful, multi-thousand word saga about an deserted new child polar bear. It was rationed into 5 chapters that have been revealed in the print paper and online. It was graced with the type of cute-animal pictures and video which might be assured to go viral.

However there’s extra.

“Challenge Nora,” as The Oregonian/Oregon Stay referred to as it, additionally featured a 30-minute documentary, “Skinny Ice: A Polar Bear’s Plight.” A youngsters’s guide, “Hope for Nora,” debuted alongside coloring pages, a drawing contest, puzzles and a board recreation. In response to readers’ considerations for Nora, the newspaper ran a number of follow-up tales.

In different phrases: “The Loneliest Polar Bear” was a information tsunami.

“Venture Nora,” revealed in October 2017 after a yr of reporting, additionally took business specialists by storm: The print article gained the Greatest Newspaper Narrative Writing contest hosted by the Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the College of North Texas; the web package deal gained the highest prize within the Online News Affiliation Awards; the movie gained two regional Emmys; and reporter Kale Williams gained the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award and Edward J. Meeman Award for Environmental Reporting from by the Scripps Howard Foundation.

But this epic — which takes place throughout three states, in three zoos, and consists of an injured Alaskan hunter, a weeping zoo keeper and a veterinarian who whips up batches of polar bear milk — illuminates issues of worldwide warming and the somewhat discomfiting deserves of zoos.

All of it began with a seemingly simple story a few polar bear in Ohio shifting to a zoo in Oregon.

The Oregonian’s package deal included a abstract of its reporting strategy in a “How We Did The Story” web page. However that doesn’t go behind the scenes to elucidate the origins, selections, collaborations and feelings concerned in producing a package deal of this scope and intensity.

Storyboard reached out to the workforce of “Challenge Nora:” reporter Kale Williams, the Oregonians’ then-executive editor Mark Katches, Trending Information editor Karly Imus, and narrative specialist, Kelley Benham French, who (by way of telephone and e-mail) addressed the method of scripting this unforgettable story.


Kale Williams had been at the Oregonian for a bit greater than a yr. As a part of the Oregonian’s Trending group, part of his job was to scan the web for in style subjects, then develop them into tales for local readers. As a part of that, he had a mini-beat targeted on science and surroundings, and had written about wolves and polar bears.

So when he noticed a press launch from the Portland Zoo saying that a polar bear cub had just arrived from a zoo in Ohio, he took observe. The cub had been abandoned by its mom, which, Williams knew, diminished its probabilities of survival. Williams met with Katches to discuss the thought of a larger narrative. However as Williams acknowledge in a current telephone interview, “I didn’t have the gumption to suggest a 15,000-word story.”

Katches encouraged him to take the subsequent step: “Why don’t you chase this a bit of bit extra?”

So Williams phoned the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. He was related with Devon Sabo, the keeper who had tended Nora’s mother, Aurora. As the cub’s backstory was crammed in, Katches sensed more potential. He despatched Williams to Ohio to interview Sabo in individual.

A few decade earlier, Katches was in control of tasks at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Whereas there, he edited a three-part collection about Mahal, an orangutan abandoned at delivery. That story, written by Jan Uebelherr, gained a 2009 Nationwide Headliner Award. “It was a stunning collection, filled with nice engagement touches — like a youngsters’s e-book and coloring contest,” Katches wrote in an e-mail.

Now alongside comes “this beautiful bear.” Nora was 10 months previous at this point, with an origin story that reminded Katches of the ill-fated child orangutan. He noticed a chance to “delve deeper into the cub’s life and to actually perceive the motivations of the individuals who saved her.” He also noticed a compelling doorway into reporting on climate change, wildlife extinction and “the philosophical discussion about animals in captivity.”

As the story was in its early levels, Katches enlisted award-winning journalist Kelley Benham French, who now teaches at Indiana University and has labored as a consulting editor on different Oregonian tasks. Benham French was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “By no means Let Go,” an intimate story about her own infant, who was born just shy of 24 weeks. She also lives with a menagerie of animals, and sometimes fosters puppies.

Benham French helped form the reporting and writing from afar as “Venture Nora” grew. In-house, Oregonian editor Karly Imus pulled collectively the myriad multi-media parts that made up the complete artistic package deal. Together, Katches stated, the 4 of them “ran the Milwaukee playbook — on steroids.”


Williams’ reporting from Ohio helped establish a timeline of what that zoo did on behalf of Nora’s survival — a timeline that performs out in pulse-quickening opening graphs of his story, describing how, when Nora was six days previous, her mom “rose and stretched and ambled” out of the den, and did not return. Nora, “unmoored from her mom’s gravity and warmth,” began screeching “like a baby dragon.”

Up to now, most of Williams’ work involved submitting brief items on deadline: “I write a thing, get a quote, write a clever transition, then finish with a quote.” However as this story grew beyond manageable bounds — “there’s a new creature at the Portland Zoo” — Williams felt his nervousness rise.

Williams was already conversant in Benham French, who had beforehand led workshops on the Oregonian. When Katches invited her to assist with Undertaking Nora, she immediately recognized the potential for “a riveting action-packed, nail-biter concerning the battle to save lots of this child bear.” Benham French advised me by e mail that Nora was “the cutest, most partaking, most sympathetic character I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Benham French had intimate information of high-stakes moments with infants due to her personal daughter, who was born so prematurely — at 23 weeks — that her probabilities of survival have been little greater than a question mark for a number of months. Benham French chronicled her daughter’s story in a newspaper collection for the Tampa Bay Occasions: “By no means Let Go,” which was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer in function writing. She then collaborated together with her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tom French, on a ebook, “Juniper: The Woman Who Was Born Too Quickly.”

So as to add to the connections, Tom French had written a seven-part collection for the Tampa Bay Occasions — then the St. Petersburg Occasions — taking readers behind the scenes of the Lowry Park Zoo. That was expanded into a ebook, “Zoo Story: Life within the Backyard of Captives.” When the story of Nora came her method, Benham French stated, it was as if “‘By no means Let Go’ and ‘Zoo Story’ had a child.”

The parallels have been beautiful to Benham French. “Nora, the child polar bear, and Juniper, the child human, have been the very same measurement at delivery (one pound),” she advised me. “And both required groundbreaking interventions to survive.”


That information helped Benham French guide Williams by way of a story that was emotional and descriptive in addition to factual. Readers meet Nora when she’s just six days previous, “the dimensions of a squirrel, deaf and blind” with “translucent fur (that) barely coated her pink pores and skin” and movie her “delicate paws paddle(-ing) towards the straw” as her nostril leads her “in a single path: towards her mother.” A mom who, readers study, won’t ever return.

With Benham French’s encouragement, Williams began to explore a higher context for the story and monitor down Nora’s ancestors. He traced Nora’s father back to zoos in Buffalo, New York, and Wisconsin, learning that the bear had been orphaned in Alaska in 1988. He requested U.S. Fish and Wildlife press releases from that yr, and located a point out of Gene Rex Agnaboogok who, 27 years earlier than Nora’s delivery, actually stumbled upon the bear that ultimately turned Nora’s father.

Gene Rex Agnaboogok at home in Wales, Alaska, in 2017.  In 1988, Agnaboogok shot a polar bear on a hunting trip, orphaning two cubs in the process.  One of those cubs went on to father Nora, a polar bear born at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio and later transferred to the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

Gene Rex Agnaboogok at residence in Wales, Alaska, in 2017. In 1988, Agnaboogok shot a polar bear on a searching journey, orphaning two cubs within the course of. A type of cubs went on to father Nora, a polar bear born at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio and later transferred to the Oregon Zoo in Portland.
Dave Killen/The Oregonian

The press launch listed Agnaboogok’s village, a tiny town referred to as Wales. Williams reached out to see if he nonetheless lived there. Yes, he did. And he was glad to speak.

That’s the moment the story turned, in accordance with Benham French. Beyond a compelling piece concerning the consequences of rearing wild animals in captivity, it now revealed connections to local weather change and its effects on culture and traditions. The venture workforce had been trying to find a local weather scientist who studied the impression on Arctic bears, assuming that individual can be in Canada. But when Williams found a native Alaskan who had fallen via the ice instantly into a den and killed the indignant polar bear and brought her cubs, a door opened directly to Nora’s story. And Nora’s story was a doorway to environmental modifications within the Arctic.

“Once we started, we did not find out about Nora’s connection to the Alaskan wilderness, concerning the Eskimo who killed her grandmother, concerning the researcher working together with her wild kin,” stated Benham French.

Katches, the highest editor, jumped again in: “Let’s make it occur!” Williams was soon on his option to Alaska.


Initially the staff thought the story could possibly be advised in a single robust narrative.  Then it turned three chapters. Then five. The more they reported, the more they discovered concerning the core danger posed by the cub’s abandonment, and about her physical and mental health points.

Benham French says, “All of that may be a credit to Kale’s tireless, clear-eyed reporting. He might have just been gobsmacked by Nora’s cuteness or the already-amazing story in hand, however he didn’t cease. He received critically essential zoo data that unveiled a way more complicated story.”

Williams stated drafting the primary two chapters was intense. He would write; Benham French would shape. By the third chapter, Williams felt like he had absorbed some of methods for this type of writing. He utilized Benham French’s oft-repeated recommendation:  “Get out of your notebook.” Understanding that readers need a cause to care concerning the reporter’s cache of details and quotes, he strove to place the information of Nora’s story into a bigger context.

In the meantime, Benham French hounded him for specifics:

“I pushed Kale for particulars that existed initially only in my creativeness. Like, what does a polar bear’s breath odor like? (Whereas we don’t study bear breath within the revealed story, we know the den where Nora was born smelled of “cool concrete” and “captive musk.”) What gauge needle did veternarian Priya Bapodra use? (Reply: 22, the second smallest needle available.) I used to be fixated on a couple of things he in all probability thought have been stupid.”

Williams discovered to anticipate the directives: “More detail! More dialogue! Extra which means!” He gathered minute details, like the truth that the newborn’s start plan ran 23 pages, that the rifle that killed her grandmother was a .270 Remington, and that the system used to combine child bear milk replacer was a “Magic Bullet.”

Williams and Benham French poured the knowledge into shared Google docs. They chopped three long sections into 5 shorter ones. They moved sections from one chapter to another.

Mark Katches was also hands-on. And Williams’ common editor, Karly Imus, was intently concerned, not solely with the story but with the various other parts of the multi-media package deal.

In September 2017, Katches referred to as Benham French to say he was shifting the publication date up, from December to October. At that point, only two elements have been written. Benham French had simply started a brand new educating semester at Indiana. She took the call whereas standing on her front porch in Bloomington: “I had to sit down. I informed (Katches), ‘I’m going to wish numerous chocolate.’ A number of days later, two pounds of See’s Sweet arrived within the mail.


Along with unspooling a unprecedented narrative, “The Loneliest Polar Bear” works throughout to serve larger themes and points. Every sentence both builds to or supplies an answer to a vital query: Why does this matter? Benham French stated that was a operating push from her husband as they worked collectively on “Juniper,” and from Mike Wilson, her longtime editor in St. Petersburg, and now editor of the Dallas Morning News. It now infuses her writing, modifying and educating.

“As is true in almost every story I work on, with school college students and with Pulitzer winners, I take duty for the large ideas,” she stated. “The reporter is buried in logistics and details and information, so the editor is a bit more free to see the story from a better altitude and riff on What It All Means. Most of the sections the place you see plenty of synthesis and voice are my affect.”

She means passages like:

Nora was the first newborn polar bear to stay various days at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium since it opened in 1927. Her delivery in a concrete den in central Ohio represented all of the ways people and polar bears have been inextricably tangled—from the day almost three many years before when an orphaned cub was pulled from an icy den in the Alaskan wilderness, to the political battle that appointed her species the sad-eyed image of climate change. She represented the injury humans had executed to the Earth, and she or he provided the thinnest hope of setting things proper.


Nora had a task to play. She might develop up and contribute to the biodiversity of the species. She might help scientists understand her distant cousins who nonetheless walked the shrinking Arctic ice where her father was born. She might endear herself to hundreds of thousands of tourists who may consider her once they crammed their fuel tanks or tuned into the newest political debate.


Nora could lead on a era of youngsters to think about their position in preserving the planet.


Nora's last day at the Oregon Zoo in September 10, 2017.  Nora was sent to Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Nora’s final day at the Oregon Zoo in September 10, 2017. Nora was sent to Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake Metropolis, Utah.
Dave Killen /The Oregonian


When “The Loneliest Polar Bear” debuted it was revealed in chapters over a period of 5 days — with the first installment hitting the stands on a Sunday, then operating in print and on-line by means of the week.

Through the first six weeks it acquired almost 200,000 unique guests and greater than 1.2 million video views. In line with Oregonian metrics, viewers spent a mean of 20 minutes online with the story, which Williams stated is “an eternity.”

In the course of the weeks main up to publication, as the Challenge Nora workforce struggled to include the sprawling narrative, The Oregon Zoo announced Nora can be leaving Portland for Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake Metropolis and be in quarantine at her new residence in when the collection ran. The story had no neat ending. Katches suggested writing an ending that was unresolved, which might additionally make the story feel current, so Williams reported and wrote Part 5 virtually stay.

And there wasn’t simply the written narrative to get proper. Karly Imus was charged with pulling every thing collectively contained in the Oregonian newsroom, coordinating the work of a dozen staffers and freelancers. With so many shifting elements, together with filming documentary and illustrating a youngsters’s guide, Challenge Nora had grow to be all-consuming, she stated.

As publication deadline loomed, Imus handed off most of her different duties to a different editor so she might give it 100 % focus. She introduced her youngsters to the office on weekends. She edited by reading drafts aloud to her son. All informed, the story went by means of greater than 30 drafts. Benham French flew to Oregon so the 4 main workforce members — Williams, Benham French, Imus and Katches — might read all five elements aloud, which they did over the course of two days.

Imus testified to the satisfaction she felt concerning the collaborative process and undertaking’s success: “We’re a gifted, scrappy newsroom and we aren’t afraid to throw assets at good journalism. I feel a challenge of this scope, where we had so many staffers engaged on features of it, exhibits what can happen whenever you consider in a narrative and commit to it.”

Benham-French echoes the sentiment: “I’ve never worked on a challenge that involved so many individuals and so few meltdowns. It was all only a pleasure, beginning to end. I’m nonetheless sad that it’s over.”


And but: the narrative continues.  The Oregonian ran a follow-up story in late 2017 on how Nora was adjusting to the Utah zoo. Then in February of 2019, Nora broke her leg. An article in March chronicled Nora’s new good friend, Hope. In the meantime, Kale Williams is working on a e-book about Nora due out sometime in 2021.

The success of the Undertaking Nora has inspired The Oregonian to mount other formidable multimedia news tasks. Making use of the lessons from the Loneliest Polar Bear, the newspaper used insights–from timelines to design to social media roll-out of related content —to information the launch of “Weapons: An American Dialog,” which aired within the spring of 2018 and was the focus of a Storyboard function; “The Ghosts of Freeway 20,” which debuted in December 2018; and “Polluted by Money.” which launched in March 2019.


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