Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chippewa to San Francisco: The $758 Million Stem Cell Media Challenge

The Associated Press files stories every day to 1,700 newspapers and 5,000 radio and television outlets in the United States. So when it reports on California stem cell news, the stories have an impact – one that goes well beyond, shall we say, the surf-scrubbed sands of La Jolla.

The case in point is an article by reporter Terri Somers of the San Diego Union-Tribune, the most diligent biotech reporter in the state. She writes more often on biotech and stem cell research than any other newspaper reporter in the state.

But her stories usually are only seen – at least the print versions -- in San Diego, far from the key East Coast news axis of New York and Washington, D.C.

However, she wrote Sunday about a $115 million stem cell research complex proposed in La Jolla – a structure that could be funded with as much as $50 million from the California stem cell agency.

The AP decided to pick up the story – rewrite it in a much shorter version, but without crediting Somers or the San Diego paper – a standard and legal practice for the news service. The AP then sent the story out across a good portion of the globe. It appeared on websites of more than 100 news outlets ranging from Dallas to the UK. Time magazine carried it as did ABC, CBS, Forbes, the Washington Times, an Arizona TV station, a Florida newspaper, CTV in Canada, FoxNews, not to mention the Chippewa Herald in Wisconsin.

The AP missed the much larger story – that the California stem cell agency is about to set off a $758 million, stem-cell-lab-building spree, the likes of which have never been seen before in this country. But that is not to disrespect The AP, but to explain a little bit about how news works.

It takes a lot to push a story out into the national or international market. It also takes luck and receptive reporters and editors. The California stem cell agency, however, has a chance to make major headlines come May 6 when it approves a couple hundred millions of dollars to help build those nearly three-quarter-of-a-billion dollars in labs.

But CIRM can only do it by starting to prime the news pump now, alerting key reporters and editors and providing them in advance with the background needed to make sense out of a somewhat complex process: Photos, drawings, map and chart material, good quotes (not the gobbledygook that sometimes comes out of the mouths of some top CIRM officials) and referrals to knowledgeable and friendly third party experts who can explain the significance of the effort in language that readers can understand.

In California, the mainstream media has so far successfully largely ignored the lab grant program, with the notable exception of Somers. Ironically, the San Diego project, while quite substantial, is not the largest. Stanford has proposed a $200 million stem cell research center. The San Francisco Bay area altogether could see something like $400 million in stem cell lab construction if the visions dancing in the heads of the scientists materialize. But nary a peep about the magnitude of the program has been seen in the mainstream media in Northern California.

Meanwhile, Somers, who like most reporters is undoubtedly underpaid and under-appreciated, will have to be satisfied with the psychic reward of seeing her work spread, albeit anonymously, throughout the world. Sphere: Related Content

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