The Cyber Correspondent Journalists: Reporters are toting laptops and digital cameras to bring news as it happens to the World Wide Web.

August 10, 1998|By Doug Birch | Doug Birch,SUN STAFF

SEA RANCH, Calif. - For Jane Stevens, a pioneer of cyberjournalism, it began as a chance to chronicle a scientific expedition to one of the most isolated and forbidding sites on the planet. It became a harrowing account, published first on the World Wide Web, of an expedition in peril.

At 2:30 a.m. on July 22, the 49-year-old Californian, on assignment for the Discovery Channel Online, was roused from her sleep by a call over the intercom.

The captain of the Aurora Australis, a polar research vessel out of Hobart, Tasmania, ordered the ship's 78 scientists, technicians and crew members to muster on the aft deck.

Sleepily, she tumbled up the stairs. Topside, she confronted a hellish sight. Smoke billowed in sinister gusts from the side of the ship. The sky was overcast and black, the temperature 15 degrees below zero. The ship's mammoth engines had stopped throbbing, shutting off power to the lights and heating system.

The lifeboats were lowered halfway, and everyone was told to be ready to abandon ship.

They were drifting in the thickening pack ice 100 miles off the Antarctic coast, in the silent depths of the Austral winter.

Stevens hadn't felt the explosion that, a few minutes earlier, had sent shudders through the ship, which was 2,500 miles from the nearest port. And she didn't yet know, as she stood on the snowy deck, that the fire roaring through the engine room threatened to ignite two tanks of liquefied natural gas.

If those tanks had exploded, they would have sent the ship to the bottom of the Southern Ocean.

"It was the closest I've ever come to dying," says Stevens, who was married a few days before she set sail.

Stevens is one of a new breed of journalists reporting from remote, exotic and dangerous locations for the Web. A correspondent for a Web site, for instance, first reported that a blizzard had hit Mount Everest in May 1996, killing eight climbers. The ordeal later became the basis of a best-selling book, "Into Thin Air," by Jon Krakauer.

But, unlike many of her colleagues, Stevens combines her written dispatches with still pictures, sound, audio, graphics and even video snippets. Her aim is to take advantage of the Web's power to combine all the tools of the modern storyteller's trade.

Stevens, whose voice is imbued with a gentle drawl, had eagerly tagged along on what was to be a seven-week scientific expedition to a Maryland-sized region of open water in the middle of the pack ice, called the Merz Polynya.

It forms each winter off Antarctica, and it's thought to be a kind of sub-zero oasis, a haven for seals and penguins and whales. But no one knows, exactly, what lives in these stretches of open water. As far as Stevens knows, no expedition has gone to one in the winter.

Stevens is one of a small group of professional journalists trying to make a living producing multi-media reports. Armed with small-format digital video cameras (which can also produce stills), laptop computers and satellite links, they have a lot more to lug around than reporters equipped with a note pad and pen.

But Stevens says that her bags filled with gizmos don't hamper her: They give her more vivid and compelling ways to tell stories, blending the emotional tug of video with the intellectual depth of print.

During an interview in her home here before she left for Antarctica, she recalled the character Max Headroom. He was the hero of a long-ago television show about a journalist of the dystopian future who feeds live video pictures to his viewers.

"When I saw 'Max Headroom' years ago, I thought: 'That's what it's going to be like,'" she says, sitting in her home office, which commands a panoramic view of the rugged Pacific coast. "That's what I want to be. Maxine Headroom."

Aboard the Aurora Australis, Stevens was scheduled to produce new multimedia pieces every few days throughout the seven-week expedition. And in the first week, she wrote, shot and assembled a couple of reports, sent via satellite to Discovery's headquarters in Bethesda, under the title "The Chilling Fields."

But the fire cut short her plans to post video clips, which take more time and effort to download and edit.

Life on the multimedia frontier is not for the faint-hearted.

And Stevens is anything but.

A petite redhead who could pass for a soccer mom, Stevens is a former San Francisco Examiner reporter who holds a pilot's license and has jumped out of airplanes about 200 times. As part of her research for a series of Examiner pieces, she learned to ride a rodeo bull and trained as a cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders. (The ball club wound up offering Stevens a position on ** the squad.)

She has lived in Kenya and Bali, and she's been to Antarctica twice before this summer, both times during the southern hemisphere's winter. She wrote a story for the National Geographic magazine about a 1995 expedition and shot a video documentary with a Hi-8 video camera. It aired on one of National Geographic's television shows.

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