Sacramento news media tackles Pluto flyby

The Sacramento Bee reprints an Associated Press story about space probe New Horizons' flyby of Pluto in its Wednesday, July 15 edition. (Image Credit: Ben Landis)
The Sacramento Bee reprints an Associated Press story about space probe New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto in its Wednesday, July 15, 2015 edition. (Image Credit: Ben Young Landis)

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passed the dwarf planet Pluto on July 14th, 2015 after nine and a half years of traveling in space. News outlets in Sacramento eagerly awaited the new photographs and data from the probe, publishing stories in the days leading up to the flyby and continuing coverage into the next day.

Capital Public Radio kicked off the coverage a week in advance, slotting in an National Public Radio story on July 7th. They followed this up with two more NPR pieces on the 14th—one about Pluto’s status as a dwarf planet, the other covering the probe and its passing—and finally a segment on Insight with Beth Ruyak the morning of the 15th. Beth Ruyak interviewed Sacramento State’s Christopher Taylor, a Professor of Physics and Astronomy, making CPR one of the few media outlets to produce a local angle on the event.

The Sacramento Business Journal also had a local card to play—their July 13th story, sourced from sibling outlet Puget Sound Business Journal, brought the New Horizons’ interplanetary journey back to Sacramento through the Rancho Cordova company Aerojet Rocketdyne, which built the probe’s 16 guidance engines.

NewsRadio KFBK put in some legwork as well, devoting three full minutes of airtime to the story and calling in space correspondent Bill Harwood from CBS News to comment on the New Horizons’ progress. The segment had its own moment of suspense when Harwood’s cell phone connection with anchors Amy Lewis and Dan Mitchinson nearly dropped.

As he signed off, Harwood joked, “I’m glad that NASA can hear them better than you can hear me!”

The Sacramento Bee announced the New Horizons’ upcoming Pluto pass on July 6th in an article from The Baltimore Sun. Its next contribution to reporting the event was Washington Post opinion writer Charles Krauthammer’s syndicated column on July 9th—which happened to be a romantic tribute to the New Horizons mission—followed by a host of stories from the Associated Press July 12th through 15th, and one more from the Los Angeles Times.

The erstwhile planet did make it above the fold, next to the Vallejo kidnapping saga.

FOX40 News covered the flyby with two stories from the CNN wire. News10 aired several USA Today specials and clips. CBS Sacramento republished two stories from AP.

Only three stories out of all the news outlets in Sacramento published original, local content—most others used stories from the wire. As is the norm, AP and national outlets like CNN, NPR, and CBS had resources to capture this kind of wide-impact news, allowing local media to access national or global stories they might otherwise not be able to cover on their own.

This particular event is a prime example of why news wires exist—and a brief glimpse into the range of capacities and editorial approaches of Sacramento-area news media when covering major science news.

Of course, getting a Sacramento angle on a space probe billions of miles and nine and a half years away is not easy, but the Sacramento Business Journal, NewsRadio KFBK and Capital Public Radio managed to do some original reporting—and bring Pluto a little closer to California.

— James Eldred



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