In her first assignment from National Geographic, award-winning freelance science journalist Michelle Nijhuis started with a one-word assignment: coal. Based on that single word, Nijhuis traveled from West Virginia, a top coal state, to China, the world’s largest coal user. No spoilers here, so we’ll just say that a long lag between assignment and publication could have derailed her story but instead Nijhuis distilled that vast, contentious and highly technical topic into a a story so compelling that rock stations interviewed her when the story ran. Be on the lookout for her byline in upcoming issues of National Geographic, because she has more stories in the works. [Can Coal Ever Be Clean? appeared in National Geographic in April 2014.]
Here, Nijhuis tells TON guest contributor Robin Meadows the story behind the story:
How did you get this assignment and what was the timeline?
I first heard about the assignment five years ago. I had been pitching feature ideas to National Geographic for a little while, and my editor, Rob Kunzig, said that he and the other text editors wanted to assign me a story on coal. But at National Geographic, an assignment is just the first step toward getting final approval for a project. The photo editors assigned photographer Robb Kendrick to the story, and eventually the photo and text editors met in a pitch meeting, where they discussed and approved the overall plan for the project. The time between initial assignment and pitch meeting varies a lot, but in this case the wait lasted a couple of years.
After the story got final approval in 2011, I had a budget for travel and could begin reporting the story, which I did in the first half of 2012.
Had you proposed other stories about energy to National Geographic before?
I’d written essays and Q&As for two special issues of the magazine, one about climate change and one about energy. I’d been offered those assignments because I’d written extensively about climate change for other publications. So the editors knew I had an interest and background in both climate and energy. Not all of my feature pitches had to do with those issues, but most touched on them in some way.
What was your assignment and how did you focus your story?
It was very general at first — coal. Robb Kendrick was going to document the global process of producing power from coal, from mining to power distribution, showing the environmental and health effects at every stage. That was a great visual narrative, but it was just too broad to work well as a text story. My editor and I decided on a narrower focus: Can coal be “cleaner”? Specifically, can carbon capture and storage technology really reduce the carbon footprint of coal power? That’s a really important question, and it’s one that’s almost impossible to address in photographs. Read more »