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 Robin Meadows the story behind the story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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.
How did you report the story?
Even though we’d narrowed the focus of the story to cleaner coal, it was still a huge, wonky subject to tackle. So I called on a lot of “rabbis”—insightful experts with a broad overview but no axe to grind—for advice on who to talk to and where to go. Many of them recommended that I visit Mountaineer, a West Virginia power plant that had done a pilot carbon-capture project.
Eventually I traveled to mines and research labs in West Virginia; to a carbon-capture and storage project in Illinois, a trip that didn’t make it into the story; and to China, where I spent two weeks. China especially was an adventure in many ways.
The story was assigned at 2,500 words, so I knew that sometimes I’d be traveling 1,000 miles just for one paragraph. But I wanted to have the broadest possible understanding of the issues—if I could only write one paragraph about an important aspect of the story, I wanted it to be the right paragraph!
What did you do to make the most of your China trip?
It was my first time reporting in China, so I got a lot of good advice from fellow journalists and from people in the U.S. who had worked on various aspects of energy policy in China. I had two fixers for different parts of the trip, one of whom was recommended to me by National Geographic and one of whom had worked with a friend of mine. Both were terrific at both logistics and interpretation, but we did run into roadblocks. We tried over and over and over again to access some of China’s advanced-technology coal projects, but we were denied at every turn.
Finally, I heard about and joined a tour organized by the University of Wyoming and a Chinese university, and that allowed me to see some of the advanced-coal projects underway in interior China. I was also able to talk to Chinese experts at universities, and I was certainly able to get a visceral sense of how important—and how harmful—coal power is to daily life in China.
Did you coordinate with the photographer as you were putting the story together?
During my reporting, I was in touch with the National Geographic photographer throughout the process.
But he wanted to document coal from mining to distribution to the environmental and health effects. My story had the narrower focus of how to deal with the invisible carbon pollution. So we didn’t travel together. The photos did inspire my writing as I revised the story.
I also wrote the photo legends under a separate contract. That was really fun—National Geographic legends are long enough to allow you to tell a tiny story, so it’s a bit like painting miniatures. I was also able to sneak in a few things into the legends that hadn’t fit in the story.
How did you decide how to structure your story?
The Mountaineer project was an obvious narrative to use because the carbon capture and storage pilot project there had worked, but was not adopted due to the lack of regulations requiring low-carbon technology. It was a good demonstration of one of the main points of the story: that carbon capture and storage is in many ways technologically possible, but regulation is needed in order to get it installed on a commercial scale and to jump-start innovation and investment that will make it cheaper and more efficient. So originally, I built the story around that narrative. But because of the long lead time before publication, that example became more and more dated. So dated, in fact, that the character I used in the lede died.
Then the photos came in, and they were so gorgeous and so stark—taken together, they were just a punch in the face, showing all the wonder and the tragedy of producing power from coal. My editor and the other editors wanted me to change the Mountaineer lede, and once I saw the photos I knew they were right: My chatty, anecdotal lede just wasn’t right for such an urgent story.
The lede you settled on is very direct, in a way that seems to match the photography’s starkness. How did you arrive at that lede?
My editor suggested that [in my revision] I focus more sharply on the original question—can coal be clean, or at least cleaner?—instead of embedding that question in a narrative. This was a different approach for me, to just dive directly into a question instead of luring readers in with the candy coating of character and place. But this question was and is compelling to me. So much rides on its answer. I hope it’s compelling to readers as well.
Once I stripped off the narrative frame, everything fell into place. I usually structure stories in scenes, keeping in mind the concepts I’ll need to illustrate, but I structured the revised story using concepts alone—carbon capture, carbon storage, prospects for regulation and so on. I let the ideas and information take precedent over character and place.
This revision happened pretty close to deadline, and my editor was a huge help with the organization and even with some supporting information I needed. Once we had the new structure in place, he also helped me reintroduce some of the color that had fallen to the cutting-room floor—including some quotes from Charlie Powell, the poor power-plant manager who’d died before the story came out.
Given how long it took to come out, how did you make sure your story was still current?
I did do some re-reporting, and the fact-checking process at National Geographic is the most thorough I’ve ever experienced. The fact-checkers triple-checked all the text and all the captions, making sure everything was correct and up-to-date. It was very reassuring.
Tell us about your radio interviews.
A few days before the story came out, the National Geographic communications department set up a “radio tour” for the week of the issue’s release. I didn’t go anywhere—I was at my desk—but I did two days of back-to-back interviews, more than 20 in all. Some were live and some taped, and they ranged from eight minutes to an hour long. I talked to morning shows, progressive talk shows, NPR stations, and even some rock stations.
I was surprised by the diversity of audiences, but I really appreciated the chance to speak outside the choir of people concerned about climate change. I wasn’t especially nervous—I’d done radio interviews before, and I like them—but the low-level adrenalin rush was exhausting. At the end of the first day, I went straight to bed.
It helped that the National Geographic publicist had written a really thorough, accurate press release that summed up the main points and mentioned some recent news hooks that weren’t in the story. That guided the hosts’ interview questions.
What was the most challenging aspect of your radio interviews?
I learned a lot of new ways to say “I don’t know.” As a journalist, you know a lot about the subject at hand, and you know how to explain it to general audiences, but you don’t know everything, and inevitably hosts asked questions I couldn’t answer. For example, one wanted to know how much money—an exact dollar figure—should be allocated for carbon capture and storage in the federal budget. In those kinds of cases I’d say something like, “I can’t speak to that particular issue, but what I do know is …” and I’d talk about something closely related to the question.
Even if you can’t answer the question, you can still offer listeners some good information.
Were you happy with the story when it came out?
It was a real learning experience for me, but yes. I’m used to writing long-form stories with scenes, color, and characters as my primary containers for information, and here I had to learn another approach. But I like both approaches, and this one fit this story.
And now I have another tool in my toolbox.
[Editors’ note: For more tips on field reporting, check out Michelle Nijhuis’s February 7, 2013 post “Six essentials for ultralight field reporting” on Pitch, Publish, Prosper (the companion site to The Science Writers’ Handbook, which Nijhuis co-edited). Nijhuis also gives more tips on being interviewed in “Pass the Mic: Lessons from a radio-interview marathon,” another Pitch, Publish, Prosper post.]
Robin Meadows is a freelance science writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Cancer Commons, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, PLOS Biology, and more. Robin and Michelle went to the same college (Reed) but not at the same time. Follow Robin on Twitter @robinkmeadows.