Change and discussion

With a great deal of excitement and no small amount of fear, I’ve left The Journal to pursue a PhD in communications at Concordia University. And so this blog will likely turn more to questions of representation, analysis of journalism, interesting articles I come across and — forgive me now — how my own research rolls out.

But first, I wanted to share and take a closer look at my last major project for The Journal — an investigation of Alberta’s pipeline system that was published early last month after weeks of interviews, data mining, and, frankly, finding dead ends. It was actually a pretty challenging piece to write, and if you can track down the original story (published as “How safe are our pipelines?; Government, industry keep records of spills, but measuring risk is difficult,” in The Edmonton Journal, 7 July 2012, C1), you’ll note it was helped along with files from reporter Gemma Karstens-Smith, business reporter Lewis Kelly and provincial affairs reporter Karen Kleiss. You won’t find the names of my editors, all of whom offered amazing advice and recommendations. Nor will you find the names of countless fellow Journal reporters — when you work in a newsroom, you are consistently guided and inspired by your coworkers and their very good questions.

Due to copyright issues, I clearly cannot republish entire articles. What I can do, however, is pull some of the graphs to discuss how I got this piece off the ground, as something of a teaching tool for the future. As such, today and over the next few days, I will be discussing the lede (or introduction), the nut graph (or thesis statement), the reportage (how I found facts and figures), the interviews, the kicker (or conclusion) and, finally, the accompanying sidebar.

When published, this piece was about 4,000 words, run alongside a sidebar, stories from my colleagues and an A1 introduction. Most newspaper articles simply don’t benefit from so much space, even as we get into a digital age of online publication and the freedom to post more onto our websites. Nonetheless, I think there are things to learn from this piece, in terms of how to find information and what to do with it all once you’ve amassed your ridiculously huge file of paperwork, your audio files from interviews, and more maps than you know how to deal with. As well, I think there are criticisms to be made of this work, and look forward to any comments or questions you may have.

The lede

At the end of the day, I spent weeks speaking to government, industry and regulatory board representatives, scientists trying to come up with solutions, and I read countless reports while doing a lot of math.

I did not, however, have a really strong first-person story of a spill, which would offer a more typical beginning to a newspaper story. Reporters usually ease into a big story by connecting readers to someone directly affected by the issue at hand.

This personal story has to be relevant, however — you can’t lead with something you think is interesting that isn’t after all related to the topic at hand. The lede should set the tone for the rest of the story, walking readers directly to the “nut graph.”

Without such a story, I chose — with some difficulty and after taking a few walks to clear my head — to try to hit readers with the very real numbers. How to do it, though? Sometimes we come across numbers too big — for example, a government counting on a deficit budget in the billions of dollars — to picture. Government budget numbers are so much bigger than what we have in our own bank accounts they become unimaginable, and carry little to no weight.

Here is what went to print:

In just 30 days this spring, Alberta pipelines spilled nearly 10,000 barrels of oil, leaking crude and effluent onto privately owned land in northern Alberta and into the waters of a southern Alberta reservoir.
That spillage amounts to 1.5 million litres in three leaks between May 19 and June 18, or the equivalent of 44 large tanker trucks being emptied into the environment.

This lede was the result of time spent Google-converting thousands of oil barrels to Olympic swimming pools and other imaginable volumes. My deskmate Elise Stolte recommended the tanker truck comparison, and I think we can all picture the trucks in our minds, rolling along — or toppled beside — a major highway.

The “nut graph” — or graphs

In print journalism, the “nut graph” clearly sets out what an article is about — it is something like a thesis statement in an academic essay. Its intent is to explain, in one paragraph, why an article matters. In what context does this article live? Why must a reader invest his or her time?

In blog posts dealing with reportage over the next two days, I will discuss the importance of allowing yourself to be surprised by the data you find and the interviews you undertake. But by the time you are finished your research, the nut graph is an opportunity to write with authority.

In my story, the third paragraph was the nut graph:

Industry and government officials insist that overall, Alberta’s pipelines are safe, even as environmental groups call for a review of the system, and people outside the province question the wisdom of two massive pipeline projects proposed to carry bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to British Columbia’s West Coast and Texas’s Gulf Coast.

I would argue all news stories need a nut graph in the first three to five graphs. A lengthy article demands secondary nut graphs to uphold the structure of the story. This is in part because there are “turns” — people literally have to turn the page, or they scroll down so far on the screen that they may need something of a flag post to remind them where they are in the story. This, again, is not unlike an academic essay, but written in much friendlier language.

Here are a pair of supporting nut graphs that could be found in my story:

Comparative data supporting the safety of Alberta’s pipeline system are hard to come by, however. How does Alberta’s system measure up against others? What is the big-picture environmental impact of spills beyond single incidents? These questions are difficult to answer. …

The problem with information that mystifies the frequency of spills comes when people outside Alberta try to evaluate projects like Enbridge’s Northern Gateway. The $5.5-billion line proposed to carry bitumen to tankers at Kitimat, B.C., has won over Alberta’s industry, as well as city and provincial government leaders, for its promise of $72 billion in revenues over nine years. But in British Columbia, First Nations and other communities worry about threats to the environment, particularly at water crossings throughout northern B.C.
Such groups were quick to jump on the Elk Point spill – the result of a flange gasket failure at the pumping station, and reportedly causing no public health risk – as proof the Northern Gateway plan ought to be binned. …

Next up:

In the days ahead, I’ll be reviewing how I reported this story — specifically, how I found information and how interviews were done — and I will return to writing elements such as the “kicker.”

I welcome any and all comments, from questions to recommendations on how you would have done it differently!

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