How The New York Times used The History Project to document a power plant's dirty secrets
By now, readers are familiar with the typical newspaper investigation: after months of digging, designers lay out thousands of words, a ton of high-resolution images and a series of telling anecdotes underneath bold subheadings.
After reporter Ian Urbina scrutinized the Kemper County power plant, a troubled centerpiece of the Obama administration’s "clean coal" efforts," the New York Times did just that. But they also opted to present the findings of the investigation in a different way, one that highlights the documentary evidence that holds the story together.
The result was an interactive timeline, published earlier this week by The New York Times. It was made using The History Project, a web application that functions as a modern time capsule and interactive storytelling platform rolled into one.
It allows readers to explore thousands of pages of public records turned up by Urbina, along with previously undisclosed internal emails and documents and over 200 hours of secretly recorded phone conversations between a dozen colleagues at the power plant. All told, it contains four months of exhaustive investigative work.
“The timeline is an attempt to create a compelling narrative from an otherwise overwhelming set of data,” Urbina said. “It helped me to look at sequences not only with change to time, but also at the disparity over several layers of documents at any given moment.”
The History Project launched last year with $2.1 million in seed funding partly from The New York Times Company and aims to give readers control over how much of a story they want to explore at once.
“The Kemper Coal Files were suitable because of the depth of material that was collected, especially the number of documents, voice recordings and images," said Niles Lichtenstein, CEO and co-founder of The History Project. "THP brought that material together and enabled it to be framed along the dimensions of time, the critical questions being asked, and as a living interactive archive.”
Readers can move through the timeline as a whole or click on one of the components to follow a theme.
“The story of Kemper has so many threads,” Urbina said. “It is up to you to go in depth into one of the threads or read the story in its entirety. There is so much history, science, background to the story. You can consume it the way you want.”
One reason to go public with the documents was to make sure the story was totally transparent, given that the main source was a whistleblower, he said.
“I have always believed in the idea of ‘Show, not tell,’" Urbina said. “It kept my journalism vigorous as I delved into different layers of what went wrong and why.”
The Times will keep posting new materials when they become available, as there are still thousands of pages of documents that may come to light through pending open-records requests to federal and state agencies.
“I have a complex yet compelling story to tell,” Urbina said. “The documents are the best way to tell it.”