A 12-person student team addresses coal not as an energy story, but rather as a story of how our modern lives depend on an old energy source. One challenge: personalizing the story to help show how coal ‘lets us live.’

When a fellow student first suggested “Coal: A Love Story” as the topic for the 2011 Powering a Nation project, I had my doubts.

Really? We’re going to try to make coal energy sexy? And we’re going to do it by telling stories about a fossil fuel our nation has relied on since the 1800s? Great.

Our 12-person team, composed of writers, photojournalists, designers, and Web-programmers, had been tasked with coming up with innovative ways to tell energy stories. Our project was in the third year the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill was covering energy as part of News21, a Carnegie- and Knight-funded initiative to report on a changing America. In the two previous years, UNC students had produced award-winning work on such topics as wind farms, green jobs, and the BP oil spill. We had some big shoes to fill. We decided to focus all our skills into a collaborative special report on one energy issue.

So why coal? Why now? And for heaven’s sake, why a love story?

We spent a semester in a seminar led by Laura Ruel, Chad Stevens, and Terence Oliver, professors in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and producers of the project. They challenged us to immerse ourselves in the energy issues of the day. What are people talking about? What aren’t they talking about? How are these stories being told? Are people listening?

We read articles and watched documentaries. We explored countless cutting-edge storytelling techniques and invited speakers from Rob Hopkins, the man leading the Transition Towns movement, to E.O. Wilson, legendary biologist, to Brian Storm, Bob Sacha, and Richard Koci Hernandez, leaders in captivating documentary storytelling.

Modern Living … Dependent on an Old Energy Supply

In our research, we came across one number that surprised us all. Forty-five percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal. Coal? Seriously?

For me, the idea of coal-powered anything conjures up images of turn-of-the-century dusty miners in overalls, shoveling heaps of rock into steam engines. It’s 2011; when people think of energy, they think of solar, wind, nuclear, but not coal.

Coal seldom is breaking news. And certainly people well-versed in energy issues know that our country is still powered by this anachronistic fossil fuel. But most average Americans do not think about their coal use. They are not aware that in a time when much political lip service is dedicated to green energy and renewable resources, permits are being routinely granted to build and expand coal-mining operations.

This is the story we wanted to tell: a story that would go beyond new technologies and new and old controversies and get right to the heart of America’s energy dilemma: our modern lives depend on old energy.

While brainstorming issues and deciding to focus on coal, we were simultaneously thinking about our approach to telling these stories and reporting this information in a multimedia platform.

“Multimedia” is a buzzword these days. Many people don’t know what it means, and those that say they do are often in disagreement. Is it audio slideshows and Web-based video or animation and interactive graphics? Does text have a role at all? The answer to both questions is yes. It is all of those things in some combination, depending on what the story calls for.

That was the key to our approach. Professor Ruel impressed upon us the importance of not pre-determining how many videos, how many motion graphics, and how many interactives we were going to produce. Instead, we learned about the issues, brainstormed potential stories, and then determined which platform would deliver the information most effectively.

For instance, “If I Don’t Speak” is a compelling, character-driven story about a young man fighting for environmental justice in his low-income community. The story was visual and had unfolding action that made it a good candidate for video. But there were a lot of facts and figures about the health impacts of coal-fired power plants that would be much more effective if delivered graphically rather than having them roll out of the mouth of an expert. So members of the design and research teams came up with two interactive information graphics to explain this part of the story.

Similarly, “Born into Coal” is an emotional and visual documentary that tells the story of a pageant queen fighting to represent her family’s livelihood. It is also about a coal miner who survived the 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine. But while we were shooting and producing this story, it became clear that some concepts would be better explained through narrated graphics. And so the designers and writers began scripting and producing a motion graphic to explain why coal-mining towns with mono-economies are some of the poorest communities in the nation.

A coal country pageant queen determined to represent her family’s livelihood.

From the very beginning, one of our main goals for the project was to find ways to personalize the issue for our audience. Interactive graphics are effective tools for this. “Coal and You” is a game-like graphic that lets users enter their ZIP code and their use of things like computers and refrigerators. The graphic then displays how much coal is used each year to power users’ households.

 An example of the interactives used to effectively tell the coal story. 

The concept of personalization was also a priority in determining the interface for the project. We wanted to go beyond the way people typically experience journalism on the Web and think of ways an online platform can enhance how we get our information.

We decided on an interactive film concept. The interface presents a suggested order that, if viewed straight through, uses short documentaries, motion graphics, text, and interactives to create a film experience. Users also have the option of scrolling through the content and choosing pieces to explore in any order they like. It works either way.

‘Lyrics’ to Provide a 30,000-foot View to Tie Together the Pieces

Throughout the project, short poetic video pieces, which we dubbed “lyrics,” pull the users back from the specifics of the stories they’ve experienced to give a 30,000-foot view that ties all the pieces together. The lyrics show that the story of coal is not about one side versus the other, or right versus wrong, it is about universal desires and struggles that affect us all.

“Coal: A Love Story” was much more than a gimmick. It was a way to reveal a truth about energy, the truth that it is not some abstract issue that politicians argue over and we’re all supposed to care about. Energy, and in this case electricity, is what makes our way of life possible. And we love the way we live.

We love playing “Angry Birds” on our iPads and smart phones while commuting by bus or rail to and from work. We love being inches away from the status messages that tell us what’s going on in our friends’ lives. We love being able to Skype with our relatives who live hundreds of miles away. Not to mention being able to rely on the medical equipment that saves their lives.

So maybe the way to get people to care about energy is to show them that it’s not really about energy. It’s about what we do with it, and how it lets us live.

Catherine Orr was the editor-in-chief of “Coal: A Love Story” and co-produced the piece, “Born into Coal.” She recently received her masters degree in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a concentration in visual communication. She is launching a documentary storytelling business.