"Most climate-change stories are doom and gloom. Not the ones in this series." Quartz's latest in-depth reporting project is the culmination of a year of investigating carbon capture technology and its potential to save humanity from a climate change catastrophe.
For 'The race to zero emissions', which ran for two weeks during 4 and 15 December, Quartz science reporter Akshat Rathi travelled around the world to report on topics related to carbon capture, with support through a McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism grant.
The project was also the first time Quartz has experimented with a newsletter tailored specifically to a series or topic, building a community of almost 6,000 subscribers, with whom Rathi also shared additional context and information from his reporting that didn't make it into the final pieces.
We caught up with Rathi to talk about how the series was developed, why he decided to produce a newsletter for it, the challenges he faced reporting on a topic for such an extensive period, and whether his background in chemistry and mechanical engineering shaped how he approached the project.
Where did the idea for the series come from?
"Taking on a long-term project was something we in the science team were thinking of doing, so around November last year when the fellowship was first advertised, my science editor and I thought we should come up with a set of ideas for it, which we whittled down before deciding on this one. This technology, carbon capture, seemed like the best candidate. It was being talked about a lot because Donald Trump had made a bunch of campaign promises on clean coal, which economically seemed really expensive. So if Trump was going to push for it, we needed more information and understanding on what's happening with the technology right now, which is what the proposal shaped up to be."
You spent one year on this project – what was the process like?
"I've never worked on something this long term – I have worked on stories that have lasted months but not a whole year. I set apart afternoons for a whole month, where I knew 10-15 people I wanted to get on the phone with immediately, and I asked each person to suggest three names that they thought I should speak to, so the list ballooned very quickly. By the end of March I had a very clear idea what the series would look like, what other places I would need to travel to and how long that would take.
"I published three stories before the series actually began and there were good reasons to do it. For instance one of the stories I had reported on in April, which we could've held until the series launched, we actually decided to publish in June before I left for China. That proved right because it was about Sweden using carbon capture as one of the technologies to hit zero emissions, and Chinese sources could see the approach with which we were getting to these stories, the rigour we were applying, and what kind of information we received.
"The other stories published in the series I wrote after I finished my travels and luckily there wasn't anything, news hook-wise, that compelled us to put them out so we could hold on to them for the two weeks starting on 4 December."
Why did you decide to create a newsletter and how did you grow that community?
"We have a bunch of really successful newsletters, but we have never run one for just a series of articles on a single topic, that's something we thought was worth trying with this series because who knows what we can learn from the experiment?
"For the series I interviewed more than 100 people over the year so the first thing I did was to reach out to them as I had done over the time of my writing. Quartz recently launched an Obsession newsletter, so I wrote for that in the lead up to the series on topics related to carbon capture. We also promoted it the Daily Brief newsletter, on Twitter, and in other shorter stories related to the topic that I was writing for the website.
"All of those approaches were aimed at finding these people who are interested in these stories and providing them with a service for a subject that is controversial, not well understood, but that is also crucial for our fight against climate change.
"I definitely used material from things that couldn't make it into the final pieces, but also these stories are features, so they are evergreen in the sense that these are developments that will take many years to come true, so the articles have a long life. However I wanted to get across a sense of urgency and importance through the newsletter."
After 30,834 words, my @qz series "The Race to Zero Emissions" ends today. It's been an intense two weeks, and I've been blown away by the response. Thank you to all those who read some of it.— Akshat Rathi (@AkshatRathi) December 15, 2017
For those who didn't, here's a what-you-need-to-know thread 👇
What were some of the challenges you faced working on this project?
"There were two big challenges: one was that the technology itself is quite dry – I've reported on a lot of science stories before and they are exciting and people can relate to them very quickly. In climate change, if there is a video of the polar bears starving, people are immediately connected to it; you hear about national disasters and people are able to empathise with what others are going through. Carbon capture is not that, so the crucial challenge for me for this series was that I needed to make the storytelling much more engaging because of the inherent difficulty of the subject.
"The second challenge would be that the series is about climate change but it's also about economics, policy, finance, but it's also about cement and steel and coal power and natural gas power, and about batteries and the electric grid... so it brings all of these disparate subjects together in a package. I have never done science or business reporting before at a scale where I had to connect so many dots into a single story, so that was difficult."
You have a background in chemistry and chemical engineering – do you think having this expertise helped you approach the topic in a different way?
"I would say you don't need a science background to be able to cover science, I know many people who don't and they do a good job. It helps to have the background because you are able to speak to researchers and professionals in the field in their own language, which may be jargony, but you are able to capture it because you understand it. There is also a sense I get that people respect a person who has expertise in a certain area, so I have been told many times by different sources 'you know this because you studied this' and then they go on to explain it.
"If there is an advantage it's also that I am able to sniff out stories which are maybe passed out by others who don't know the subject, but I also think if you spend enough time regardless of your training you'd be able to sense those stories. I think what it provides me is a shortcut. In today's world where reporters aren't given that much time or travel budget to go and meet people, having this sort of background is actually pretty useful."
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