Chinese Pollution in Words, Pictures and More

The New York Times makes new strides with multimedia storytelling

These days, it is rare to see a magazine or newspaper publish a special report on climate change or natural resources that does not include at least some mention of China. It has become increasingly clear that not only Chinese politics, but also emissions, are affecting the rest of the world. Few press accounts fail to mention that multi-national efforts to make the planet “greener” hinge on the country’s actions. As Patrick Symmes recently put it in Outside magazine, “China is the asterisk at the end of every conversation about the environment.”

On Sunday, The New York Times made an impressive contribution to the literature, one that also advanced the art of storytelling online. “As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes,” the front-page headline announced. What follows is a detailed, biting, and authoritative account of economic growth and environmental degradation. As veteran journalist Charles Petit put it, the article, authored by Beijing bureau chief Joseph Kahn and correspondent Jim Yardley, is “not so much a story as a long and well-buttressed proclamation.”

As strong as it is, the piece presents a lot of the same information that other reporters have already chronicled: China’s overwhelming reliance on coal, the inefficient use of energy in many sectors of the economy, the staggering pollution-related death toll, and the preference for growth over environmental protection that makes it all possible.

What sets Kahn and Yardley’s article apart from previous work by the Times and other publications is the impressive multimedia package, Choking on Growth, that supports it. In addition to the print edition of their text, there is a trove of supplementary information online. There is a haunting photo slideshow of industrial operations replete with soundtrack, and in the full screen version, the photos are not only large, but of higher quality than the industry standard (so much so that the Times had to add a watermark to discourage copying). There is an interactive map of China that shows where pollution has most affected the landscape and how the country’s environment and economy compare with the rest of world. There is a six-minute video featuring interviews with Kahn and Alex Wang, a project manager from the Natural Resources Defense Council. The two talk about China’s failed “Green GDP” program, which, in calculating gross domestic product, would have subtracted the cost of damage to the environment. The demise of this plan is especially interesting because many other reporters have previously cited it as evidence of the Central Committee’s environmental protection. The package also includes an expert “roundtable” where, this week, readers are invited ask questions of the editorial staff and outside experts. And finally, there is a ten-minute downloadable audio synopsis of the story in Mandarin Chinese.

It is certainly not the paper’s first multimedia offering, but it is worth mentioning now for a couple of reasons. First, precisely because China has been covered in such depth recently, editors and reporters that seek to cover it must think more carefully about what valued-added, digital products they can bring to the table. Second, this particular project represents a new level of multimedia accomplishment for the Times.

Choking on Growth stands out from some of the more sterile-looking, text-based packages of the past, and is easier to navigate. According to Juliet Gorman, the day news editor for the Web site, who coordinated the project, a team of about a dozen people worked on the China story for over two months. “If we’re not vigilant about thinking things through, the danger is that the multimedia package could look like a story list with a couple additional ornaments hanging off to the side.”

Thinking only about the article that will appear in print is “a thing of the past,” Gorman said. “I think we’ve successfully changed our process now.”

And Chinese pollution lends itself well to visual storytelling. “The main goal,” said Times multimedia editor Andrew DeVigal, “is to think about how to present the story as a journalism package so that all potential media types are presented equally in a seamless fashion.”

In producing the story, Gorman says the Times was “prototyping how we will present big enterprise stories from now on.” She described the focus on developing a reusable, but versatile template (or architecture) for Web presentation as being “content agnostic.” With stories about big topics such as China, everybody, including reporters, recognizes the need for creative packaging, she said. “They understand instinctively, given that it’s such a global issue, how all of the supplementary, companion material supports the story.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.