In June 2012, a team from The Washington Post, including energy reporter Steven Mufson, photographer Michael Williamson, and videographer Whitney Shefte—plus Mufson’s 18-year-old daughter Natalie—set off on 1,700-mile drive that followed the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the Gulf Coast, has been the source of rancorous political debate for the last three years, and Mufson, the journey’s mastermind, wanted to turn the often wonky story into one about land, steel, and people.
“Along the way, this inanimate pipeline came to life,” he wrote in a chronicle of the voyage published by TED Books on March 28. “It became clear that the real story of this pipeline permit was one about American frontiers — the lengths to which we go for oil supplies and the intrusive effects that quest causes all the way down the line.”
Down the Line, as his short ebook is, in fact, titled, is a fascinating account of the reporting that Mufson and his colleagues did over the course of four frantic weeks on the road. Under the direction of editor Kelly Johnson, the team had produced a multimedia series for the Post that ran from July to September. As Mufson described the experience in the ebook:
Each segment of the trip touched on different issues: climate change and the oil sands; the U.S. energy trade with Canada; the North Dakota shale boom and its woes; prairie populism in Nebraska and pipeline politics; the Ogallala Aquifer and the threat of leaks; Native Americans and their desire to protect land, water, and burial sites along the old Trail of Tears; the fight of ranchers and farmers against a Canadian company’s right to eminent domain; and why both oil sands producers and Texas farmers want to see the pipeline completed.
The idea to write an ebook based on the Post’s series emerged after David Beard, the director of digital content, struck up with Jim Daly, the editor of TED Books, at the Online News Association conference in San Francisco at the end of September. TED Books, an arm of the global conference series that launched in January 2011, had worked with journalists before, but never a major paper like the Post, and Daly was looking for its first “news driven” project.
“We talked about six or seven ideas, but Keystone XL is such a quickly developing story, and President Obama is expected to make some kind of decision about the pipeline in the next couple of the months,” he said in an interview. “We also thought the story would benefit from the technology that TED Books’ platform allows.”
Indeed, Beard said that the Post, which had already published a number of short ebooks in partnership with Diversion Books, was attracted to the fact that TED uses a content management system developed by The Atavist that streamlines text, photos, and videos for easy publishing on any device a reader chooses.
“They’ve been able to incorporate design and content elements that really are pushing what an e-book can deliver,” he said in an interview.
TED’s ebooks, which run between 10,000-15,000 words, have always been available on the Kindle, the Nook, and at Apple’s iBookstore, but in July the group launched an app for tablets that presents multimedia stories in all their colorful, high-res glory. Being iPad-less, I had to settle for the black-and-white Kindle version, but it’s clear that the stunning images created by Williamson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, and Shefte, and Peabody Award-winning videographer, form a key part of Down the Line (and the app version includes clips of Williamson discussing a few of his shots).
For his part, Mufson said he always thought the Keystone road trip would make a good book, and that if the Post hadn’t endorsed the reporting project he was going to pitch it to publishing houses. Thinking about a grand narrative, rather than a collection of independent articles, helped his reporting, so when the offer from TED came along, he was already in the right mindset and shared Daly and Beard’s vision for telling a timely, impartial story.
“I felt the book should appear while the outcome of the permit application was still up in the air,” Mufson said in an interview. “I wanted people to have an intelligent debate while it still mattered. There have been just so many wild claims and numbers tossed around. I wanted to sort through that and at the same time breathe some life into this long hunk of steel.”
While there’s a fair amount of overlap with the Post’s series, Mufson had to bring his reporting up to date and he added a lot of new material, including photos and videos from Williamson and Shefte. Down the Line is about 50 percent longer than all of his articles put together, he said, and he needed structure that material a nice, clean narrative arc, while also injecting more of a writerly voice than he’d been able to use in the paper.
Like other TED and Washington Post ebooks, Down the Line sells for $2.99. Usually, a sale nets a buck each for TED, the bookseller, and the author. The arrangement is “slightly different” with the Post, he said, although neither side would share details.
Regardless, Mufson’s ebook is worth every cent. As the Obama administration wrestles with its decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, this narrative takes readers on a voyage from north to south, explaining in rich detail how the underlying political, economic, and environmental debates are already shaping people’s lives.