Coal: A Love Story project edgy for students

When the Powering a Nation team came to executive producer Laura Ruel to tell her what they had settled on for this year’s project, she wasn’t sure about the title. It was edgy. It was provocative. And it was risky.

But Coal: A Love Story is much more than a catchy name. The website, which debuted this summer and launched more content August 26. It is a multimedia extravaganza as rich in storytelling as it is flashy in presentation. Motion graphics, multimedia documentaries, interactive games and blogs are all a part of the site. The scrolling format allows viewers to choose where to click to tell the story of coal and learn why “it’s not just a rock. It’s power. It’s people. It’s a relationship” — the site’s tagline.

Coal: A Love Story from Powering a Nation on Vimeo.

Powering a Nation is Carolina’s contribution to the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education’s News21 project, in which 12 top journalism programs are participating. The project is funded by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication is in its third year of News21 and is the only participant to stick with the same topic – energy – all three years. It also is the only school in the initiative to create an experience that is fully student produced. All aspects of the site — from research to design to programming — were completed by the student fellows.

The project is an experiment in knowledge-based journalism, with 11 fellows — a mix of undergraduate and graduate students — immersing themselves in the chosen topic in a spring semester class taught by Ruel, also the Hugh Morton Distinguished Associate Professor of Multimedia Journalism. Then they disperse for 10 weeks to shoot and edit the stories. “Their ways of telling stories are so innovative, and they have the skills to do it,” Ruel said. Even the marketing of the site is unique, like boxed launch invitations that feature a real lump of coal set in a photo of an engagement ring.

Delphine Andrews, managing editor and marketing director, came up with that idea and also guerrilla marketing techniques like static cling stickers. Like the stories that combine coal miners’ daughters and coal plant protesters with statistics about America’s dependence on coal into one cohesive package, Andrews wanted the marketing to push the envelope, too. “Either I want to succeed hugely or fail hugely,” she said. “I don’t want to be in the middle.”