Doing a lot with a little: how a team of students broke a story wide open

Fred Vallance-Jones

Fred Vallance-JonesOne of the most gratifying parts of making the move to academic life is seeing the remarkable things that a group of young people can accomplish when given the right tools, appropriate direction and encouragement.

This came home to me this spring when the students in the investigative workshop at the University of King’s College in Halifax produced a professional-quality project in six weeks, and beat all of the provincial media to an important story.

I have the privilege of leading the workshop, but it was the students who came up with the idea of revisiting one of Nova Scotia’s most appalling environmental catastrophes.

In the 1960s, the Nova Scotia Water Authority converted a coastal inlet in Pictou County into a waste treatment lagoon for a pulp mill. This was part of the package of incentives given to Scott Paper to locate in the province.

The agency told residents near the lagoon, who included members of a first nations band, that the plan wouldn’t affect the water quality. That turned out to be untrue, and Boat Harbour became infamous as a toxic mess.

But even though the federal government paid the native band $35 million in 1993 to compensate it for Ottawa’s failure to protect the band’s interests, and even though the waste coming from the mill is much cleaner than it once was, the legacy of toxic pollution in Boat Harbour has never been cleaned up.

Toxic LegacyToxic Legacy broke new ground in several ways. The students pored through archival records, including the papers of the premiers of the day, and found that while the public was being told the impact would be mild, in private, members of the water commission were talking about just how toxic the waste would be. The students also dug deeply into the most recent developments on the story, and discovered that the plan touted to clean up Boat Harbour had been quietly abandoned, and secret negotiations were under way between the mill, the province and the band to finally bring an end to 42 years of pollution.

The story was published online, and simultaneously in The Coast, Halifax’s pre-eminent weekly paper. The latter was an extremely important aspect of the project because it effectively carried the students’ work to the wider community and the wider audience afforded by The Coast. It was, as far as I know, the first such formal collaboration between a journalism school and a local paper on an investigative project in Canada.

The project was a fabulous learning experience in so many ways. By working together on a group investigative project the students were exposed to many of the methods most fundamental to investigative reporting. These included archival and historical research, secondary and primary document searches, organization of a large project, accountability interviews and investigative writing, to name just a few.

The move to a group project was something I had wanted to do after I became responsible for the investigative workshop last year. I felt that the process of taking a project from birth to final product would be an excellent way to teach the students about the tedium, and the joys, of investigative work.

We decided to make the project multi-media from the start, with the final product presented on a website that the students designed themselves. The students not only did research and interviews; they also took pictures, recorded audio interviews, and cut an eight-minute audio feature.

The final product also includes pdf images of archival documents so readers can consult with original sources should they choose to spend more time on the site. There are also maps, including a map produced in the ArcView mapping program that shows the property ownership in the Boat Harbour area.

In order to give the students a bit of a head start, I hired a student assistant who did initial research in the weeks leading up to the workshop. With her help, I was able to give the class a briefing on the broad outlines of the story in the first couple of days of the workshop. The students had identified the story over a couple of advance meetings held in the fall of 2008.

Before the workshop began, Kate Ross, our computer whiz, set up the bare bones of the website. I also created a number of tools using Google Docs, including a spreadsheet chronology that was started by the student assistant and fine-tuned by the workshop participants. We used a Google Group as a collaborative workspace where we put interview transcripts and other materials that needed to be shared. It also became a key way to keep everyone up to speed on the project, and to trade messages.

It all worked fabulously well. Beyond a few modest tweaks in process, the one thing that I would probably do slightly differently next time would be to get the writing process going sooner in the game than we did. As it was, some of the editing spilled over past the end of class, which I would have preferred to avoid.

But these are small issues.

Overall, I was thrilled by how things went, and by the fabulous work done by the team, which was led by one-year journalism student Colin Parrott. The website and photography were the work of John Packman. Katie May, Zeb Qureshi, Tony Ferguson, Breanne McAdam, Vivian Belik, Zander Brosky, Stephany Tlaka, Terrence McEachern, David Olsen, Steve Davis, and student assistant Kathleen Hunter, rounded out the team.

I should also thank Toronto Star reporter Robert Cribb, who visited the workshop in March and gave the students excellent advice on both writing and interviewing.

You can see the students’ work here.

Fred Vallance-Jones is assistant professor of journalism at the University of King’s College, a former award-winning investigative reporter, and J-Source contributing editor on computer-assisted reporting.