Lessons from covering the extraordinary

How reporters grappled with the first month of California’s electricity crisis

Here’s a nightmare: You’re assigned to write about a phenomenon so arcane that only a small group of policy nerds and engineers understand it—and yet so potentially devastating that it threatens every reader. You’ve got to cover it with the urgency of a natural disaster whose potential changes hour by hour. And on top of that you have to analyze every development through three prisms of significance: financial, political and social.

If you’re still making good on your pledge to devote 15 minutes a day purely to getting better, review some of The Times’ coverage of the electrical power crisis as it peaked in January. You’ll see the results of hard choices that reporters and editors made to explain a series of developments that were routinely described as extraordinary—for once, with good reason.

Lessons from covering the extraordinary

Lessons from covering the extraordinary

Beyond sheer physical effort, covering the extraordinary requires additional attention to an explanatory sensibility, the construction of perspective phrases, sentences or paragraphs framing each new development. Integrating that language with the actual events often creates dense, unwieldy sentences. Our editing process has tended to make that worse as often as it made it better. But in an impressive percentage of our power-crisis stories, many painful improvements were made or demanded: The dependent clauses that too often consume our lead paragraphs were shrunk; overwritten sentences were broken into two; mediocre quotes were pushed down a few grafs so that the complete context of the day’s news could be explained first. Would we have liked fewer references to “keeping the lights on” and a few less superlatives? Sure, but that pales to the lessons of clarity and directness.

The edition of Jan. 19—covering both the Legislature’s approval of bailout legislation and the second day of blackouts in Northern and Central California—illustrates a number of techniques you can steal the next time you’re thrown into the pit:

1. The mainbar:
The first graf makes sure you understand the stakes–that it’s public money, and that this action will quickly sap the state’s surplus.

SACRAMENTO–The state Legislature on Thursday approved spending hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to keep power flowing in California, eating into the state’s multibillion-dollar surplus to purchase only days worth of electricity.

More important was the decision to end the lead there, choosing not to overburden you with perspective that is every bit as important but must simply become the second graf. The second graf gives you three clauses that are packed to the brim with interpretation (underlined):

With top state leaders acknowledging for the first time that they might never recover the money from the battered and nearly bankrupt utilities, lawmakers reluctantly authorized the governor to spend $400 million, a grim admission that the state faces a social, economic and public safety disaster.

The dependent clause in the 2nd graf strains conventional patience at 23 words, but give it the benefit of the doubt because this is a running story and the language is kept simple, making the clause relatively easy to grasp.

The third graf is a quote, relatively high but effective because the story worked so hard to establish context, and because this quote goes to the heart of the Legislature’s insistence that, appearances be damned, this deal had to be done. It’s a reminder that you want to push down banal quotes, not great ones:

“People are going to say it’s a bailout for the utilities. It isn’t,” said state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco). “All [utilities] do is serve as a conduit for providing this service. They say it’s a bailout for the generators who profit from this and are making more money than God. . . . What this does is guarantee that the lights in the state of California” stay on.

Then an artful transition to what would normally have been the lead—blackouts! Aware that the reader has been forced to gulp multi-clause sentences, the story now moves more deliberately, with a four-sentence graf:

On Thursday, when the lights did go out for several hours in Northern and Central California, people again coped with annoying but not life-threatening circumstances. State energy regulators were optimistic that they could keep the lights on for the next several days, as new sources of supply become available. But they were far from jubilant. California paid as much as $800 per megawatt-hour, compared with $30 a year ago.

And now to the bullets:

Among the developments in the power crisis Thursday:

–President-elect Bush told interviewers that he opposes federal price caps on wholesale power and suggested that California relax its…

2. The institutional sidebar:

In 20 inches, the paper answered the silent question of a million readers, many of whom were paying attention only this week as talk of blackouts and higher prices suddenly seemed real: How the hell did this happen? The answers are presented simply and conversationally, a reminder that sometimes you have to slow down, and that short sentences are the easiest way:

SACRAMENTO–Where are the megawatts?

The answers are financial, mechanical, political and natural.

As blackouts have hopscotched across Northern and Central California the past two days, plants with enough capacity to supply 11 million homes sat idle or broken, double the usual amount for this time of year.

Some sellers avoided the state for fear of getting stiffed by California’s biggest power buyers, two utilities on the verge of bankruptcy.

Some small plant owners, not having been paid for three months by Southern California Edison, shut down.

Nature hasn’t helped. Storms haven’t filled the Pacific Northwest reservoirs that spin turbines. That region–source of more than 10% of the state’s power–is looking to buy electricity, not sell.

“We have to meet the needs of our customers first,” said Steve Becker, a spokesman for Avista Corp. in Spokane.

That was 9 sentences in 137 words—less than 12 words per sentence. Now, having familiarized you with the dynamics, the story begins to stretch out:

The factors that pushed California to the brink of blackouts for the last several months strengthened and converged this week–most potently the financial free-fall of Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric.

And only now, in the ninth graf, do the writers’ voices stop and an outsider enters:

“The general concern of all market participants has been, one, will I get paid at all for providing energy? And two, what will I get paid?” said Kellan Fluckiger, chief operating officer of the California Independent System Operator, the agency that regulates power flow on the grid serving three-quarters of California.

3. The mood piece:

The idea was to do a man-on-the-street story about the evolving mood as a second day of blackouts made the crisis disturbingly real. The reporters had sensed on the first day that there was no pattern to the anger; on the second day they made that the story: This would be a story about finger-pointing.

Three staccato grafs give us the human impact in 115 words at a pace of 6.2 words per sentence:

SAN FRANCISCO — Ever try selling black leather jackets in a blackout-blackened store? John Ma of USA Leathers doesn’t recommend it. His mood Thursday morning? The color of his wares.

Ever hawk Chinese soapstone carvings by flashlight? On Day 2 of California’s rolling power outages, Ken Chan did his very best. Sad to say, it wasn’t good enough. His view of Pacific Gas & Electric? As dim as the lightless Kee Fung Ng Gallery.

And don’t even ask how Nicholas J. Toth, 84, feels about the outages that have rolled through Northern California this week. Not unless you want an earful from a guy who’s trying to sell insurance but couldn’t even get into his office Thursday.

The fourth graf sets the table…

The Golden State? Not hardly. Not Thursday. More like the Grumpy State, the Suspicious State, the Conspiracy-Theory State. With hundreds of thousands in the dark two days in a row, normally sunny Californians are finally acknowledging that the festering energy crisis is a reality.

…so that the fifth graf can proclaim the thesis:

Which means it’s time to find someone to blame.

And away the story goes, letting another eight people grind their axes in short bursts:

Shelley McDonough, a mother of two in the Sacramento suburb of Orangevale, said she thought “they were all crying wolf” about the energy crisis until the outages hit in her neck of the woods this week. Now that it’s for real, she said, she’s “horrified that the politicians did not anticipate this problem.”

4. The day-in-the-life story:

It was a general-assignment reporter’s toughest but most delicious challenge: Leave your scheduled assignment and drive two hours to the place where they make the blackout decisions and find the guy in charge and show us how he decides whether there will be a second day of blackouts today—the fact that you have zero expertise in this subject notwithstanding. Oh, and file by 5 p.m., please. The technique—a day-in-the-life—is one of journalism’s most effective devices, a mini-narrative.

The story captured the protagonist and his challenge in three grafs—(1) Who he is, (2) Who he works for, (3) The multi-faceted stress of his challenge–so that we were launched into the chronology by the fourth:

FOLSOM — Tim Van Blaricom is a soft-spoken man with his finger on the pulse of California’s daily struggle to eke out enough electricity to keep the lights on.

The 34-year-old former Navy aircraft engineer is the shift manager for the California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit agency that controls the state’s surging power grid.

It is a stressful, sometimes thankless job, he says, one that can fray your nerves like an old electrical wire. The windowless room where he works crackles with the tension of Houston Control, the buying frenzy of the New York Stock Exchange and the surreal atmosphere of “Doctor Strangelove.”

At 9:50 a.m. Thursday came one of its worst moments. As Van Blaricom monitored his bank of computers in the bowels of Cal-ISO headquarters, he suddenly sensed that the state’s supply of megawatts was plummeting.

The early part of the day had to be reconstructed, so the quote was useful here. And it sets up a transition that fulfills the other mission of the story—showing us how the world works:

“What I saw made my blood pressure rise. I knew that we weren’t going to have enough juice to get by.”

What he saw was that just as residents were running through the last of several thousand megawatts Cal-ISO had purchased from the Pacific Northwest, the state was plunging into another emergency. The technicians call it “Path 15″: The electrical lines feeding Northern California from the southern part of the state were bottlenecked at Bakersfield.

Van Blaricom picked up the phone and summoned a conference call with managers from the state’s three largest utilities. Trying hard to maintain his composure, he ordered Pacific Gas & Electric to…

What followed were alternating passages about the events of the day and the nature of the system. Within 13 grafs, the story was able to place us at five different moments between 10 a.m. and mid-afternoon, creating that unlikely hybrid, an institutional action story.

If you read those four stories on Jan. 19, you walked away not only with knowledge, but insight, thanks to four distinct types of storytelling—and a lot of sweat behind the scenes.

Deputy Metro Editor Joel Sappell, who has coordinated coverage of the power crisis, says his initial organizing principal was “Dereg for Dummies.” Another mantra that evolved was, “Only the economists need to know all the numbers.” Both were born out of the concept that this was, at its heart, a consumer story. That’s an overstatement—it was clearly a business, consumer and political story—but the more Joel repeated it, the more it helped him to push harder on what the crisis, and proposed solutions, meant to readers. It also put a higher premium on lively writing to compensate for the often impenetrable jargon.

Henry Fuhrmann, a business editor who works with Joel on the universal Energy Desk, favors the usually facetious mantra, ‘‘It is rocket science.’’ He explains: ‘‘Every day seems to present some new daunting task: sort out the arcana of utility financing, tell readers how electricity really works, track all the moving political and legislative pieces coming out of Sacramento. But by the end of the shift, we usually find a way put the lie to our little slogan. It’s not rocket science, just good, old-fashioned explanatory journalism as applied to a complicated topic.’’

Mitchell Landsberg, who has done rewrite on most of the mainbars, was one of a number of staffers who entered the story with no background in electrical power. What was he silently shouting at himself as he pulled together daily files from as many as a dozen reporters? “Organization, distillation, transition–trying to put yourself in the mind of a reader who doesn’t know anything. You’re trying to make a judgment about what they know, and what they can absorb. You’ve got an extraordinarily complex story and people are only focusing on it intermittently.”

The rewrite job Mitchell did on the Jan. 12 mainbar was typical of how he responded to the challenge. That story–the product of 11 contributors—tied together a chaotic day a week before the first blackouts, capturing the minute-by-minute drama.

The story is a triumph of purposefulness and pacing. It recognizes it cannot cram everything into a single graf, so it often relies on a series of cuplets—two-graf segments—to communicate the complexity of the day. I’ve carved it into segments to illustrate the purposefulness Mitchell employed:

Segment I: The lead

Pushed to the wall by a rampaging winter storm and the refusal of some large generators to provide power to California’s cash-strapped utilities, energy officials begged, pleaded and borrowed Thursday to avoid the first mandatory statewide power blackouts since World War II.

Once again, and by a filament’s breadth, the lights stayed on in California.

Segment II: The essential contrast

As late as midafternoon, the operators of the state’s electrical power system were warning that rolling blackouts were almost certain throughout most of the state except for Los Angeles and a few other cities with independent municipal utilities.

Then, shortly before 6 p.m., officials with the California Independent System Operator, which channels power to utilities throughout the state, announced that they had driven the state to the rim of darkness without taking the plunge.

Segment III: Reaction quote that provides transition to how blackouts were avoided

“It looks like we dodged it,” said Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman for Cal-ISO. “I don’t know how we keep doing it.”

On Thursday they did it by persuading consumers to go on an electricity crash diet and by working a series of 11th-hour deals with energy suppliers in the Pacific Northwest and Canada.

Segment IV: More detail on the essential contrast—how California prepared for the worst, and then celebrated.

Throughout the state, utility officials, police and firefighters, business managers and ordinary residents were spared the inconvenience–and potential danger–of blackouts, which would have cast widely scattered chunks of the state into darkness for about an hour at a time, knocking out traffic lights, stopping elevators and switching off computers, burglar alarms, heaters and many other products of a power-driven age.

Inside Southern California Edison’s control room in Alhambra, a group of dispatchers, whose tired eyes had been trained for hours on a giant screen charting the energy situation, let out a collective sigh of relief when they got the good news that they would not have to interrupt service.

Segment V: Expanding on Segment IV with color

“Yes! I’m going home,” one of them yipped.

“Wow. Someone must have went to church last Sunday,” yelled out another.

Segment VI: Expanding on Segment IV with more detail and reaction

A number of the weary workers had arrived at 6 a.m. and thought they’d be staying all night. All but two were sent home after the call came saying the state had received enough electricity to meet the demand that peaks in the early evening when people turn on stoves, lights and televisions.

“It’s our job to serve the customers,” said Gary Tarplee, grid manager. “The fact that we didn’t have to cut off power is a huge relief for all of us.”

Segment VII: Perspective

While power outages are fairly common–in fact, more than 150,000 customers were without power Thursday because of storm damage–the state has resorted to intentional blackouts only once in recent years, and then only in the San Francisco Bay Area. Localized supply and voltage problems there led to rolling blackouts last June 14 involving about 90,000 customers and lasting three hours. But the rest of the state had sufficient power to avoid outages that day.

The last truly statewide outage, other than accidental outages, was during World War II, when the state intentionally shrouded itself in darkness to ward off attacks by Japanese bombers.

Segment VIII: Transition from perspective to the daily chronology:

Defining the enemy then was simple; today it is not.

On Thursday, the culprits included power shortages, weather-caused generation failures, transmission bottlenecks and controversial wholesale price spikes that some say can be blamed on the failures of deregulating the state’s electricity market.

While grid operators scrambled to avoid blackouts, political leaders in Washington, Sacramento and Los Angeles kept up their efforts to cobble together a longer-term solution to the energy crisis.

And into the chronology:

The day began ominously, when Cal-ISO…