Behind the story: How The Lens and ProPublica created ‘Losing Ground’

You could say that the reporting behind ‘Losing Ground,’ a unique collaborative project between The Lens and ProPublica, started 40 years ago.

Launched last week, the interactive map project documents the rapid loss of land in Louisiana (as much as 16 square-miles per year) caused by climate change, drilling, and dredging for oil and gas. Such problem threatens a large share of the nation’s energy supply, seafood production, and millions of homes, lives.

To explain the magnitude of the problem, the two nonprofits teamed up to create layers of information embedded in one website that breaks away from conventional storytelling.

The writing only took a couple of weeks, says The Lens reporter Bob Marshall, and that’s largely because he has been reporting on the issue for about 40 years and has a close relationship with the area.

“I’ve been living this disaster since my late teens as an avid angler, hunter and paddler,” Marshall says. “These wetlands have been my playground, office and church most of my life.”

Al Shaw of ProPublica entered the picture several months ago while reading Marshall’s work on the coastal crisis. Shaw says the two had discussed doing a satellite data project this year. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism also expressed interest and footed the bill to send four ProPublica staffers to a two-day satellite training at Columbia.

“I’d seen a lot of long pieces about coastal loss in Louisiana, but none that actually let you see and explore changes over time and how it specifically affects the most vulnerable areas,” Shaw said.

Marshall was sold on the idea, he says, particularly because of ProPublica’s brand and national reach. The story, both say, needed to be told to an audience beyond that of local news.

“Our goal was to bring together these two types of storytelling, to show this loss in a large scale and on the human scale,” said Lens managing editor Steve Myers.

On one camp Marshall and Myers worked on the editorial side; and on the other, Shaw and Knight-Mozilla Fellow Brian Jacobs worked on the developer side at ProPublica.

Jacobs has a background in cartography, and with Shaw the two consulted with the USGS, NASA, librarians at Louisiana State University, and other experts to find the best data on canals, levees, historic coastline, oil and gas wells, land change over the last 40 years and its projected changes.

In New Orleans, Marshall and Myers, a photo researcher and two different photographers spoke to academics, and visited each area to do reporting, gather audio, take photos, identify historic photos of each place.

Shaw says that over the course of six of months, the two teams had weekly calls to compare notes.

“The Lens folks were constantly sending me and Brian new geographic files with boundaries of the areas and points of interest, that we worked to connect to the reporting and photos,” Shaw says. “The boundaries and points of interest were in a pretty constant flux as we kept discovering new things after visiting the places.”

The project features an interactive map that lets the reader view eight specific affected areas. Each area on the map opens up text and audio stories, with photographs and satellite images detailing the geographical change through time.

Explaining coastal erosion and its impact on natural resource is complex, but Marshall says he hopes this project grabs attention and makes a difference.

“I prefer preventive journalism to forensic journalism,” Marshall says. “There only a few years left to prevent everything on this subject being of the latter variety.”