Decades of history. Hundreds of documents. An "all-powerful, all-secret" sub-agency. Those were some of the workings behind "The United States of Petroleum," an in-depth account of the oil industry's close relationship with the federal government, for which Center for Public Integrity reporter Jie Jenny Zou was named a Livingston Award finalist.
The awards honor the best reporting and storytelling by journalists under the age of 35 across all forms of journalism. Finalists for the award, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the University of Michigan, were selected from over 500 entries. They'll move on to the final round of judging, and a winner will be named in June.
Zou, who is on the Center's environment and workers' rights team, previously covered statewide justice issues as a data reporter for The New York World, based out of Columbia School of Journalism, where she also graduated in 2013 with a focus on investigative journalism. Zou has also covered local and regional government in South Carolina and interned for various national publications.
We sat down with Zou to discuss what went into chronicling decades of history and data for the story.
What led you to report on this story?
We first got the idea to take a deeper look at the American Petroleum Institute over a year ago. I was chatting with my editor about how oil and gas industry groups like API were heavily involved in K-12 education while simultaneously pushing out positive industry marketing campaigns (which turned into this story we published last year). My editor remarked one day about how he'd never seen an in-depth profile of API. Here's this group in Washington that wields this tremendous influence, but no one's ever written about them at length before? One thing led to another and I found myself tracing back API's history going back almost a century.
What parts of the reporting process stood out to you? What were the special challenges involved in a story that involved so much history?
I spent a lot of time just trying to figure out how to manage my time. I felt like I was being pulled in a million directions. People started joking that I was writing a book; I have never ever wanted to write a book, so this actually low-key horrified me. I despise writing. It's reporting that I love: talking to people, finding things, connecting the dots. Luckily, my main reporting partner, Chris Young, is an incredibly organized individual. We hadn't worked together before, but it worked out really nicely. We happened to be looking at different things involving API and would discuss our findings and suddenly overlap. Chris and I started running into the same themes and people over and over again, but through different connections. That's when I realized we were on to something. There were also many, many spreadsheets. At one point, I had a spreadsheet to manage other spreadsheets.