We spoke this week with The New York Times’ David Barstow, who wrote and helped report our latest Notable Narrative, “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours.” The project, a fine-grained look at the crew’s last moments aboard the doomed oil rig, ran at the end of December, and we learned through Barstow that Summit Entertainment has recently picked up film rights to the story. Barstow’s prior work has twice been awarded a Pulitzer Prize (one in partnership with Times reporter Lowell Bergman), and he has a long history with investigative reporting and narrative. In these excerpts from our conversation, he talks about applying narrative techniques in an investigative framework and the importance of bearing witness.
When did the Times commit to doing the Deepwater Horizon project?
I had written, with some other reporters, a very long piece that ran in June of last year that really zeroed in on the blowout preventer. After that piece, I think a number of us felt like there was still more to be done, but we weren’t really sure what that was.
So it wasn’t until probably August when the big conceptual breakthrough occurred, which was that we thought that there was a really great story if we focused very narrowly on the crew and the last hours of Deepwater Horizon. We wanted to focus not on what everyone else was focusing on, at least in those summer months, which was “What caused the blowout?” – which inevitably took you into a very dense thicket of questions about well design and about cementing and all the things that happened below the rig, all the way down to where they were tapping into the oil two miles beneath the surface of the ocean bead. Instead, we focused on the rig itself and understanding the crew that worked on this rig, and understanding the systems that were engineered and were incorporated into the rig to protect these people from the very thing that occurred: the blowout.
There were three bylines on the piece, and a note about contributing material from another reporter. What were the mechanics of the story? Who actually wrote it?
I wrote every word of it. I think the byline in the paper was clear on that point. It was written by me, with reporting by myself and David [Rohde] and Stephanie [Saul]. The reason I make that point is that this is a narrative, in a way. And I think that we all realized and could see the importance of having a coherent and single voice carrying this story. It’s been all of our experience that at the end of the day, you can’t write narrative by committee. So I took on that task of being the writer, and then of course, we all divvied up various aspects of the reporting.
I noticed that in the actual structure of it, loosely speaking, a third of it leads up to the blowout, and then a third is that nine minutes between the blowout and the explosions, and the last third is wrapping up. Did you divide it that cleanly on purpose? How did you decide on the structure?
I think the biggest thing that drove the framing of the story was actually that “nine minutes” idea. There was this period of time when a whole bunch of things could have occurred or maybe should have occurred that might have saved lives or prevented explosions or minimized explosions. That was the absolute crucial period of time: the time between when the crew had the absolute first obvious evidence that they were experiencing a blowout – which was actual mud and oil coming up on the rig itself – and when the big cataclysmic explosion occurred that basically eliminated any chance of the rig coming out of this OK.
And yet, what made this particular narrative extremely challenging is No. 1, you’re dealing with an awful lot of technology, a very complex system. The fire and gas alarm system alone has a phone book-size instruction manual. That’s just one. There’s the ventilation system, and the systems that allowed the crew to communicate, and the warning system, and the gas sensor – all of that stuff was really important to the story.
Handling the complexity of the technology, along with the number of different characters on this rig that in and of itself is a foreign place for most readers, this was the narrative challenge. How do you structure the piece so that you create a sense of pace and narrative and keep people going through this experience and put them as much as possible in the shoes of some of the people on this rig during this couple-hour period of time?
The way I tried to deal with that was keeping the focus relentlessly on the one day and on this one 9-minute period of time. That was the frame that helped anchor the piece.
You have this chunk of technical material you’re trying to get across, and then you have all these narrative details. Inside that larger frame, how did you approach bringing the technical material and specifics available in hindsight into the story about the people?
It’s not like there was some master narrative out there somewhere that said when one event happened compared to some other event. So in fact, part of the challenge was constructing that narrative and knowing what went on in that nine-minute period of time with over 100 people on the rig reacting and doing different things. One of the most important challenges for us was, through the reporting and interviews we did with more than 20 of these crew members and a really careful sifting through of all the public testimony, putting together an incredibly extensive narrative that zeroed in on this very compressed period of time.
Once you have that, of course, it makes it a lot easier to zero in on the moments that seem most critical. The trickier part was how to hit the right tone, where you’re looking at the actions of members of this crew who in some cases froze in the moment or were overwhelmed with the complexity of the systems they were trying to operate.
You could make them look like idiots. There are a lot of ways you could slam people with 20/20 hindsight. For me, it felt more important to try as best I could to put myself in their shoes and take into consideration and into account the chaos and the horrific circumstances under which they were asked to make rapid decisions – sometimes with incomplete information. And all the while worried that everything around them was going to blow up. On the one hand, it was about being fair to them and trying to bear witness, but also doing something bigger with the story.
In terms of which narrative details you chose to use, did you have any concerns about what is sometimes called disaster porn?
I didn’t worry about that because I felt like there was an enormously consequential story at the heart of this. That story is one that I think ought to really inform our discussion and debate going forward about deepwater drilling.
In this particular case, if there was one overarching narrative that emerged in the first month, it was this idea that BP as a corporation was cutting corners and sacrificing safety, and that was the root cause of what happened there. To an extent, people would look at the Texas City explosion in Alaska and say, “Here’s this rogue corporation cutting costs, and then there’s this disaster.”
What was interesting in terms of what emerged from our reporting is that it’s a more difficult problem than that. If you have one rogue company, you can force change on the part of that corporation, but in this case the Deepwater Horizon rig was a Transocean workplace. Transocean owned the rig. There were only a couple of BP employees on the rig. It was a culture shaped by Transocean.
What was significant to us was that when it comes to deepwater drilling in the Gulf, this is the best of the best, the A team, in theory. It was a sophisticated rig with an experienced crew on board. Despite that and despite having a potent safety culture and having the best technology that exists to prevent a blowout and an explosion that could kill people, there were failures. And that raises questions about our ability to do deepwater drilling in a safe manner. That issue was at the heart of the story, because it raises an important question as we go forward with deepwater drilling.
You’ve done a lot of narratives, as well as large investigations, at the St. Petersburg Times and The New York Times. Did reporting or telling this story present any particular problems that you hadn’t faced before?
Coming out of the St. Pete Times, I sort of grew up journalistically around people like Tom French, Anne Hull and David Finkel. What I’ve spent the bulk of my career trying to do is to take as much narrative storytelling as I can into the traditional investigative reporting mindset. You’ll see a similar kind of thing in a lot of my stories.
This one actually felt like a really comfortable fit with that approach: going in a tough-minded and investigative way to understand what went wrong and hold accountable the various actors in this story and the forces that contributed to this disaster. And trying to do it through a narrative that can help people not just absorb the information at an intellectual level but feel it at a gut level, in a way that hopefully a reader comes away from the piece with a much clearer detailed, vivid sense not just of the kind of people who worked on this rig and the culture of this rig but the very complex sequence of events and technical failures that fed into the tragedy.
Do you have any suggestions for reporters tasked with telling a story that has already been covered by so many outlets?
Yes, a couple. There’s one easily overlooked point about this story: the point about space. This story really couldn’t be told if the newspaper weren’t willing to open up, in this case, four full pages. We had these amazing photographs, but the story needed space, too.
The thing I would tell younger reporters is that if this were a 2,000-word story as opposed to an 8,500-word story, you couldn’t even think about it. The most important point, the most obvious point, is that in this case, we were able to persuade our editors here to give us the space. We don’t run many double trucks, and this was actually a quadruple truck. You have to get that kind of space, and to understand how space does or doesn’t limit what you do as a storyteller.
The other thing I would say is that sometimes even when stories are covered quite intensively for a couple months or similar period of time, if you’re paying close attention and looking at the way the story is being covered, sometimes you’ll see things that weren’t doable in the first months become doable over time.
In this case, the flow of coverage organically shifted to things like the cleanup, the extent of the pollution, the effects of the pollution, and then to BP and BP’s safety record – and to what caused the blowout, the well design, and the cementing job. I remember thinking at one point, “It’s weird after all this that I don’t think I’ve read or seen something that put me on the rig in the lives of the people there on that last day.”
You set out, and maybe the people who didn’t want to talk in the first week – maybe they were traumatized, hunkering down or finding lawyers – some of those people with time, you can get them to open up. It’s good to look and be thinking about any new layers that can be peeled back once you’re past the immediate aftermath.