April 13, 2010

It wasn’t until Daniel Gilbert went to the University of Chicago a few years ago that he first started reading newspapers. He liked them — so much, in fact, that he joined the student Maroon his junior year, eventually becoming news editor. After graduating in 2005 he even chose a newspaper career, soon settling in his home state of Virginia, at the rural Bristol Herald Courier.

This week, at 28, Gilbert and the Herald Courier are on top of the newspaper world.

An extraordinarily complex issue that he turned into a strikingly cogent eight-part December series — about natural-gas royalties he was able to prove were owed to thousands of residents — on Monday won for the paper the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

The story of Gilbert’s rapid rise, and the work that propelled it, may be just the kind of inspiration the news business needs these days. But to the young reporter it all seems pretty basic: Get a good tip and check it out; master the weird science of coal-seam methane gas and the lopsided art of coal-and-gas industry politics; find a bungling state agency and attend its monthly hearings; make regular Freedom of Information Act requests; get his paper to pay for a computer assisted reporting class; use that class to coordinate key databases, and find the right victims to make the story come alive.

And, oh yes, “weave together enough of a narrative to carry people through the complicated, boring aspects of it,” Gilbert explained in a telephone interview. With hardly a trace of understatement he added, “It’s tough writing about things like mineral rights and accountability.”

Herald Courier editor J. Todd Foster said that there was one other ingredient: Gilbert himself. “He’s the smartest 20-something person I’ve ever seen in a newsroom,” said Foster in a phone interview. Foster remembers his reaction on first hearing Gilbert’s pitch in November 2008. “I became very excited, but I told him, We’re going to have to take on a very complex issue and deal with people in the middle of it,” Foster said. “That was Daniel’s great achievement: being able to do this.”

The series began with the discovery that Gilbert’s tip — that the state might not be paying millions of dollars of royalties owed to the owners of property from which companies extract huge volumes of gas — couldn’t be pursued properly with piecemeal stories. “I knew that I wanted to take a good, long, comprehensive look,” he said, establishing a framework so “readers wouldn’t get lost and then forget about it.”

He had almost gotten lost himself. “It honestly took months for me to understand what the controversies were,” he went on. There was no great Aha moment in his reporting, but rather “I may have had mini-Aha moments along the way. I would run up against things I wouldn’t understand. I’d have to dissect them.”

Strangely, he found that sorting it all out himself aided him in formulating what would become the eight parts of the series. It started with how mismanagement was bottling royalties up in the Virginia Gas and Oil Board’s “money prison,” then concentrated on the wronged citizens, and then the legal leverage that all seemed to rest with the companies — despite state supreme court rulings that sided with the citizens. There also were the questions about how conscientiously gas companies were contributing to the state escrow fund.

To measure the size of those contributions, and the money being bottled up — he eventually calculated it at around $24 million — Gilbert needed to confirm that the gas-production database he assembled through FOIA requests could be cross-referenced with monthly royalty escrow numbers. “I found that they could,” he said.

For that, the credit belongs to an Investigative Reporters and Editors seminar Gilbert attended in Columbia, Mo., thanks to the Herald Courier.

And, perhaps, thanks to his editor’s and his publisher’s taste for Red Bull and vodka.

Asked by his young reporter to foot the bill for the IRE course, Foster figured he had a selling job to do with his own boss, publisher Carl Esposito: “I took some Red Bull and vodka over to the publisher, and I told him, I’ve okayed a week at the University of Missouri. He said sure. Then he called me the next day, when there was no vodka flowing, and he said, ‘Please tell me it’s worth it.’ ”

It was. The databases that Gilbert learned to manage seemed to tell a clearer story of citizens who were not receiving significant payments from an enormous fund. Gilbert’s reaction: “There’s no reason I can think of why money isn’t going into these accounts; and if there IS, it must be fascinating.”

The reasons cited by the gas companies and the state didn’t turn out to be fascinating. And, in fact, they weren’t reasons at all. The situation with payments flowing into the escrow fund, as well as disbursements, reflected what Gilbert wrote was the fund’s “obscure, untidy legacy.” And despite his giving the industry a fair representation in his series, he said in the interview, “The gas industry is not a particular fan of mine. Some of them complained that the series was biased, and didn’t include all the good things the gas companies do, and all the people who are getting royalties. My response was, Okay, but that’s not what I was writing about.”

The writing in the stories reflects Gilbert’s uncanny ability to let regular people express their reactions to being wronged. Told of the thousands she was due from gas rights she’d never thought much about, one woman simply exclaimed, “Oh, my goodness. Oh, my word.” He also displays a gift for translating numbers into meaningful information, so “I don’t just give people a whole lot of zeroes.” In one story, he wrote, the 1.2-cubic-feet-per-second daily methane flow from one family’s property is “enough gas to satisfy the heating and cooking needs of an average American family for more than a year.”

The seven Pulitzer jurors who judged the Public Service category especially loved the results the Herald Courier produced: the state legislature began to act; the Gas and Oil Board was audited; and most recently, royalty money was closer to flowing to deserving landowners.

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“The wheels are turning,” said Cape Cod Times editor in chief Paul Provonost, who served on the jury that made it one of the three finalists forwarded to the Pulitzer board. “Especially in Public Service, showing some sort of impact is vital. There were several other entries that were very good, but perhaps lacked the impact.”

Others with impact enough to qualify as finalists were a property-tax reform series by New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press, and a collaboration of the Los Angeles Times and investigative nonprofit ProPublica that looked at a California nursing scandal.

“I tried not to have a soft spot for a paper that is small,” Provonost said in a telephone interview, noting his own Cape Cod affiliation. “But small papers really do have a hard time” bringing off a major project like the Herald Courier’s.

It was the second straight winner of the Public Service gold medal for work by a recent college grad whose stories were largely off the radar screen created by pre-Pulitzer awards. (Gilbert did also win a Scripps Howard and an IRE award.) Last year, the Las Vegas Sun received the Public Service Pulitzer for a series by Alexandra Berzon, then 29, who investigated the causes of construction-worker deaths on the Las Vegas Strip. It was her very first story at the paper, after being hired by the Sun out of graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. Since winning the Sun that prize, she has now moved on — to The Wall Street Journal.

Is Herald Courier editor Foster — at 49, a career investigative journalist himself — worried about Gilbert now leaving his seven-reporter staff for a bigger paper? “I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays here for a while,” Foster said. “If he does leave, I hope he leaves the day after I retire.”

Roy Harris is the author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism,” now updated to include the 2008 and 2009 Pulitzer Prizes, and available in paperback. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor in The Economist Group organization.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the Bristol Herald Courier in two places. Also, companies paying royalty money into Virginia state escrow accounts were gas companies, not coal companies.

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Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of Pulitzer's Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, published in an updated edition…
Roy J. Harris Jr.

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