The Bristol Herald Courier in Virginia won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for an eight-part series by Daniel Gilbert. The series looked at the mismanagement of natural-gas royalties owed to landowners in southwestern Virginia. Gilbert writes in part one:
“The escrow fund is an obscure, untidy legacy of state lawmakers’ determination to develop Virginia’s most abundant gas, coalbed methane, without tackling the thorny question of who owns it. In passing the 1990 Virginia Gas and Oil Act, the legislature created a kind of eminent domain, known as forced pooling, that authorizes gas companies to produce gas belonging to others and to pay royalties into escrow when they cannot find mineral owners or if the gas ownership is in dispute.
“But the state has done little to monitor the gas industry’s compliance, and the billion-dollar energy conglomerates don’t always make the required payments into escrow. Of about 750 active individual accounts in escrow, between 22 percent and 55 percent received no royalty payments during months when the corresponding wells produced gas over an 18-month period, a Bristol Herald Courier investigation has found.”
Today’s Tip: If databases and numbers aren’t your thing, take a class.
As noted by managing editor’s J. Todd Foster’s opinion piece that ran on the first day of the series, Gilbert attended a computer-assisted reporting boot camp offered by Investigative Reporters and Editors at the University of Missouri before he began tackling the data and finding the discrepancies between gas production and escrow payments.
You can check out CAR classes on the Investigative Reporters and Editors site, as well as other courses offered by IRE. You can also check with local journalism schools to see if they offer a course that you can audit. Members of IRE ($60 a year) can also join an active listserv about computer-assisted reporting issues and get help from others on specific questions.
For tips from another 2010 Pulitzer winner, check out this Q-and-A and video with Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, whose “Cashing in on Kids” series won the award for local reporting.