“Old-Fashioned Journalism Published on a New Platform”
Pulitzer-winning InsideClimate News has evolved from a small commentary site to a news outlet stressing original reporting. Wed., May 8, 2013
By Leigh Ann Renzulli
Leign Ann Renzulli (email@example.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
It started as an experiment.
In 2007, David Sassoon and Stacy Feldman launched a blog about climate issues. Content was limited to commentary on environmental news and included no original reporting.
Five years and six months later, that blog has become InsideClimate News, a full-blown news outlet that in April became one of three Web-based organizations to win a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.
A trio of reporters, Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer, won the prize for "The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of."
The entry submitted to the Pulitzer committee included a three-part narrative detailing the events of the 2010 Michigan oil spill from multiple perspectives, including EPA inspectors, the company responsible for the spill and people who were forced to leave their homes as a result of the accident. The narrative was followed up by a series of articles focusing on gaps in federal pipeline safety regulations and the effect that the rebuilding of the damaged pipeline is having on residents along the route.
"We knew that we had a great story that needed to be told," says Susan White, executive editor at InsideClimate News, "But we never thought we would win a Pulitzer Prize."
Sassoon, publisher of the New York-based site, says the prize and all the attention InsideClimate News has attracted as a result will pay dividends. "The recognition is going to help us raise money. Our ambition is to be three times the size we are tight now as soon as possible."
The story is particularly pertinent considering the discussions around expanding the use of oil pipelines throughout the country, according to White.
"I think the subject was very important and is in the news now," she says. "More than 10,000 miles of new pipeline is being planned for the country. So we used the 2010 spill as the vehicle to make people understand more about the pipeline in general, and we told it in a compelling way."
The Dilbit Disaster project began with an in-depth, seven-month investigation into the spill.
"A lot of people have heralded the award as recognizing a new kind of journalism," says Feldman, now InsideClimate News' managing editor. "But it's actually just old- fashioned journalism published on a new platform. The reporters were searching through tons of documents, interviewing tons of people and going to the oil spill. It was a lot of hard work."
InsideClimate News is a nonprofit news organization that receives the majority of its funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. The publication has seven full time staff members, four of them reporters.
"It took us a lot of time and it really strained our organization," White says. "Stacy had to keep the site running while I took two reporters off."
Sassoon emphasizes that the Pulitzer, though officially bestowed upon McGowan, Song, and Hasemyer, was a group effort.
"We're Web-based, and we need to feed the beast," Sassoon says. "At the same time, we're working on a big project and nothing is coming out the other end for seven months. Reporters that weren't working on that story were working really hard on other stories."
InsideClimate News joins its better-known peers, The Huffington Post and ProPublica on the roster of online news outlets that have won Pulitzers for their reporting.
"We found ourselves in the middle of a media storm. It was quite amazing," Feldman says. "There were a couple of weeks there that we were on the radio and all over the media and TV. It was just exhilarating and exciting to tell our story."
While she recognizes that the media attention is important to InsideClimate News and the story itself, White also believes the Pulitzer win is important to investigative journalists everywhere.
"Us winning was really a testimony to all the working journalists out there," she says. "I really think that us winning this is sort of a tribute to those who are slogging in and out in the trenches. It's an honor to their work and their perseverance."