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From AJR,   June/July 2010  issue

A Commitment to Investigative Reporting...   

...pays big dividends for a small Virginia daily.


By Stephanie Gleason
Stephanie Gleason is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Daniel Gilbert had just returned from the courthouse, where he'd picked up copies of the court dockets he was examining at his desk in the newsroom of Southwest Virginia's Bristol Herald Courier on April 12. While the Pulitzers were to be announced that afternoon and he had already won awards for a series he had written from Investigative Reporters and Editors and Scripps Howard, he thought there was nothing to be gained by frantically refreshing the Pulitzer Web page every minute or so. Then he received this brief text message from a friend. "Congrats!" it read.

The 28-year-old reporter turned to his computer and brought up the list of winners. It was then that he learned his eight-part series on natural gas companies withholding millions of dollars in royalty payments from Southwest Virginia landowners had earned the 30,000-circulation Herald Courier the Pulitzer Prize for public service.

Gilbert's stories told of landowners who were owed thousands of dollars in royalties from wells pumping coalbed methane from their land. A 20-year practice of keeping money in escrow accounts had allowed energy companies to profit from selling the gas while the landowners often received no compensation. He found that millions of dollars were languishing in escrow and another $1.1 million was missing from the accounts completely.

"It's pretty unsexy stuff for a newspaper story," J. Todd Foster, the Herald Courier's editor, acknowledges. "I understand the kneejerk reaction to spike a story like this it's complicated. But what we do is complicated."

"I would think it's something the national media should have jumped all over, but we were happy to tackle it ourselves," he adds. But the national media weren't the only ones who missed the story. Foster has since learned from a reporter who pitched this story 10 years ago and then five years later that two prior managing editors at the Herald Courier had rejected it.

Bristol is on the Virginia-Tennessee border, and the Media General-owned Herald Courier covers 5,000 square miles in two states with just seven reporters. Despite the task of reporting on so much territory with so few people, the newspaper has made a commitment to investigative journalism, a very labor-intensive endeavor. Two of the seven reporters, Gilbert and Michael L. Owens, are considered investigative reporters, but Foster says all the reporters are expected to do investigative work. "We no longer can be all things to all people," Foster says. When it comes to investigative reporting, "you just have to do it. It comes down to focusing on quality versus quantity."

Foster's penchant for investigative journalism comes from his years of experience doing this type of work at Portland's Oregonian, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, the Pensacola News Journal and the Chattanooga Free Press.

He decided to go into editing after covering the sniper shootings in Washington, D.C., for People magazine in 2002. During this time his first child was born. "We took him out of the hospital in the middle of the spree, and I zigzagged to our car with him in his car seat," Foster recalls. "My wife said, 'We've got to get out of here. Why don't you go into editing and let's go to a small town.' "

Foster brought his passion for in-depth reporting to small towns first Waynesboro, Virginia, and now Bristol. When he first arrived in Bristol in October 2006, Foster set out to compile the salaries of all government employees in the region, a database now complete on the Herald Courier Web site.

The commitment to investigative journalism is what brought Daniel Gilbert to the paper. After finishing his B.A. in international studies at the University of Chicago, Gilbert was hired in fall 2005 to cover immigration and Hispanic community issues at the Potomac News and Manassas Journal Messenger in Prince William County, Virginia. While focusing on the issue he decided to start driving from one end of the U.S.-Mexican border to the other.

Starting in Brownsville, Texas, and finishing in California, Gilbert drove along the border, living in his car, writing stories from March to November 2007. Not working for any news organization "I wanted to see if I could do things the hard way." he freelanced, mainly for El Tiempo Latino, the Washington Post-owned Spanish language weekly, but also for Scripps Howard News Service, the Dallas Morning News, the Christian Science Monitor and several other news outlets.

His months along the border changed his idea about the kind of work he wanted to do, Gilbert says. While he originally had imagined himself as a foreign correspondent or stringer, he realized that his transient lifestyle kept him from really getting to know one place and developing sources there. "At that point, I decided I'd like to find someplace to anchor myself in a community and do something I'm fairly sure matters."

Gilbert says he joined the Bristol paper in December 2007 "for the opportunity to take some in-depth looks at issues that mattered here." Nearly a year later, he received a tip from a reader saying that he should pay more attention to the Virginia Gas and Oil Board, which deals with ownership of surface and mineral rights. Gilbert started attending the board's meetings and launched his 13-month investigation when he learned of disputes over royalty payments to landowners.

"I chipped away at the reporting incrementally. It wasn't an everyday thing. It wasn't always an every week thing. But whenever I had time I would make a list of what I thought I needed to figure out to move the story forward. And then I'd make calls and look for people who would explain things to me I didn't understand and gradually progress that way."

He filed Freedom of Information Act requests that yielded memos, correspondence and data, including monthly escrow account statements. The data came on spreadsheets, and Gilbert found that he could match the escrow accounts to specific gas wells. At the time, however, Gilbert did not have the skills to effectively analyze the data he had.

He requested that the newspaper pay for him to attend a weeklong National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting training conference so he could learn how to analyze the information, saying that Foster had promised Gilbert would receive the training.

" 'When the hell did I do that?' " Foster says he responded. " 'We don't have money to send you anywhere.' [Gilbert] said, 'I promise you that you said that.' And he's the most honest guy I know, and I realized I probably said that. I said, 'Give me 24 hours,' and I went to the publisher's condo and he signed off on it."

Says Publisher Carl Esposito, "When it got to the point of sending Daniel to NICAR, I thought it made all the sense in the world."

Ultimately, Gilbert uncovered $25 million in unpaid royalties in the escrow accounts. He could also see that many royalties were missing from the accounts altogether. Although he included only a few families in his stories, Gilbert says he spoke with at least 50 people who had money in escrow and that the total number of affected landowners is in the thousands. As part of the series, the paper created an online database that landowners can use to find out how much they have in escrow.

The story spurred a major change in Virginia law. "Gov. Bob McDonnell on Tuesday signed legislation designed to release millions of dollars of contested natural-gas royalties held in state-run escrow accounts to landowners," Gilbert wrote in a story on April 15.

Unfortunately, however, the law doesn't include a lot of specifics about how people are going to get their money and the Virginia Gas and Oil Board does not feel it is the board's responsibility to determine ownership.

"The state board responsible for diverting those royalties into escrow cannot apply that law to release the money to mineral owners, the state's top energy official said Tuesday," Gilbert reported on April 21. "The director of the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy said the twin bills that clarified coalbed methane ownership did not give the board the authority to determine ownership."

The state has, however, allocated money to increase the two-person staff responsible for monitoring payments by energy companies into the escrow accounts and to build an online database to improve the state's ability to monitor compliance and to provide the public with access to ownership information. "I don't think anyone's going to snap their fingers and everyone gets their money. But hopefully landowners are going to start getting some relief," Gilbert says.

Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, describes the Gilbert saga as "a remarkable result." He adds, "It shows that even with a limited amount of resources, if you really fix on a story and go after it in-depth, you can have a substantial impact."

Gissler is quick to point out, though, that resources do matter. "In general, you're going to do more effective work if you've got adequate resources than if you don't. But having said that as a general statement, that doesn't mean that a deft use of limited resources cannot result in very significant results."

Herald Courier Publisher Esposito says in-depth reporting will continue to be a hallmark of the small paper. "With fewer and fewer resources you have to decide who you want to be and what you want to do," he says. "We think dedicating as much of our resource pool to projects of this nature are the keys to real success."