Here's to the old journalism, the newspaper kind, the kind we thought was dead. Here's to the determined reporter, idealistic and underpaid, slogging through lies and obfuscation, red tape and blue smoke, smelling a good story and not giving up until it's in print.
Here's to Dan Gilbert and the Bristol Herald Courier, winner of American journalism's biggest prize, the Pulitzer for Public Service, for reporting on the mismanagement of natural gas royalties owed to thousands of landowners in Virginia.
There were all of five people in the newsroom today when the word came down that the Herald Courier (circ. 33,000) had won the award.
The Bristol paper covers the area of southwestern Virginia that is home to clans of Sutherland and Tiller. My wife, Lois, is part of those clans and still deeply attached to the place they call home. She's one of innumerable heirs to the mineral rights on a plot of ground with natural gas wells.
When she received a royalty check for 18 cents for her share of the gas production, she took an interest in the Byzantine ways of the Virginia Gas and Oil Board and all of the shenanigans associated with it. She asked her cousins to alert her to any stories the local paper might publish about the board and its functions while she began her own little long-distance investigation into whether any of her kin were being short-changed in this whole business.
Last June, Dan Gilbert wrote a story about an attorney general's ruling on the legality of the gas board's practice of "pooling" gas-well mineral rights. Lois e-mailed a comment on the story to the paper's web site. "The issue is not whether the forced pooling is legal," she wrote, "the issue is whether it's fair. What's needed is a true investigation. . . ."
It turned out that Gilbert had already started one. "It's a story that cries out for sunlight," he wrote back, "but a hard one to get at. The threads are in far-flung rural courthouses, the records are not always accessible or well-kept, and the complexity is often staggering. I am beginning to wrap my mind around it. . ."
When Lois went back to Dickinson County, Va., for her family reunion in July, she met with Gilbert and shared with him the information she had dug up on behalf of her own family. (Her research led to a $23,000 payment of back royalties to an elderly aunt.)
For the next seven months, Lois, who edited several Pulitzer Prize winning stories during her own newspaper career, encouraged Gilbert's work from afar. By December she and I were both convinced that his work merited consideration for a Pulitzer.
Dan Gilbert had already won two other major journalism prizes when his Pulitzer was announced. Just four years after graduating with honors from the University of Chicago with a degree in international studies, he was being recognized for doing the kind of enterprise journalism that had almost vanished from American newspapers. Corporate ownership of mass media, putting profit before public service, is bankrupting American newspapers not just financially but morally as well.
How encouraging it is to see a small paper's management commit the time and resources needed to develop Gilbert's series of stories, which included a reader-accessible online data base that land-owners could check to determine if they were owed royalties from the escrow fund. Yes, the project was staggeringly complex, and Mr. Gilbert did indeed "wrap his mind around it," explaining it with a clarity and depth that has triggered cries for and official efforts toward reform. And more than a million dollars in back royalties have been paid out as a result of his reporting.
Here's to that old time journalism, and a young man who's not only committed to it, but does it superbly.