Monday, April 12, 2010

A Very Special Pulitzer Prize

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.

19 comments:

  1. And some part of the prestigious recognition awarded young Gilbert must be credited to Lois for the sharing of her own research and her encouragement to a rising star of that 'old time journalism.'

    Great story! Thank you for sharing.

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  2. Lois is clucking like a mother hen.

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  3. kudos from one of the few who had the privilege to work for both Lois and Tom.

    cheers,

    murray dubin

    p.s. come visit me on Facebook. dan biddle and i have a book coming out in September.

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  4. Someone asked me recently who was the best editor I had at The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Lois Wark shot right to the top of a long list. She was caring and courageous, but most importantly of all, I thought, she could really tune up a story. I'm not surprised that she was a silent force behind yet another Pulitzer.

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  5. Well done Pianist! You captured the moment.

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  6. Wow, Tom, this is fabulous background! I was already fascinated by the story behind this Pulitzer, that this tiny paper and this young guy had the commitment and the guts to do this series. How great that Lois had a hand in it! Kudos to her...she must be thrilled.
    (And greetings to both of you from Denise Cowie in Philadelphia...)

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  7. I'll always remember the kindness and generosity (as well as the editing chops) of both of you, especially that which was shown our tiny and difficult lost girl on the Inquirer staff. It's no surprise that Lois is still helping our colleagues. Long may she cluck

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  8. Fabulous and important...Congratulations

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  9. This is just great. Way to go.

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  10. I tell you, the warks are a true inspirations. Lois, I'm still at it in DC. And got a finalist nod for the McClatchy Wash Buro. Hope all is well with you two. If u come east again, give me a holler. Jim Asher. (jasher@mcclatchydc.com or 202-256-1316)

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  11. Boy, those Warks are an inspiration. Lois, still thinking of your influence over us all in Philly. Happily, it's still paying off. I got the McClatchy Wash Buro a finalist nod this round. First since 1991. Now on to next year!!! Best to u, with much appreciation. J

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  12. Thanx, Jim, and back to you: I've been telling anyone who would listen, and some who wouldn't, that for the last nine years, the best journalism being done in Washington was coming out of the MxClatchy bureau. Keep up the great work!

    Trivial PS: just learned that tha iPad spell check elf won't permit the user to type "bee, you, are, oh." The little bastard keeps turning it into "burp." Excuse me!

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  13. What a sweet story. You two were two of the best, and I will always have fond memories of Lois trying to coax the big TV out of me. BTW: The Daily News Pulitzer was very cool as well.

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  14. Leslie West HoffeckerApril 18, 2010 at 10:18 PM

    Tom -- The influence of our Inquirer can be found in the most unexpected places, and I loved this back story. I found this through Vernon's post on Facebook and am delighted to be reading about you and Lois. Glad to see you both doing so well, and in such a beautiful part of the country.

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  15. Emilie LounsberryApril 27, 2010 at 1:10 PM

    Bravo to Lois for mentoring this talented and industrious young journalist. An inspiring story that shows why journalism must endure!

    Best,
    Emilie

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  16. What nice comments from you all. Thanks so much. Today we all wait with hearts thumping to find out the fate of our Inquirer colleagues in this God-awful auction. Whatever happens, old friendships endure. Old comrades stand together. Old journalists never quit.

    With love,
    Lois

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  17. Emilie LounsberryJune 4, 2010 at 10:58 AM

    This story is inspiring a new generation of journalists. On the final day of class at The College of New Jersey, where I teach, I recounted Lois' role in helping Dan Gilbert build the story. At the end of class, I told students in all three of my classes: "I hope you all have an editor like Lois Wark one of these days."
    Cheers,
    Emilie

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  18. Lois was without a doubt the best editor I ever had. If I hadn't "graduated" to working for lesser editors, my comparatively brief (14-year) newspaper career would undoubtedly have had greater longevity. Lois, what the world needs right now is "Action Line" on steroids. Are you game? If you are, I am. -- Maryanne Conheim (philamara@earthlink.net)

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