This year’s Pulitzer prize for public service went to 28-year-old Daniel Gilbert of the Bristol Herald Courier for his investigation into the opaque system by which energy companies pay (or avoid paying, or forget to pay — it’s very convoluted) landowners royalties on the natural gas they mine from people’s property.
A tip from a reader led Gilbert to investigate the Virginia Gas and Oil Board. He would eventually write more than 20 stories on the issue, and lately Virginia has enacted new legislation on the issue, and the state has decided for the first time in a decade to audit the escrow fund where the royalties are kept.
FishbowlNY caught up with Gilbert today to talk about the origins of his Pulitzer-winning story, the significance of the prize in today’s media environment and what we can expect to see from him going forward.
After the jump, four questions for Daniel Gilbert, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
FishbowlNY: Where did the idea for the series come from?
Daniel Gilbert: It was a reader who had actually first pointed out the issue to me, who had read some of the stories I’d written on accountability, and called me up and said, “You should really pay attention to the Virginia Gas and Oil Board.” I said, “What’s the Virginia Gas and Oil Board?” She said, “Well, let me tell you,” and things kind of flowed from there over the course of about 13 months before the first article in the series published.
Mostly I cover courts in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee where we straddle the border, but I also do some enterprise work, but I had not done anything on the energy industry.
FBNY: Did you have a sense early that this was something that might result in a policy change for the state of Virginia? At what point did you realize that you might have a Pulitzer on your hands?
DG: I’m not sure that the realization ever sunk in that way, but the way I looked at it, the way I approached it from the beginning, was there is about $25 million in natural gas royalties that is sitting in escrow accounts. That money belongs to people who can’t collect it. To me, that was a sizable problem. What is the money doing there, and why can’t the people who own it get it? That was the point of departure, and I figured that with the few things I learned about that money, and the great frustration of the landowners who were entitled to these royalties that I personally witnessed — the lack of understanding of the complexity of the issue — right there I could tell that it was a substantial issue, and that’s how I pitched it to my editors.
FBNY: What do you think the Pulitzer means now, when so much about the future of journalism is uncertain?
DG: When the Pulitzer judges give an award, they also send a message, and without trying to get inside their heads, I think that this award is a statement of the importance of this type of reporting, particularly in rural areas, the kind of place that is not necessarily going to have a big news organization with lots of resources to dig into tough stories. But those stories are nonetheless important, and all the more important because they don’t get covered. And I’d point out that the system that I’ve written about has been in place for 20 years.
FBNY: Do you anticipate any dramatic changes in your life now that you’ve won?