Virginia’s Bristol Herald Courier celebrates Pulitzer for public service; 7 reporters on staffBy Steve Szkotak, AP
Monday, April 12, 2010
Small Va. paper celebrates journalism’s top prize
RICHMOND, Va. — With only seven reporters on the Bristol Herald Courier’s staff, two bottles of cheap champagne were plenty to toast the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting on Monday.
The Media General newspaper with a circulation of 33,000 received journalism’s highest award for the reporting of Daniel Gilbert on the mismanagement of natural gas royalties owed to landowners in Virginia.
“It’s a hell of an honor,” Gilbert, 28, said moments after learning of the newspaper’s award. “It underscores the importance of public service reporting, especially in rural areas.”
Editor J. Todd Foster bought the champagne across the street at Food City before the announcement and stuck the bottles in the trunk of his car. He figured he could celebrate a Pulitzer or console himself later if the newspaper didn’t win for the celebrated series.
“I’m doing great now,” said Foster, who also delivered a cake to the newsroom for the celebration.
The newspaper in an area known primarily for Bristol Motor Speedway reports on an a vast area in far southwest Virginia on the Tennessee border.
“This is validation that a newspaper with limited resources can do world-class journalism,” Foster said as he ordered out for more champagne.
Foster said Gilbert’s reporting required “a lot of shoe leather” and a tenacious journalist.
“It’s why newspapers will continue to survive in some form,” Foster said of Gilbert’s reporting. “Nobody else is going to do this sort of reporting.”
Gilbert investigated a Virginia law that showed how a state board allowed the energy industry to funnel into an unaudited escrow fund tens of millions of dollars in royalties owed to people in one of the poorest regions of the state.
The series led to the first audit of the decades-old escrow account intended for those payments and reform legislation.
“Those people who had mineral rights weren’t getting paid,” Gilbert said.
The reporting had already garnered national recognition, including top prize for newspapers under 100,000 circulation in an Investigative Reporters and Editors contest.
Gilbert, a University of Chicago graduate who had a freelance career before joining the Bristol newspaper in 2007, said he began his reporting in late 2008 and it “took months to figure out what the story was.”
He read books on mineral rights, spoke to a lot of attorneys and attended IRE training for computer-assisted reporting.
“I used whatever time I could get to read up on the law,” Gilbert said.
Foster, a veteran investigative journalist, said there were only a couple reporters in the newsroom when he learned the newspaper had won a Pulitzer.
“We have seven news reporters covering an area the size of Connecticut,” Foster said. “Nobody was really here.”
For his part, Gilbert said the Pulitzer won’t send him looking for a new job.
“I have no plans to leave,” he said. “Journalism is a pretty uncertain place these days. There’s still a lot to do.”