That sort of celebration wasn’t in the cards for InsideClimate News, this year’s surprise winner of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its three-part series, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of.” That’s not because the staff wasn’t happy about the win, or that the series exploring a long-forgotten oil spill in Michigan didn’t deserve the cheers.
It’s because the reporters and editors all live in different cities. The champagne still flowed — the only difference was the pop of the cork was heard through the phone and on Skype.
“We are truly a virtual organization,” said Susan White, the nonprofit website’s executive editor. “I am in San Diego, publisher David Sasson is in Brooklyn, and our reporters are in Washington, Boston, and New York.”
The underdog, with a full-time staff of just seven, managed to upset two legacy finalists, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, as well as 50 or so other entrants by devoting its scarce resources to an ambitious, in-depth investigative series that began as a fluke.
In 2010, White had sent reporter Elizabeth McGowan on assignment to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route in Nebraska, before any major media outlets had begun covering the controversial project. When the project began to gain national interest, White decided to send McGowan back.
In speaking with local farmers and residents in the rural areas that would be affected by the pipeline, McGowan began to hear stories about a spill in Michigan. Documentation was sparse, and McGowan couldn’t seem to get any good answers, so White sent her to the spill site in Marshall, Mich., in November 2011. Meanwhile, fellow reporter Lisa Song, an MIT science graduate with limited journalism experience, tracked down the scientific aspects of the story.
“Doing the investigative work put a huge strain on us,” White said. “We have no resources and little funding. Managing editor Stacy Feldman kept the site running, and there were a lot of days we didn’t have a new story to put up.”
David Hasemyer, a veteran reporter from the U-T San Diego, was recruited by White to help the team out. Hasemyer had been laid off by the U-T and was working for FEMA when he got the call from White.
“I called him and said, ‘I really need someone whose work I know that I can totally trust,’” White said. “He said, ‘Of course,’ and worked like a crazy person while keeping his job with FEMA. It was the work he was meant to do.”
Bringing on Hasemyer strained the site’s already stretched budget. Dependent on donors such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Marisla Foundation, and the Grantham Foundation, White’s budget was so tight, she couldn’t even afford to send a photographer.
“We didn’t have the time, money, or any real bells or whistles,” White said. “But it was the right story to tell, so you just push forward and do your best to tell it.”
InsideClimate News has similarities with the nonprofit website ProPublica, which has won two Pulitzers for its investigative work despite launching less than five years ago. InsideClimate News is only published online, and other news outlets are allowed to run the site’s original work through a creative commons license that links back to the original source.
White worked at ProPublica, and was an editor on Sheri Fink’s 2010 Pulitzer win for a series on what happened at a New Orleans hospital cut off by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, so she had a bit of a Pulitzer pedigree to help her out.
“Somewhere along the line, you’re working with the elements of a story and suddenly realize you have something,” White said, noting that the Dilbit disaster series also won the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, and was a finalist in the environmental reporting category for the Scripps Howard Awards.
The business model at InsideClimate News is the same as ProPublica as well. Donors fund the site and, while operations are lean, White said the site is stable and sustainable. Partners such as Bloomberg, McClatchy, and The Associated Press publish the site’s news over their wires, enabling traffic to grow on InsideClimate News to about 200,000 pageviews a month. White hopes the publicity of the Pulitzer win will help bring in more resources for the editorial team to grow.
“I’m hoping we can get some sizable grants to help develop our website and maybe hire another reporter,” White said. “We don’t need a lot of bells and whistles, but if we’re able to hire someone new, maybe we’ll have all the time zones covered.”
Environmental reporting has hit a rough patch over recent years. A study by The Daily Climate found that media coverage of climate change has steadily declined since 2009. The New York Times closed its environmental desk earlier this year, sites such as Treehugger and MNH have merged and shed jobs, and outlets such as the Washington Post’s green-themed Sprig have long since turned out the lights.
Still, these cuts in coverage breed opportunity for sites such as InsideClimate News, and despite the challenges, White is optimistic about her team’s chances for long-term success.
“I think my husband said it best,” White said. “He said, ‘You know, it’s really a David and Goliath story. Only in this case, David didn’t even have a stone.’”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and reporter for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.