By: Jennifer Saba
No one gave the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier advance notice that it had won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday, a courtesy extended by insiders who leak to the big papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
It was around 2:30 on Monday afternoon that Managing Editor J. Todd Foster had a premonition that maybe the paper would be acknowledged. So he ran out and picked up two bottles of inexpensive champagne and threw them in the trunk of his car — just in case.
It’s a good thing he did: At 3:05 the Herald Courier received word that it had won the Public Service gold medal for its work by 28-year-old staff writer Daniel Gilbert, exposing the mismanagement of natural gas royalties rightfully owed to Virginia landowners.
The 8-day series ran in December 2009 and uncovered millions in delinquent payments to landowners thanks to a Virginia law that allowed natural gas companies to set up a complicated royalty system that often never meted out money to its rightful owners. The series caused the Virginia legislature to reconsider the law, which is currently pending in Richmond, said Foster.
It took 13 months of work for Gilbert to finally get to the bottom of the story after he received a tip from a reader to pay special attention to the gas and oil board in Virginia. “I was able to learn there was $25 million in escrow that belonged to landowners who couldn’t collect it,” said Gilbert.
Because the story required data-mining know-how, Gilbert had requested that the paper send him to a week-long boot camp held by Investigative Reporters and Editors. “I went to the publisher’s condo that night with alcohol and got him to agree to send Daniel to the IRE workshop,” said Foster, who praised Herald Courier Publisher Carl Esposito for his support.
To Gilbert, the paper’s Public Service award validates the work of newspapers. “This underscores public service and accountability reporting in rural areas,” he said. “If a newspaper is not going to do it, it’s not going to happen.”