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Turning prize money into better training for rural reporters

SHOWCASE | September 29, 2010

Daniel Gilbert, whose work won the Pulitzer public service award for a small Virginia newspaper this year, is using other prize money – $10,000 from Scripps Howard – to help fund a new computer-assisted training program run by Investigative Reporters and Editors.

By Daniel Gilbert

The best investigative reporting today comes almost exclusively from powerhouse metropolitan news organizations. That isn’t because important stories only exist in big cities.

It is because too often, producing journalism in the public interest is a question of resources, when it should spring from need. Nowhere is this brand of reporting needed more than in the vast swaths of rural America, whose communities are not served by deeply resourced metropolitan outlets. And nowhere are reporting resources more scarce.

That’s why I’m launching R-CAR, the Fund for Computer-Assisted Reporting.

Effective accountability journalism relies not only on journalists’ ability to interview people, but to query data as well. The goal of R-CAR is to train rural journalists in the language of data, a critical investigative tool rarely accessible to small news organizations.

The fund is endowed at the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. It will provide fellowships for journalists – at small, rural newspapers, television stations and websites – to attend CAR training taught by Investigative Reporters and Editors, based at the University of Missouri.

I attended such training sessions in August 2009, when I was a reporter for the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier, of 33,000 circulation. I was probing why millions of dollars in natural-gas royalties were accumulating in escrow accounts controlled by an obscure Virginia regulatory board. I wanted to independently test whether energy corporations required to pay royalties into the accounts were doing so. But I didn’t know how.

With the IRE training, I was able to build a database that allowed me to compare royalty deposits into escrow with corresponding gas production by well. I queried thousands of records, and the data spoke: Companies had not paid any royalties at all into a significant number of accounts.

The subsequent articles, which combined data analysis with a year’s worth of shoe-leather reporting, resulted in energy corporations quickly depositing more than $1 million in outstanding royalties. The state legislature passed several bills designed to facilitate the release of royalties in escrow to Southwest Virginia property owners. State regulators implemented measures to improve oversight of the royalties in escrow.

The series, “Underfoot, Out of Reach,” also won the kind of journalism awards normally snatched up by media powerhouses, including the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. But another honor, the Scripps Howard Foundation’s award for community journalism, specifically recognizes small news organizations reporting on issues of local concern.

The Scripps Howard award came with a $10,000 cash prize, and I have donated those proceeds to establish R-CAR. My donation is being matched by the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s Research Challenge Trust Fund. Each additional donation to R-CAR before April 30, 2011 will be matched by state funds as well.

Our strategy is to promote high-impact journalism by concentrating our funds on sending journalists to the most intensive training. For now, the proceeds generated from the endowment are enough to pay for one rural journalist a year to attend a six-day IRE training.

With every fellowship, we hope to help rural journalists uncover stories that no one else will. 

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