After Pulitzer win, saga for reporter and story continues
Monday, April 19, 2010
BRISTOL, VA. -- The scrappy reporter just a few years out of college got a tip from a reader: Thousands of property owners who controlled the rights to the natural gas beneath their land were being stiffed out of millions of dollars in royalties.
For months, Daniel Gilbert, a staff writer at the Bristol Herald Courier, dug into an injustice, guided by sources such as Jamie Hale, a laid-off power plant worker who owns 40 acres of woods and figured he was owed $200,000 in royalties.
Last week, Gilbert's investigation won the nation's highest journalism honor, the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, and Virginia -- impelled by Gilbert's reporting -- has passed a law that's designed to make it easier to get royalties to the landowners.
In a rural area where jobs are scarce and the use of food stamps has shot up by nearly a third in the past three years, Gilbert's story about gas royalties created a rare burst of optimism. But in this time of economic distress, even good news can be fleeting: A Pulitzer gold medal was once a near-guarantee of a vastly better job, but Gilbert is talking about leaving the industry, having recently considered law school or joining the Foreign Service.
And Hale, saddled with $20,000 in debt, is skeptical that he will ever see a dollar from the gas under the land where his ancestors are buried. "It's hard to be positive until you see something -- some money," Hale said.
After the initial tip, Gilbert, 28, who grew up in Prince William County, scoured Virginia's bureaucracy and banged up against government stonewalling as he sought to find out why the payments remained trapped in a state escrow account.
Gilbert profiled Hale as part of an eight-part Herald Courier series in December, an extraordinary commitment of time and resources for a struggling newspaper that, like so many across the country, has seen its circulation plummet in the face of swift technological change.
Hale would eventually bring the complicated story to life for Gilbert, but at first, the property owner was wary. "I didn't know if Daniel was on the companies' side or the people's side," Hale said. "I didn't want him to portray us as a bunch of hicks who didn't know what was going on -- because we do know what's going on."
To Gilbert, Hale symbolized the region's ironic plight: "There was a certain drama of people from humble means living on top of tremendous resources of natural wealth."
From his small newsroom cubicle in Bristol, Gilbert ventured into the surrounding coalfield counties -- Dickenson, Russell, Tazewell, Wise and Buchanan -- where the economy since the late 1800s has been tied to coal's fluctuating fortunes. The recession brought rampant joblessness, and household incomes have continued to fall behind the national average.
"Historically, our culture has been jaded," said Frank Kilgore, a longtime Wise County lawyer. "Everybody expects the bottom to drop out. Despite the Bristol paper's Pulitzer, you can take all that money in the state escrow account and give it to landowners today, and it wouldn't make that much of a difference in the coalfield economy."
At the outset of his investigation, Gilbert, fresh from two years as a reporter for the Potomac News in Prince William, knew only the outlines: Thousands of people were owed at least $24.5 million in royalty payments. He started attending Virginia Gas and Oil Board meetings. His questions to state officials about the royalties were often met with a "no comment."