Part of the reason everyone’s pleased is that they feel like their strengths matched well. WNYC knows New York state government and regulatory agencies, and ProPublica, via Lustgarten, has expertise in how similar drilling schemes had played out in western states.
“Even though our newsroom is expanding, we still have a relatively small staff,” says Bernstein. “Sometimes our ambitions exceed our resources.” Since ProPublica was picking up Lustgarten’s tab, the story didn’t tax the station’s news budget as much as it might have had it been an independent investigation.
As work wrapped up, the team worried that events might outpace their story. Their news peg—the governor’s signing deadline—was looming along with their opportunity to make an impact. And to do that, it seemed wise to further expand the story’s reach.
“WNYC has us covered down in New York City, with the well-educated sophisticated audience,” says Engelberg. But most of the story’s action was upstate and around the capital, and the Times Union seemed a natural choice given its location and governmental focus.
“I would have preferred, in a perfect world, to have given Rex more time,” says Engelberg. But with Engelberg being mid-move, and Lustgarten still settling into his new NYC digs, things were hectic enough that finishing the story got more attention than its final distribution plan.
Along the way, the release date was pushed to Tuesday, July 22. Lustgarten submitted something of a draft late Friday, one partially prepared on an upstate bus trip after Susan White, his ProPublica editor, gave him motion sickness pills. He got the edit back late on Sunday, and the Times Union didn’t get a version until late Monday afternoon. It came in at 3,500 words, which the paper hastily cut to 1,500 for the next day’s front page.
With that timeline, Smith says, “we didn’t have as much of a comfort level as I would have liked to have had.” Next time, he’d like to have some of his staff join during a late stage of the investigation, or, at least, have more time to edit the story and compile photos and Web video.
When ProPublica launched, some press critics were concerned that the liberal record of the organization’s major funders, Marion and Herbert Sandler, would taint the project’s journalism and hamper its efforts by dissuading collaborating editors.
While Smith is a ProPublica fan, and has even praised the initiative on a public radio media show he co-hosts, he admits to having some mild “concern” about the fairness of a presumption against the powerful that he sees in ProPublica’s mission statement. As published, the article was accompanied by a box explaining ProPublica, disclosing the Sandlers’ backing alongside a reassuring mention that former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger was heading the operation.
“We put that in because we though that readers who wanted to know that information should have it in front of them. But I don’t see it as any different than an advertiser in our paper, or an underwriter on public television,” says Smith of the Sandlers. “I don’t think our journalists can be bought anymore than I think the journalists at ProPublica can be bought.”
“It’s a group of serious journalists,” he says. “I’m just tickled that they picked the Times Union to do it with.”
Marritz’s piece aired on Tuesday, July 21. Lustgarten joined him for an interview on a WNYC local talk show, and on The Takeaway, the station’s nationally syndicated morning program. Upstate, Times Union readers woke to see the story as their paper’s lead; they could hear Marritz’s piece on their local public station, WAMC, at noon. In the evening, ProPublica posted the full investigation on its Web site.
Later in the day, New York’s cabinet-level environmental official told WNYC that the state would demand disclosure of the chemical mixes used in the gas extraction—a new requirement. On Wednesday, the governor signed the bill, but not before committing to an overhaul of enforcement plans.