At the same time, making database skills and training a priority can be tough for overburdened reporters and editors. Nor do journalism schools necessarily give such skills pride of place—in fact, many teach them piecemeal, if at all. At the graduate level, New York University requires students in its Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) concentration to obtain a solid grounding in numeracy. In other concentrations, however, these skills play a smaller role. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism offers a handful of relevant classes, including investigative reporting, a course called Evidence and Inference, and a new addition, Digital Media: Interactive Workshop, which stresses storytelling through data and interactive presentation. But there is no data course that all students must take in order to graduate. “We don’t require every student to know how to use Excel in the same way we require them to know how to use FinalCut Pro or a digital camera,” said Bill Grueskin, Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia. As a result, many students remain stuck at control-f.

What Gilbert learned in Missouri turned out to be indispensable. He took his spreadsheets with him, and learned how to transfer the data from Excel to Microsoft Access, a database management program better suited to large searches. (Funnily enough, Gilbert actually had a copy of Access on his desktop back in Bristol; he just didn’t know what it was for.) And he absorbed a basic programming language called Structured Query Language, or SQL, which allowed him to search for specific patterns in his data.

Eventually, Gilbert got his data cleaned and organized enough to be able to write his fundamental query: Show me the accounts that correspond to wells where oil or gas has been produced, but royalties have not been paid. What he found was damning. “Of about 750 individual accounts in escrow, between 22 percent and 55 percent received no royalty payments during months when the corresponding wells produced gas over an 18-month period,” Gilbert wrote in the first of an eight-part series. As for royalty payments that had been made, $24 million was lying in escrow, in dispute. Over the course of the series, Gilbert explained the history of the dispute, took the state gas and oil board to task, and showed that citizens who were allegedly owed thousands were being told they were entitled to less than a dime. His series spurred the Virginia legislature to investigate ways to distribute the money in escrow to the people who own it. In April, Gilbert won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

After the prize was announced, Foster told Gilbert that the Herald Courier had been hearing about the escrow fund and the government mismanagement for years. “Two prior managing editors had spiked the story,” Foster said. “Royalties, methane gas, escrow accounts—it’s not the sexiest story.” In these earlier cases, nobody had been able to break through the data roadblock. Gilbert, who moved to Houston in October to cover the oil and gas industry for The Wall Street Journal, says that he thought it was a “pretty good story” to begin with. “But the data changed it,” he adds. “Instead of just asking the question, I was able to answer it.”

 

Janet Paskin is a freelance writer.