Issues involving “land men,” who show up at people’s houses with mineral rights contracts in hand, is easier to find in the mainstream press than in the smaller local papers, whose readers were most affected. In the Ithaca Journal, the first story that discussed “land men” appears in 2007, but the term wasn’t used again until an article that appeared in June 2011. In Oneonta’s Daily Star, the first story with the term “landman” appeared in July 2010 “landmen” appeared in their reporting twice in 2008 and once in 2009. While both papers have done a good job covering hydraulic fracturing overall, investigations of the predatory leasing that beguiled so many were missing in the early reporting.

An analysis using the search engine Factiva shows that stories about fracking in New York media have doubled between the first half and second half of this year, due largely to the myriad protests and hearings happening around the state.

The collaborative, group effort behind Innovation Trail puts it in a unique position to cull useful local reporting from around the state. Led by WXXI, a public radio station in Rochester, the project has partnerships with WNED in Buffalo, WRVO in Oswego, WSKG in Binghamton, and WMHT in Schenectady. An August story from the collective clued into the eleventh hour efforts—including MIT’s Landman Report Card—to prepare local citizens to deal with prospectors, quoting a Pennsylvania woman advising New Yorkers to “get smart before the landmen come knocking.”

But they’ve been knocking for some time already, and they play tough. In another Innovation Trail story from August, a New York family described being approached by an aggressive landman in 2007 that wanted to drill on the golf course they owned. After the family turned down the offer, he walked away saying, “I’ll get it anyway.” He was referring to a New York state law called “compulsory integration” where companies could force landowners to accept drilling on their land if 60 percent of the surrounding property was already leased to drill. A follow up article explained how use of the law could grow if a de facto ban on hydraulic fracturing in New York is lifted. Yet another described the Cortland county clerk’s efforts to fight abusive leasing practices.

Ward says Innovation Trail is trying to bring a local voice to the community about fracking. “In the southern tier, where there are already a lot of leases signed, it’s in the paper almost everyday,” she says. “But a lot of times the way it’s covered in the paper is through an AP story about fracking in Pennsylvania, since that’s where it’s been happening on a widespread basis.” As one moves north into New York, the coverage dwindles. “The thing is—if we don’t do it, there aren’t a lot of outlets who will.”

Local coverage has been strong this fall, with New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) holding public forums in preparation for writing the laws that will eventually regulate fracking in New York. Meetings have taken place in Binghamton, Dansville, Loch Sheldrake, and New York City, at which thousands showed up and hundreds spoke, mostly against fracking.

Innovation Trail’s latest effort, in collaboration with WMHT’s New York NOW, asks readers and listeners to submit questions via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, e-mail, and the comments section of its website, which it will pose to DEC Commissioner Joe Martens during a broadcast on December 9.

The DEC is also asking for direct input on proposed regulations. At the New York City hearing yesterday, the department said it was extending the public comment period another month, until January 11. The announcement was seen as a small victory, and it gives local news outlets an opportunity to further educate their constituents and engage them in the regulatory process.

The hope, of course, is that in the future the landman’s first appearance on people’s doorsteps comes via the morning paper.

Correction: We originally reported that the first Oneonta Daily Star story to mention “landman” was in July 2010. In fact, the term “landmen” actually first appeared in May 2008. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

 

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.