Colorado’s crude oil production is surging, more than the state’s pipelines can handle. In order to increase capacity, shipping companies increasingly use railways to transport crude across the region, sometimes through crowded communities. And that can lead to accidents—as on May 9, when six cars derailed south of Greeley, CO, and spilled more than 5,000 gallons of oil.
While the damage in that case was fortunately limited, the transport of crude by rail is an important emerging story that’s attracting national attention. It’s also one that could tax many smaller news organizations: obscure government agencies, companies that prize secrecy, limited human-interest potential. But since the beginning of June, journalists at Inside Energy have been staking a claim to the crude-by-rail beat. Data journalist Jordan Wirfs-Brock traced the majority of crude oil and natural gas shipments to a single railroad, BNSF, while executive editor Alisa Barba and others reported on the lack of transparency in shipping routes, and the push for better disclosure. As befits a web-oriented startup, much of this coverage aggregated, amplified, and extended reporting that had appeared elsewhere, to good effect. All in all, not too shabby for a news organization that was created less than six months ago.
But Inside Energy isn’t a typical startup. It’s a partnership between public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, and North Dakota focused on energy reporting, and one of seven Local Journalism Centers scattered throughout the United States.
Supported at launch by two-year grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the LJCs are designed to foster regional journalistic collaborations, and to allow local reporters to become authorities on subjects of national importance. They’re also opportunities for local public stations to figure out how to build something sustainable—both in content and in finances. After five years of trial and error and almost $16 million of investment from CPB, the projects are beginning to stand on their own.
The idea for LJCs first came up in 2009, when the news industry was in full-blown crisis and media thinkers were calling on public media to play a greater role. Bruce Theriault, senior vice president of radio at CPB, said it was clear that most individual public stations—both radio and television—lacked the staff and funds to deliver serious local coverage, and in some cases to do any original reporting at all. Alone, a community station in Binghamton, NY, or Monroe, LA, could hardly support a fully staffed newsroom.
But maybe it could support part of one—and if a few stations across a region teamed up, they could do high-quality work together. CPB put out a request for proposals that year and ended up funding an initial crop of seven projects to the tune of $10.1 million, or up to $1.5 million apiece. Each LJC would have its own beat. For Fronteras in the Southwest, it was immigration and the US-Mexico border; for Harvest in the Midwest, agriculture ruled; and for EarthFix in the Northwest, the environment was most pressing.
Inside Energy was born this past year in CPB’s second round of proposals, along with Pennsylvania’s Keystone Crossroads. The brainchild of Laura Frank, vice president of news at Rocky Mountain PBS, Inside Energy brings together Colorado’s CP12 television and KUNC radio stations, Prairie Public Broadcasting, Wyoming PBS, Wyoming Public Media, and Rocky Mountain PBS under a central editor: Alisa Barba.
“When I tell people I’m covering energy, their eyes glaze over, and you have to understand this is the issue of our time,” Barba said. “Without being too grandiose, we’re trying to focus on the nexus of people and the energy they use and the issues they need to understand going forward in a transforming energy economy. We’re looking at all kinds of stories and energy transformation as it’s changing these communities in Colorado, North Dakota, and Wyoming.”
Barba, formerly NPR’s Western Bureau chief, came to Inside Energy directly from editing Fronteras, based out of KJZZ in Phoenix. The lead editors are a central part of the LJC experiment, Theriault explained. “There aren’t that many editors in public radio, public media, at the local level,” he said. “A lot of people are doing their own editing. We were trying to increase the quality. When you have an editor, it’s not only listening to people and seeing what stories they should cover but editing the work, and you have higher quality storytelling.”
The goal, Barba said, is to ready the work of local stations for national—and even international—exposure. Stories from Fronteras have appeared on NPR, APM’s Marketplace, PBS Newshour, PRI’s The World, BBC’s Newsday and WBUR’s Here and Now (and those are the just English-language channels). Other LJCs have experienced similar success. At Inside Energy, Barba said, “Our plans are to ultimately become one of the key sources of information in the energy sector, especially in the center of the country.”