the observatory

InsideClimate wins a Pulitzer

Five-year-old news site honored for exposé of Michigan oil spill
April 16, 2013

On Monday, InsideClimate News, a five-year-old investigative news outlet that is based in Brooklyn, but doesn’t even have an office, won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its coverage of the most costly onshore oil spill in US history.

InsideClimate’s series, which began last June under the banner, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of,” revealed the inept response of industry and government to the 2010 oil spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, which dumped a million gallons of bitumen, a thick, dirty oil from Canada’s tar sands region that has to be thinned with chemicals in order to flow through oil pipelines.

It was not the first time that a Web-native newsroom founded within the last 10 years had won a Pulitzer Prize. There was ProPublica in 2010 and The Huffington Post in 2012, but they were born Goliaths in a land of Davids, and never before had such small startup won so quickly. As The Associated Press’s Deepthi Hajela noted:

In a sign of a rapidly changing media world, a relatively unknown New York-based online nonprofit news site joined some of the country’s most well-known media outlets in claiming a Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor in journalism.

The lack of national recognition belied InsideClimate News’s stature within the science and environmental community, however, where it has earned a tremendous amount of respect since its launch in 2007.

In 2011, CJR profiled the outlet’s rise from a little-known site doing mostly “derivative journalism,” publisher David Sassoon called it, to one that was expanding its staff and boldly seeking to do more ambitious investigations.

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It had just hired Susan White from ProPublica, who had edited that site’s award-winning natural gas coverage and helped edit its article about a New Orleans hospital stranded by flooding after Hurricane Katrina, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. It had also changed its named from SolveClimate News to InsideClimate News, to counter the perception that it was an environmental advocacy organization.

As I told The Washington Post‘s Juliet Eilperin in her article about InsideClimate’s Pulitzer, Sassoon and managing editor Stacy Feldman, who co-founded the site, have built the newsgathering operation up “brick-by-brick” into one whose “work is driven by facts, and well-supported facts. They’re real shoe-leather journalists.”

Indeed, Elizabeth McGowan, part of InsideClimate’s prize-winning reporting team, which also includes Lisa Song and David Hasemyer, told the AP that the decision to send her to Michigan and launch a lengthy oil-spill investigation was “quite a sacrifice” at a time when most online news startups are concerned primarily with attracting eyeballs to their websites.

“Pulling me, their most seasoned reporter, off was an act of faith to some degree because I could’ve been pounding out five, six, seven stories a week,” she said.

The gamble paid off in spades, however. As I wrote in a review of “The Dilbit Disaster” last July, few other media outlets had even paid attention the calamity in Michigan, which happened a few months after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and InsideClimate’s series “was a superb example of how proactive journalism gets ahead of the story rather than waiting to respond to official news.”

Moreover, InsideClimate is still at it. This month, it was one of the few national outlets that did more than parachute into Mayflower, AR, where there was an oil spill from a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline at the end of March. The outlet dispatched Song, who was chased away from the spill site by security guards and then threatened with arrest while trying to gain clarity on who, between government and industry, was actually in charge of the response and cleanup.

“We try to fill in the gaps that exist in American journalism that are more and more common,” Sassoon told the Post following this week’s victory.

The entire country should be thankful for that. As America’s once moribund oil and gas industry continues to expand with the discovery of new reserves in shale formations around the country, not enough journalists are keeping a close eye on the impact of that expansion on people and the environment. InsideClimate is one of the few exceptions.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.