The investigative work done by Lisa Song, Elizabeth McGowan and David Hasemeyer surrounding the 2010 "dilbit" oil spill in Michigan is outstanding, and no doubt worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it was awarded Monday. But the very name if the publication they work for, InsideClimate News, also stands out, especially among the other national reporting finalists, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.
InsideClimate News is the third online-only publication to win the honor. (Its stories are sometimes picked up by its media partners and other print publications can request to run its content.) Compared to its well-established and even mammoth predecessors, ProPublica and the Huffington Post, the non-profit environmental news website, with only seven people to its staff, is also – by far – the smallest. "The Pulitzer jury is recognizing that there is a wider universe out there," says Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
InsideClimate News particularly covers news as it relates to climate change, which executive editor Susan White calls "the biggest story of our time." But in a year that the New York Times and other major newspapers are closing their environmental desks, it is also a coverage area that is increasingly neglected by conventional news organizations. "We may be the largest environmental desk in the country," says publisher David Sassoon.
In the committee's words, InsideClimate won for its "rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation's oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen (or "dilbit"), a controversial form of oil," – a topic no doubt newsworthy, considering the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline.
It's not just the subject InsideClimate covers that makes it notable, but also the model in which it operates. Formed in 2008, InsideClimate is a nonprofit news organization funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and a handful of other foundations. "What this recognizes implicitly is this changing media landscape," says Jurkowitz, whose organization is in the midst of a study of other nonprofit publications.
"It's not quite the direction where a lot of media is going, [which is] quick takes and short bursts of things," says Sassoon. InsideClimate News can do only one or two investigate pieces like "The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of" a year alongside the more typical enterprise stories.
"Because we are small, we chose very carefully," says White. "We don't do stories if we don't think they are very important." She adds that when they were in thick of the Michigan oil spill reporting, they struggled to keep fresh daily content on their website.
But the expertise their reporters have cultivated working so closely on subjects like pipeline regulations and diluted bitumen composition have allowed them to occasionally venture into breaking news. Song has been at the forefront of the recent Arkansas oil spill, and was threatened with arrest while reporting on the story. "In the areas we have planted our flag, we want to do daily news as well as deeper stories," says White.
Publications like InsideClimate focus on the "gaps" – a term used by both Sassoon and Jurkowitz – created by the massive staff cuts at newspapers across the country, be it geographical or in niche topics like climate change.
"They're not trying to replicate what the daily news publications do," says Jurkowitz. Instead by picking a specialty, even staffs as small as theirs can dig into the deep reporting that daily newspapers are doing less and less of.
"We think old-fashioned, shoe leather investigative reporting is the life blood of our democracy. We want to keep that alive," says Sassoon.
Big foundations like The Rockefeller Fund, as well as smaller donor bases, have begun recognizing the public service aspect of the the deep reporting niche organizations like InsideClimate conduct.
With the Pulitzer recognition, Sassoon says InsideClimate wants to raise funds to expand their staff to 20 or 25, including a few non-editorial operational members, and establish a centralized office likely in New York (its contributors now work only virtually, some based in locations as far as Tel Aviv and India). "It will help us take our next steps and come to full scale," says Sassoon.
They also hope to translate the prize into a wider audience: "How do we get these important stories that we're doing to as many eyeballs possible?," says White.
Pulitzer prizes alone won't guarantee their model is sustainable. "To be successful, they are going to need diversify their revenue streams," says Jurkowitz, as foundations alone can be hard to count on.
But if young organizations like InsideClimate can grow to survive in the long term, then this Pulitzer will mark an important milestone for this avenue of journalism. "This shows the traditional craft of storytelling is still intact, and the investigative part is still intact," says White. "You now have to find different ways to do your work."