Besides reporting and editing for The Chicago Maroon, Daniel Gilbert, AB'05, graduated from the University of Chicago with no experience in journalism. Five years later, the Bristol, Va. Herald Courier won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism for a series Gilbert wrote on the state's mismanagement of more than $20 million of natural gas royalties owed to thousands of southern Virginia landowners.
We sat down with Gilbert to discuss his Pulitzer Prize-winning series and his experience at the University of Chicago.
How did you start working on this story?
I got a tip from a reader, who had read some of my other stories and suggested that I pay attention to some scandal involving this obscure regulatory body called the Virginia Gas and Oil Board, and that landowners essentially were being screwed, and that oil companies were making hefty profits from gas that belonged to landowners.
I didn't understand most of what she was talking about, but there was enough in there that my antennae went up, and I thought, "Well, this is at least worth going to a hearing of this board and seeing what it's like." And so I did. And then I began researching.
Did landowners know that this was happening?
This was no secret. People knew that there were wells on or near their property. If they looked at the meter, they could see that it was producing gas. They could hear it. You stand next to one of those pipelines, and you could hear the gas blow out of the ground. So people knew about it; they'd known about it for a long time. They were pretty angry about it. What people didn't know about was exactly why they weren't getting any money, what it took to get their money and what was happening to the money that supposedly was owed to them.
If people had known about it for a while, why do you think no one had done anything about it before?
That's a great question-and it's a troubling question. I certainly can't speak for other journalists who may or may not have looked at the same thing I looked at, but it's a difficult story to tell. It is as inaccessible as a story gets. Its subject matter is extremely complicated. The sources for the story, the subject for the story are in these rural areas that are not so easy to get to and are far away from any daily newspaper, certainly hundreds of miles away from the nearest metropolitan daily newspaper. So you had those challenges that were logistical challenges, and then also you got a story that requires a significant investment of resources, in terms of the energies of the reporter and the mileage and the skills that you have to develop to get that kind of a story.
What was it like to find out that you had won [the Pulitzer]?
Well, it was a pretty surreal moment. You enter, and then you try to manage your expectations. And I would say that maybe a part of me hoped that maybe I would have a shot, but what I hadn't ever done was imagine what it would be like, what would I say to people if I actually did win. So the moment of going to the website, because I didn't get a call from anybody telling me I'd won, I got a text message from a friend that said, "Congrats." I guessed what that was referring to, but I still-I go to the website, I see, since it's the most prestigious of the Pulitzers, it's the first one there, and to see that…it's one of these jaw-dropping moments. And I believe that my jaw literally did drop.
Since the series' publication, have there been any changes in how the state of Virginia handles natural gas royalties?
Yes. A lot of things have happened. One is, after a year-more than a year-of some pretty heated, contentious debate about what kind of an audit and whether they want an audit for all of this money in escrow, they finally approved that. That's under way. So hopefully the results from that will be soon public…They are also working on creating a public database that would do something like what our newspaper has done and make it available for people to actually search what they have a claim to, but go beyond that and create an entire GIS part to it and a map system…
As for the $26 million that's sitting in escrow, it's still a little bit unclear as to what the board is going to do now that there's a new law that ostensibly clears up the old disputes that had led the board to divert that money into escrow…They may take it upon themselves to go back and look at some old cases and try to reroute some of that money in escrow. Because they've said, that's their goal, to reduce the amount of money that's there, to bring it down to zero. And so, again, I will be eager to see what they do.
Do you have any advice for budding UChicago journalists?
Whether it's journalism or whether it's something else, what I would tell students is: Figure out what you would like to do, what you want to do, what you can do and what you're good at. And go do that…I have found that what really matters is to go do something that you think matters. And whether success follows or not, you haven't wasted your time. And you've hopefully learned things and hopefully helped people.
I think anyone at the University of Chicago who graduates from here and gets that training is pretty fortunate. I consider myself pretty fortunate. And there are a lot of people who aren't that fortunate and who don't have that training. And I think it's appropriate to use the training in such a way that would benefit people who haven't benefited from the same background…You've got to query yourself on what you want to do, and do that.
-Danielle Glazer, second-year in the College