R-CAR: The Fund for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting

By DANIEL GILBERT of The Wall Street Journal:

 

The idea for this fund began with an obscure government board and $23 million that had largely escaped scrutiny for 20 years.

Lax oversight by understaffed agencies is not peculiar to any state or community. But as the reach of metropolitan news organizations continues to shrink, the watchdog role in rural areas increasingly falls to the small newspaper, television station and website that lacks critical resources and training.

As a reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier, I began probing why millions of dollars in natural-gas royalties were accumulating in state-controlled escrow accounts. Whenever energy corporations produced a gas whose ownership was disputed, the Virginia Gas and Oil Board required them to pay royalties into escrow. I wanted to know if companies were making the required deposits.

I didn’t want to rely exclusively on the statements of the companies and regulators. So I asked their data.

To do that, I had to learn the language of data, a skill rarely available to small news organizations like the Herald Courier, where I was one of seven reporters. The goal of R-CAR is to make training in computer-assisted reporting more accessible to similar organizations that cover predominantly rural communities.

In August 2009, I attended a six-day reporting “boot camp” run by Investigative Reporters and Editors at the University of Missouri. With that training, I was able to build a database that allowed me to compare 18 months of escrow payments with gas production by well. I queried thousands of records, and the data spoke: companies had not made any deposits at all into a significant number of accounts.

The subsequent articles, which combined data analysis with a year’s worth of shoe-leather reporting, resulted in energy companies quickly depositing into escrow more than a million dollars in outstanding royalties. Lawmakers responded with legislation to facilitate the release of royalties in escrow to property owners, and state officials implemented measures to improve compliance.

What began as a local story evolved to impact the lives of people across the country with a claim to the royalties in escrow, and the series garnered national recognition, including the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The same work also won the Scripps Howard Foundation’s first-ever award for community journalism, which comes with $10,000. R-CAR comes from those proceeds, bolstered by a matching contribution from Kentucky’s Research Challenge Trust Fund.

On a small staff, reporting such stories is often a tax on already scarce resources. Resources alone are never enough to pull off big a project, but the lack of them should not prevent important stories from being told. R-CAR exists, for now, as a small attempt to aid rural news organizations in covering the stories that no one else will.