Web site wins Pulitzer Prize, but has no newsroom to put it in

By Brian Stelter  /  NY Times News Service

Fri, Apr 19, 2013 - Page 9

Finally, a good excuse for journalists to drink alone.

When three reporters for InsideClimate News found out they had won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting on Monday, none were in the same city — Elizabeth McGowan was in Washington, Lisa Song was in Boston and David Hasemyer was in New York.

“We’re a virtual organization,” said the publisher of the six-year-old Web site, David Sassoon, from his office in New York.

So the celebration took place on a telephone conference call; whatever Champagne flowed, flowed in separate locations.

InsideClimate News might be the leanest news startup ever to be presented with a Pulitzer, journalism’s highest honor, a prize that is typically awarded to regional and national newspapers. It beat out 50 other entrants and two finalists, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post, for the prize.

With a full-time staff of just seven and a nonprofit business model, InsideClimate News exemplifies a new breed of news organization that depends on donations, both from rich charitable foundations and a handful of ordinary readers.

“Because of our name, some people think we’re an advocacy organization,” said Song, one of the three winners, in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I hope the award will get people to stop making that mistake.”

Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzers, which are under the auspices of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said the Web site’s win “indicates the way journalism as we’ve always known it and loved it is being reconfigured.”

Another news operation reliant on donations, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s four-year-old California Watch, was a finalist for a Pulitzer this year (and last year, too). It and InsideClimate News bear some similarities to ProPublica, the pioneering nonprofit newsroom that shared a Pulitzer in 2010 for a collaboration with the New York Times and won one of its own in 2011, becoming the first such Web winner.

All three distribute their work free on the Web and team up with for-profit news organizations that republish some of it with credit. All three say they try to tackle topics that bigger, better-known news organizations are not equipped or inclined to do.

“We are a climate and energy news organization, out to cover the issues that aren’t being covered by the mainstream,” Sassoon said. “The gap keeps getting bigger, so there’s more and more for us to do.”

Dan Fagin, a science journalism professor at New York University, said, “There are a lot of these experiments underway.”

A member of the InsideClimate News advisory board, Fagin praised the site.

“They’re relentless,” he said, when it comes to following up articles about pipelines and spills.

Sassoon said he was perplexed by the relative dearth of environmental coverage by other outlets.

InsideClimate News was the first to report on the New York Times’ decision last winter to close its small environment desk and assign its reporters and editors to other departments. While the newspaper said it was not shirking from coverage of climate change and other issues and has continued to publish articles about those issues, the move made some people in journalism and environmental circles uneasy.

“The dismantling of the environment desk was, in some ways, a good argument to take to our funders, to say we need more money, but it didn’t make us feel good,” Sassoon said.

InsideClimate News has an annual budget of roughly US$550,000, four-fifths of which goes to staff. The rest pays for travel, Internet services and other expenses.

The organization is an outgrowth of Sassoon’s consulting work for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a philanthropic group that emphasizes climate policy. Initially, it was a blog called Solve Climate News, which collected news links from elsewhere and added a bit of commentary — a tried and true formula for many new blogs.

For a while “we were chasing traffic,” Sassoon said, sheepishly, but the site soon got serious.

“We started to do our own original journalism rather than derivative stuff,” he said, and renamed it InsideClimate News.

Rockefeller was joined by the Marisla Foundation. Charitable groups have not traditionally financed news media.

“They would rather be funding, you know, direct advocates of the causes they care about,” Sassoon said.

His pitch boiled down to this: “If you care about environmental issues, you need to support a robust press that can cover these issues because, well, it’s disappearing.”

Invoking the climate trends that worry so many scientists, he said of the scant coverage in the news media, “It’s a parallel crisis.”

InsideClimate’s newest backer is the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.

Some observers suggested that the Pulitzer was a statement of sorts by the five judges that selected the national reporting winner — a way to support both aggressive coverage of the subject matter and the thrifty way InsideClimate News goes about it. At least two other nonprofit sites are dedicated to climate coverage, The Daily Climate and Climate Central.

“The message that’s being sent here is, Keep it up guys. You can compete with the big shots,” Fagin said.

The prizewinning project by Song and her colleagues was the site’s most ambitious to date. It documented what it called “the biggest oil spill you’ve never heard of,” a 2010 spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that was overshadowed by the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico that same year. The kind of oil in Kalamazoo was a substance called dilbit; the same kind has been identified in a spill in Arkansas, where an Exxon pipeline ruptured late last month.

“Very few were truly covering it,” Sassoon said.

So Song was sent there, and she became the subject of media attention after being threatened with arrest at a command center.

Those travel costs add up. So do staff costs, and Sassoon is hopeful that the Pulitzer news this week will help the Web site raise more funds so he can hire more writers and editors.

He even has ambitions for an actual newsroom.