Gilbert: ‘Investigative Reporting Our Best Argument for Relevance’

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Earlier this month I interviewed Bristol Herald Courier investigative reporter Daniel Gilbert about his eight-part series on lingering conflicts over the ownership of coal-bed methane gas in Buchanan County, Va. The conflicts led to thousands of owners getting cheated out of money that they should have received for use of their property.

Gilbert spent 13 months following the story and deconstructing its dense subject matter so that the average reader could make sense of it. After hearing about Gilbert’s story through a friend, I wanted to learn how he reported it and how he managed to find time to pursue enterprise reporting in addition to the daily stories he was writing.

It’s comforting to know that a small-town newspaper is still pursuing this type of investigative series, even despite a lack of resources. When I can, I like to write about small papers that are doing good work; it helps to remember that you don’t have to work at The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal to shine.

I interviewed Gilbert on the phone and then e-mailed him some more focused questions via e-mail. Here’s the intro to my Q&A:

“When Bristol Herald Courier court reporter Daniel Gilbert wrote last year about a major gas corporation that had been making conspicuous gifts in Buchanan County, Va., he suspected there was more to the story.

“So he set out to research a complicated subject he knew very little about — a David versus Goliath legal conflict that pits landowners against private energy corporations. During 13 months of reporting on a story that had been largely left untold, he found that lingering conflicts over the ownership of coal-bed methane gas meant thousands of owners weren’t getting paid for the use of their property. Instead, Virginia had funneled millions of dollars in royalty payments into an escrow fund that owners couldn’t access without first clearing significant legal hurdles.

” ‘This is one of those stories that’s down in the weeds and has stayed that way for about 20 years,’ Gilbert said. ‘I don’t think anyone has taken a real in-depth look at the history of the law.’

“Gilbert’s reporting came together earlier this month in an eight-part series that led to the first audit of a $24 million escrow fund in 10 years. The series is accompanied by a database that mineral owners can use to find out about escrow accounts. They must have a Virginia gas and oil board docket number to access the account information.

“Both the series and the database serve as an example of the kind of investigative work that a small news outlet can produce, even with limited resources.

“Gilbert, who carved out time for the project while covering daily stories and taking 15 furlough days throughout the past year, said it helps that his editor advocates for enterprise stories.

” ‘We’re the last bastion between an enlightened public and corruption,’ said Bristol Herald Courier editor J. Todd Foster, a former investigative reporter at the Oregonian. ‘It’s the most important function we have as a newspaper, and that is to hold the powerful accountable.’

“I talked with Gilbert about how he held the powerful accountable, reported on a subject he knew little about and balanced the project with his daily work in a newsroom that has only seven reporters.”