Steve Tuttle: Hope for Journalism

"Overall, most news executives are worried about journalism's future." This stop-the-presses quote is from a Pew study released this week called "News Leaders and the Future," and is akin to saying, "Most global-warming scientists are worried about global warming." What's most surprising about the poll, however, is that only six in 10 news executives are concerned. The other 41 percent are clearly a) taking a buyout or b) deep into a second bottle of Jack Daniels.

A day doesn't go by without us hearing that journalism is going to hell and all we do is write opinions instead of news, that we're all just navel-gazing and writing about me, me, me. Well, if you ask me, my opinion about that is this: if I didn't write about me and what I think all the time, I wouldn't have a job. And then where would I be? And it's not just about me. What really concerns me is how bad it would be for you not to be able to read me.

Another Pew study published this spring revealed something even worse: a whopping 72 percent of people found news organizations "biased in their coverage." It seems lately those of us in the media can't catch a break. It reminds me of the lyrics to that old Hee-Haw song I used to love as a kid: "Gloom, despair, and agony on me; deep dark depression, excessive misery; If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all." I've grown weary of the daily drumbeat of bad news, but this week at least there's one place where there's a little hope.

To learn more, let's all hop into the lovingly weatherbeaten late-model Ford F-150 pickup truck I want you to imagine that I drive, and take a ride to a town in deep southwestern Virginia, on the Tennessee line, called Bristol, the birthplace of country music, and about as far from MSM-land as we can get. It's also the home of the Bristol Herald Courier newspaper, where all you naysayers will find some optimism—not just for the future of journalism, but for truth, justice, and the American way. This week, Daniel Gilbert, 28, a staff writer for the paper, won the 139-year-old Courier its first Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the fact that millions of dollars of natural-gas royalties had been withheld from Virginia landowners.

Gilbert toiled on the story for 13 months, so I figured the least I could do was spend 13 minutes calling him up and asking him how he did it. Turns out he used good old-fashioned leg work, a prescient tip from a reader, and modern-day data-mining skills he learned at a boot camp that's regularly held by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) at the Missouri School of Journalism.

I went to that IRE boot camp as well, but I wasn't quite the illustrious student Gilbert was. I passed the course only because I sat between two smart people and copied their answers on something called an "Excel spreadsheet." And to think I might have won a Pulitzer if I'd only paid attention, or was smart, or worked hard, or worked at a place that was eligible for Pulitzers. Story of my life. But enough about me—have I learned nothing from the top half of this column?

Gilbert's story series, called "Underfoot, Out of Reach," ran over the course of eight days last December in the 30,000-circulation paper. Because of what he uncovered, Governor Bob McDonnell signed a law this week that clarifies the ownership of the natural gas, rightfully returning much of it to Virginia's landowners.

"This was pretty scandalous," Gilbert said. "Twenty-five million dollars sitting in bank accounts that belonged to people that can't get it, and this has been happening for 20 years. My takeaway is that newspapers have a real responsibility to find these issues and tackle the hard stuff. Because no one else is going to do that." The results of his reporting have also forced gas companies to put $1.1 million back into escrow accounts—so far.

Gilbert found out he'd won the Pulitzer after getting a text message from a friend that said "Congrats." He guessed correctly what the message meant, and immediately logged on to the Pulitzer Web site and found out he was the winner. "It was quite a stunning moment," he said. After having a few days to think about it, Gilbert said he thinks the message is that "you don't have to be Newsweek or The New York Times or The [Washington] Post to win a Pulitzer. Good reporting can be done anywhere. Some of the most important reporting needs to happen in the rural places where you don't have those powerhouses."

The man in Bristol is right, media doubters. Be careful what you wish for. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." If media outlets continue to shrink and disappear over the next several years, you'll miss dedicated reporters like Daniel Gilbert, who paid attention in class, worked hard, and got to the bottom of an important story for the public good. You'll also miss my column, but I'll keep writing it anyway. I can e-mail it to you if you want.