5 Under-Covered Stories From New Pulitzer Winner InsideClimate News

(Updated on April 17, 2013 at 2:15 pm)

The 2013 Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week (see the photo winners). Among the journalism winners were familiar names like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Sun Sentinel, and InsideClimate News. Wait, who?

InsideClimate News is a five-year old, Brooklyn-based website that focuses on climate change and environmental reporting. The online masthead lists eight staff members plus a handfull of contributors. Among them are Lisa Song, Elizabeth McGowan, and David Hasemyer, who together won this year’s Pulitzer for national reporting for their series “Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of.”

The award-winning series started last July and investigated a 2010 spill, in which a pipeline operated by Calgary’s Enbridge burst near Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, soiling 40 miles of river and wetlands with a type of oil called diluted bitumen, or dilbit. Cleanup efforts are ongoing and costs have surpassed $800 million, making it the most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history (and indeed one that is not particularly well known by the public).

In addition to probing the spill, InsideClimate News examined the environmental impacts of dilbit, a corrosive substance that is likely to see greater prominence since it is coming out of Canada’s oil sands (National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge has also written extensively on dilbit).

We reached out to InsideClimate News. McGowan and Hasemyer no longer work there, but Lisa Song told us via email that the gig is her first as a staff writer.  “I do hope this prize can help bring more people to pay attention to science, energy, and climate news–not just those who are already interested in these issues,” Song added.

“These are hugely important issues that deserve a lot of media coverage.”

InsideClimate reporter Elizabeth McGowan told the Wall Street Journal, “We made the commitment to this story because we thought this story mattered.”

According to the Journal, the nonprofit InsideClimate News got around 200,000 pageviews last month. That means it is relatively tiny when it comes to news, and much smaller than past online Pulitzer winners like Huffington Post and ProPublica. (Interestingly, InsideClimate’s executive editor, Susan White, used to work for ProPublica, where she edited the piece on a New Orleans hospital after Katrina that won the first Pulitzer for that organization.)

In contrast, when I worked at The Daily Green a few years ago, we averaged 1 million unique visitors and 10 million pageviews a month, with a staff of three. Yet the business side of things was still tough.

Like Yale 360Grist, or E Magazine, InsideClimate News doesn’t have to turn a profit, and can focus on hardhitting environmental reporting. But bills must still be paid, and InsideClimate receives support from funders such as  the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Marisla Foundation, and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, according to the Journal. However, raising such money for environmental journalism has been increasingly difficult over the past few years, insiders say.

In general, it has been rough for environmental reporters, as newspapers have slashed jobs and several dedicated outlets like the Washington Post‘s Sprig, Blue Egg, Plenty, Blue, and others have turned out the lights. The New York Times closed their environmental desk earlier this year, and popular sites Treehugger and MNN have merged, shedding jobs in the process.

“We were very sad when the NYT closed its environment desk,” Song told us.

Does InsideClimate News’ win signal a fresh approach to environmental journalism? Perhaps, although depending on grants and gifts can be a perilous business that is hard to sustain in a long haul.

In honor of their win, we look at some of the surprising stories InsideClimate News has uncovered recently.

1. The Dilbit Disaster

The story that won the Pulitzer, the team took a hard look at the 2010 oil spill in Michigan, as well as the larger issue of the safety of dilbit.

2. Exxon Allegedly Threatens an InsideClimate Reporter With Arrest

Hazards on the trail of a hot environmental story, in this case the recent oil spill in Arkansas.

3. Oil Sands Mining Uses Up Almost as Much Energy as It Produces

“Thanks to high global oil prices, industry can afford the large amount of energy needed to extract the oil and turn it into a usable fuel,” wrote Rachel Nuwer.

4. 2012 Was a Big Year for America’s Clean Energy Economy, Despite Solyndra

Good news for those frustrated by the partisan attacks.

5. So Far So Good for Germany’s Nuclear Phase-Out, Despite Dire Predictions

Part of a series of detailed reports from Europe.

Do you think InsideClimate News’ win is a good thing for environmental journalism?

Changing Planet