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Lurching, jarring internet-era media transformations have long worried many who value science coverage. The Washington Post let worthy science writers go; the New York Times closed its environment desk; science-reporting staffs have dwindled lamentably, or have disappeared. Now, though, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting suggests cause for optimism about new ways of doing journalism, as some in the media have observed—and as can be observed for science journalism in particular.
The award went to journalists at InsideClimate News 'for their rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation's oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen (or 'dilbit'), a controversial form of oil.' US News summarized implications in a headline ('Pulitzer recognizes new direction for old school journalism'), and in a subhead ('InsideClimate News stands out for its reporting as well as its business model') and in two opening paragraphs:
The investigative work done by Lisa Song, Elizabeth McGowan and David Hasemeyer surrounding the 2010 'dilbit' oil spill in Michigan is outstanding, and no doubt worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it was awarded.... But the very name of the publication they work for, InsideClimate News, also stands out, especially among the other national reporting finalists, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.
InsideClimate News is the third online-only publication to win the honor. (Its stories are sometimes picked up by its media partners and other print publications can request to run its content.) Compared to its well-established and even mammoth predecessors, ProPublica and the Huffington Post, the nonprofit environmental news website, with only seven people to its staff, is also—by far—the smallest. 'The Pulitzer jury is recognizing that there is a wider universe out there,' says Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
A New York Times article expanded on that widening journalism universe. 'With a full-time staff of just seven and a nonprofit business model,' the article said, 'InsideClimate News exemplifies a new breed of news organization that depends on donations, both from rich charitable foundations and a handful of ordinary readers.' The Times quoted Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzers, who noted that the award 'indicates the way journalism as we've always known it and loved it is being reconfigured.'
The article added that the prize was 'a way to support both aggressive coverage of the subject matter and the thrifty way InsideClimate News goes about it.' The piece observed that InsideClimate bears 'similarities to ProPublica, the pioneering nonprofit newsroom' that shared a 2010 Pulitzer for a collaboration with the Times, and that in 2011 won one of its own. Such organizations 'distribute their work free on the web and team up with for-profit news organizations that republish some of it with credit,' the Times piece said, and they also 'try to tackle topics that bigger, better-known news organizations are not equipped or inclined to do.'
InsideClimate's winning series carried the headline 'The dilbit disaster: Inside the biggest oil spill you've never heard of.' Bryan Walsh, a senior editor at Time magazine, praised both the work itself and the implications for journalism. He wrote:
The series has obvious resonance with the fate of the Keystone pipeline still up in the air. Environmentalists insist that any spill of the heavier oil that would be carried by the Keystone pipeline would be more damaging to the environment and human health than a conventional oil spill. Certainly the damage wrought by the Enbridge [Inc.] pipeline spill, doggedly investigated by InsideClimate News, would seem to bear that fear out. Nor is the slow reaction to the spill by Enbridge and by government officials exactly reassuring.
Walsh summed up: 'The site richly deserves its prize, and their great work offers hope that even as the fortunes of the mainstream media wax and wane...good journalism will always be with us.'
Observations about the award's importance and implications are not hard to find. Examiner.com exclaimed that InsideClimate 'shocked the world.' Climate Science Watch asked, 'In meeting the need for investigative journalism, to what extent can the multiplying sources of decentralized alternative media offset a decline in traditional mainstream media?' Media Matters for America declared that the Pulitzer exposes in the regular press corps 'a propensity for stenography over investigative reporting.' Curtis Brainard, editor of 'The Observatory,' the Columbia Journalism Review's online critique of science and environment reporting, wrote:
As America's once moribund oil and gas industry continues to expand with the discovery of new reserves in shale formations around the country, not enough journalists are keeping a close eye on the impact of that expansion on people and the environment. InsideClimate is one of the few exceptions.
With internet-age journalism and science journalism evolving, the coverage could well have included mention of Inside Science, which calls itself a provider of 'editorially independent research news and information on science, engineering, mathematics, and related fields for general audiences through television, print and the web.' Inside Science News Service produces 'journalistic articles on research news and related topics for the general public, ready to run for syndication and attributed reporting by other news organizations.' Support comes from the American Institute of Physics, publisher of Physics Today, and from 'underwriters that include multiple science, technology, engineering, and mathematics organizations.'
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.