An investigative report on a mysterious oil spill made the environmental website InsideClimate News the smallest media outlet ever to win the prestigious journalism award

By Omer Shubert May.23, 2013

The first time all seven staff members of InsideClimate News will meet will be at the end of this month, in New York. The meeting wasn’t planned − after all, this is a small website with a minimal travel budget. But plans tend to change when you win a Pulitzer.

InsideClimate News ‏(‏) is the smallest media outlet ever to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize, in this case in the category of national reporting.

The tiny online-only publication, which deals with environmental and energy issues, is purely American. And the closest thing it has to a physical newsroom is the small apartment that Stacy Feldman rents on Nehemia Street, opposite the sea in Tel Aviv.

From here, Feldman, 36 – the site’s cofounder and managing editor – runs the show. Make no mistake: This is no amateur, student-like project. Behind the plain facade and the unpromising physical conditions beats the heart of a polished professional reportorial organization with journalists of repute and experience − some of whom previously worked for The New York Times and other leading newspapers.

The approach underlying the site’s operations is well illustrated by the trans-Mediterranean-Atlantic editorial meeting held every day at 4:30 P.M. (Israel time). It involves complex discussions about reports in the pipeline, suggestions for unflattering profiles of politicians who aren’t “green” enough, and an insistence on strict deadlines. And, of course, there’s the hallmark of contemporary journalism: too many stories to dig into, and not enough staff to do the digging.

The report that won the Pulitzer was for “the biggest oil spill you’ve never heard of,” which happened in Michigan. Or, as Feldman tweeted immediately after the announcement of the prize, “News org you never heard of wins Pulitzer for oil spill you never heard of!”

This small team has a loose division of labor. David Sassoon, 55, is the founder and publisher. A resident of Brooklyn, he is responsible mainly for fund-raising and strategy. Feldman is in charge of ongoing management and site maintenance. Susan White, who was hired in 2011, is the executive editor and the supreme journalistic authority. She lives in California. Working under them are four full-time reporters.

“But everyone does everything,” Feldman says, noting that in such a small Web organization, titles are unimportant. “I enter most of the content, but everyone knows how to do that − and everyone does it. We don’t have graphic designers or a technical staff, we do it all ourselves. If there’s a technical glitch that we can’t solve, we get support from an outside company. We don’t have photographers and we don’t spend money on photos, because we don’t have any to spend. Either the reporters take pictures or we get them elsewhere. We’re all full-time − a lot more than full-time.”

ICN publishes a daily original report, usually of an investigative nature, along with relevant news updates. The staff decided to focus primarily on energy and climate change, highly specific subgenres within the large theme of environmental quality, because “we think this is the story of the century,” Feldman says.

“The world has reached a point where it has to decide what kind of energy future it wants − whether it will be based on oil or on clean fuels,” she adds. “For the first time, people are paying attention to the subject and understand the implications of safe energy and environmental energy.

“That, of course, doesn’t mean that the situation is good and that the politicians get it,” she continues. “This is a very political issue in the United States, with a lot of groups having vested interests. The debate there is less over science and more over ideology. There are many groups who simply don’t believe that global warming is happening − for example, religious people who think that human actions have no effect. And then there are the petroleum industries, which have a very powerful lobby and invest heavily in campaigns aimed at confusing public opinion. They are doing that successfully, with disastrous results. Just now, I posted an item on the site about the fact that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has hit a new peak. That’s a very worrisome milestone.”

Intertwined disasters

It’s not clear which sphere is in worse shape − journalism or the environment − but it’s apparently that catastrophic combination that makes it possible for ICN to exist and even grow. The website, which has doubled its staff size in the past two years, currently operates on an annual budget of $500,000. Sassoon raises the money from funds and green organizations.

“The year 2008 was one of the worst periods in the history of journalism in America,” he says, in an interview by phone. “Thousands of reporters were fired. One of the main areas that was affected was environmental coverage, which wasn’t very extensive to begin with. There was no serious discourse about climate change at the time; the subject didn’t even come up in the presidential election campaign of 2008. We realized that there was a real vacuum here, and when there is a vacuum someone will always fill it.”

ICN stepped into the vacuum with the economic help of three main sources − the Grantham Foundation, the Marisla Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund − all of which are engaged in activity on behalf of environmental issues. In addition, the site also enjoys support from the Energy Foundation and the Educational Foundation of America.

Sassoon: “Philanthropy in the United States is very broad and very organized, mainly because the taxation system encourages the wealthy to donate. If there is a social need that is not being fulfilled and you enter that niche, you will find a foundation to support you.”

Sassoon pooh-poohs any possibility that the foundations can influence site content. “The foundations don’t know what we write and have no input,” he says. “The system, too, prevents them from becoming involved. Fund-raising takes place once a year by means of orderly reports that are filled out, and that is the only way we get − or don’t get − money. Some foundations give us a two-year budget. But there is no connection with them on an ongoing basis.”

Still, he is not entirely convinced that the donors have the capability to save the press. “The foundations are now an important part of financing for the press in the United States,” he notes, “but they can’t sustain the industry. They don’t give you money to make a profit but only to subsist. You have to be a not-for-profit organization and show them exactly where the money is going.”

ICN had its genesis six years ago, when Feldman was studying international affairs at Columbia University. While carrying out a project there, she met Sassoon, a freelance photographer and journalist who worked with environmental organizations. They decided to set up a blog, “because that’s what people did then,” Feldman recalls. The blog consisted of links to reports about environmental issues, together with commentary.

In 2008, following the release of Al Gore’s 2006 film “An Inconvenient Truth,” climate and the environment became trendy topics in the United States. But it was clear to Sassoon and Feldman that the discourse was as superficial as it was trendy, and that neither the public nor the politicians were in possession of reliable information. They were particularly struck by the fact that the media was not reporting sufficiently on environmental issues, certainly not in depth.

The two set out to generate original material. With the aid of money raised by Sassoon from the Rockefeller fund − the philanthropic, environmentally oriented organization he worked for − they commissioned articles from experienced journalists. “We knew it would be hard to achieve a breakthrough with unknown names,” Feldman explains. “In the States, it’s not like in Israel. Not everyone can be a journalist, and it takes time before you are taken seriously.”

After a year and a half of activity − by now the site had two full-time reporters − the recently graduated Feldman decided to immigrate to Israel. The decision was facilitated by the fact that she had an Israeli fiancé and by an inexplicable love for the country, where she had lived when she was younger (and that love for the country remains intact). The fact that ICN is an online organization, with no physical editorial offices, enables her to continue managing things from the Middle East.

“It’s not ideal, because of the time difference and because I write and edit material relating to the United States. But we’ve been able to make it work. The best thing is that there is always someone who is working on the site.”

New entry on Google

The Pulitzer Prize-winning story arose from basic reporting fieldwork. Lisa Song, an ICN reporter who is based in Boston, was sent to cover an oil spill that happened in 2010. The source of the spill was in Canada, and the oil reached the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

The event received no media coverage, largely because it took place a few weeks after the gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That spill, known as the “BP disaster,” and caused by the explosion of an underground well, became the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States.

The huge focus on the BP incident, in which 11 people were killed, left the media no space to report on what looked like just another ordinary oil spill. Yet, the oil that flowed in the river went through residential neighborhoods and forced people to evacuate their homes.

Song, who holds degrees in environmental science and science writing from MIT, spoke to the residents and discovered that they had plenty of questions about the materials that had leaked, and whose pungent smell continued to linger − questions to which science, too, has no answers. Susan White, the executive editor at ICN, decided to pursue the story and assigned two more reporters to it: David Hasemyer and Elizabeth McGowan. The two of them, along with Song, were joint recipients of the Pulitzer.

They discovered that the oil that had leaked was unusually thick, and that to make it flow through pipes, it is diluted with a chemical called dilbit ‏(diluted bitumen‏). Unlike previous spills, in which the oil was floating on the water and could be cleaned, dilbit made the oil sink rapidly. The reporters’ investigation found that no one knew how to cope with dilbit. The potential health risks involved were equally unknown. It also turned out that Canadian oil mixed with dilbit might enter Keystone XL − the huge pipeline that is scheduled to be built and to connect the United States and Canada, and whose route lies adjacent to a major drinking-water aquifer.

The ICN investigation discovered that no one has a clue about the consequences that will accrue if dilbit leaks into the aquifer and how it will be possible, if at all, to purify the water in that case. The report stirred a public debate on the issue. The Obama administration, which has to give final authorization for the Keystone project to go ahead, postponed the decision.

White, 67, says that even while working on the story, she knew she had a potential Pulitzer winner. She can be taken at her word, because this is her third Pulitzer. “But without a doubt it’s the most thrilling one of all,” she says, by phone. “The other times it was with large organizations and many bottles of champagne. This time I was alone at home, and my dog didn’t understand why I suddenly jumped up and down.”

White won her first Pulitzer while working with the San Diego News-Tribune and the second with the independent investigative news organization ProPublica, where she worked from 2008 until 2011. White was one of the first journalists recruited by the organization.

“In 2008,” she says, “everyone wanted to work for ProPublica, because it was founded by the most brilliant reporters out there. They gathered the best journalists in the United States and simply let us carry out investigations. ProPublica also lives from donations and foundations, but you can’t compare it to what we are doing today. It’s a large, famous website with more than 40 senior reporters, and from Day 1 it was an obvious natural Pulitzer candidate. It’s not some small site that no one knows about.”

White had to leave ProPublica in 2011, as her husband insisted on moving back to California from Manhattan. InsideClimate was quick to offer her the job of chief editor.

Despite her triple win, she doesn’t yet have a sure recipe for winning a Pulitzer, though she can point to a few necessary elements: “It has to be a story in which you uncover something new that affects people, a story whose bottom line addresses questions that were previously unasked. We exposed this type of oil and its dangers to the public. Before our investigation, the word ‘dilbit’ didn’t even appear in Google, and science didn’t know about it, still less the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

White agrees, though, that the Cinderella element also played a part in the win. “This was also a statement by the Pulitzer Prize board that it recognizes the effort of a very small startup, which proved that good journalism of the highest standard is still possible: journalism that knocks on doors and asks questions, journalism of long, in-depth investigations, and journalism that doesn’t even require a lot of money to do it.”

Indeed, the awarding of the prize to ICN “indicates the way journalism as we’ve always known it and loved it is being reconfigured,” said Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzers. As the icing on the cake, the two other finalists in the national reporting category − the prize is awarded “for a distinguished example of reporting on national affairs, using any available journalistic tool” − were The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, two media behemoths each of which has some 900 employees.

Defined by the mission

The InsideClimate News site currently has about 100,000 visitors a month, a modest number by all accounts. The site does not carry advertising, because the number of visitors doesn’t justify it. Selected articles from the site are published simultaneously by Bloomberg and The Associate Press, and also appear on a few other large sites with which ICN has syndication agreements.

“They don’t pay us, but it’s good exposure for us,” Feldman says. “Until not long ago no one knew us, and when we asked people or organizations for responses to articles, we first had to explain who we were. So every exposure is good for us.”

Adds Sassoon: “Even though we are not widely read, we know that we are read by the politicians, the lobbyists, administration officials and everyone involved in the industry. That’s just as important for us, because we are in journalism to influence those people and generate change.”

For a site of this size, a Pulitzer is a game-changer. The prize money of $10,000 is modest and will be divided among the reporters who worked on the investigation, but in the case of ICN the recognition is worth a great deal more. Early this year, The New York Times announced that it was shutting down its environmental-quality desk, thus making ICN’s virtual desk the largest of its kind in America.

Feldman: “We have one reporter who is occupied only with clean energy, and she is apparently the only one in the world with that assignment.”

However, the staff does not intend to leave it at that. In the month that has passed since the prize announcement, Sassoon has drawn up a business plan and also raised the necessary funds. “Our goal now is to triple our size, to establish a physical newsroom and to employ 25 people,” he says. “In the wake of the award and the tailwind it gave us, that plan is now feasible in budget terms. We will without a doubt become the biggest environmental-quality desk in the world.”

“And then I will have to go back to New York,” Feldman says with a certain regret. “I tried to persuade them to do it here and enjoy the sun, but it won’t happen. When we become a constantly updated site, things will be more complex and we will have to work from a newsroom where everything will be concentrated. I don’t think that will turn us into a classic news site − that’s something we will never be − but I also don’t think that what defines us now is that we are an online organization whose employees are so widely scattered. What defines us is our mission, and that won’t change.”