Great story in the Washington Post about what it means to win a Pulitzer Prize in a small town. The Bristol (VA) Herald Courier and reporter Dan Gilbert won the public service prize for a series Gilbert wrote how landowners in southwest Virginia were getting stiffed out of millions of dollars in royalty payments. The series changed a state law, but as Ian Shapira writes, it didn’t change either the community or Gilbert (above).
What Shapira tells us is that Bristol had the best of the the journalism world: a smart, dogged reporter and an editor who cares about his community. Chris Peck in Memphis knew the editor, J. Todd Foster. ”I went to my publisher with a can of Red Bull and two bottles of vodka,” Foster said with a laugh, recalling the effort he made to get his newspaper to pony up expenses and time so a reporter could dig into the story. ”Here we are serving a poor community in the heart of Appalachia and it looked like people around us were getting hosed.” Perfect! J. Todd Foster is our hero.
But what’s changed? Not much, it seems. Gilbert has not gotten one call from a larger newspaper offering him a job. And the people Gilbert wrote about, the ones getting hosed, haven’t seen their lives changed either. “Historically, our culture has been jaded,” said Frank Kilgore, a longtime Wise County lawyer and an occasional contributor to the Daily Yonder. “Everybody expects the bottom to drop out. Despite the Bristol paper’s Pulitzer, you can take all that money in the state escrow account and give it to landowners today, and it wouldn’t make that much of a difference in the coalfield economy.”