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The Big Story That Happened In His Backyard

05/20/2013 10:29 am 10:29:47 | Updated Jul 20, 2013

Journalist Renowned for his Coverage of Fracking Discusses His Book, Which Is Nominated For Prestigious NYPL Award.

By ANGELA MONTEFINISE

When veteran news reporter Tom Wilber first started covering the development of hydraulic fracturing in upstate New York, he thought it was just an average story on his beat for a Binghamton newspaper.

"In our neck of the woods here, it was a relatively minor story that I covered on my newspaper beat off and on," Wilber said. "I was learning my science, learning about the Shale, looking into Pennsylvania to learn more about it, and going to the community meetings. It didn't really ring the alarm for anyone that it was a much bigger story until about 2008. Then it started to become clear, this was a really special story, and it became my entire focus. Five years later, it's a national story, with a film, and prospecting happening in all of these basins across the country. It obviously had real legs nationally."

He added, "It's a career story for me, and I was just lucky that it was happening right in my backyard."

Wilber has gained national acclaim for his reporting on the highly controversial topic of hydraulic fracturing - known as fracking, which is the process of drilling into rock formations to extract petroleum or natural gas - in the Marcellus Shale formation, located in the Appalachian basin and spanning New York and Pennsylvania.

His book, "Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale," published by Cornell University Press in 2012, looks at the issue through the eyes of those most impacted by it - those who live in the rural areas near the Shale - and has become required reading for those interesting in the heated issue.

The book is one of five finalists for The New York Public Library's prestigious 2013 Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, which honors a book written by a working journalist. The annual award shines a spotlight on long-form reporting. This year, the Library received over 100 nominations. The winner will be announced in a ceremony on May 22.

"It's a true honor to be a finalist," said Wilber, who uses a Joseph Pulitzer quote on his news blog to honor true watchdog journalism. "I think the award is huge. It encourages and recognizes true investigative journalism, amd that's important in this kind of work. It's a labor of love, and journalists need real motivation to engage in it. So I think it's more important than ever to recognize long-form journalism. It's a real honor."
"I'm surprised in the amount of interest in this book," he added. "It has been a real pleasant surprise. You put all your eggs in one book, so it's great."

The story of fracking in the Shale heated up in 2008, when XTO Energy paid landowners in the area lump sums totaling $110 million for rights to drill there.There was also an explosion in the backyard of Norma Fiorentino, a resident of Dimock Township in Pennsylvania. An investigation by the state Department of Environmental Protection showed that the Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. - which had drilled 20 wells into the natural gas-rich Shale - had polluted the groundwater with highly-combustible methane.

The explosion called into question the safety of the practice, and cause division amongst the residents - those who sold the company drilling rights to their land, and those who fought against the drilling.

"I'm out at these meetings, I have real access to this," Wilber said. "I'm talking to Norma Fiorentino. I remember when her well exploded. The editor yelled, 'Get Cabot on the phone and find out what the hell they're blowing up down there!'"

"The editors recognized, OK, this is a big story and they would get excited about it," he said. "We would get into the newsroom and talk about, OK, what's the fracking story, how can we make this into a Sunday story? I'd write a Sunday story three times a month pre-fracking, pre-natural gas. After, I was writing once a week. That support was really key."

"It was very fertile ground to be working on all that, and I was lucky to be at a paper where people were excited and I was the lead reporter on it," he added.

The support allowed Wilber to really dig into the issue and get to know his subjects, who were mostly quiet, private residents of a rural, working class area.

"You know how it is developing sources - you don't want to be intrusive, but you do want to be personal and be the person they confide in," said Wilber. "These are people who have never seen their names in the paper outside of a birth announcement or a wedding announcement, and now they have French and German media outside their door. The fact that I was in it early, and they know me, I think I did get a bit more. And that, I think, shines through in the book."

While Wilber wasn't sure he had anything more than an "extended newspaper story," when Cornell University Press called him about writing a book, he decided in 2010 that the story was developed enough and that he had enough substance to do it.

"I'm one of these journalists who often aspired to the Norman Mailer approach," Wilber said. "I went to J-school and was into the magazine format. I welcomed every opportunity I could to write in narrative form, but you don't get a lot of those opportunities, especially in a mid-sized community paper. So I'm thinking, well, Cornell is an academic press, is that fit for narrative form? Well, it was a perfect fit, and the editor Michael McGandy recognized it. You happen to have all of these interesting characters, you're covering board members. The shale gas story was all about grassroots. It was all about farmers who were driving the town meetings. It lent itself to a narrative story."

"I teased a bit more out," he said. "In 2010, there was one scene where they're all assembled for a press conference, people like Norma, and the grim-faced lawyers with the long wool coats. I described their apparel, because it was just such a mixture of class. Norma had nurse's shoes on and a print blouse. I tried to paint a visual picture to show that these people came from all walks of life. So it wasn't just straight reporting, and I think it helps paint a picture and make a very complicated topic human."

Wilber wrote the book in about 10 months, knowing that there would be no resolution of the issue. "That was the biggest challenge," he said. "I was trying to extend the shelf life. I wanted it to be a point in history, not the definitive history, as it was still unresolved. I'm lucky, because there haven't been a lot of people who documented this from the beginning. So it's a pretty good record of what happened at the Shale from the start. I think the conversation going forward will take fracking where it needs to go. But this story is a story of the beginning, a chronicle of the start."

Despite being so close to such a hot topic, Wilber has been careful not to take a specific position, and has remained objective throughout his reporting, which continues on his blog.

"I'm not going to be a Josh Fox," Wilber said. "It's not my approach. So I came up with this position paper that really states that I see the pros, I see the cons, I see the risks, I see the rewards. I'm not going to be the guy who says the risks are greater than the rewards, but I'm very comfortable being the guy saying we have to have transparency with this . . . I have no problem saying this is watchdog journalism. The idea of watchdog journalism as an agent of social change goes way back to Pulitzer. I have no apologies for watchdog journalism. I'm pro transparency. There's a lot of room for transparency in the energy industry."

Wilber will continue to report on that industry and on fracking, but has other interests, as well - including the current state of the media.

"I teach journalism, and what do you tell undergraduates interested in journalism," Wilber said. "You can't train them for print jobs. It's just not there. There aren't opportunities. Newspapers obviously are having a hard time monetizing the internet. Career journalists, professional journalists who have reached a certain level, are suffering from the fact that there is content out there for free. My former paper has one-third the staff it had, so now it's just trying to cover the basics. The age of the investigative enterprise, that might be done. So it's interesting to see what will happen. Long-form could be a good outlet, so awards like the Library's Bernstein award which call attention to that, it's just so important."

The Big Story That Happened In Tom Wilber's Backyard