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March 28, 2011, 11 a.m.

Pipeline: In Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette builds a thematic network around covering natural gas

The Marcellus Shale is the kind of story that gets editors excited: big corporate players colliding with public officials, natural resources, health risks, and the lives, livelihoods, and homes of countless people all in play. It’s a big story just waiting to be written by a team of dogged reporters.

If you’ve worked in a newsroom, you recognize the scenario this can often lead to: an ongoing investigative report filled with 50-plus inch stories spread across double trucks, complete with corresponding color graphics and photos. And indeed, all of these things have happened at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since it started a concerted effort writing about hydrofracking in Marcellus Shale in the counties around Pittsburgh. But the heart of the P-G’s coverage is online in Pipeline, a microsite dedicated to the ongoing project.

In Pipeline, the Post-Gazette is trying to create a new relationship between readers and an ongoing story. Instead of simply letting an investigation (and public interest) ebb and flow as stories are published in print, Pipeline is part information repository, part context engine, part network. It’s that last part, Erich Schwartzel, Pipeline’s project editor, told me was really the impetus for the site: “What if instead of doing a geographically based network, we did a thematically based network?”

The Post-Gazette is one of a handful of news organizations to receive funding from J-Lab for its networked journalism project, an attempt to connect newspapers to blogs and hyperlocal sites in their communities. The idea is that by creating connections through others writing about a community, a news organization can strengthen its ties and build stronger relationships. The P-G approach focuses on finding an issue that a community cares about, not just tying it to the physical location of the community itself. It’s like creating a ring of craft bloggers or car enthusiasts, where the shared interest may trump geography.

And in this case the big story, the Marcellus Shale, fit perfectly. “This topic, people are so passionate about it,” Schwartzel told me. “There was a hole to be filled for people looking for an objective resource.”

Pipeline is of an interdisciplinary project, pulling in reporters who cover business (Schwartzel’s background) as well as statehouse staff and a web team. The reporting has run the gamut of in-depth pieces on the history of drilling, the complexities and changes in the regulatory process, and the economic impacts of drilling, from licensing to job creation. “You can write a huge, 60-inch background piece on this, but it’s still 60 inches of text to read at the end of the day,” Schwartzel said.

Which is why they were inspired to do more online. Along with multimedia, they’ve added another layer through a series of explainers on how fracking works, a glossary of terms used in the industry, and a rundown of the cast of characters. Though many readers may already know plenty about shale drilling because it’s affected their lives, Schwartzel said they knew they had to make Pipeline both accessible and evergreen. “It’s part of the drive towards context, a place to go get a basic primer on what is happening,” Schwartzel said.

Another thing they’ve done is bring in local, knowledgeable outside help in the form of FracTracker, a data and mapping tool specifically focused on the Marcellus Shale, and Burgh Diaspora, a blog on Rust Belt economics. The response after the site’s launch in February was immediate, Schwartzel said, as readers began emailing asking for more information and with suggestions for the site. One of the more popular features on Pipeline is the permit map for Marcellus Shale well sites. On launch, they had data for just five counties — but after demand from readers they’ve increased it to more than 30.

At the moment most of the site’s traffic comes through the front door of post-gazette.com and the audience, while not record-breaking, is substantial, Schwartzel said. But more importantly, he says, that audience is intensely interested in the Marcellus Shale. And that’s something he thinks they can easily grow on.

“We’ve heard a lot from activists groups, industry people, and academics about finding a space on the site to contribute,” he said. “The response has been pretty overwhelming.”

POSTED     March 28, 2011, 11 a.m.
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