In March 2013, the investigative news nonprofit Public Herald came out with a 90-minute documentary on the environmental and health impacts of hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania.
Based on 18 months of truth-digging and interviews with locals, industry officials, and experts, Triple Divide uncovered evidence of well-water contamination resulting from oil and gas “fracking” that was left off the books. It highlighted some of the strong-arm tactics that oil and gas companies used to seize private lands and the lack of public accountability that followed damage to environment (and the residents).
Two years in, the film has proven to be an invaluable asset to Public Herald on a number of fronts: It has maintained its relevance in the current fracking narrative, and it captures the very essence of the nonprofit’s mission to blend creative art with hard-hitting journalism.
Melissa Troutman and Joshua Pribanic co-founded Public Herald in September 2011, beginning with an investigation into the Chesapeake Energy blowout in Bradford County. Since then, the duo has produced a series of investigative reports on industry’s impact on the environment.
But Triple Divide stands in a category of its own.
In April 2014, the film was awarded a $35,000 INNovation Fund grant so it could be screened in as many as 35 cities across the country. Troutman and Pribanic sought to take the film to new audiences beyond their home state and experiment with an engagement model that would result in sustainability for the nonprofit.
Aiding their chore was Tesla Motors, which loaned the pair their top electric vehicle to cut down their traveling costs—Troutman and Pribanic drove 16,000 miles through blazing heat and freezing cold without using a single drop of gasoline.
And when the tour wrapped in November, back in the filmmakers’ home state of Pennsylvania, it did so with with 330 new subscribers to Public Herald, 105 new paid members, 167 donors and a $10,000 donation to help produce a second, 50-minute version of Triple Divide.
The final result is testament that, with a tangible project like Triple Divide, a tour of this scale and depth is a feasible avenue to acquiring members who are engaged and passionate about their work.
Public Herald generated $3,150 from the new memberships, $680 in unexpected revenue thanks to 17 additional independently hosted screenings and $2,972 in donations in exchange for merchandise like stickers. But this business experiment, in the eyes of the INNovation Fund, was a success because it earned Public Herald something substantially valuable that cannot be measured in dollars.
“Our sources went from regional to national. For instance, we now have stories coming in from sources coast to coast, whereas before we mainly worked with sources in the Marcellus Shale Play,” Pribanic said. “The experience was priceless given we were able to be on the ground in different shale plays, with different regulations across the country and compare this to Pennsylvania and other states in the Marcellus.”
And it didn’t stop there. During the tour, the filmmakers were also busy conducting interviews with key figures for its upcoming project, Invisible Hand—a documentary series that tells the story of how the public handles external costs from a free market economy within a democracy.
“We also learned about the state of freshwater, or lack thereof, in areas like Texas and California and confirmed our suspicions that this story will be the biggest thing to hit the papers as it plays out over the next few years,” Pribanic said.
If Public Herald is hungry for group collaboration and serial journalism, it is proving it with the endeavors it pursues. Case in point: Triple Divide is the precursor of yet another one of their projects, “#fileroom.” The idea behind it is to serve as a repository of data and files from state records, initially being populated by the first-ever release of citizen reports of fracking impacts, gas migration investigations, and fracking waste permits.
The files are open to the public and organized by state, county and township. Public Herald’s hope is that they can get not just journalists but private citizens to dig through the piles and piles of data in order to review and publish documents from the oil and gas industry.
What remains to be seen is the kind of impact Public Herald can have on the national conversation about fracking. As of now, “#fileroom” volunteers have poured in more than 2,000 hours in scanning records from every state office. The open-source project is expected to launch at the end of April 2015 at http://publicfiles.org.