“The Shale Life”

The Texas Tribune  
October 29, 2014 


The “Texas miracle” story elected officials here tell is one of surging oil and gas production, of overnight millionaires, of towns and schools and churches awash in new wealth. It’s a caricature of Texas’ booms of yore.

The reality is far more complicated: tiny towns transformed by transient workers, sky-high costs pricing out longtime locals, basic resources stretched bone-thin, the omnipresent threat — heightened by plummeting oil prices — of a fatal bust.

The Texas Tribune aspired to tell the complete story of Texas’ energy boom, from the perspective of the people living through it. For close to six months, our reporters, photographers and videographers trekked across the state’s most productive shales, while our developers and data team tracked demographic changes and economic trends across those regions.

The result is the 15-part Shale Life project.

Among the series’ most compelling narrators:

The third-generation crop-dusting pilot who now dodges drilling rigs to do his job, and fears the water getting sucked up by fracking will make his industry irrelevant.

The transient tenants of a remote West Texas “man camp,” workers who’ve cashed everything in — and in many cases left their families behind — for a chance at a high-paying oilfield job.

The parents at a Midland soup kitchen who are suddenly facing “big city” prices —and must choose between making rent and feeding their families.

The cattle ranch foreman who learned to use an infrared camera to track the unauthorized oil and gas emissions giving his sons nosebleeds and headaches.

In each and every package, our readers got the full story: The scenery. The conflict. The imagery. The context. They learned how populations had shifted, where oil and gas wells were tapped, how tax revenue and other economic factors affected the personal narratives.

The Shale Life represents a couple of key firsts for The Texas Tribune. It’s the first Tribune project that relies more heavily on visual than on written storytelling — a decision we made after recognizing just how much the shale boom has to be experienced to be understood.

It’s also the first project we financed in part through the contributions of interested readers, by way of the crowdfunding-for-journalism site Beacon Reader. With Beacon’s support, we raised $6,000 from nearly 100 individual donors, money that helped offset the expense of sending so many of our journalists on the road.

These innovations in storytelling, story buy-in and story delivery resulted in the most engaged readership we’ve ever had on a major Tribune project, not just on a local scale, but on a national one. We believe the Shale Life project, from its scope and visuals to its interactivity and user experience, represents the best of digital journalism. We hope it is worthy of your consideration.

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Submitted by Emily Ramshaw.

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