Journalist Spotlight: Joshua Schneyer on his exclusive on Harold Hamm's $1 bln divorce judgement

Journalist Spotlight: Joshua Schneyer on his exclusive on Harold Hamm's $1 bln divorce judgement

On Tuesday, Reuters was first to report that Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm was ordered to pay nearly $1 billion in a divorce judgment. Oklahoma County Special Judge Howard Haralson found that oil magnate Hamm should pay his ex-wife Sue Ann Hamm a total of $995.5 million, with about a third of the funds to be paid by the end of the year. The scoop was the latest in a string of excellent coverage that correspondent Joshua Schneyer and colleagues have produced on Continental and Harold Hamm, including an investigation that reported that the company had changed its website to downplay successes under Hamm, which may have been a strategy for him to minimize his divorce payout. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Josh offers a behind-the-scenes look at Reuters coverage of the divorce.

Q. How did you score this exclusive?

A. I got a tip that a new document had just appeared in Oklahoma’s court filing system. We were first to report on the 80-page, $1 billion divorce ruling because we’ve kept a watchful eye on the case docket. Reuters has covered the divorce for two years. There were billions at stake, and Harold Hamm is a leading figure in the energy industry, believed to own more oil than any other American. His $14 billion in wealth is tied up in shares of a major publicly traded company. That made the divorce into a business story.

Q. What types of reporting/sourcing were involved?

A. While the ruling was filed publicly, much of the case was conducted in secrecy. Our story on the ruling culminated a long-term reporting effort that began in early 2013, when Reuters broke the news of the pending Hamm divorce. Since then, we have aimed to give readers as much detail as we could about a huge divorce conducted mostly in private under the judge’s orders. We learned a lot by sifting through legal documents. I also went to Oklahoma County Court several times (and often got turned away). Luckily, we had already made some valuable contacts before the trial began. Last year, Brian Grow and I rented cars and separately drove all around Oklahoma, talking to more than 25 people who are close to the parties in the case, eating $7 chicken-fried steak, and at one point narrowly missing a major tornado. Our sources included several witnesses and others with eyes inside the courthouse. Getting them to speak with us wasn’t always easy. Continental is one of Oklahoma’s biggest companies, and the Hamms are considered Oklahoma oil royalty. For the most part, they didn’t want the divorce making headlines.

Q. What have been some of our other big wins on this story?

A. Our first story drew a lot interest, including from investors worried that a judgment would force Hamm to sell a big chunk of the company he controls (the $1 billion ruling means that risk has been averted for now, although it may be appealed). In a special report we told readers about an interesting twist in the legendary oilman’s legal defense: to minimize the divorce payout, Hamm needed to convince the judge that his own efforts and skills contributed very little to a 400-fold rise in the value of Continental during his 26-year marriage. In September, we reported that Continental had rewritten its corporate history in ways that could help him make that case, by downplaying Hamm’s role and some of Continental’s past accomplishments/oil discoveries. Earlier this month, we wrote about the deep involvement of Continental’s top lawyer in the personal divorce case of his boss, a scenario that several legal experts found unusual and potentially troublesome.

Q. What has been the hardest part about reporting the ongoing story?

A. Learning what was happening inside a courtroom with a big handwritten “DO NOT ENTER” sign posted on the door. Most divorce trials are conducted in an open courtroom.

Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?

A. As a reporter, realizing you’ve learned something that readers have a right to know but don’t (particularly if there are powerful interests keeping a lid on it). Having a story published is a thrill, but it’s hard to beat those eureka moments during the chase.

Q. What do you find most fulfilling about covering your beat?

A. I’m an enterprise/energy reporter. The oil industry, love it or loathe it, is the world’s biggest. Good oil stories can involve vast sums, politics, international brinkmanship, environmental or safety disasters, land disputes, disruptive technology, boardroom intrigue, and larger-than-life characters, like Harold Hamm. Traders and wildcatters can quickly make millions or go bust, but almost no one’s life is unaffected by oil, so the story possibilities are vast.

Q. What other major stories have you worked on for Reuters?

A. It was good to be a part of the team of Reuters reporters covering Chesapeake Energy and its maverick then-CEO Aubrey McClendon in 2012/2013. The team produced a series of special reports that resulted in criminal and SEC investigations, and contributed to a shake-up at the top of the company, the No. 2 U.S. natural gas producer.

Q. If you weren’t a journalist, what would you be?

A. A songwriter…. In other words, another variety of hack.

To read the latest from Joshua Schneyer, click here.