With the mainstream commercial media companies eliminating many hundreds of journalists’ jobs, new ventures such as the nonprofit Pro Publica, the New York-based investigative reporting organization, are trying to pick up some of the slack.

Now comes something really different: A for-profit energy corporation is starting an online video channel as “a brand-new media source,” to be staffed with people who formerly worked in conventional broadcast journalism and who will report on the very subjects the company is involved with.

This unorthodox entrant into new media is Chesapeake Energy, an Oklahoma City-based natural gas producer.

At the top of its website’s “Health, Safety and the Environment” page, Chesapeake touts natural gas as a substitute for gasoline, diesel and coal – and one that produces significantly less greenhouse gas.

In that same passage, it cautiously proclaims: “While scientists are still debating and researching the causes of climate change, we believe that the reduction of greenhouse emissions is necessary and beneficial whether or not these emissions are determined to be the cause of increased temperatures worldwide.”

Climate change, however, is not the environmental issue most associated with Chesapeake’s name in North Texas these days.

That issue comprises a cluster of environmental and safety concerns that citizens have been expressing in and around Fort Worth about the company’s accelerated drilling activities in the area.

“Fort Worth is the focus of the largest urban gas-drilling boom in the country,” NPR reported. “But some people are asking for a moratorium on drilling until its full impact is understood and there are stronger laws to protect the public.”

Among its other responses to public complaints about its new drilling in an urban area, Chesapeake hired actor Tommy Lee Jones to help deliver its point of view in different advertising venues.

And soon, Chesapeake has said, it will launch a web-based video channel, Shale.tv, to be produced by Tracy Rowlett, Olive Talley, and John Sparks, three Dallas-area former journalists who had worked in conventional broadcasting outlets and who in those capacities had won numerous journalism awards. (The channel’s name comes from the Barnett Shale, the natural gas formation in question.)

Steve Blow, a Dallas Morning News columnist, wrote that Julie Wilson, a Chesapeake spokeswoman, had told him the channel is not meant to deal with any specific issue, but is simply a service that will address residents’ requests for more information than the regular news media provide.

“If we need to be a leader in brand-new media sources, we think that’s great,” Wilson told Blow. “We’re willing to take the skepticism or criticism because we think time will prove this out. And we’re patient.”

No Different from Buying Ads on TV Stations?

NPR’s broadcasts likewise have reported that Wilson acknowledges doubts about Shale.tv’s objectivity, but reported Wilson’s view that its programming would be no different than those delivered by existing, corporate-owned news outlets in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“Well, I think we pay those journalists – whether on Channel 8 or Channel 11 or the [Fort Worth] Star-Telegram – in terms of advertising support,” Wilson told NPR. “We see this as pretty much instead of running the ads on the program, we’re just writing the check direct.”

The Morning News‘ Blow is one of those wary about the journalistic character of the endeavor.

Indicative of the challenge observers face in determining who is and who is not a “journalist” in the new digital era, Blow wrote of the Chesapeake Energy “high-powered team of journalists. Or I guess I have to say ‘former journalists.’ Or ‘corporate journalists.’ Or something.”

“So, are they trying to bamboozle us? Or do they just have cash to burn?” he wrote.

“When Chesapeake starts hiring credibility heavyweights like Tommy Lee Jones and Tracy Rowlett [formerly a local news anchor] to tell me everything is hunky-dory, I have to start wondering what’s really going on.”

The channel is expected to begin its web programming this fall.

Bill Dawson is an independent journalist who edits Texas Climate News, an online magazine published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Houston Advanced Research Center. He was previously environment writer...