Covering Coal Country: Overcoming The Obstacles To Reporting In Rural America

February 15, 2008



Many if not most environmental stories have their roots in rural places. Those are the places where extractive industries do almost all their extracting, where America ultimately puts much of its solid waste, where farm fields get the fertilizers that create dead zones in the sea.

They are also places where local journalists struggle to cover these and other environmental topics. That can leave most of their readers, viewers and listeners uninformed, illinformed or misinformed, because rural coverage and circulation by major metropolitan newspapers continues to dwindle.

Journalists in rural America who want to cover environmental subjects face many obstacles. They include isolation; lack of skills, resources and support systems; and outside interference in the newsroom.

By definition, rural journalists are isolated – from cities where environmental actors are based, from state capitals and other regulatory centers, and from each other. The telephone, fax machine and e-mail are no substitute for personal contact when it comes to developing and evaluating sources, and the isolation that defines these remote areas means that professional networks among rural journalists are weak or nonexistent.

Most rural news outlets lack the resources to attract talented reporters and editors. In a random-sample survey of rural U.S. newspapers this year by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, the average starting salary for a reporter with a college degree and one internship was $20,029. At papers with more than 6,000 circulation, it was not much better, only $21,580.

The generally small audiences of rural news outlets mean that they have small news staffs, on which there are few beats. Rarely do they have few reporters who specialize in covering the environment – even if broadly defined, to include such subjects as energy and coal-mine safety.

While these news outlets may have small audiences, many of them have large owners – corporate chains that typically squeeze staff costs to increase profits. About 60 percent of weekly U.S. newspapers (defined as those publishing three or fewer times a week) are chain-owned. The figure for dailies is about 80 percent.

Not all chains are alike, and some do a good job of staffing their newsrooms and supporting their staffs with decent pay, training and other support. But examples abound to the contrary, especially when it comes to environmental coverage.

In Eastern Kentucky, where mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal is a controversial subject and has caused widespread environmental damage, the subject is rarely covered in weekly or daily newspapers. Last year, University of Kentucky student Clay McGuffin surveyed the region's daily newspapers, all chain-owned, and found that only one of the four had any staff coverage of the subject from September 2003 to 2006.

The survey, part of a research project for my Community Journalism course, also found evidence that a weekly newspaper that crusaded against abuses by the coal industry in general and one major company in particular lost advertising as a result. It was forced to sell to a competitor that treated the industry more kindly.

This is an old story of intimidation in Central Appalachia, where the coal industry is the leading employer in many counties, and exercises considerable economic and political sway through its employees and vendors, officials who receive its campaign contributions, and other local interests that depend on the industry for support.

"In many instances, the coal companies support their communities with charitable donations," notes Kyle Lovern, a reporter who has covered the industry in southern West Virginia.

So many people rely on the industry, Lovern says, "It is sometimes tough to write about topics such as mountaintop removal, and the effect this type of mining has on the environment, because you will receive a lot of negative comments from the industry officials. You must have thick skin."

My own experience at covering coal, for both weekly and metropolitan daily papers, tells me that negative comments are pretty much guaranteed when a reporter makes even a minor mistake, which is easy to do when covering a complicated and controversial subject. It's no wonder that many reporters and editors shy away from it.

Sometimes all reporters need to cover touchy subjects is confidence, born of information and inspiration. That's what we try to do at the Institute for Rural Journalism, through conferences, our website, The Rural Blog and other writings, and Kyle Lovern knows about that. He attended "Covering Coal," a one-day conference we held at the Graduate College of Marshall University in South Charleston, W.Va., two years ago.

As far as we can tell, this was the first gathering in Central Appalachia at which local journalists heard from coal-industry executives, an industry business analyst, environmental and mine-safety activists and experts, and state and federal environment and safety regulators.

Lovern returned to the Williamson Daily News and wrote a three-part series on the coal industry in the region, followed by a two-part series on coal-waste dams and the dangers they pose. A few weeks later, 12 miners died in the Sago Mine in West Virginia, so he did enterprise stories about mine safety and wrote a column critical of a coal company's handling of its public relations. He said the conference encouraged his coverage and commentary.

"It is great to get together with some of your peers, and discuss some of the problems and issues they may have," he said. "You can share information and pick up a lot of good pointers from experienced writers, who have covered the coal industry for many years."

Lovern now is the editor of the Coalfield Division of the West Virginia Standard newspapers, an upstart group that is challenging the status quo in several rural counties. Another attendee at the "Covering Coal" conference was Marty Backus, then the publisher of the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville, Ky., the only Eastern Kentucky daily that does any meaningful coverage of mountaintop removal. Backus' stance on his editorial page was generally pro-coal, but he wanted the industry held accountable and got his dander up when coal companies wouldn't return the paper's calls.

I ran into Backus a few weeks after the coal conference. He said he enjoyed it, but had hoped for more of a face-off between journalists and industry types, to create mutual understanding and better lines of communication. He agreed to host, and I agreed to run, a Coal-Media Roundtable. It drew 48 people, just over half of them from the industry, and the day ended with better feelings on both sides. "I think this is a good first step," said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.

As the mountaintop-removal issue has remained in the public eye, thanks mainly to activism by Appalachian writers and coverage by media based outside the mountains, the coal association has launched an advertising campaign, much like that its West Virginia counterpart did a few years ago.

To boost local news coverage of the issue, we assigned our intern from the Knight Community Journalism Fellows program at the University of Alabama to do a story on efforts against mountaintop removal in the four states where it occurs – West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.

Mary Jo Shafer's reporting, which was published in several newspapers, showed that state-level efforts against mountaintop removal had reached the legislative level only in Kentucky, and following two failures there, activists in the four states agreed that they needed federal action – but also more support from people in the region. The need for more information on the subject, and other environmental topics there and in other parts of rural America, is clear.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which is based at the University of Kentucky and has academic partners at 19 universities in 14 states. He worked 26 years for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, the last 16 as political writer, and was president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02.

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