Freelance Journalism: Not an Enterprise for the Weak

August 8, 2019 — I'm a Washington, D.C.-based, award-winning energy and environment reporter. As a staff writer for InsideClimate News, my groundbreaking dispatches from Kalamazoo, Mich., "The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of," won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. As well, an e-book version of the narrative won the 2013 Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

In August 2018, I was one of the recipients of the inaugural Lizzie Grossman Freelance Grants for Environmental Health Reporting, through SEJ's Fund for Environmental Journalism. My winning project, destined for Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, was "Beyond Lip Service," reporting on efforts in Appalachian coal-mining communities to fund healthcare for compromised miners and also restore land, provide jobs and rejuvenate communities left behind by the energy transition.



Since the last presidential election cycle, Donald Trump has sucked much of the oxygen out of realistic and doable energy conversations by talking about restoring coal jobs in Appalachia. Usually, the eloquent poetry of campaigns turns to the more mundane prose of governing, but not this time. This administration continues to beat the coal-is-on-its-way back drum.

Residents of Appalachia know how false this rally cry is, but is anybody else listening?

My key question to explore: Why is there so much talk and so little walk when it comes to restoring the health of the land and people in Appalachia as the region tries to recover from a legacy of coal mining that fueled our nation’s growth?

The problems in Appalachia are devastating. However, in doing my pre-grant reporting, I had discovered a potential home-grown solution — at least the start of something bigger — crafted by a nimble and well-informed group of Kentucky-based advocates.

Their two-part proposal laid out how to 1) boost health care funding for the increased number of miners with black lung disease and 2) direct existing dollars to restoring non-fossil fuel jobs and an enterprise economy to people left behind.

It wouldn’t cost the federal government a dime because these pots of money already exist. Both are paid into by coal mine operators per ton of coal harvested. Federal legislation already existed calling for coal operators to make increased contributions to both of these funding pots.


How the grant changed my work

This is not a story that can be done well over the phone. The Lizzie Grant allowed me to develop intimate relationships with miners and their relatives. One of my most moving experiences was sitting around a big table at the Dairy Queen in Whitesburg, Ky., listening to miners with and without black lung and their families explain why they were fighting this fight.

That’s where retired miner Jimmy Moore told me that as long as he was mobile and breathing, he would not give up the fight because otherwise, “they are just waiting for us to die.”

I learned how several Kentucky non-profits had worked with Moore and other miners and their families so they could speak with their own voices in community forums, on bus trips to talk to their legislators in Frankfort, Ky., and on Capitol Hill.

Too often, these types of stories are woeful ones about “hillbillies waiting for a handout.” But this is an inside job of perseverance. Local people have taken the initiative to craft a potential solution to two horrible scourges — black lung and decimated communities. I wanted to show — warts and all — how close these dedicated people and tiny organizations have come to scoring a rare federal legislative victory.

On the political front, I learned how much scorn these people have for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He pretty much ignores the counties of southeastern Kentucky because the area is so depopulated and most of his campaign donations come from the wealthier western part of the state. It was heartbreaking for these people when he neglected to bump up payments for both of these pots of money in the catch-all omnibus bill of 2018 and then again in December 2018 when Congress usually ties up many loose ends.

Will Harlan, editor in chief of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, said my articles "clearly and powerfully educated our readers about two critical issues that have been largely underreported. The rise in black lung disease is finally starting to gain some traction in the national media, but so far Congress has failed to pass any meaningful legislation. We hope that this story can prod regional leaders to take action and build a groundswell of public support."

Harlan also wrote: "Perhaps the most important step for Appalachia is changing its narrative from a destitute region dependent on King Coal to a vibrant, diversified area with a sustainable economy. Elizabeth's "Reclaiming Appalachia" feature is central to that new narrative, and readers from Maryland to Georgia have responded powerfully and enthusiastically to her vision."


The stories


The bottom line

I did a tremendous amount of legwork before even applying for the Lizzie Grant. While the grant helped me cover some expenses (as did the payment from Blue Ridge Outdoors), neither covered the tremendous amount of time I invested in the reporting and writing of this project to make sure I got it right. Freelance journalism is not an enterprise for the weak.

While I can’t make people change by reading what I write, I think journalists are responsible for digging in, listening and exposing the gray truths that are so much more than the black and white stereotypes.

Thank you, SEJ, for funding this project. I couldn’t have completed it without your support.

Elizabeth McGowan
Freelance Energy and Environment Reporter

Twitter: @ehmcgowanNEWS