Reclaiming Coal Country — Quest for a New Economy in Appalachia 

September 8, 2021

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The author sought to explore a region trying to emerge from a coal legacy that fueled the nation’s growth for a century. Above, a memorial to coal miners in Benham, Ky. Photo: Elizabeth McGowan. Click to enlarge.

FEJ StoryLog: Reclaiming Coal Country — Quest for a New Economy in Appalachia 

By Elizabeth H. McGowan

Curiosity about why Congress repeatedly failed to back a grassroots-inspired measure to seed help and hope in Appalachia led me from Washington, D.C., to a big table at the Dairy Queen in Whitesburg, Ky.

That’s where retired coal 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.”

It was late summer, 2018. Moore joined other miners with black lung disease and their advocates to explain how the federal RECLAIM Act, which wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime, could provide vital medical care and help rebuild the region’s downtrodden economy.

I was listening because I was seeking answers to a question that had long gnawed at me: Why is there so much talk and so little walk about restoring the health of Appalachian land and people, as the region tries to emerge from a coal legacy that fueled the nation’s growth for a century?


FEJ grant allowed reporting from the ground

Months earlier, applying for a Fund for Environmental Journalism grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists had forced me to narrow and clarify that scope.

I discovered it made sense to juxtapose the saga of the $1 billion RECLAIM, or the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More, Act with stories about the success of a smaller federal pilot program that was already serving as a nascent renewal model.


I wanted to look people in the eye

and walk around on their earth so

I could immerse readers in their lives.


Receiving the FEJ grant, along with a Solutions Journalism Network grant, allowed me to travel to southeast Kentucky to flesh out my research and telephone reporting. Of course, such stories can be done via phone. But I wanted to look people in the eye and walk around on their earth so I could immerse readers in their lives.

Before I even sought funding, I searched for a regional outlet receptive to my freelance piece. My first instinct was to reach out to the editor at Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine because he had circulated a query on one of the SEJ email lists asking about fair freelance rates for deeply researched pieces. He said yes to my proposal and was open to my narrative approach.


Finding the right sources

Too often, these types of stories are stereotypical and woeful ones about “hillbillies waiting for a handout.” I wanted to show — warts and all — how close these dedicated people and tiny organizations had come to scoring a rare federal legislative victory through perseverance.

I knew this was a lot to bite off. Part of the challenge was that this wasn’t exactly my backyard. I had connections with nonprofits, politicians and other more official sources, but I needed to find miners to tell me their stories.

Fortunately, at one community meeting, I ended up sitting next to a woman who was in charge of her local chapter of the national Black Lung Association. It doesn’t have a website and is made up mainly of miners organizing and advocating. Her husband had died of black lung. The calls she made led to the Dairy Queen gathering.

I had finally landed the authentic sources I needed to weave those stories into the politics and the history of the legislation. That was a huge leap forward for the main story. 


Searching for vignettes

For the sidebars, I envisioned weaving together three separate vignettes about individuals, communities or other entities that were benefitting from the U.S. Treasury money that funded pilot programs in the region.

Before I left home, I’d lined up two. One was an interview with a former coal miner who had graduated from a community college program designed to train utility lineworkers; the other, a tour of former minelands that two entrepreneurs planned to transform into a wildlife reserve (including elk restoration), education center and native plant habitat.

On the Saturday drive to Kentucky, I told myself that two sidebars would be enough. That lasted until I stopped in Norton, Va., to stretch my legs. A man who stopped his truck to ask if I needed a map turned out to be the city administrator.

Lo and behold, Norton was in the midst of using pilot fund money to transform minelands into a business/industrial park. He consented to an in-person interview during a weekday when I would be returning home.


Be realistic, expect to work overtime

My biggest piece of advice is: Be realistic. Any freelancer knows that most grants, unless they are quite large, aren’t usually enough to cover the time you spend reporting, researching and writing a complex article or series.

This FEJ grant, combined with funding from the Solutions Journalism Network, covered travel expenses, overnight stays and some of my reporting time.

Also, you have to be prepared before traveling to the locale you’ve selected. Do your homework ahead of time to be familiar enough with the bones of a story so you can flesh it out by asking precise questions. Set up meetings and interviews ahead of time and keep sources tuned in to your whereabouts so they know you’ve arrived and are still on track with the story.

At the same time, build in some extra time to your travel schedule, if at all possible, so you have time to observe where you are and how the people live, and fit in an interview with somebody you didn’t expect to meet.

Also, I always try to take photographs of sources in context so I can use the picture as a visual prompt when I sit down to write.


Grant fueled my time, energy

Freelance journalism is not an enterprise for the weak of heart. I applied for an FEJ grant because I wanted to tell this under-the-radar story instead of relegating it to the bin of “stories I wish I had told but didn’t have the time, outlet or resources” to do so.


Having the grant in hand was

validation that the kernel of an idea

I wanted to explore had merit.


Having the grant in hand was validation that the kernel of an idea I wanted to explore had merit. That thought fueled me as I invested my time and energy into telling those stories — and not watching the clock.

I can’t force people to change by reading what I write. But I think journalists are responsible for digging in, listening and exposing the gray truths that are so much more nuanced than the “black-and-white bumper stickers” that score easy clicks.

And, yes, that FEJ-funded package not only led to more assignments with Blue Ridge Outdoors, but also helped me convince editors at the outlet where I now do much of my freelance work, the Energy News Network, to reshape the type of reporting I do for them.

My package of RECLAIM stories reached a print audience of 350,000 readers from Maryland to Georgia and more than 125,000 digital readers. Not only did it rank as one of the magazine’s most popular stories of 2019, but it was also one of the top five highest performing stories in the magazine’s history.

“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,” Blue Ridge Outdoors editor Will Harlan wrote. “Elizabeth's feature is central to that new narrative, and readers from Maryland to Georgia have responded powerfully and enthusiastically to her vision.”

Editor’s Note: Check out McGowan’s grant-funded stories in Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, and with longer versions of vignettes and an extra explanatory sidebar in Renewal News.

Elizabeth H. McGowan is a longtime energy and environment reporter based in Washington, D.C. She now covers Virginia’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network. As a staff writer for Inside Climate News, her groundbreaking dispatches from Kalamazoo, Mich., “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of,” earned her team a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. An e-book version of the narrative won the Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. McGowan’s freelance articles have appeared in multiple publications. Her adventure memoir, “Outpedaling ‘The Big C’: My Healing Cycle Across America,” was released in 2020 by Bancroft Press. Learn more from @ehmcgowanNEWS or

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 31. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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