Ken Ward Jr. has covered West Virginia’s coal, chemical and natural gas industries since 1989. His groundbreaking work was recognized Thursday, when he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The award, often referred to as a “genius grant,” isn’t a lifetime achievement award, but an investment in work to come. Recipients receive $625,000 over five years, with no requirements on how that money is spent.
The Energy News Network also receives funding from MacArthur Foundation, which does not have access to, or oversight of, our editorial process.
Ward, the only journalist in this year’s group of 25 fellows, has covered West Virginia’s fossil-fuel industries with investigative rigor, using Freedom of Information Act requests and a network of sources to produce powerful journalism that looks at how extraction industries have affected the people and communities of the Mountain State. He pioneered the use of weblogs at the newspaper, and more recently has worked as part of the nonprofit ProPublica’s inaugural Local Reporting Network.
The Energy News Network chatted with Ward about his career so far, as well as what’s to come.
Q: What led you to a career in journalism?
I stumbled into this old ramshackle house in Morgantown just off of the downtown campus [of West Virginia University]. It was an old rundown house where the Daily Athenaeum student newspaper had its office. I started writing stories there and found out that putting out a student newspaper was a lot more fun than most of my classes seemed to be. So I got sucked in there, and from that I wrote a couple of stories about the guy who was the president of WVU at the time and some odd things he was doing. Those got noticed by a guy named Don Marsh, who was editor of the Gazette at the time, along with professor named Harry Ernst, who before he went into teaching had been the Gazette’s Washington correspondent.
Professor Ernst got me an internship here at the Gazette. That was the summer of 1989, and that was the summer of the UMWA [United Mine Workers of America] strike against Pittston coal. The joke was they could send me out to cover picket line violence because I was an intern, so I wasn’t on the healthcare plan. I spent that summer with Gazette photographer Jim Noelker driving around southern West Virginia talking to miners. I was pretty much trapped then; there was no hope I was going to go do anything else.
I got to know a guy named Paul Nyden who was a longtime investigative reporter here and became a mentor of mine. That’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do since then, was to come work here.
Q: You’ve worked at the Charleston Gazette, now the Gazette-Mail, since 1989. What has kept you there?
I would say a couple things about that. One is yeah, we’ve had a lot of really smart, really talented people who’ve come and gotten some good clips and moved on. Some of them, like Eric Eyre, came here, I think he would say, thinking he would stay for a few years and move on. He’s been here 20 years now and won a Pulitzer Prize last year. We also have a core of people from West Virginia who are editors and reporters here, like me, for whom this is home.
That’s the thing for me, this is home. What higher calling is there for a journalist than to write stories that make their home better? That’s what it’s been for me. That’s not to say that other people’s choices and career paths that have taken them other places are illegitimate or that I’m knocking them. It’s just for me that for me, staying home. My wife is a West Virginia native and a lawyer at legal aid. One of the things that drew us together was the love for the state and our desire and commitment to do things to make it a better place
Q: Why is the newspaper still important for West Virginians today?
I think that there’s no question that this newspaper is the most important journalistic institution in West Virginia, and is one of the foundational institutions more broadly in the state. Smarter people than me try to figure out, is print dead, how fast is print dying? I don’t think there’s any question there are lots of challenges about print newspapers, financially, readership-wise.
I have a 13-year-old son, and while he is writing for Flipside, our kind of teen newspaper that we publish here, he and his friends don’t want to read print newspapers. They want to see things online and all of that. Whether it’s print or whether it’s some sort of digital version, there’s a need for journalism and for local news and reporting about communities. One of the things I hope the MacArthur fellowship will do is allow me to do some thinking about how we can better translate the news and the journalism that’s really our product into something that can get into more hands.
Q: You were an early adopter with your blogs, and more recently you’ve worked with ProPublica, so it seems like you’ve been part of a few experiments in how newspapers can reach people in new ways.
That’s right. We like to call ourselves the state newspaper, but even in my early years here, when we had a much bigger newsroom and a much news operation, much bigger circulation and broader print circulation around the state, you’d sometimes hear, ‘You’re going to Marshall County to do that story? We don’t sell a lot of papers in Marshall County.’
But the fact is we can send electrons to Marshall County or Weston County or Berkeley County or Jefferson County. We can send electrons there a hell of a lot cheaper than we can send a newspaper truck. For me, the possibilities of distribution are fantastic here. More people are reading our stories than ever read them before. It’s just that they’re not reading them in a print form on paper. I think people across West Virginia and across other places want really strong news. They want deep news. Regardless of the form, you need institutions that are going to do that.
I don’t mean to knock citizen journalists, but you’re not going to do a six-month investigation of Donald Trump’s tax returns with unpaid citizen journalists. We need to find better ways to get more readers, and I’m going to spend some time the next few years trying to work on that.
Q: If you look back at your nearly three decades of work, what are the biggest takeaways?
Unfortunately, a lot of the stories that I’ve covered have been death and destruction and disaster. If you read John Alexander William’s history of West Virginia, the history of West Virginia is this terrible series of mine explosions or chemical plant fires, drinking water contamination. Part of what I’ve tried to focus on in covering those stories is the common theme they share is they were all predictable and completely preventable.
If we can expose the preventable nature of these disasters, maybe West Virginians can realize that these things don’t have to happen. Twenty-nine miners don’t have to get blown up, and miners don’t have to die from a preventable disease like black lung. The drinking water for 300,000 people in the state’s capital doesn’t have to be contaminated. If we can expose the preventable nature of these things, maybe we just don’t accept our lot in life as, well, this is the cost of having jobs. While a lot of my work is focused around these disasters, I hope that it’s been to shine a light on them in a way that helps prevent them.
Q: Do you see a long-term narrative arc to your journalism?
For the coal industry, the arc in West Virginia has always been a downward arc, in terms of, miners, everyday they go to work they’re mining themselves out of a job. We’re seeing that kind of end game, so to speak, where coal production is bottoming out to a level where it’s going to stay for a long time. It’s much lower than it ever has been. Along with that now, we see the rise of natural gas.
What we’ve tried to do with our stories with ProPublica is ask some hard question about the gas boom. Is it taking West Virginia down the same path as coal, where there’s a small number of jobs created for a small number of people, but in exchange we get environmental damage and we don’t get adequate taxation to support our schools? Are we headed down that path again? That’s the arc we’ve taken as my career has followed the coal industry as its been on the decline. Now we’re picking it up with what’s happening with natural gas.
Q: You spent much of your career writing about the coal industry, but with the ProPublica partnership, you’ve shifted to writing more about natural gas over the last couple of years. What parallels have you uncovered between the history of coal in Appalachia and the natural gas industry now?
There’s a couple of things that are happening with gas that are eerily similar and troublesome. One is that when we pass laws to cover how we’re going to regulate this industry, we’re letting the industry help write it in a way that leaves it perhaps more latitude than it ought to have in deciding how to operate and what kind of impacts it has on its neighbors. That’s what’s happened in West Virginia with the Horizontal Drilling Act. It’s what’s happening with pipeline regulations. At the same time, the state’s being given a lot of promises: ’If we just do this and just do this for the gas industry, everything will be fantastic. It will be a huge economic boon. Everyone will have great jobs.’
While the coal industry did some of that, even while the coal industry was booming, West Virginia was still a poor state, and here we are now as a poor state. You see these kind of promises from the gas industry, but yet some of the counties where the gas industry is producing the most gas, those places are struggling economically. So I think West Virginians are right to be wary of these promises, and we’re seeing some of those parallels in the reporting we’re doing.
Q: As someone who has covered extractive industries for nearly 30 years, what is your outlook on the future of clean energy in West Virginia?
West Virginia has a fledgling wind industry. The state created some tax credit programs to help foster that. The coal industry has tried to kill off those tax credits several years in a row at the legislature. They haven’t been able to do that yet.
We see American Electric Power here has been clear with utilities commission and with the public that it believes to get more customers and more industry in there that will buy more of their electricity, they need to go with renewable energy and clean energy. If you want to get Amazon, if you want to get Google, if you want to get a server farm, any of those things, you need wind and solar. I think that West Virginia ignores those pieces of advice from Appalachian Power at our peril.
Q: Are there political barriers keeping renewable energy back?
The political barriers about these things really have to do with a media landscape and a collection of campaign consultants that allow a false narrative of jobs versus the environment — Obama bad, coal good, Obama’s killing coal — to kind of be what rules the day in political discourse. A lot of the media landscape here allows that to go on.
It certainly would help West Virginians if more journalists would realize that just because that’s what the candidates want to talk about, a president who’s not on the ballot anymore, that’s not what we have to talk about. We can frame the campaign in a way so that readers and listeners understand that the future of the state is a lot more complicated than that.
Q: West Virginia is so physically and environmentally tied to extractive industries, from timber to coal to natural gas. Do you see that history as an impediment to the state’s economic future?
We did a story with ProPublica about some issues in Fayette County. The Danny Webb fracking injection waste well, as well as part of the Mountain Valley Pipeline project with the compressor station, where some fairly progressive, forward-thinking local leaders in that community wanted to find some new directions and explore some new ways of supporting the community economically. In fact, the gas industry was reaching out and stopping it.
One of the things that is out there to be lassoed if West Virginia wants it is there’s a lot of economic development to be had in cleaning up these past messages and fixing the sins of the past and using abandoned mine land money to clean up streams and clean up our state. A lot of the same kinds of work that people do mining coal, they can do cleaning up abandoned mine sites. So that’s an area where you can do some good by cleaning things up and create some economic boosts at the same time.
Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your career so far?
We reporters aren’t always as smart as we think we are. If I’ve learned anything in 27 years here, I hope that it’s been how to be a better listener. My father was a high school science teacher and a believer in the scientific method. One of the things you have to do with your own hypothesis is to really test it. One of the things I want to get better at is talking to people and listening to people who maybe are challenging what my hypothesis going into a story was, and are going to make me think a little harder and hear what someone else has to say. In our country, and certainly our state right now, being a better listener is something we could all do.
Q: What’s next? What do you plan to do with the funding from the award?
I want to and plan to keep working here at the Gazette-Mail and hopefully doing some important stories with powerful narratives and uncomfortable truths that need to get told. We’re under new ownership and so far they’ve been supportive of this kind of work. I believe and hope they will continue to do so. But I’m also thinking about other kinds of challenges that, while continuing to work here, I can take on that might help find some new and different ways to tell the stories that need to get told. I don’t know exactly what those stories are yet.
The MacArthur Fellowship is not suppose to be a lifetime achievement award. This isn’t, ‘Here’s your parting gift as you exit the stage.’ The people who decided to honor me this way me saw something that made them think, ‘This person can do something amazing.’ I need to figure out what that thing is and go do it. There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with this sort of an honor.
Q: Do you have any other parting thoughts?
For me, and for my coworkers here, this has been a very difficult year. Last year, Eric Eyre won the Pulitzer Prize, and it was a high point. The paper had not won the Pulitzer before. Eric is a phenomenal coworker to have and a great help to me over many years. Not long after that, we had the bankruptcy and sale. It was a really difficult time. People weren’t sure they were going to have jobs. We lost a lot of really good people in the process, friends of mine.
I hope this helps all of my coworkers continue to pick ourselves up off the mat and keep moving forward to do the kind of journalism that West Virginia needs us to do. I certainly don’t do what I do alone. I’m fortunate to work with great photographers and great reporters, and phenomenal copy editors who save my ass every day and make my stuff look good. This is not just me: if I’ve done anything to deserve this, it’s because of all the people I work with that make me look good.