Since he began reporting full-time, in 1991, Ken Ward Jr. has embodied the credo of Ned Chilton III, The Charleston Gazette’s late publisher, that the “hallmark of crusading journalism is sustained outrage.” In his twenty years covering the coal business in Appalachia, the forty-four-year-old Ward has exposed regulatory and enforcement breakdowns, as well as the corruption of corporations and individuals. In person he can be quiet, even shy, but his reporting is fierce and his sense of injustice unwavering. His work has been cited by everyone from Andrew Revkin at The New York Times to The Washington Post, PBS, and NPR. He is a three-time winner of the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Edward J. Meeman Award for Environmental Reporting. He also has received the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, an Investigative Reporters and Editors medal, and an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship. In 2009, he launched Coal Tattoo, a blog on the Gazette’s website that takes its name from a Billy Ed Wheeler song. Coal Tattoo, driven by Ward’s smart, data-driven coverage, quickly became a must-read for reporters who want to understand the coal industry in the United States. CJR’s
Brent Cunningham interviewed Ward in Charleston earlier this year.
Maybe fifteen years ago, I drove up Cabin Creek hollow. This is twenty miles from the capital in Charleston, and one of the poorest areas in Kanawha County. It was Earth Day, I think, and there was some coal company-sponsored event where they were going to plant some trees. This is where the big mine at Kayford Mountain is. You’ve seen photos of Kayford Mountain, showing the effects of mountaintop removal, on the front of The New York Times and any number of places. I’m driving up there and there are kids playing along the side the road, by open sewers, because at the time they didn’t have city water and sewer service. I did a calculation—I can’t remember the numbers now but I put it in a story at the time—of how much coal is hauled out of that particular hollow every year. It was like a billion dollars. I mean, who would stand up and say that’s okay? Would the president of the company that’s mining that coal really say it was okay that he was pulling a billion dollars’ worth of coal out of there and the kids who live there are playing in open sewers? I don’t think so. But yet, if it’s kind of hidden away and the story isn’t told, then it makes it okay.
I don’t think I knew for sure I wanted to be a reporter until I interned at the Gazette in 1989. That was the summer of the Pittston coal strike, and for some reason the editors decided it was a good idea to send an intern who had never been to southern West Virginia and didn’t know anything about the coal industry to cover the strike. They had a business writer covering it, and they sent me to do a color feature on the striking miners re-enacting the Blair Mountain march. Somehow that morphed into me being the main person covering the strike. They used to joke that, you know, “We’ll send you out to the picket line, and it’ll be okay, because you’re not on the company health plan.” I spent the summer riding around with Jim Noelker, who was a photographer at the Gazette, talking to coal miners. And that was it for me. There was something about meeting a group of people who were different from people I’d grown up with, yet the same, because, you know, coal miners in southern West Virginia are really a lot like the people who worked at the paper mill that was the big employer in my hometown. Just working people who wanted to get done with their day and go home and be with their families. Standing on picket lines and talking to coal miners, hearing stories about the last time they were on strike—I was a little naïve, but there was a romanticism to it. But also the Pittston strike was about a coal company trying to break the union and not have a big contract with good benefits, and particularly good health-care benefits for their pensioners. The injustice of all of that, that these broken-down old miners who had given their health and in some cases their lives for coal were being robbed essentially of the health care they’d been promised. I really liked telling that story. And it seemed to me that if what was happening was laid out for people clearly, they would see that it wasn’t right.