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.

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.