Way back when Jim Noelker and I used to ride around and talk to people in the coal fields, we never found one that wanted their kid to be a coal miner. They always said, “I’m doing this terrible work so that my kid can go to college.” Now, the politicians have sold this idea that coal is their only way of life, and that they need to fight to make sure their kids can do that. It’s a complete reversal, and that notion is kind of maddening.
I find, reporting about coal over the years, that when you get a really good story, a story that really explains something that isn’t right, when you listen to the criticism you get, it isn’t that the story’s wrong, it’s that you did the story in the first place. You’re disloyal. And it comes from the coal industry, of course, but from the miners too. I’ve known a lot of coal miners and I have a lot of respect for them. They do ungodly difficult and dangerous work and they deserve every penny they get paid for it. But there’s all this romanticism about coal mining. Ten thousand people died of black lung in the last decade. Is that modern?
Working at a paper the size of the Gazette in this economy is not the most fun thing in the world all the time, and on days when it’s not very much fun, it’s like, “God, why did I do this, am I crazy?” I don’t want to wake up in twenty years and think I missed some great opportunities. I’ve had chances to go to other places—bigger newspapers, a lot more money, more readers. I remember one interview, I went in asking this editor a bunch of questions, trying to see if she would convince me that this was a move I should make. I said, “Let me describe to you what I do now. I set my own agenda for what I’m going to do each day. I don’t get assignments, or very seldom get assignments; my editors trust me to sort out what’s important. So basically, I do what I want. Can you offer me a job doing that?” And of course they all say, “Wellll…” And I say, “Okay, when you can offer me that, call me.” I don’t get too many calls like that. I know people who work at bigger places that essentially get to do that; they get a year to work on one story so they can try to win another Pulitzer, or turn it into their next book. And that’s great, and there are people that do that whose work I admire a lot, and who have been great mentors to me. But I also know the kind of fights they have at bigger places, with layer after layer of editors or bureaucracy and, you know, the six months’ worth of investigative work they did gets hacked in half at the whim of some editor who may or may not know anything about the subject matter. That doesn’t appeal to me. My wife would say I’m too bullheaded and don’t like anybody telling me what to do, and she’s probably right.

West Virginia’s my home. I’ve never lived anyplace else. It is impossibly rich with things for a reporter to cover. Right now I’m focusing on coal. I’ve written about a lot of other things, and I have a huge list of things I still want to write about. And I can’t think of many places that are in need of good journalism more than West Virginia is, or what higher calling journalists have than to try to write stories that make their home a better place.

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Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.