My city editor always says to me, “You always have these damn documents, you don’t have any people in your stories. Go find some people.” And he’s right. When I’ve done more to get more people into my stories, they’re obviously always better. I did this big thing on how disasters aren’t the only way coal miners die, how they die one by one a lot of different ways. That’s how I learned about Bud Morris, whose picture’s on my blog. Sago [an explosion at an underground mine in Sago, West Virginia, that killed twelve miners] was January of 2006. And 2005 was the safest year ever in the coal industry. And all the stories on January 1 were about how “This has been the safest year.” Well, on December 30th, 2005, Bud had gotten killed. He was the last miner killed in the safest year in history. Then January 2, the day after New Year’s Day, Sago blows up, and all of a sudden people care that coal mines aren’t safe. Well, he had just gotten killed—what about all of these guys like him? cnn isn’t there, there’s no big press conference, the president doesn’t come and speak.

So I understand how important those stories can be. One of the big things in journalism schools now, of course, is multimedia, and everybody talks about “storytelling.” I think that maybe we need to focus a little bit less on storytelling, a little bit less on finding Joe Smith who lives near a Marcellus Shale gas well, and his story about what it was like having that big industrial complex move in next door to him, and do more of giving him information he needs to understand why that happened to him and what he could do as a citizen of this republic to change or resist the situation. I try to do stories that don’t necessarily tell about somebody who’s going through a difficult time, but that tell people who have gone through a difficult time why the hell it happened to them, and how their government let it happen, what powerful institution did it to them, and what can be done about it. Obviously, the best journalism kind of melds those things, but I’ve always been more interested in the latter than the former.


Coal is a very rich topic. It’s brought this endless series of disasters—death, destruction of the land—but at the same time, to a relatively small number of people who work directly for it, it’s brought a good living… with a lot of peril that comes with that living; your life could be choked off at any minute. To an even smaller number of people—a kind of local middleman—it’s brought enormous wealth. People who are lawyers or representatives and accountants for the industry; to Charleston families who are lucky enough to have somehow ended up with significant holdings of mineral rights, it’s brought generations of idle wealth.

I saw these kids when I was growing up, and it wasn’t coal, it was the paper mill. The mill hadn’t been hiring new people for years, and as workers retired they just downsized their work force. But guys I went to school with, their grandfathers had worked there, their fathers were still working there, and they were convinced that when they got out of school they were going to get a job at the paper mill. Things are going to get booming again, it’ll be great. And what politicians in West Virginia are trying to convince people of now is, if we can just stop these crazy Obama people, then we’ll have our next coal boom and we’ll have 100,000 coal miners working in West Virginia again. Then we won’t have to worry about things like how we educate kids for some kind of future where they can live a good life and provide for their families. Because the coal industry will take care of that again.
That’s the kind of false hope that they’re trying to give people.

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.