And down at the bottom—perhaps too far down—the article notes that this may be a substantial political fracas with a minimal reward in terms of voter impact:
Realistically, this is a big fight for a small swath of voters. Ohio’s coal country is predominately in counties covered by television stations in (the small markets of ) Zanesville, Youngstown and Wheeling and Charleston, W.Va., and in 2008, those markets provided only 10 percent of the votes cast statewide.
Advance coverage is often stronger than stump speech accounts, but the next day’s article from the Dispatch team managed to go beyond the typical he-said, she-said campaign trail reporting (although it has some of that). After leading with Romney’s sharp attack on Obama’s negative campaigning, the story pivoted back to coal, spotlighting some of the problems Murray Energy has had and the differences between the two parties’ agendas:
The Century Mine is owned by a subsidiary of Murray Energy Corp., a company with past environmental violations that Democrats and environmentalists use as evidence to support stiffer regulations.
For example, Ohio Valley Coal and parent company Murray Energy were fined more than $1 million and required to spend $6 million to build a new slurry pipeline in Belmont County as part of a plea agreement for water-pollution violations in 2008 and 2010.
The president supports limits on carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants to help curb climate change, and the EPA under Obama also has enacted rules to limit toxic air pollution and mercury from coal-fired power plants—all policies Republicans and coal-industry leaders say are harmful.
The article also noted how the Obama team hit Romney over his past criticism of coal, and it would have been sharper had it pointed out the contradictions between that attack and some of the information above. Still, it amounted to two days of solid storytelling by the Dispatch.
At The Plain Dealer, coverage came in the form of a detailed advance story written by D.C. bureau chief Stephen Koff, along with reporter John Funk. They focused on how the issue of coal is being deposited within the core of politics, beginning with this lead:
The cost of regulation can be measured in a mound of coal. On Tuesday, Mitt Romney hopes to display the political cost, too.
After laying out the complaints of Romney and his industry backers, the article notes up high that one of their claims—that Obama’s policies will lead to skyrocketing energy rates—has been disputed by factcheckers (links would have been useful). And it provides some background about the checkered past of Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy
And Murray is known for tangling with institutions he distrusts. He became famous after a collapse at the Crandall mine in Utah, which his company co-owed, killed six miners in 2007. Murray was on the scene constantly and disputed claims about safety violations, although his company was ultimately fined.
From there, the PD rightly explores the industry’s fear of job loss. Like the Dispatch, the PD notes that the number of coal-related jobs in Ohio, though small, has actually increased since Obama took office. What this piece adds is a fuller exploration of another reason for the potential demise of coal—the availability of cheap, plentiful natural gas, “fracked” out of the shale in eastern Ohio and elsewhere. And it connects that debate to a summary of recent regulations that affect coal production and use. (One complaint: The discussion of job effects here doesn’t have any input from the coal workers’ union.)
There are still opportunities for Ohio’s leading papers—or some smaller outlets, whose coverage of Romney’s stump speech you can see here—to prod the campaigns to tackle some of the big questions Ken Ward Jr. raised. But this week’s coverage represented some solid reporting for an issue, and area, that usually gets limited coverage.