Despite all that, Lewis argues, the recent layoffs pose little electoral risk to Obama, who’s never done well in coal country. True enough, but in that case why are both presidential campaigns (and both Senate campaigns) spending so much time talking about coal? Perhaps because in a tight race, every vote matters—and also because, as an interesting but flawed ABC News story noted, coal miners are an eye-catching stand-in for the white working class, as the campaigns try to target that demographic.

The other good stuff includes a column by the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Jeff Schapiro and a blog post by Peter Galuszka at The Washington Post. Both note the role of coal company cash, and Galuszka offers a little reporting that pushes back against the narrative about regulations forcing layoffs at Alpha. There was also this striking editorial in The Roanoke Times, responding to some of the rhetoric in the wake of the layoffs:

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th District, lobbed a predictable news release into the ether accusing a “group of government bureaucrats” of trying to force the coal industry out of business. Senate Republican candidate George Allen and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney chimed in with similar screeds against President Barack Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency and, of course, their election opponents.

In truth, we are all enemies of coal, not because we wish harm on families who depend on mining for their livelihoods, but because our expectations have changed.

We still want cheap electricity. That part hasn’t changed. But we also want streams and rivers free of mercury. We want a planet that will not be suffocated by greenhouse gases before our grandchildren become grandparents.

In the past, we had to make trade-offs between two conflicting desires. But as study after study documented the terrible cost to our environment and our health from coal’s filthy byproducts, technology and the market changed, too, and offered us a cleaner and cheaper alternative in the form of natural gas…

More broadly, Alpha is reorganizing after its purchase of Massey Energy and focusing on metallurgical coal. The newly constituted company stands to benefit from pent-up demand from China, where infrastructure investments continue at a pace that simply doesn’t exist here, in part because economic reforms have been frozen by partisan bickering in Washington, D.C.

The problem is that the context, perspective, and expertise on display in some of the stronger opinion pieces has been mostly lacking in the political reporting on coal, whether it’s being done in southwestern Virginia or the state’s metropolitan centers. Even setting aside environmental concerns—as the candidates have mostly done while they present themselves as friends to coal—the news coverage hasn’t done enough to dig into the campaigns’ messages, explore coal’s influence on the race, or use this opportunity to explore the story of a changing industry and region.

Down in coal country, the Bristol Herald Courier won a Pulitzer in 2010 for its coverage of natural gas royalties. But its political coverage is mostly of the “let’s-cover-the-event” variety, with little or no pushback of what the boldface names are saying. (Here’s the paper’s coverage of Romney’s campaign stop last week.)
The paper’s approach to the Alpha layoffs was similar—competent and professional but not probing, and with an emphasis on management’s point of view.

Bristol is a small market, but the state’s larger newsrooms, in places like Roanoke and Richmond, haven’t picked up the slack. The reporting on Romney’s coal-country campaign stop, in which reporters had to juggle the candidate’s comments on that morning’s unemployment report with his messages on coal, was generally fine. But, even though the impact of regulations on coal-mining jobs is at the center of the political debate, I didn’t see one account that offered any hard data about employment in the industry. The best employment data, according to Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette and Pam Kasey of The State Journal in West Virginia, comes from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. (It takes some expertise to work with the files.) As Ward explains, the basic story is that coal jobs in Appalachia and nationwide actually increased during Obama’s first three years, before a wave of layoffs this year. And some regional think tanks anticipate coal employment may rise in the coming decades even as the industry declines, because productivity is falling. You wouldn’t know that from reading this year’s campaign coverage in Virginia.

You also might not know, unless you’re a close reader, the role that coal cash is playing in the campaign. Richard Gilliam, the founder of Cumberland Natural Resources, may be the single biggest political donor in the state, but other than a flurry of mentions in stories after the release of some VPAP data in August he’s hardly been mentioned.

Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.