Dissatisfied with the national media’s frame, Appalachia finds its own voice

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

After the 2016 election, the calls and emails rolled into West Virginia, as the press scrambled to make sense of a place that hadn’t occupied this much space on the national political stage since John F. Kennedy’s 1960 primary.

“We’re looking for a family in a trailer park.”

“We’re looking for a holler. How do we get there?”

“I need a Trump-supporting son of a coal miner who doesn’t think coal is coming back. Do you know one?”

Even before Donald Trump’s election, Appalachia was treated as a kind of Rosetta stone for deciphering rural white poverty in America. In its aftermath, media inquiries like these confirmed many residents’ deep-seated fear that the national press only shows up when the news is bad, or to make them look like fools or freaks. Instead of inviting input on how to frame their stories, reporters seemed to be looking for people to fit a frame they already had in mind.

As the communications director for the nonprofit West Virginia Community Development Hub, Jake Lynch fielded a lot of these questions, and grew increasingly frustrated with the journalists asking them.

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So when he began to prepare for New Story 2017—the organization’s yearly gathering for people trying to drive the story and the future economy of the state—Lynch invited members of the national media for a two-way dialogue about covering the region. He wanted West Virginians who are actively engaged in reinventing their communities—despite persistent and real narratives of poverty, addiction, and fossil fuel extraction—to better understand journalists’ goals and methods. He wanted journalists to recognize the concerns of local leaders. He even teed up a story pitch session for the national outlets, guaranteeing them the names, faces, and stories about West Virginia they’d been clamoring for.

But there was one problem. Of the reporters Lynch invited, not a single one would agree to come. There wasn’t enough conflict or controversy, he was told. It wouldn’t sell.

New Story 2017 became, in part, a response to that experience. “The message at New Story is you can’t control what is going on at national newsrooms at all,” says Lynch. “So you just have to get on with your work.” He wanted to present that message in a way that felt liberating instead of depressing. Rather than bemoan the follies of parachute journalism, he hoped to inspire the state’s grassroots, citizen-led media initiatives to take hold and flourish, while empowering more people to feel that they have ownership over how they are seen by the outside world.

New Story—a two-day event held at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media from June 16-17—showcased a number of new platforms, projects, and enterprises that have sprung up to shape the narrative of Appalachia from the inside out. Three hundred people and organizations—all from West Virginia and surrounding Central Appalachian states, all seeking to tell the region’s stories with voice, ambition, and nuance—signed up.

There was Kentucky-based Southerly, a robust new email newsletter aiming to fill a gap in environmental reporting in and about the South. And Mountain Tech Media’sUpload Appalachia” internship program, designed as a vehicle for smart, talented young people to stay in the region and take on digital media work. Many more inside-out, bottom-up media projects in the region—Vandaleer, Inside Appalachia, Scalawag, the Ohio Valley ReSource, WestVirginiaville, Hollow, Looking at Appalachia, Appalshop—were represented as well.

New Story made clear that despite some news organizations’ professed newfound commitment to covering rural America, Appalachians’ faith in the capacity of national media to cover their region truly and fairly has not been restored; but they are finding some hope—albeit of the homegrown, DIY variety.  

 

AMONG THE MOST AMBITIOUS of these locally conceived projects is 100 Days in Appalachia, a new digital publishing enterprise that wants to tell you what you don’t know about the region, and why you should care. Published by the West Virginia University Reed College of Media Innovation Center, in partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and The Daily Yonder, it evolved from the Reed College of Media’s effort to create a digital news startup that would provide in-depth coverage and analysis of the region for an external audience, while teaching skills around audience engagement, content curation, and social media development that the industry said students needed, but that they weren’t getting in J-school curricula. Faculty and administrators looked to digital publishing platforms like Mic, News Deeply, and Quartz for models.

Last fall, after a year and a half of research and planning, it was still unclear just what form the enterprise would take. Then the election happened. The next day, when the project’s leadership team met, everyone recognized an opportunity to build something. They decided to use the first 100 days of the Trump administration as the hook—which gave them just over two months until launch.

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We had always felt there was a lack of responsible coverage of the region, and then the election gave us a platform and an urgency, because everyone was looking at us,” says Maryanne Reed, Dean of the Reed College of Media.

For Dana Coester, executive editor and creative director of 100 Days, election coverage had also prompted introspection about the role of native outlets that already serve the region. Larger publications from outside Appalachia were doing longform, deep-dive journalism about this place, with some brilliant results. “Why aren’t we doing these stories?” Coester thought. “These are our stories. Let’s do them at that same boldness of scale.”

In their “Hello, World” post, published on January 17, the editors explained: “While the world is busy asking what the election tells us about our divided nation, we’re asking: What does Appalachia tell us?” The answer, they posit, is “All the things” that help make the region “a flashpoint for so many of the social, economic and political fractures in American communities.” The opioid crisis, the downstream effects of a global economy, populism, alignments of cultural and political identity, and post-election divides all play out here in various and sometimes surprising ways.

Like the ethos behind Lynch’s New Story session for national journalists that never came to be, 100 Days aims to bridge the divide and establish a dialogue between Appalachia and the nation.

While the numbers since its launch aren’t huge—125,000 page views and 30,000 Facebook engagements since January 17—the project has garnered some attention, especially from other journalists. In May, Peter Hamby, head of news at Snapchat and a former CNN reporter, tweeted, “Remember when news orgs, in their post-Trump hand-wringing, promised to cover rural America? @Appalachia100 is actually doing it. Follow ’em.”

Their most popular posts to date include a 360-degree video profile of a Kurdish-American Muslim woman who has called Appalachia home since infanthood, and who proudly wears an American flag head scarf; a personal essay about WVU basketball losses that also manages to explore the state’s underdog identity and the author’s grief over losing a parent; and a post that invites its readership to weigh in on the first 100 days of Trump’s term.

Two of the more ambitious projects are a multimedia series by Nancy Andrews, who spent 100 days traveling the region and talking face to face with residents (her video of Clay County, West Virginia, students reacting to Trump’s inauguration was instructive, non-judgmental, and trust-building for conservative readers); and a six-part series on the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal, the master’s thesis of Columbia Journalism School student Daniel Flatley, a West Virginia native.

Initially, 100 Days was going to act as a laboratory for something more permanent. Who knows, the publishers thought, maybe it would turn into their Nightline—a pop-up experiment that arose in 1979 in response to the Iran hostage crisis and went on to become a long-running regular program. As Trump’s first 100 days wrapped up, audience engagement was rising rather than falling off, and the staff wanted to keep going—at least for the next hundred days, and perhaps for many more after that.

Initiated through a $97,000 gift from the Benedum Foundation, as well as institutional partnerships, 100 Days recently received funding for a second phase. They are now in the middle of shaping what the re-vamp will look like.

They just hired two new editors to round out their staff of 14 full- and part-timers. This fall, they will launch a branding campaign to explain why the project will continue. They will hone their business plan, seek out models for syndication, and explore publishing partnerships with entities that share their vision. They will also pivot to verticals such as tech, the environment, the post-coal economy, politics, the rural-urban divide, and race. And they are planning a major reporting project that looks at cultural, political, and economic divisions during the midterm elections.

 

INSTEAD OF THE MORE TRADITIONAL approach of localizing national news, 100 Days combs local news for national hooks. Its envisioned readers aren’t people who care about Appalachia; they are students of contemporary American politics and culture, particularly the urban-rural divide .

So how do you build a national audience for a distinctly regional product? 100 Days is still finding its way. The editors have tried reaching out individually to media influencers. They are listening to the internet for chances to insert themselves into national conversations. And they are working aggressively to stake out niche audiences via social media.

The key there is a strong, unique voice, says Coester. She and Reed describe their site’s as assertive and stylish, questioning, a little playful—and yes, maybe there’s a slight twang.

Their ability to tap into authentic stories, they hope, will arise from the fact that many of the journalists they work with have ties to or are based in the region already, which helps them connect with mistrustful residents in a way that reporters from New York or DC just can’t.

And finally, the staff believes a national audience will respond to having its assumptions challenged. So they aim to produce credible counter-narratives to commonly held beliefs about what Appalachia is.

“Surprises are newsworthy,” says Reed. “They always have been, right?”

But the philosophy that undergirds the endeavor—and what the editors believe ultimately gives them authority—is that Appalachian issues aren’t just regional issues, they’re national issues. Appalachian journalists not only have a right to be part of the conversation; they have an obligation.

“What’s happening here [in Appalachia] is the result of a post-industrial economy,” says Reed. “Our stories are America’s stories and global stories.”

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Catherine V. Moore is a writer and radio producer based in West Virginia whose work on Appalachia has appeared in The Oxford American, VICE.com, Yes!, Virginia Quarterly Review, and others. More info on her work at beautymountainstudio.com.