The Perfect Watchdog For the Trump Era is a Journalist in West Virginia

The Perfect Watchdog For the Trump Era is a Journalist in West Virginia
Rob Byers speaks during a forum on “€œSurviving the Opioid Crisis” in Charleston, West Virginia, last September. After helping guide Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage by the financially struggling Charleston Gazette-Mail, he recently was laid off. Photo by Damon Dahlen/HuffPost.

And Rob Byers is out of a job.

Two days after graduating from West Virginia University in 1991, Rob Byers joined the Charleston Gazette as a full-time reporter in the state’s capital. He and his girlfriend had just put down a security deposit and first month’s rent on a house. He was flat broke but felt lucky to have landed a job at the state’s premier daily, one filled with a newsroom of reporters and editors who worked hard to live up to the paper’s righteous motto, “Sustained Outrage.”

Although Byers wasn’t from the state, he had grown up the son of a coal miner in southwestern Pennsylvania. He was raised in a house on a gravel road and knew his share of economic misfortune and tragedy. When Byers was in college, his father, having gone West in search of work after his mine was shut down, was shot in the back of the head and killed, apparently by a hitchhiker. Kinship with the people Byers covered came naturally. After a few years at the Gazette, he began a long series traveling West Virginia seeking out stories in its forgotten hollows. He and a photographer ended up crisscrossing the state for 120 weeks.

In Dehue, Byers saw what was left of a town slowly being eroded by strip mining. “Every time somebody would leave, somebody would come by and set the house on fire,” Byers recalled. In the lede of his dispatch from Dehue, he wrote: “The remains of houses lay like black smudges on the land, and amid the rubble, mailboxes peek through, the names on their sides reading like a coalfield history book.”

The town would soon become just a memory, its residents forced to find a future elsewhere. West Virginia adversity became a sort of beat for Byers: coal’s downsizing, the powerful floods that now regularly plague the region, the opioid epidemic that continues to ravage its small towns, the Donald Trump-like billionaire that has turned the governorship into a kind of performance art. Byers sought to cover all of it as a reporter and eventually as the paper’s executive editor.

But just as Byers oversaw coverage of the coal industry’s collapse, he was fending off his own. The Gazette’s owners, who owned a majority stake in the rival Charleston Daily Mail, eventually merged the papers and moved everyone into one newsroom. (The Daily Mail’s old newsroom still sits abandoned like some ghostly relic across the hall from the unified newsroom.) The purchase left the owners deep in debt. Byers thrived anyway, helping to guide one of the paper’s star investigative reporters, Eric Eyre, to a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the opioid epidemic in 2017.

Last fall, the Gazette-Mail stopped printing its Monday edition to cut costs. A few months later, the paper’s owners filed for bankruptcy. Byers had to get used to farewell emails from reporters leaving the paper for more financially stable jobs. Even under these circumstances, the paper still produced the kind of accountability journalism that lived up to its motto.

I had interviewed Byers twice ― once during the bankruptcy and once after the paper was sold to a Huntington, West Virginia-media company. I wanted to know how papers like the Gazette-Mail survived and how Byers still managed to publish great work. No editor seemed better suited to cover the American Rust Belt under Trump. He was made for this moment.

And then, on March 26, Byers was laid off. He got a letter in his office mailbox. Byers was home recuperating from hernia surgery when he found out. A colleague, who had been promoted to publisher, called him and gave him the news. Last spring, he was toasting the newsroom for the Pulitzer win. Now, he had to dash off a farewell email to his staff.

“It was hard for me not to rush out of bed, as usual, this morning and head downtown, as I have for so many years,” he wrote. “To say how much I think of that gray, dimly lit, windowless newsroom as a home away from home would take many, many emails, and none of us has time for that. Instead, most of us need to be thinking of today’s website, tomorrow’s paper, next week’s sections … and, for some of us, our next chance to do a job that we love.”

I reached him on the phone a few days later. He still hadn’t gone into the newsroom to collect his things. He had just enough time to realize what many of the state’s other unemployed people must feel. “When you lose a job in West Virginia and you are at all interested in staying in West Virginia,” he said, “you immediately come to the realization about the lack of job opportunities there are in West Virginia.”

Byers worked in that newsroom for more than 26 years. Now he said he’s already contemplating newspaper jobs out of the state and, like the residents of Dehue, leaving the place he loved behind. He still keeps a piece of the old Dehue with him. “As I was leaving Dehue, I picked up a brick from one of the burned-out houses,” he recalled. “It’s still in my garage. I was never going to see this place again.”

Below is a transcript, edited and condensed for clarity, of two conversations with Byers. The first one took place in February, in the early days of the paper’s bankruptcy; the second was in March, a few days before he was laid off.

HuffPost: How stressed are you, and what has it been like?

Rob Byers: Well, it has been stressful, that’s true, in the last few weeks. It’s just difficult working under a cloud of uncertainty. I’m trying to do my best to keep the paper going in the way that people are used to having their Gazette-Mail, and that’s a high level of reporting, our typical watchdog coverage. We’re covering the statehouse like crazy. … Got another big slug of rain coming, so there’s a chance for some flooding. We’ve already had a little bit, and so we’re concerned about that. We’ve got so much to do that there’s not a lot of time to sit around handwringing. Obviously it’s in the back of everybody’s mind, and we’d kind of like for the whole process to just get over with, but in the meantime we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.

How do you juggle that with all the uncertainty?

Well, I’m trying to keep my own morale up. So it can be reflective on the rest of the newsroom. If I’m moping around and looking worried constantly, it’s not going to help us get the job done. I know people are worried, and we’ve had discussions and we’ve talked, and I’ve sent out a few emails just kind of encouraging people to bear with this process, and let’s see how it works out before anybody jumps to too many conclusions. All things come to an end, so we need to look at it as kind of a new beginning, rather than just drawing on the past all the time, because if we do that, it’s going to be really hard for us to go forward. We’ve got to look at this as a possible opportunity, something that we can hitch our wagon to and move forward.

The day after the bankruptcy, there was a coal industry attorney joking about how your environmental reporter Ken Ward might be getting a pink slip, and also joking about the paper’s finances. What was your reaction? 

It was upsetting to me. It’s just a classless act. I just can’t even believe somebody would do that and would think it was funny. But on the other hand, you know, we’ve got broad shoulders here. We get criticized all the time, and we always have, from the days when we were called communists to God knows what we’re called now. But you know, we are critics ourselves. We’re pointing out problems all the time, so if we’re going to criticize, we’re going to have to take criticism, too. I would hope that it would stay on a more professional level than that. But that person did issue an apology, so that’s kind of behind us now.

What’s the past year been like for you and the staff? You had the really big high of winning the Pulitzer and then in less than a year you have this bankruptcy.

It’s been kind of a whirlwind, but when I made the announcement in the middle of the newsroom on the day that the bankruptcy came out … I basically started by saying, “Nine months ago I stood in this newsroom. It was the best day that I’ve ever had here in the 26 years I’ve been here, and now nine months later I’m here on what’s quite possibly the worst day, as I announce this great newspaper is in bankruptcy and will not carry on in the way that it has.”

Did you have a sense that this was coming ― the bankruptcy?

I’ve known that things weren’t going well financially for a long time. The loan that is at the heart of all of this — that loan was taken out to purchase the interest in the Daily Mail in 2004 [and later combine the Daily Mail and the Charleston Gazette]. Then the recession hit, bottom dropped out in 2008, the internet’s decimating everything, our ad revenue. It was obvious what was happening. I had hoped it wouldn’t get to this point. You know, when you are in the meetings and you see financial reports, and you’re constantly asked to cut from the budget every year, like I’m sure a lot of newsrooms are, you know there’s problems.

You guys have always had a pretty tough relationship with the coal industry.  

Yeah. Well, I mean, Don Blankenship [the former CEO of Massey Energy Co.] did sue us, and it was a long, drawn-out affair. That ran up a lot of legal bills, and it was something that the paper didn’t really need at the time. This was when we were going through a lot of hard times, and it was very costly. I think Mr. Blankenship knew what he was doing. He was trying to hurt us, and he was upset with us, and we had to fight it. Ultimately, we won that fight, but we certainly came out weaker financially. But I felt like we came out stronger in the eyes of the readership, that we showed again that we weren’t afraid to stand up to the coal industry or a titan of the coal industry like Blankenship. It was just what we did here, and it was going to carry on.

They tried to pull the rug out from underneath us many times, and they fought back against us, but it all came down to truthful reporting. I mean, we’re not here to try to decimate the coal industry. We never were. We’re here to be a watchdog for things like the coal industry and make sure that there’s accountability, make sure there’s environmental compliance, make sure workers’ safety is at a high level. I mean, all the black lung reporting you see now, this is all a continuing issue. It’s something this paper has been focused on for decades.

When was the last time you took an angry phone call from a person in power? I guess the governor, Jim Justice, when he first started, refused to cooperate with your reporters.

A column I wrote early on about the freeze and how the governor had decided that the way to keep any negative news about his administration out of the paper was just not talk to reporters — I wrote a whole column about that, about how, when the freeze is on, reporters work even harder. which is always the case, reporters have to work harder, dig deeper, to get simple stories a lot of times. But when they’re doing that, they uncover more and more details and write better stories. It is harder work, but it all kind of comes out in the end.

So we dealt with that off and on through the beginning of the Justice administration. It’s just something we have to deal with, and the Justice administration, Jim Justice himself, kind of echoes Donald Trump in a lot of ways. After the teacher strike, there was a  press conference, and as Justice was walking out, one of our reporters asked about the money that he’d decided we could pay the teachers with. Why didn’t he tell us about this a couple weeks ago?

And the governor said the same thing, “Why don’t you ever ask any positive questions? This is a happy day. You should be positive.”

You hear Trump’s promises about coal or Gov. Justice’s promises about coal ― does it piss you off, knowing what you know?

It was just extremely irresponsible to make comments like, “We’re going to mine more coal than ever before,” and, “We’re going to put these hard-working miners back to work.” There’s a lot of political promises out there that aren’t fulfilled, but to drag people along with you on a promise that their whole livelihood depends on is just completely irresponsible and I just didn’t feel like that had any place in the campaign. That does come from having a father who was a miner and was out of work off and on. It’s nothing that I take lightly.

When your father was out of work did you feel it when he was not working? When the mine was closed?

When that kind of thing happened, we knew cutbacks were going to be made. My family used food stamps for a while, so when we’re writing about SNAP benefits and things like that nowadays it certainly resonates with me as well because I knew how important that was. I remember going to the grocery store with my mother and watching her use these stamps that look like Monopoly money that she was paying the grocery bill with and understanding why we needed to do that and other people didn’t. It set me on a trajectory to want to find something that I could immerse myself in that I felt would sustain me and be rewarding for me and not break my back underground.

The work became even more scarce when there was a fire at your father’s mine.

Marianna mine, mine No. 58. In Marianna, Pennsylvania, the belt caught on fire and the coal seam caught on fire after that, so what we thought was maybe going to be a minor shutdown turned into a long, long time. There was never any announcement for a long, long time that the mine was truly going to be shut down. There was always that hope, that type of hope that we were just talking about: “Yeah, it’s possible, we want to get back to work, we want to get back to work.” So my dad was biding his time, and he went to the refineries outside New York, there in New Jersey, and was kind of like a fish out of water there. He was biding his time, hoping that the mine would reopen, but eventually they sealed the mine. But he was kept on the hook for a long time, wondering what was going to happen.

And then he came back. He decided that he wanted to be a coal miner and that’s all he knew how to do, so he packed up everything in his pickup truck. He had a camper top on the back of the pickup truck, and he threw his old Army sleeping bag in there. He was in Vietnam and came home with a really nice down sleeping bag that they use in the Army. So he threw that in the back of the bed of his truck and headed out.

He was going to go out West and work in the big mines out there if they were hiring. But they really weren’t. I was in college at WVU at the time. I asked him to send me a postcard from every time he stopped and was near someplace. He could just send me a postcard and I could plot out his course on a map. I was very enthralled about the West in those days and always wanted to go there and see that country myself. So I lived vicariously through him and plotting out his course on a map, and it took him down through New Mexico. And that’s where the postcards stopped.

So what the police told me at the time was, they believe he picked up a hitchhiker and that the hitchhiker managed to get my father’s gun away from him. My father had a .357 magnum that he kept under his truck seat, and he got the gun away from my father and shot him in the back of the head. And left him for dead there not too far off the Interstate near a place called Cuervo, New Mexico.

The police contacted you.

My mother called me at college to tell me what had happened. But I hadn’t heard from my father going on two weeks so I was kind of expecting the worst. I knew something was up. These were the days before cell phones, so it’s not like you could just send a text. I got the call I was dreading.

What did it do to your relationship with your dad that he had to leave the state and move out, go to New Jersey and then West?

Well, it was particularly sad for me, and it was just a bad time all around. My dad always stressed that he wanted me to go to college. I was the first person in my family to go to college. He really stressed that I try to do as best I can in college, so I wouldn’t live the life that he did, professionally.

When I found out that he had died, it was just a week or two before finals week that year, and I decided that I was going to stay in college and not drop out for that semester. I stayed and I studied and I took those finals. I don’t think I did very great on them that semester, but I did what I thought that he would want me to do.

You seem like you are in a really good position to edit the paper, to be that watchdog around coal, especially now with your current governor and our president, given your background. Do you think that plays a role, just going through what happened with your father?

It gave me a little bit more credibility when it comes to writing about the coal industry and knowing about the coal industry. I’m not an outsider who doesn’t understand what it’s like to depend on the coal industry to put food on the table. It was everything for us when I was a kid. We dreaded any kind of work stoppage, strike, layoff, whatever. When dad was working well and things were going well, things were going well between my parents. And you know, if there was money, that really helps when it comes to your childhood, your parents’ marriage, everything like that. So I understand how that affects families and how important that is. I feel like I can write about that with more authority.

What do you think politicians like the governor or Trump don’t understand about the coal industry, knowing what you know?

Looking at the markets and looking at West Virginia as a whole, there’s no gain for me to shout from the treetops that coal’s coming back. That’s a political game for them and a way to get votes. I find it very irresponsible for any politician to jump up and say that when there’s so many more things that go into the coal market and coal jobs than just politicians saying, “We’re going to support the coal industry.” For a coal family, if that was my family as a kid and we heard that, we would take hope in that, and we might wait around and see if that mine is going to open again, you know, instead of maybe going and doing some retraining.

There’s always been nostalgia for coal and for times past in West Virginia, as far as the coal industry goes. When I first got here and the coal industry was still going great guns, people were still looking back to the days when towns like Welch, West Virginia, or other towns in the coalfields, were building. They would be like: “Oh, they had two movie theaters, a bowling alley, and everything like that. Everything was great.” Well, yeah, but also there were very few mine safety laws, and there was a company store and things like that. You look back and you gloss over the bad things.

While coal is a great heritage for West Virginia, a lot of people are realizing that we’re going to have to look forward. We’re going to have to find different things in this state. People are embracing natural gas, embracing tourism, hopefully embracing some tech jobs here, as we finally get our broadband situation worked out. That’s what people are starting to look to. For areas that are still holding onto the hope of the coal industry, it’s because there are no other opportunities in those areas right now, and it’s very easy to say, “This is a great job. I need this because there’s nothing else.” That’s why people are turning to drug abuse. That’s one of the reasons drug abuse is so bad in West Virginia, because opportunities are not there for people to better themselves.

It seemed like the West Virginia teacher strike proved something that was never covered during the run-up to Trump’s election. There is a progressive, pro-union streak in West Virginia, a viable progressive population that’s diverse, that cares about its state. I’m wondering what do you think the misconceptions are from the national press covering Trump or Trump voters in West Virginia.

I think it’s just trying to put the whole situation into a nice little box to explain it, and you can’t do that with West Virginia. There’s been just way too many changes here and too much poverty and too many missed opportunities to be able to explain it so easily. A lot of those teachers out there on the picket line protesting at the Capitol were surely Trump voters. But that doesn’t mean that they are not going to try to stand up and fight for what’s right, whether that be through a union or some other kind of peaceful protest out there at the Capitol.

Trying to make it a neat little package is impossible in West Virginia. The big change from the blue state to the red state, the decline of the UMWA, all of those things make it hard. So people just need to understand that West Virginia is a complex place. It’s not something that can be easily explained.

How has the paper’s relationship with its readers evolved since you first started there in the early ’90s? Has it changed?

You know, I don’t think it has changed all that much. Obviously the way we produce news and the way we deliver news has changed, but we were always seen as a watchdog over state government, a watchdog over big industries, and an advocate for the people, an advocate for workers’ safety, for coal miners’ health, all of those things. We’re still doing that. That’s still who we are, and that’s what people talk about in the community. When they read about the bankruptcy, they say: “Well, we can’t lose that. We have to hold on to that. You have to continue to do that. We don’t have anybody else. You need to do that and be that advocate for West Virginia, for Appalachia.” We feel a great responsibility, but that responsibility hasn’t changed in the 25 years I’ve been here, 26 years.

But I’m wondering, in the age of fake news, or in the last year or so, people have been pretty angry at anybody who has questioned the narratives that Trump or your governor have pushed. And so I’m wondering if you’ve seen that in the comments section or in the letters, any kind of pushback against the paper.

Not any kind of big, organized thing. Any newspaper, you can look in the comments and see people saying fake news or they don’t believe this or that. What happens a lot of times is, we have a lot of loyal readers out there and they’ll come to our aid in the comments section and say, “Well, actually, this is the truth. Here’s what they printed, and here’s why it’s true,” and kind of come to our defense. There’s a certain amount of that, but it’s always been that way. It’s just easier to see that now. Like I said, when I first got here, it was always “the communists from the Charleston Gazette,” and Don Blankenship kept that going by calling us communists.

People in West Virginia who know us, who see us all the time, they think of us as, “That’s my newspaper.” When we won the Pulitzer, we heard a lot of, “Hey, my newspaper won a Pulitzer.” It’s not, “Those guys over there won some award.” It’s: “My newspaper did it. It’s great for West Virginia.” Even though it was about the horrible problem in West Virginia, it meant a lot to people around here that right here in town, we have a Pulitzer Prize winner that lives right here in town.

At one point, you guys brought in a consultant. Did you have to pivot to video?

We’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with video over the past several years. Ownership, or the advertising department, decides that we need more video, and we can sell ads on video, so let’s do more video, and then we’d go great guns on video for a while, and then it doesn’t seem like it’s really getting all the hits that it should and the ads aren’t there, so let’s back off video for a while. It kind of comes and goes. We had a multimedia position here that we staffed for a while, for a couple of years, and had two really good people in here doing some nice video work, but yeah, as you pull back, you realize that the in-depth reporting is more valuable, and stuff like video is just gravy for a story like that. If we can get some, that’s great, but it’s not anything that looks like it’s going to rescue us.

What was the advice you gave to your staff after the bankruptcy was announced? Did anybody come to you and say: “What should I do? Should I look for a job?”

I didn’t try to turn anybody off from finding greener pastures somewhere else. I’m not going to do that, because I don’t know how this is all going to turn out, and I don’t want to stop anybody. But I did say, you know: “Let’s wait and see what happens here. Let’s give the new ownership a chance. Let’s see how they want to operate, and if they want to keep doing what we’re doing here, that’s great. But you’re not going to know that if you’re not here.”

Our digital content manager, the minute the bankruptcy was announced, he started looking for a job and found one in the governor’s office, actually. His last day is tomorrow, and we’re not going to hire anybody right now, obviously, so that makes it really difficult for us, to be without the point man on our social media, on our analytics, on our website. All that stuff, we’re losing because of the announcement.

How pissed are you that he went to the other side? He went to the governor.

Apparently he’s getting a decent raise. I didn’t know that the governor’s office needed analytics and things like that, but apparently, yes, so more power to him.

Have you worried about keeping your own job? New ownership, sometimes they bring in a new editor. Is that something that you’ve been worried about, just being able to stay on?

Well, certainly that’s definitely crossed my mind. I feel like if I sit around wringing my hands about that, it’s going to rub off on the staff. I’m going to just keep that to myself. I mean, you know, talk to my wife about it, and see how things turn out. But I’ve got to follow my advice to see this process through and not jump to any conclusions. Obviously, I’m thinking about that in the back of my mind, like other things for myself, what other opportunities there might be for me, but that opportunity might be right here, so I need to see this thing through.

Would you want to stay?

 I love my job.

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