Connect with us


I Knew Some Folks Would Think It Was Weird. But I Showed Up with Ice Cream Anyway.



The idea was to do something unexpected.

If I was serious about reimagining the relationship between newsrooms and community members, then I knew I needed to think differently about where and how that relationship happens.

When I first started talking with my friends at 100 Days in Appalachia about staging community engagement experiments, in the fall of 2017, we fell into talking about some of the usual efforts: town hall debates, coffee shop conversations, pop-ups at farmers markets.

But we knew that these locations had shown limited success in bringing to the table new and diverse audiences. Town hall events had a tendency to degenerate into point/counter-point yelling matches. And organized social gatherings were more often than not attended primarily by those people already in a news organization’s email or social media audience.

In order to meet new people, we need to go where people don’t already know us. The anti-Cheers: Sometimes you wanna go where nobody knows your name. And they’re not always glad you came.

Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

This is how I ended up in a Little League ballfield parking lot in Rostraver Township in southwestern Pennsylvania on a Wednesday night in June.

At around the same time, I was planning some kind of engagement experiment for rural communities, I learned about Small Town, Pennsylvania, an effort by the independent newsroom PublicSource to examining the challenges and opportunities of living and working in the small towns of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Like me, they were interested in new and creative ways to make new friends in new places. And so we teamed up for a series of engagement events in Rostraver Township, a rural community in Westmoreland County about an hour south of Pittsburgh.

We wanted to tap into a gathering of people that got us beyond the already engaged audience of folks that typically showed up for civic stuff. We wanted a gathering of people that wasn’t of any particular persuasion, socially, politically, or otherwise. We wanted real life; everyday, normal, open.

Little League games are a regular part of life in many rural communities, and so too in Rostraver. With the cooperation of the Rostraver Youth Baseball Association, we set up a small meet ‘n greet station on a Wednesday and Thursday evening at the local ballfields.

Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

Nothing fancy. A little table, a couple of folding chairs, some signage explaining who we were and why we were there. And a cart full of ice-cream sandwiches, to grease the wheels a little.

We deliberately didn’t come with an agenda or hard-ask to mine personal stories or conduct typical polling on specific issues. These were people we were only just meeting for the first time and we wanted to ease our way into genuine and long-lasting relationships.

PublicSource had the brilliant idea that we break down the typical interviewer/interviewee dynamic by having both us (the reporter) and them (the community member) ask and answer questions.

We put together two sets of questions, and put them in two bowls on the table. In one bowl were the “ice-breakers” (What was your first job? If you were to have a dinner with any celebrity, who would it be? Do you still know your first boyfriend or girlfriend?) The other bowl contained questions that went a little deeper (What are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in your community in recent times? Do you hope your children will stay in this area when they grow up?)

We wanted to talk with the parents, while their kids played. When someone would wander over, drawn to us by the signage and the free ice-cream, they’d sit on one side of the low table and one of us would sit on the other.

Then, we’d take turns asking questions — three from the “icebreaker” bowl and three from the “slightly deeper” bowl. The goal wasn’t to capture immediately valuable story leads and quotes, but just to open the door to a relationship with local people that would bear fruit in the future. (When the questions were finished we asked them if they wanted to stay in touch with us by leaving their email address. Most did.)

Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

And we wanted at least a few of the folks that met us to walk away with a changed perception of journalists. By putting aside a specific reporting agenda and focusing on fun, casual engagement and trust-building, we wanted to take a few small steps toward breaking down any preconceptions about who journalists really are and what they want.

We knew this was a slightly unusual experiment, and we were more than willing to fail a little if it produced some eye-opening lessons. Here are a few things we learned.

  1. Once won’t be enough.

It took a little while for curious locals to digest who we were and why we were there. By the time we’d broken down that initial layer of hesitance, our project was over.

We tested the concept over two evenings. To really reap rewards, we’d need to return once or twice a week all summer. By then, the parents milling around would have become comfortable with our presence and would treat us like a natural part of the gathering.

  1. Not everyone has something to say. And that’s okay.

One of the problems with traditional engagement efforts is that you often end up engaging just those folks with the loudest opinions, or those that are confident and gregarious. But engagement is also about building an audience and so we thought it was important to find a way to build a connection to all the other people, too.

People really seemed to appreciate the casual nature of the questioning (and the ice-cream) and that we didn’t force them to take a stand on divisive political or social issues. It helped us meet people who otherwise would not have engaged with us or responded to typical reporting prompts.

  1. The hardest part was organizing an event in a community you’re not a member of.

Cold-calling Little League organizers in rural Pennsylvania and trying to explain who I was, what 100 Days in Appalachia was and what we were trying to do was a hard sell. I didn’t know anyone in this community, and they didn’t know me.

It took three months, and lots of explaining, just to get my foot in the door and find a Little League organization that was happy for us to come.

  1. It doesn’t have to cost time and money.

The main expenses were the ice-cream + ice-cream cart ($280) and some signage ($30). For a local newsroom doing this regularly, a cooler full of ice and popsicles (about $7) would work just fine.

If I was running that local newsroom, I’d just ask a couple of reporters to come in a few hours later on a Thursday or Friday morning, and have them perch up at the games for a couple hours in the evening. Make it a regular thing. It’d be an easy and inexpensive way for reporters to put themselves out there and engage with an audience of folks they might not meet at local city council meetings or town hall debates.

  1. Parents of older kids don’t stick around.

Youth baseball has a few age brackets. On the first night, we had the little ‘uns — 6, 7 and 8 — the parents of which stuck around to watch the action and cheer like superfans, and some of them talked to us.

The next night was the older kids — 13, 14, 15. At this age, 99 percent of the parents just dropped their kids off in the parking lot and drove away. Probably a good time for them to do the grocery shopping. The few parents that remained were coaching or working in the concession stand. As a result, there were very few parents around for us to talk to.

  1. Follow up will be key.

Now that we have a few email addresses and have made contacts in that community we didn’t have before, it’s up to us to make them stick. Our next few emails to them need to make good on our promise to listen to what they have to tell us about their community, and not just be your typical “here’s our news feed.”

The ice-cream and the chat was just one way of getting our foot in the door. Now we need to follow up in a way that grows the relationship. The hope is that, over the next few months, our new friends become regular readers and valuable sources. And that with our reporting we can demonstrate our value to them.


Groups Say Smart Reclamation Of Mine Lands Could Be “Appalachia’s New Deal”



Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia. Photo: Courtesy CVI

From solar farms in Virginia to a green energy subdivision in Kentucky, a new report by a group of regional advocacy organizations highlights 20 ready-made projects across the Ohio Valley that could give abandoned mining operations that were never cleaned up a second life, and create new economic opportunity across the region.

In the report, released Tuesday, the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, which advocates for high-impact mine reclamation projects throughout Central Appalachia, says innovative mine reclamation “could be Appalachia’s New Deal.”

“This report marks an important step as Appalachia citizens continue to re-imagine and work toward a future of sustainable and healthy local economies, where young people can find meaningful work and stay to raise their own families,” Adam Wells, regional director of community and economic development with Appalachian Voices, said in a statement.

Courtesy Ohio Valley Mushroom Farm
Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) at an Ohio wetland.

Virginia-based Appalachian Voices is one of the members of the coalition. Other organizations include Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, Coalfield Development Corporation in West Virginia, Rural Action in Ohio, and Downstream Strategies in West Virginia.

Projects highlighted in the report run the gamut and include proposals to use acid mine drainage in Perry County, Ohio, to create paint and a proposal by a West Virginia wholesaler to build a livestock processing facility in Kanawha County.

The region has struggled to clean up thousands of abandoned coal sites since the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund was created in 1976. State and local governments have sometimes struggled with how to find new uses for old mine sites, and some high-profile projects have fizzled.

In the report, the authors argue, well-planned reclamation projects can spur economic development and offer best practices for how they should be proposed. Those include selecting appropriate locations near infrastructure and ensuring redevelopment projects are environmentally sustainable and financially viable over the long term.

Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia. Photo: Courtesy CVI

In recent years, Congress has boosted resources available for that effort. Beginning in 2017, more than $100 million was appropriated for the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program. Many of the projects highlighted in the report have applied for funding through the AML Pilot Program.

But another federal effort has not been passed by Congress despite bipartisan support. The “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More,” or RECLAIM Act would accelerate reclamation of abandoned mine lands by dispersing $1 billion of Abandoned Mine Land funds over a 5-year period with an eye toward economic development.

Combined, the report’s authors say, the 20 projects would require about $38 million of investment but would generate more than $83 million in economic output as well about 540 jobs to the region.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource

Continue Reading


Sports and Storytelling: ‘More a Unifier than a Divider’



A rusted field goal post and practice equipment sits on the practice field outside Municipal Stadium in Portsmouth, Ohio. Photo: Jack Shuler

When we launched our religion vertical, we said, “because religion is community” in Appalachia.  When we talked about a sports vertical, we said, “because sports is religion” here. It is a topic that transcends the playing field —  and brings many of Appalachia’s stories into focus – from the political to the economic to the cultural. Former ESPN sports editor Keith Reed and Pittsburgh native promises a complicated look at the region through this prism.

— 100 Days in Appalachia


Many people are going to see that 100 Days is launching a sports vertical and question it, thinking we’re now bringing them scores and draft updates, but that’s not exactly the goal. What is your vision for our work in this field?

I’m fascinated by sports as a cultural connective tissue. The games themselves are competitive entertainment, but how we consume sports gives us a great opportunity to examine where and how we live. There are so many examples, but the sports economy is a great one. You can tell a community’s priorities based on how it spends its money. Well, in the U.S., we spend billions of dollars every year on sporting events and related items and infrastructure. Professional team owners are mostly plutocrat billionaires. Big time college athletes are indentured labor to millionair coaches while generating billions of dollars for institutions under the guise of amateurism. This says a lot about where American priorities are, even though I’d guess “sports” isn’t the first thing that comes to people’s minds when you say, “Appalachia.”

We’re designing this vertical with that kind of context in mind. Everyone has instantaneous access to scores, stats, trade rumors and fantasy updates in their pockets. What they don’t have  that we can provide, is a way to pull back the curtain to see where sports is a barometer on where communities stand with regard to race, wealth, public policy and cultural understandings and divides. That’s where we come in.


Much like religion or food, sports is such an integral part of communities not just in Appalachia, but around the world. What is it about your life experience that makes it such an important topic to you?

Almost every kid has a sport they grew up playing, or watching or at least a team their parents loved. I grew up in Pittsburgh loving the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. I played basketball. I still start or end most days with a boxing workout or exercising with a group organized by a friend who’s a former NFL player. I even coach a team in a women’s kickball league. My sons both grew up playing sports: football, track, wrestling, rugby.

So sports have been a major part of my personal life and I know how influential that can be. In your formative years, you might meet someone you never would have encountered but for the basketball court or football field. Whatever differences you have, you put away because you need your teammate to help make you better and help you win. Coaches can be enormous positive or negative influences. For elite athletes, sports can be life-changing or life-saving. I’ve seen sports across all those transformative aspects, and I believe most people, regardless of background, will be able to relate to those stories.


100 Days in Appalachia’s goal is to take back the narrative people on the outside looking in have created for our region and show the true diversity of this place. How will this vertical expand upon or support that mission?

Sports stories are almost perfect for creating a geographic and cultural sense-of-place. In two well-written paragraphs, I could contrast the atmospheres at a UVa basketball game and a Tennessee Titans game and you’d gain an appreciation for how different a college town in the hills of Virginia is from urbanized Nashville. The populations, infrastructure and community priorities and needs in those two places are very distinct, and that will show up in their sports fans.

One of my favorite stories I’ve ever edited was for ESPN the Magazine, for the very first “One Day-One Game” issue. We sent a bunch of writers and photographers to Houston to cover a Steelers-Texans game, and there was a piece about tailgating and how Steelers fans were exporting this white, working-class ethos and culture common to formerly immigrant communities with them. All those people moved in the 70s and 80s after the steel mills in Pittsburgh closed, and now there’s a diaspora of Pittsburghers living in other cities and following the team from stadium to stadium. A lot of what you see in some of the characters in that story, which I believe we did in 2011 or 2012, showed up at the polls and in the rhetoric around the presidential election in 2016. That tailgating story, about an old-school, blue-collar Pittsburgh guy who talked funny and drank a lot of beer, was a canary in the coal mine.


Rivalries in sports and the divides they create can be almost even more intense than the divisions created by our current political climate. How can storytelling and journalism in this area bring people together?

I think sports fandom, especially rivalries, are more a unifier than divider. Think about that kid who meets somebody from across town on the basketball court. As adults, they may move to different parts of the country, have different levels of education and income, but they keep up with each other over social media and they find common ground in their rooting allegiances. There’s no easier way to get people who’ve grown apart or who have very little else in common than sports trash talk.

I’m a Red Sox fan who lived in Boston and wrote about the team, who dated a Yankees fan.  I’m a Pittsburgh native who’s lived in every other AFC North city, plus Boston. I have friends from Baltimore, Boston, Cincy and Cleveland — all these cities that are supposed to be “rivals” because of sports. Yet, sports is the thing that brings us together. So I think our storytelling can be an entry point for lowering some of the polarized rhetoric from other parts of our lives and engaging one another as fans, and then as people.


What is the potential impact you hope to see?

I don’t have any agenda besides finding and telling good stories. I’ve never done a geocentric, hyper-regional sort of journalism project like this before, so I’m happy to explore what that looks like. I’d like to give opportunity to some talented, young and hungry writers with a passion for telling interesting stories and seeing where those stories lead. That could mean something investigative centered around college athletics or it could be something more fun and interesting. At this point, I just want the storytelling to be good and well-received.

Continue Reading


‘If We Can’t Mine Coal, What Are We Going To Do?’



In this excerpt from the book After Coal, documentary filmmaker Tom Hansell describes how his media work in the coalfields of Central Appalachia led to a different understanding about what might come next for coal communities.

“EPA = Expanding Poverty in America.”  

See also: BEYOND COAL: Appalachia and Wales. Jim Branscome reviews Tom Hansell’s book “After Coal”

This statement is written in three-foot-high letters on a banner stretched over a bandstand in a public park in Pikeville, Kentucky. It is June 2012 and I am just starting production of the After Coal documentary. The crowd around me is dressed in the reflective stripes of mining uniforms or in T-shirts reading Friends of Coal and Walker Heavy Machinery. I am documenting a coal industry-sponsored pep rally before a public hearing on new water-quality regulations proposed for mountaintop-removal coal mines.  

The speaker onstage is speaking proudly of his family’s heritage in the coal industry. He concludes his passionate statement with a question: “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do in eastern Kentucky?” 

Good question. As a filmmaker who has spent my career living and working in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and documenting coal-mining issues, this is an important and difficult question to answer. My earlier documentaries Coal Bucket Outlaw (2002) and The Electricity Fairy (2010) were intended to start a civil conversation between workers in the coal industry and other community members about a shared vision for good jobs, clean air, clean water, and a safe working environment. However, the conversations almost always broke down as soon as someone pointed out the obvious: the coal industry had long been the only model of economic development in the central Appalachian region. More examples of what life after coal might look like were desperately needed to move the conversation forward.  

As I struggled with the haunting question “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do?” the image of Welsh mining villages rising from the ashes left by the coal industry captured my imagination. I thought that if I could just learn a few details about how Welsh communities made the transition, then I could identify specific solutions to help coal communities in Appalachia. However, I quickly learned that the secret to life after coal was not that simple. …  

The author (holding the boom mic). (Photo provided.)

On my own quest for solutions, in 1990, I began my career at Appalshop, a rural, multidisciplinary arts center located in Whitesburg, Kentucky—the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields. From my young and naively privileged perspective, moving to eastern Kentucky was an act of opposition to the materialistic consumer-driven world. I had a goal of living self-sufficiently, fulfilling my needs with what I could make or grow, and buying as little as possible. And, as an aspiring environmental activist, the clear moral lines around the issues in the Kentucky coalfields, especially strip mining, were appealing. The battle call of union songs such as “Which Side Are You On” charged up my little post-punk heart.  

However, my experience at Appalshop quickly taught me that the struggles of coal communities were not as simple or straightforward as I had imagined. Working as part of this artistic collective, I produced radio and video documentaries and taught community media workshops. As a young artist and activist, I quickly absorbed Appalshop’s mantra of providing a platform for mountain people to speak in their own words about issues that affect their lives. I attended hundreds of community meetings: school board, the fiscal court, mine permit hearings, and union meetings. I also documented dozens of direct actions where citizens blocked roads to stop mining, took over government offices to protest the lack of enforcement, and set up picket lines to enforce union contracts.  

Retired Welsh miner and labor leader Terry Thomas (left) meets retired Kentucky miner Carl Shoupe (right). (Screenshot from the documentary, After Coal)

My experiences working on the front lines of the environmental justice movement in Appalachia gradually developed my understanding of the complexities of how culture, place, and politics had shaped the situations I was documenting. I witnessed firsthand the incredible power of community to support people as they faced threats against their homes and families. As a result, I expanded my ideas about self-sufficiency from an individualistic vision of each person taking care of their own needs to a larger vision of individuals living in symbiosis with their neighbors and the natural environment—community self-sufficiency. 

Participating in cultural exchanges at Appalshop also provided me with valuable lessons. Meeting artists from the mountains of western China and rural Indonesia opened my eyes to some of the universal challenges faced by regional cultures in an increasingly globalized economy. I hoped that an international exchange with another coal-mining region such as south Wales could identify resources and strategies that would help Appalachian coalfield communities create a future beyond coal.  

The process of creating the After Coal documentary took more than five years. During that time, I learned to stop looking for concrete solutions and start supporting an ongoing conversation about how to create healthy communities in former coal-mining regions. International efforts to address climate change make this challenge especially intense for coal-producing regions. As our economy shifts from fossil fuels, how can we ensure that places where fossil fuels were extracted do not continue to bear an unfair share of the costs of extraction?  

I believe there are as many solutions for life after coal as there are residents of mining communities. I hope these stories from south Wales and central Appalachia will inspire people to discover solutions that work in their home communities. 

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

Continue Reading


100 Days