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Newspaper For Sale: The Growing Threat of News Deserts in Western Pennsylvania

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For the better half of the last decade, newspapers have been treated as novelties. An under-appreciated resource whose disappearance is problematic, but for reasons that are seemingly pragmatic. To make matters worse, there doesn’t appear to be a solution in sight.

“No one is quite sure how to stop that process from happening,” University of Iowa professor David Ryfe said of the dying local paper. “There are lots of people who are worried about it, but no one has found a solution in the 15 years [since] the digital world has erupted and called attention to the issue. No one has found a solution at the regional or local level.”

Ryfe is the director at University of Iowa’s School for Journalism and Mass Communication. He is also one of the most prominent scholars on local and modern journalism, authoring 2016’s “Journalism and the Public” and 2012’s “Can Journalism Survive: A Look Inside American Newsrooms.”

“All the local newspapers have left is the local advertising,” Ryfe said. “There’s not going to be any salvation for newspapers in multimedia, in digital media, or online.”

According to a 2018 Pew Research Study, weekday newspaper circulation in 1990 was around 62 million nationwide. That number dropped to 55.7 million in 2000 and in 2017 the estimated circulation suffered another decline, topping out at just 30.9 million.

As circulation has declined, local newspapers have had to adjust for the loss in revenue, sometimes by shrinking the size of their staffs, sometimes by selling out or closing up shop all together. 

The Greater Pittsburgh Area is witnessing this potentially dangerous trend firsthand. The area has lost 5 daily newspapers since 2015, with a host of others changing ownership. These changes pose a great risk in both the quality and quantity of local content.

The Downsizing of Pittsburgh’s Local News

Although changes in southwestern Pennsylvania’s newspaper industry have been happening for years, they came to a head in August when the area’s largest newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, announced the 232-year-old institution would stop printing on Tuesdays and Saturdays, bestowing Pittsburgh with the rather misfortunate honor of becoming the largest city in America without a daily print newspaper, although the publication offers a daily online edition.

Over the last three years, a number of daily and weekly newspapers in the surrounding area have also undergone changes.

In 2015, the Daily News in McKeesport and the Valley Independent in Monessen were among the first local papers in the region to cease operations. Both daily newspapers were owned by Trib Total Media, however, it was unable to find a buyer for either publication amidst a fire sale of local newspapers that year.

The company sold 8 publications in 2015, including the Leader Times in Kittanning and the Daily Courier in Connellsville, to West Penn Media, an affiliate of Sample Media Group which has an already established footprint in the area, publishing the Latrobe Bulletin in Westmoreland County.

Within less than a year from the start of its sell-off, Trib Total Media’s largest daily, the Pittsburgh-based Tribune-Review, would cease daily print operations and move to a solely digital platform in December 2016. The Pittsburgh City Paper, an alt-weekly, would also be purchased by the Butler, Pennsylvania, based Eagle Media Corporation that same year.  

The exterior of the Beaver County Times. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

In 2017, Calkins Media, headquartered in Pennsylvania, followed in Trib Total Media’s footsteps selling off its local publications. The Ellwood City Ledger and Beaver County Times became properties of GateHouse Media, a division of New Media Investment Group — the largest publisher in the nation today.

Calkins would also sell the Uniontown Herald-Standard to Ogden Newspapers Inc., a West Virginia-based company with more than 3,500 employees at its more than 40 daily papers. Recently Ogden, announced the purchase of the Washington Observer-Reporter from the Observer Publishing Company. With this purchase Ogden now controls the two largest daily newspapers within Washington, Fayette and Greene counties.

But the selling of small town and regional papers to national media companies isn’t specific to southwestern Pennsylvania. According to a 2016 study by the University of North Carolina, the 3 largest investment groups at the time — New Media, Digital First, and Gannett —  own a combined 900 newspapers in the U.S. with a circulation of 12.7 million.

 

So, Why Does Newspaper Ownership Matter?

As these local papers are gobbled up by out-of-town companies, things start to change, according to Ryfe.

“The first thing that happens is there is correspondingly less local news that is published in the newspaper,” he said, which he explained is largely the result of downsizing in newsrooms.

UNC’s 2016 report attempts to explain why that’s happening. Researchers found many of these investment groups purchase newspapers that are in debt. In acquiring these debts, the investors usually employ a formulaic approach to management, which is focused on cutting spending and trimming budgets through “laid off staff, frozen wages, reduced benefits and consolidated sales and editorial functions.”

Rebecca Devereaux, 25, experienced the cost cutting measures brought on by a newspaper’s sale firsthand when she worked for Uniontown’s Herald-Standard.

Two employees at the Herald-Standard hug the day the paper’s entire visual media department was laid off in 2017. Photo: Rebecca Devereaux

A multimedia editor, Devereaux was hired by the paper, which was then owned by Calkin Media, to help increase its video and digital storytelling capabilities, but in 2017, the Herald-Standard was abruptly sold to Ogden. Devereaux was notified of the sale via email while she was on vacation.

“We didn’t know the paper was for sale, at least at my level we didn’t know,” Devereaux said. “It was very sudden.”

Under Ogden, the paper’s entire visual media department was let go, leaving one of Devereaux’s colleagues to ask: “Who is going to hire a 60-year-old photographer?” she recalled.

Since 2004, employment in the newspaper industry has dipped by 45 percent. In 2017, 39,210 individuals worked in the industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Reductions in staffing and consolidations of departments, or the outsourcing of certain newspaper functions, are meant to help the papers climb out of debt and start generating a profit, even if short-term, but the UNC study says those “profits derived from the cost-cutting have not been reinvested to improve their newspapers’ journalism, but [are] used instead to pay loans, management fees and shareholder dividends.”

Ryfe acknowledged this profit-driven approach can create a dangerous problem not just for those working in the industry, but also their readers. As more newspapers are absorbed into larger corporations, the coverage turns away from local issues and instead becomes nationalized.

“There used to be a mediating layer of political conversation that was local that had to do with potholes in the street and where to put the waste management facility, very basic problems,” Ryfe said. “The loss of that level of news has contributed to polarization and partisanship at the national level. All politics have become national, strangely enough, as this has happened.”

Ryfe warns the reduction of local reporters covering local government, keeping an eye on the inner workings of a community, can prevent the misuse of power– even if covering a city council meeting may seem trivial to the average person.

“The fact of a journalist being on the beat tends to reduce the amount of political corruption,” he said. Fewer local  journalists could lead to more substandard or negligent decision making from government officials, Ryfe added.

The Creation of News Deserts in Rural Markets

As newspapers downsize or dissolve altogether, an information gap is created, especially in rural communities where access to information doesn’t come as easy as in the nation’s more urban areas.

Metro markets usually have a surplus of news outlets, but also have something many rural communities do not — access to reliable, high speed internet that makes gathering news and information quick and accessible.

According to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report, 68.6 percent of residents in rural areas are without broadband capabilities that meet federal guidelines for minimum upload and download speeds. This includes counties in western Pennsylvania where local news is declining, like Washington, Butler and Fayette. Approximately 14.9 million Americans are without access to high speed internet today.*

 

The 2016 UNC study highlights an earlier FCC report that found only 10 percent of evening television news shows are committed to local or regional news. In addition, “fewer than 40 percent of residents live in an area where they can receive all-news radio,” leaving newspapers, as sometimes, the only source of local news in rural areas.  

This creates the risk of “news deserts,” or, “places that have such a small market they can support relatively little news at all. And don’t have much news provided for them,” according to Ryfe.

Ryfe acknowledged the internet isn’t the main cause of the daily newspaper’s death and the rise of these coalescing media companies, however, it “exacerbated and accelerated it.”

*In 2015 the FCC Broadband Progress Report raised the minimum download speeds from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps and minimum upload speeds from 1 Mbps to 3 Mbps. At the time it tripled the number of American households without internet access.

In a Digital World, Local Papers Are Doubling Down on Print

With strained internet access in some rural communities, it may make sense for local newsrooms to focus on the traditional print medium. After all, a 2018 Pew Research study found newspapers still make significantly more revenue from the print advertisements on their pages than on digital platforms — 56 percent of their revenue, according to the study.

But for Mike Palm, the executive editor of Uniontown’s Herald-Standard, his paper is choosing print for a different reason: competition.

“When you’re trying to compete in a digital world, you’re competing with more [media outlets]. The Tribune, the Post-Gazette, all the TV stations, the Observer-Reporter — in the digital realm all those become competitors,” Palm said, speaking before his paper’s owner, Ogden, purchased the Washington Observer-Reporter last week.

“In the newspaper realm — in hard copy– we have competitors, but in this area, there’s not much,” he said.  

Palm’s publisher, Michael Scott, has been with Ogden for 19 years and believes Ogden made the right decision, albeit through a series of difficult choices, when they changed their priorities from online back to print after buying the paper in 2017. That’s when Rebecca Devereaux and her colleagues in the visual media department were let go.

Uniontown’s Herald-Standard publisher Michael Scott. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

“Calkins [Media] was focused on digital,” Scott said, referring to the paper’s previous owner, “and we’re focused on print. Having a good, solid print product, it comes with a good, solid business model where digital does not, and in order to keep the content the level we firmly believe we should be at for a local newspaper, we need to be [in] print.”

Scott estimated the Herald-Standard’s current circulation to be approximately 50,000 and said they have 115 distribution racks throughout their coverage area. Calkins Media had previously removed all of the racks.

Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

Scott believes newspapers made a mistake when “they offered their product for free” online. Yet, paywalls have not proven to be the answer for rural markets either.

“Newspapers have not made money online. Their revenues have been flat as a whole and that includes the larger regional newspapers like the Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News,” Ryfe said.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2016 State of the Media Report, weekday print circulation in 2015 still made up 78 percent of a newspaper’s distribution. Fifty-one percent of adults who choose to read a newspaper do so in a print-only format, compared to 5 percent who prefer digital-only.

But those findings aren’t conclusive for the industry as a whole. In the same report, Pew found audiences are still gathering a large portion of their news from online sources when compared to the print newspaper. Regardless of whether a consumer first saw an article on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn, only 20 percent of the original content came from a daily newspaper, while 25 percent came from radio and 28 percent came from digital publications and apps.

While the Herald-Standard is doubling down on print, its neighbors to the north like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review are betting on digital, but author and New York University journalism professor Samuel Freedman said those publications will have to find a way to make readers want to pay.

“You need to make the content strong enough that people want to pay for it,” Freedman said of the success of online paywalls. “What can you provide to your [readers and advertisers] that they can’t get anywhere else?”

The Counter Argument

With all of the external pressures on the industry, whether a newspaper is family-owned or held by an investment firm can be irrelevant. Statistics may indicate a reduction in the size of local newsrooms and, in turn, a reduction in local news coverage when they’re gobbled up by larger corporations, but that isn’t always the case.

“There’s nothing magical about local ownership,” Freedman said. “It is about who owns the paper. [The] problem isn’t that they’re outsiders, it is if there’s no commitment towards journalism.”

A former New York Times columnist and reporter, Freedman pointed to billionaire Glen Taylor who bought Minneapolis’ Star-Tribune as an owner who has aggressively worked to grow the audience of his paper, vowing to make it a “statewide” publication.  

Freedman agreed that there should be concern over media conglomerates buying up all of the publications in one geographic area, since history has shown they often have the “short-term” goal of debt cutting rather than growth. But as a former writer for New Jersey’s Courier News, owned by Gannett and part of the USA Today Network, Freedman said his own experience wasn’t that of drastic cuts.

“Everyone hated Gannett [at the time], but we were never removed [from a job] and were never strained for resources,” Freedman said.

Some local newsrooms today are finding benefits to being owned by the same large media company. Ellwood City Ledger managing editor Patrick O’Shea noted he utilizes a type of “network journalism” with the Beaver County Times.

Patrick O’Shea, managing editor of the Ellwood City Ledger. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

As a former employee of the nearby paper, O’Shea said he has previously established relationships at the Times and he will often use local and regional stories from their reporters to fill his pages at the Ledger rather than national news. He said this type of resource sharing has been valuable for him.  

According to Ryfe, this is common practice when chains buy local newspapers. “These companies buy up papers in a geographic area so they can ring different kinds of efficiencies out of the chain. That means they share content across the newspapers.”

If There’s Still Hope Despite Ownership Then What’s the Big Deal?

When newspapers are bought by a larger conglomerate, the regional approach they sometimes implement with their coverage can lead to resentment from local residents.

Joyce Blaho, a former marketing and advertising employee of the Herald-Standard in Uniontown, believes the paper has quashed its local content with their extended Mon Valley coverage.

“The paper isn’t the same since being bought out by the Nuttings,” she said, referring to the owners of Ogden Newspaper Inc. Blaho isn’t alone in her newfound discontent.

Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

Sara Meyer, who works at the Free Carnegie Library in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, doesn’t read the local Daily Courier because she believe it is “too depressing.” For her, the coverage is unappealing, too many stories about car crashes and arrests.

“Every patron that comes in tells me a story,” Meyer said, who prefers to see more human interest stories in her daily newspaper. “Something like that would help balance all the depressing news.”

Meyer, who has a brother-in-law that works at the Herald-Standard, is empathic, though. She said she understands that local newsrooms don’t have enough manpower to successfully cover the area. Yet, she still can’t bring herself to purchase either paper regularly.

“I can’t justify buying it when I can get everything online,” she said.

Residents’ complaints throughout the Greater Pittsburgh Area echoed Meyer and Blaho’s. ‘The content is poor.’ ‘The paper isn’t representative of the neighborhood.’ ‘A subscription expired and the product wasn’t worth renewal.’ One elderly Aliquippa woman did admit she still reads The Beaver County Times, but “only for the obituaries.”  

If residents are not buying their local newspapers, local publishers can’t afford to stay in business. Even more ironic is a number of people in these communities interviewed for this story admitted while they don’t read their local newspaper, they’d be more upset if the paper closed its doors entirely.

And that is the paradoxical problem local newspapers are facing today: people want them, but they don’t want to pay for them.

“[Readers are] expressing a kind of ambivalence. They value journalism and yet, relatively few of them are willing to pay enough money to sustain this journalism in their community,” Ryfe said.

O’Shea has been the managing editor of the Ellwood City Ledger since the GateHouse Media merger in June 2017.

He said there were 5 staffers in the Ledger’s newsroom at the time. Now, it is operated by O’Shea along with one other full-time reporter, a part-timer and an 80-year-old contributing writer. The paper itself is laid out in Austin, Texas, at New Media’s Center for News and Design– a design hub that serves 90 daily newspapers and 203 weekly papers, according to their website.

 

 

O’Shea said he’s not sure if any of the Ledger’s 2,500 readers are aware of the staffing reductions that have taken place under GateHouse’s ownership, but said the lack of empathy between readers and newsrooms “plays a role” in some of the hardships facing the newspaper industry. Residents are “almost always understanding” once the situation is discussed, O’Shea said, but those conversations can be few and far between.

Ideally, O’Shea would like to utilize additional staff to help allocate time to tackle more in-depth stories, but said he isn’t holding out hope for the increased resources.

“If it were up to a local administration, I think there might be more chance of that happening,” he said, “but unfortunately, when you are part of a larger organization, the attention isn’t really there.”

“This is a service the [residents] rely on. This is a business they rely on,” he said. O’Shea believes if the paper were to shut down, “it would leave a serious hole in the community.”

The only problem is someone still has to pay for the news.

This story was supported by The Pittsburgh Pitch, a project of 100 Days in Appalachia and the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.

Commentary

Rural Lawyers’ Alliance Fills Needs, Creates Opportunities

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An urban “glut” of new lawyers hides the fact that many rural communities lack legal expertise that could help them address personal and societal issues. One lawyer who returned to her rural roots from the big city is part of an effort to change that.

Last summer, I quit my job at Harvard Law School and moved to Kentucky. Notable Kentuckian Albert “Happy” Chandler once said, “I never met a Kentuckian who wasn’t either thinking about going home or actually going home,” and I was no exception, finally fulfilling half-baked plans to return home that had formed the moment I left Kentucky for law school over a decade prior. Yet in spite of Happy’s wise observation, I had built a successful legal career in Boston, I loved my clinical teaching gig at Harvard Law, and I did not have a job waiting for me in Kentucky. Needless to say, this move seemed less than obvious to some of my colleagues. I knew I was on to something good, however, and that the time to make my move had come. Let me explain.  

By way of background, in May 2017, Lisa Pruitt and I co-authored an op-ed for the National Law Journal titled, “It’s Time to Heed the Call of Rural America.” Lisa has been writing and teaching at the intersection of law and rurality for many years, including at her blog, Legal Ruralism; my personal interest in rural people, places, and issues has become a professional pursuit in more recent years. Though I was teaching at a law school in Massachusetts and she was in California, we had both witnessed the momentous uptick in law students, lawyers, and other “coastal elite” friends who were newly tuned in to the struggles of rural people following the 2016 presidential election. Indeed no matter where any of us call home or currently live, we all now share the burdens of rural America’s disproportionate share of societal problems and corresponding critical shortage of attorneys through our collective state of political discontent. Addressing attorneys directly, Lisa and I concluded our op-ed article with a challenge:  

“A moment when lawyers are so treasured that the ACLU can raise $24 million in a single weekend is also a moment when other national institutions can step up, acknowledge the legal needs of rural America, and address them. We have heard the call. Now how will we respond?” 

As you already know, I responded to the call in my own way a few months after the op-ed went to print, by removing myself from among the oft-reported glut of lawyers in America’s cities and adding myself to the dwindling rural ranks. Certainly plenty of rural people have pressing unmet legal needs that merit lawyers’ individual and collective responses: Eric Conn’s busted social security fraud scheme  alone has left thousands of rural victims in need of legal counsel. But the truth is that I wasn’t leaving my much-loved job in clinical legal education and running home to Kentucky to save my people from the woes that had befallen them. I was running home because I recognized the potential of the moment and the exciting opportunities it presented for meaningful work. I was also running home because Kentucky is an incredible place to live.  

Too many headlines paint all of rural America with broad (and ugly) strokes that solicit a sacrificial response to the call of rural America. Yet an increasing number of us city dwellers happily choose to go – or return – to places where we want to raise our children, where we see fulfilling work that needs to be done, and where we might live a life that we can afford to live in a place we want to be. Of course I see the shortage of rural lawyers and unmet rural legal needs as challenges that must be addressed, but I also see them as compelling opportunities that are ripe for the taking. Law school education, legal practice, and the national legal market as a whole are overdue for change. Just as my sprawling Kentucky garden is leaps and bounds more productive than the leggy tomato plants I tended in pots on tiny porches in the city, I believe rural America presents fertile ground for positive growth and innovation in the practice of law. I also believe that growth and innovation bred in the rural legal markets of states like mine could one day benefit lawyers and clients in other legal markets, rural and urban, across the country. I see the pressing legal needs of today as the legal innovations of tomorrow just as clearly as I see Kentucky for its future more so than for its past.  

Just as I had expected, I’ve found more great work to do in this past year than there is daylight. I’ve been digging deep with local and statewide efforts to better train our future lawyers and better connect our practicing lawyers to waiting clients. I’ve also spent some of my working hours co-authoring an article with a rural access to justice focus through a national lens. At the invitation of Lisa Pruitt, and alongside legal academics living and working in California, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Maine, our forthcoming Legal Deserts: a Multi-State Perspective on Rural Access to Justice details the rural access to justice landscapes in those states, the lessons learned from those states, and what steps all states might take to close the rural-urban justice gap in meaningful, collaborative, and impactful ways. As the six of us drafted the manuscript across institutional walls and, indeed, across the country, it became clear that this article provided the right confluence of people and momentum to raise a national institutional home for all of the exciting work that is done (and left to be done) at the intersection of law and rurality. Though certainly unplanned, identifying a moment “when national institutions can step up, acknowledge the legal needs of rural America, and address them” ultimately led me to create the institution I had wished for all along.  

On that note, and on behalf of my co-authors turned co-founders, please let me introduce you to the Alliance for Lawyers and Rural America (AfLARA). Designed as a convening space to be shaped by its membership, AfLARA aims to serve as a means to an end for people and organizations working near the intersection of law and rurality. In other words, AfLARA is the home at which all of us – including you – can gather, learn from one another, and work together to make the most of opportunities that serve to address rural legal needs. Membership is open to lawyers and non-lawyers alike, whether you are rural, urban, or living anywhere in between, and whether your focus is access to justice, entrepreneurship, education, healthcare, or any of the other myriad points at which law meets rural places. We are non-partisan, non-exclusionary, and eager to hear your voice.  

AfLARA is one way that I have responded to the call of rural America over the past year or so, though I have yet to feel like I’ve sacrificed anything but time well spent. How have you responded? And what can we all do next?     

Amanda L. Kool is a lawyer, consultant, and author of the forthcoming Legal Needs Assessment for Kentucky Entrepreneurs. She is also a co-author of the forthcoming Legal Deserts: a Multi-State Perspective on Rural Access to Justice. 

This story was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Appalachia

Lavender Hopes and Realities: Farming Project Doesn’t Go as Planned

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West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported earlier this year on an economic development project to grow lavender on former strip mines in West Virginia. After the story was released, the organization heard from a number of students involved in the program, saying they were disappointed and felt misled by the outcomes of the project, called Green Mining. West Virginia Public Broadcasting revisited the story to find out what happened and if the project is still going as expected. 

Back in 2014, West Virginia’s then-Governor Earl Ray Tomblin asked the West Virginia Regional Technology Park to come up with some ideas that could help generate new jobs for displaced coal miners in southern West Virginia. The idea that the CEO of the Technology Park, Rusty Kruslock, had was to grow lavender on former strip mines.

In 2016, the project was awarded grants through the Benedum Foundation, then the Appalachian Regional Commission, to fund the first couple years of the Green Mining program. In the interest of full disclosure, both of these organizations have also provided funding to West Virginia Public Broadcasting in the past.

Seventeen other companies also donated time and resources toward the first phase of the lavender project. The Technology Park offered classes to teach people how to grow lavender, and they paid the students a $10-an-hour stipend to attend classes. The project attracted 47 students in 2017, including several from out of state.

“We sold everything we owned, packed up our little car, [and] drove 9 hours to West Virginia,” said veteran Debra Ritchie, who moved to West Virginia from Florida with her husband, Scott, and their daughter after hearing about the Green Mining program.

“[We] came here to be lavender farmers,” said Scott Ritchie, who’s also a veteran. “We were supposed to get a deal to where once we graduate the school, they were supposed to give each [veteran] two acres of land. And we went to school, graduated from the school, and went to go talk about the land and…nothing. No call back. No email return, nothing.”

They said they were told that following the 6-week-course, they would have the option of growing lavender on a mine site, to help raise some supplemental income. But that didn’t happen.

“I definitely learned not to put all your eggs in one basket, that’s for sure,” Scott said. “We pretty much put all our eggs in one basket and the basket got knocked off the table.”

Other students we spoke to said they had also been led to believe that they would be offered land to grow lavender on after their six-week training course. Another veteran, Amber Stanley, lives just outside Charleston.

“Now I’m feeling pretty misled, and I also feel a little bit exploited,” said Amber Stanley, another veteran who completed one of the training courses in 2017.

Student with the Green Mining project in 2017. Photo: Janet Kunicki/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

So what happened? The project’s main organizer, Rusty Kruselock, said the grant money simply ran out. They couldn’t pay their staff anymore, so they couldn’t continue the next phase of the project. We asked him about the students who say they’re disappointed, people like Amber, Scott and Debra?

“We apologize if that’s the impression, we weren’t aware of that, but we certainly reached out in the springtime to everyone we could,” Kruselock said. “But we’ll do everything we can to rectify that in the future.”

An hour after we recorded that interview with Kruselock, a volunteer with the Green Mining project did send an email to the former students, asking if they would want to be a part of a new phase of their project, a lavender growing cooperative. The students we talked to said it was the first time they had heard from the program in seven months.

The idea behind the cooperative, in part, is to get former students to help maintain the existing lavender fields, as volunteers.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting visited the mine site nearly a year later to see how the plants had fared through the winter. The grey, moonscape soil now has some purple growing on it. Small plants of English and French varieties of lavender dot the rocky fields.

A little more than 3,000 lavender plants survived the winter. Kruselock said that’s about half of what they planted last year.

A few volunteers, and at least one person who’s been paid part time, has been up here in the past few months weeding the fields. Most of that weeding work has been done by Lori Bailey. She heard about the lavender project from a news story and reached out to see how she could get involved.

“I just thought that was the greatest thing, cause there’s so much land that’s had mountaintop removal and I just think that’s great [that lavender is] making that look beautiful,” Bailey said.

But without Bailey and a handful of volunteers up here, the lavender plants might have been overtaken by weeds.

Photo: Janet Kunicki/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

That’s still a risk if they don’t find a way to keep the volunteers engaged or figure out how to pay people to maintain the fields.

“The last thing you want to do is go out and plant 2,000 [or] 10,000 acres and then not have anybody to work it or not have anybody to take care of it,” said Marina Sawyer, one of the Green Mining project’s main organizers from last year.

“If we don’t have the workforce or the students coming out to do that work, then you end up losing valuable plants. And we’re not about that either.”

But a few months after this interview, Sawyer and the other staff were all let go. They were only contracted to work on a one-year grant, and the funding ran out.

WVPB reached out to the Appalachian Regional Commission, which funded the project last year, to ask if they are happy with the project’s outcomes. They didn’t want to do an interview, but Wendy Wasserman, director of communications, sent the following statement:

“This project proves that Appalachia’s coal impacted communities are well-positioned for innovative economic development. The Green Mining team identified an asset, did the research, and literally got their hands dirty. Now a series of new value added products using Appalachian-grown lavender are headed to market.”

Wasserman said the project was turned down for a second round of funding from the ARC because so many other projects applied for funding. She said the application process was incredibly competitive this year.

Meanwhile, Rusty Kruselock said that in a few years, he hopes these fields of lavender will be producing enough essential oil that will earn some income for the project.

“Most of our revenue down the road is going to be shared profits. Once we get oil processing, we’re gonna use the shared revenue to make the whole foundation self-sustaining.”

And the West Virginia Regional Technology Park does have the equipment, and the chemical expertise, to produce that oil. But they won’t be producing very much oil any time soon, not for at least another year or two, until the lavender plants are big enough.

So in the meantime, how will the program support itself and maintain the fields of lavender? Kruselock said although they didn’t receive a second year of funding from the ARC’s Power Plus program, they are going to try again later this fall. And he said, the handful of volunteers will help keep it going.

At this time, there are about five students still involved in helping the project grow.

Not among them is Debra and Scott Ritchie, who said they aren’t sure they have trust in the program anymore.

“It kind of put me back to that, ‘well why am I even trying?’ thought process,” Debra Ritchie said. “So I was angry. Real angry. And disappointed.”

She said it was nice to see the recent email that the project hasn’t gone completely underground, but they don’t have time to spend volunteering on the mine site, not at this time anyway.

At this point, the Ritchies are just struggling to pay their own bills. Debra got a job at a gas station, and her husband Scott is still looking for a job. They said they aren’t sure if they will stay in West Virginia, or if they plan to leave the state in search of work.

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Commentary

An Epidemic of Opioid Documentaries — Who Is that Stranger with a Camera?

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It’s been more than five years since documentary filmmaker Sean Dunne of Peekskill, NY, released Oxyana. The IMDb description reads, “The ‘Hillbilly Heroin’ epidemic that’s slowly rotting the soul of rural America.”

As the film begins, a harrowing mist rolls over the hillsides and wooded ridges of Oceana, WV , while a lo-fi guitar score hums. When describing the small, rural town and recent events, a local dentist shares, “It’s incredible and amazing and awful, all at the same time,” as he slouches on an examining table. He laments that it became difficult to appreciate the beauty of the natural landscape as complex social and material problems emerged in his community. He felt haunted by its new reality.

He’s right — Oceana’s beauty is complex. Oxyana’s B reels hardly neglect that. At first, the filmmaker nails a distinct “West Virginianness” — the moodiness of low, ambient dream-haze lighting at roadside service shops at midnight, the lull and familiarity of winding back roads and passing by locals sitting on porches at dusk. The grit of the atmosphere and the grit under your fingernails. Coal lurches up impossibly long conveyor belts to be processed, ethereal fog obscures a full moon, and dew coats the windows of broken down 1970s Winnebagos parked between lush pine trees. West Virginia, like most places, is complex, and Oxyana pays careful attention to intimate glimpses of beauty in contraction, albeit peripherally.

Since the film’s release and subsequent acceptance into the documentary film milieu, the concept of the “opioid crisis” as a long-form documentary genre has emerged. Several independent films have joined Oxyana in undertaking the daunting task of documenting events leading up to and as a result of a public health crisis. Many weigh in on factors leading to the emergence of the American opioid crisis, making the normative claim that the monumental rise in licit and illicit opioid use and trafficking in rural American communities is wrought by irresponsible and unethical decisions made by doctors and pharmaceutical companies.

It’s worth noting, however, that not all documentary films are directed by filmmakers who are intimately familiar with the communities they profile, and Appalachian people have long been exploited by visiting photographers and documentarians.

In 1964, and in the wake of President Johnson’s ongoing war on poverty, photojournalist John Dominis captured images of residents of eastern Kentucky communities as a part of a photo series, titled “The Valley of Poverty,” for the contemporaneously popular LIFE magazine. Therein exists an even more uncomfortable reality that poverty tourism was once a common practice in eastern Kentucky.

The “Valley of Poverty” dispatch aimed to illuminate ongoing Depression Era wealth inequality, which was palpably evident in Appalachian Kentucky, but the photos, in many ways, reduced their subjects to nameless stand-ins for the socioeconomic challenges they themselves and their region faced. To Dominis, their valley appeared “lonely,” their homes “ruins,” and their children “urchins.”

OXYANA TRAILER from Sean Dunne on Vimeo.

Indie film buffs will recognize Oxyana’s Dunne as the creator of a breakout short film, American Juggalo, released in September 2011, which debuted at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Juggalo functions as a sardonic, searingly funny biopic of the lives of a fiercely devoted subculture of followers of the Insane Clown Posse. A once-underground cohort of hip-hop artists hailing from Detroit’s working-class neighborhoods, I.C.P. boats an extensive discography and a loyal following of fans who immerse themselves in the music’s carnival themed lore and macabre motifs.

The laughs are cheap, however. A few views of the 24-minute long film and it’s nearly blatant that the director doesn’t seem to be laughing with the Dark Carnival. In reality, the film is laughing at a quirky fandom of individuals who are merely observing the working class tradition of finding relief, comradery and joy despite everyday pains and monotony through exploring music and culture.

The Juggalos and Juggalettes show the filmmakers how they cut loose and share with Dunne and his crew that the Gathering is the best weekend of their year. The Gathering of the Juggalos seems … eclectic — for lack of a kinder word — to outsiders. It’s no secret that I.C.P. and their fans have found little else but ridicule from onlookers since the Carnival’s inception. But to the Juggalo “family,” as they lovingly refer to one another, it’s meaningful. And to some, the Gathering is the only place where they truly feel accepted and embraced by a community who chooses to love them unconditionally, despite their status in “the real world.”

Juggalo’s dialogue reveals that, most of all, these people are genuinely happy, belting out the ubiquitous “whoop whoop” refrain each chance they get, and maybe — as bystanders — we shouldn’t knock it until we’ve tried it.

Watch the short and you’ll notice that Oxyana begins with Dunne’s newfound curiosity of Juggalo culture. Oxyana‘s opening scene is a short dialogue between the film crew and a man living in Wyoming County, WV, who had just lost a loved one. The man’s account becomes the focal point of the film, sharing intimate truths about the many ways opioid use has shaped his recent life. While holding an autographed shirt with I.C.P.’s hatchet man logo, he shares that it was his loved one’s “pride and joy.” He reveals that he recently lost him to an overdose and was struggling with his loss, holding on to a memento that was special to him in life.

I.C.P. has thousands of loyal followers across the U.S. It seems fairly innocuous that a 30-something man would be a member of the “Juggalo family.” I wondered if the filmmaker found the dialogue to be meaningful enough to be an introductory scene because it was such a palpably relatable depiction of loss. It calls the viewer to remember the longing and heartbreak associated with holding onto the last remnants you have to hold after losing a loved one. On the other hand, Dunne has made a career of mocking I.C.P.’s fans and their subculture, directing a narrative that their beloved cultural markers are garish, obnoxious, and honestly, trashy.

Juggalos gather at the National Mall for the Juggalo March in 2017. Photo by Blink O’fanaye on Flickr.

He chose to begin a long-form documentary that investigates the social and cultural conditions of a southern West Virginia community experiencing unforseen hardships with an “easter egg” Juggalo reference, and honestly, it’s difficult to ignore. Could it be that the scene reveals that Dunne was unintentionally othering his Appalachian film subjects in the same vein that he mocked the Gathering? The subject revealed a special vulnerability that comes with grieving. And I couldn’t ignore the place the scene had in context with Dunne’s earlier work.

The pain of Oceana’s residents is real. Dunne and producers show bleary-eyed, unfiltered accounts of the way opioid addiction has moved through their lives. However, the scene was an uncomfortable reminder that Oxyana’s narrative was never in the hands of those living in Oceana, West Virginia, no matter how well-intentioned its filmmakers were.

Over the past ten years, a documentarian has visited my own hometown to create a similar project.

The documentary trailer features B reel footage—supplemental footage used as “filler” between the main shots—of people intravenously using heroin as often as landscapes. The documentarian periodically visits East Liverpool, OH, to collect material for a documentary and photo-series “project.”

A voiceover explains that there’s nothing worthwhile here. People come here to die.

It’s clear that the filmmaker joins Dunne in conveying a similar message communicated by Oxyana: East Liverpool, too, is hardly more than a community in crisis.

The project offers “industrial de-evolution” as a wholesale diagnosis of our community’s problems without historical context of which of East Liverpool’s native industries no longer function or what led production to a halt. Glum, dreary footage and stills of buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes barely look like the same places I grew up.

My classmates, neighbors and people my mother taught as a high school teacher are depicted wearing outdated, tattered clothing, posed lifelessly in cluttered rooms of working-class homes. Images of the community are devoid of joy. Stereotypical misrepresentations of what people and cultural landmarks in our region look like abound. The systemic issues that these communities face are specters that render the community entirely dysfunctional.

Although I’m not an expert on the function of the “gaze” in art and film, it’s clear to me that the documentary filmmakers and photojournalists that visit Appalachia from elsewhere enter our communities with preconceived notions about who lives here and what struggles we face, effectively leading to inaccurate reporting and their own unconscious social distancing from their subjects.

In spite of everything, I don’t find it difficult to find beauty in places like Oceana or East Liverpool. Like other Appalachian communities, our relationship to more than a century of the presence of extractive industries in our region has compounded complex social problems, which over time have led to the public health crisis symptomatic of the emergence of a new extractive industry: pharmaceutical companies.

But our communities are not defined by the social problems we have no fault in generating, just as individuals and lives are not defined by their struggles with addiction and recovery. Most of all, Appalachian people should have the agency to direct new and extant narratives about their communities and those that do create seminal, revelatory works that uncover truths that would have been otherwise slighted by others.

As a long-form documentary genre focused on the opioid crisis and its cultural reverberations emerges, it becomes evidently clear that those that irresponsibly visit the region, who mistakenly engage in inaccurate reporting and misrepresentation of subjects, contribute to longstanding stereotypes about people in the region, leave and profit from their findings just might have more in common with exemplars of extractive industries that have shaped the Appalachia we know.

Holler-casting blackened bluegrass to you from the Ohio Valley, Liz Price studies Appalachian regional policy by day and spins mountain-metal by night.

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