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West Virginia "genius" reporter still has questions

  • 8 min to read

Ken Ward Jr. doesn’t have all the answers.

During a roughly one-hour interview in a Charleston coffee shop earlier this month, the veteran journalist still gets excited when he talks about newspaper work, the scientific method, and the future of journalism. He also uses the phrase “I don’t know” at least three times.

Ward, an investigative reporter at the Charleston Gazette, now Gazette-Mail, is one of the newest recipients of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” The foundation, which works toward a more just, verdant, and peaceful world, recently announced Ward, 50, was the only journalist of 25 recipients to receive the five-year, $625,000 award. Although the money comes with no strings attached, it allows recipients to continue creative work.

Over more than a quarter century at West Virginia’s largest newspaper, Ward has earned a national reputation for reporting on the human and environmental impact of industries that remove the state's resources, replacing them with money in politicians’ pockets.

During chemical spills, coal mine explosions, other disasters and all the more routine days in between, Ward has earned a reputation among industry leaders for asking tough questions. He has also earned a reputation because rather than speaking to two opposing sides and calling it a day, he uses the scientific method to dig for truth.

While Ward says “the time is coming when no one is going to be able to be a journalist if they can’t do math and science,” he adds that rigorous reporting was never really that popular among public officials.

“It’s becoming more acceptable to call reporters an enemy now than it used to be, but you know the Nixon White House attacked Woodward and Bernstein,” he said. “Plenty of reporters have been red-baited.

“Don Blankenship used to try to diminish Paul Nyden’s work by saying he was a Marxist,” he added, referencing Nyden, a longtime Gazette investigative reporter who also exposed industry exploitation.

Ward admired Don Marsh, the Gazette editor who hired him, in part because of his ability to change his mind in light of new information.

“Imagine Donald Trump legitimately changing his mind,” he said. “Imagine Governor (Jim) Justice changing his mind. It’s such a strength for any human being, but especially for a leader to be able to change their mind ... because they learned something.

"What you have in someone who won’t change their mind is a closed mind, and journalism, whether it's a newspaper or a podcast or a blog, is supposed to just wrap your mind up in all sorts of stories and ideas and people and theories and things that you didn’t think about before.

“It’s not supposed to just convince you of what you already believe to be true.”

In college, some journalism students took easy math and science to fulfill requirements, but Ward, who was the son of a high school science teacher, was expected to take chemistry and calculus.

When Ward was a kid, his dad brought home science projects and he pretended to be a “mad scientist.” Later, he’d be the reporter asking a company representative to balance an equation during a public hearing. He was also able to follow the calculus performed following the 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston.

If a company representative said a chemical didn’t affect the public, he’d be the reporter asking: “Where did it go? Did it magically vanish?”

Cindy Rank, a nationally known advocate for West Virginia mountains and streams and volunteer since 1979 with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, noted that each time she’s been involved in mining litigation, Ward was always sitting in the back of the courtroom taking “copious notes” and “always searching for more information.”

Rank said she has a great deal of respect for him, because he always went out of his way to find people directly affected by mountaintop removal and to talk to industry representatives, as well as to understand the science behind what was happening.

It was “not easy to follow,” she noted.

Ward, she said, explained it in a way that people might not have understood had they sat through a science class instead.

“He’s a great educator as well as a great journalist as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

Ward said he finds the scientific method comforting because it’s OK to have a hypothesis.

“It’s OK to have a theory about what you think is happening or why you think it’s happening,” he said. “We’re taught this line of BS about not having any feelings or any thoughts or being objective or unbiased, instead of being taught to be smart and be fair and gather facts and if you have a hypothesis, if you think this is what’s happening in this situation that I’m going to go report about, it’s OK to have that hypothesis, if you try to rigorously disprove your own hypothesis."

Along with studying calculus, Ward was also editor at WVU’s student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum.

That’s where he met Rob Byers, who went on to become Ward's editor at the Gazette, then Gazette-Mail.

Byers showed up to ask about a job and found “this kid with his feet on the desk.” Ward was also wearing a WVU Martin Hall sweatshirt. Martin Hall held WVU’s school of journalism.

“He had a textbook in his lap and he looked over the textbook at me and said, ‘Can I help you?’” Byers said. “I said I’d like to be a reporter here; I think I would do a good job. He looked at me and he said, ‘Come back tomorrow. I’m studying for a test.'”

Byers, the incoming editor at the Courier Journal in Louisville, went on to be a lifelong friend, and Ward’s editor at the Gazette, then Gazette-Mail, for more than 20 years.

Ward kept both reporters and editors on their toes, according to Byers.

“With Ken, it’s more than just intelligence,” he said. “He has a unique combination of intelligence and tenacity and endurance that makes him a great news reporter and you have to up your game, too, if you’re going to work with him to be his editor… he’s elevated the game, the journalism of a lot of people by mentoring reporters and by forcing his editors, people like me, to play on his level and I think it made all of us better.”

Ward is the fourth native West Virginian – including literary critic, professor, and African-American studies scholar and fellow Piedmont native Henry Louis Gates – to receive the "genius grant," but he is the only one residing in the state at the time of the recognition.

Ward lives in Charleston with his wife, Legal Aid attorney Elizabeth Wehner, and son Thomas, who contributes to the Gazette-Mail's youth-written section.

“Ken cares deeply about West Virginia and Appalachia,” Byers said. “He loathes hypocrisy, stereotyping and the powerful taking advantage of the powerless. That’s what he rails against and that’s a great thing to build a career around, about going to battle against that every day and working for the place you love.”

During a college internship at the Charleston Gazette, Ward first met striking coal miners and Paul Nyden. 

He recalls the miners saying things like, “I do this so my kids can have a better life.” Back at WVU he read everything he could about coal's impact on West Virginia communities. 

He remembers asking a professor what else he could read, and the professor suggested Nyden's dissertation, "Miners for Democracy: Struggle in the Coalfields." Nyden, who earned his doctorate in sociology from Columbia, had documented the 1969 Farmington disaster, the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood, and other struggles during that time in coal mining communities.

Intrigued by his internship, the books he'd devoured afterward and the Gazette's tradition of watchdog investigative reporting, Ward returned to the newspaper after graduation. He eventually went back to covering coal communities, following in Nyden's footsteps.

“Nothing else really had a chance,” Ward said.

More recently, during the 2014 Elk River chemical spill, more than 300,000 West Virginians who went without water anxiously awaited education from Ward that they weren’t getting from public officials, according to Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

“The amount of influence he’s had in pulling back the veil of what people’s true experiences are is profound,” she said. “I think the people of this state’s appreciation of that runs deeply, and I think that’s why so many people are just elated that he has received this award, because they know how hard he’s worked and that he has gone against the grain and taken risks to bring the truth to people and to shed light on people’s real experiences.

“For me it’s just, I can’t imagine what this state would be like without his contribution, especially when it comes to environmental issues and workers’ safety issues, mine safety issues. There’s been no one else who has done what he has done for so long and he’s helped write the history of West Virginia in a way that resonates with people's real experiences.”

Rosser, who had taken the call at dinner, started to tear up in Charleston’s Bluegrass Kitchen.

“I think we all feel like we won an award,” she said. “It was just an affirmation that the people of West Virginia matter and that we’re not forgotten and the fact that he’s been recognized … is just the reinforcement we’re not invisible here. We’re not forgotten. Ken has been a big reason why we're still here and why we're still fighting and why all of us still have hope that things can and will get better for the people who love this state so much.”

Derek Teaney, who grew up in Charleston, remembers reading Ward when he was living in San Diego after college.

“You know what? He probably doesn’t know this,” he said. “Well, he might know this, but it was reading Ken Ward’s articles in the Gazette that ended up sending me to law school to study environmental law.”

Teaney, now senior attorney at the nonprofit Appalachian Mountain Advocates in Lewisburg, said it was Ward’s “ability to translate these sometimes complicated and Byzantine regulatory statutes and schemes in such a way that a reader can understand.”

Back at the coffee shop, Ward says he doesn’t know, exactly, whether West Virginia leaders will ever forge a new path forward when natural resources present an easier option.

He has some hypotheses, though. Journalists could help, he predicts, by being more critical about claims that disasters are all “acts of God” instead of preventable negligence, and he notes in his role as an investigative journalist, he doesn’t always expose the ways a wrong could be righted.

“We can’t just take whatever hare-brained idea somebody has for something that they’re going to put on an abandoned mountaintop removal site,” he says, incredulously.

“We can't be championing it just because it sounds good.”

He says he may use the no-strings-attached money to widen journalism’s reach in West Virginia, but he’s also not sure exactly how he’ll do that or why exactly more West Virginians aren’t reading. He has some ideas, though, noting that electrons travel farther than newspaper trucks, and that the current business model isn’t exactly working.

Ward noted that a year and a half ago, colleague Eric Eyre won the Pulitzer Prize for his work exposing the flow of prescription painkillers into West Virginia. Months later, the paper went bankrupt.

“Now this great honor for me has happened,” he said. “One thing I hope people take from it is a statement that strong local investigative journalism, that does more than just accept the standard line and challenges powerful individuals, powerful industries and powerful governments, is really important and has a lot of value.

"We need more of it. We need better ways to spread it to more people. We need more ways to make it sustainable for the people who do it, so that we don’t continue to have a brain drain of people who want to do journalism, but think they can only do it in New York or Washington or they can't pay off their student loans,” he added.

“If I knew exactly how to do all of that, we would already be doing it,” he said, “but speaking for newspapers, I still feel like I hear way too many people who kind of act and talk as if this internet thing is just a fad.”

Along with some ideas, he also has some questions:

“What do we need to do so the next time somebody who’s a public official decides to spend $32,000 on a couch, we catch them before they actually buy it?”

“So that the next time a coal mine is getting so bad, it’s going to blow up and kill 29 people, we catch them before those 29 die?”

“Shouldn’t we make it easier for people to subscribe online?”

“Shouldn’t we be promoting people all over the state buying our paper online and shouldn’t we be asking what do we need in our newsroom to make these websites better and do better reporting?”

And when young people want to stay here, “shouldn’t we be trying to make a place for them?"

• • • 

Ken Ward Jr. doesn’t have all the answers.

But he knows how to go about figuring them out.

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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