A new title: Co-host of WVPB’s Inside Appalachia

Beginning Nov. 22, the wonderful Caitlin Tan and I will co-host West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia program.

WVPB is West Virginia’s public radio station & NPR affiliate, and the show gets carried around the region, including in western Virginia on WVTF/Radio IQ.

Inside Appalachia is a weekly radio show and podcast that covers the same kind of stories that I got into journalism to do, with the same regional frame I’ve found so compelling over the course of my career. It’s been hosted by incredible folks like Beth Vorhees, Giles Snyder & Jessica Lilly, so we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.

The thing about Inside Appalachia is it isn’t just about Appalachians — it’s FOR Appalachians. It’s for individuals who grew up here & still remain. It’s for those who moved and stayed away but still hold a place in their heart for the area. It’s for those who moved here only recently. It’s for *everyone* who has a connection to these mountains. The show centers the voices of Appalachian people — from all backgrounds and walks of life — who don’t often enough see or hear themselves in national coverage.

Our first show as co-hosts aired Nov. 22 and can be heard here. The episode spotlights local millers and bakers in western North Carolina, the mystery of the Mortgage Lifter tomato, cicada art, and parents who are managing sobriety to get their children back.

The team behind this show is incredible, and I’m already enjoying working with them. I can’t wait to see where Inside Appalachia goes from here.

How SWVA’s coalfields went from Va’s most Democratic to its most Republican (Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism)

Virginia’s most Republican-voting counties were among its most Democratic-voting just a generation ago. The decline of coal and a cultural realignment in America’s political parties changed its voting patterns, which dramatically accelerated after the 2008 election of Barack Obama and spiked in 2016 with Donald Trump.

For the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism, I reported on how southwestern Virginia’s coal counties, and specifically Buchanan County, went from a Democratic stronghold to an 80% Trump county in the span of a generation. (After this story ran, 84% of Buchanan County voters went for Trump in 2020, even as Joe Biden won Virginia 54% to 44%.)

Read my story at the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism.

Rural America’s role in the 2020 elections (Daily Yonder)

The 2016 presidential election broke in just such a way that rural voters in key states delivered Donald Trump a narrow victory over Hillary Clinton. For the Daily Yonder, I spoke with election experts across the country for a three-story series on how the rural vote factors into 2020’s race for president and control of Congress.

The first story lays out the national landscape in 2020, with focus points on Pennsylvania, Maine and Montana. This story lays out a few different models for how candidates run in rural America.

The second story looks at the Midwest, specifically Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota.

The third story details the divergence of the growth South and the stagnant South — a dichotomy identified by Charles Bullock at the University of Georgia. Examples include Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, with a glance at Texas and South Carolina.

Read the series, which ran in October at the Daily Yonder.

Dino vs soldier

Dinosaurs meet the Civil War at Dino Kingdom II (Inside Appalachia)

At a roadside attraction in Natural Bridge, Virginia, dinosaurs face off against Civil War soldiers in a series of bizarre scenes. In one, a steampunk Stonewall Jackson with a trench coat and telescoping arm battles a Spinosaurus. Elsewhere, President Abraham Lincoln sits atop a building as a pteranodon makes off with his speech.

This is Dinosaur Kingdom II, a theme park that acts as a funhouse mirror that squeezes the nation’s history into an absurdist revisioning complete with slime monsters and mazes to nowhere.

As part of the Folkways Reporting Corps for West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia, I reported on Dino Kingdom II creator Mark Cline, his long road into weirdness, and how he’s passing the tradition on to younger artists like metal-playing, action figure-sculpting Brently Hilliard.

Listen to the Dino Kingdom II story at Inside Appalachia.

Image of Gatlinburg, TN

The history and future of work in Appalachia (100 Days in Appalachia)

100 Days in Appalachia asked me to think about the “the future of work” and what it looks like here. I considered how these kinds of stories often lean on utopian images of people with a high quality of life and plenty of leisure time — despite repeated historical patterns showing that technological advances like mechanization don’t often benefit workers and their families, which ultimately hurts communities.

Read Disrupted, the 100 Days in Appalachia series on the future of work.

For this series, I focused on three communities that represent a swath of themes and dynamics that repeat in variations across Appalachia.

In Georgia, Gainesville‘s proximity to metro Atlanta and tight-knit ties between public and private sectors make it one of the Appalachian localities best positioned for the future, according to the McKinsey firm. But its reliance on an under-documented, immigrant workforce starkly illustrates the income inequality that often accompanies economic prosperity. The pandemic exposed the cracks in the system even more.

In Tennessee, Sevier County‘s Dollywood, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have become models for other counties looking to emulate their success in attracting visitors. But Sevier County also suffers the ill effects of a global industrialized economy, and even a successful tourism economy relies heavily on part-time seasonal jobs with few benefits.

In Virginia, Dickenson County is emblematic of the challenges faced by coalfield communities across central Appalachia. As the coal industry has spiraled into waves of bankruptcy, historic mining communities face depopulation, struggling healthcare systems and failing infrastructure. Prisons have replaced mines as the most stable employer, but a rising generation of leaders hopes for a brighter future based around adventure tourism and telework.

Gainesville, Georgia, Sevier County, Tennessee, and Dickenson County, Virginia, present a snapshot of three communities on different paths. Collectively, they illustrate what’s at stake in Appalachia, and how we may yet author our own fates.

Read the three-story Disrupted series at 100 Days in Appalachia.

Central Appalachia, Powder River Basin coalfields face an uncertain future (Energy News Network, WyoFile)

Over the last several months, I collaborated with Wyoming reporter Dustin Bleizeffer on a six-part series about transition in coal communities of central Appalachia & Wyoming’s Powder River Basin

The difference between the regions is that central Appalachia has been on this path for decades — the lead anecdote in the final story is a 20something miner talking about the industry’s demise, all the way back in 1956 (via Howard B. Lee’s “Bloodletting in Appalachia”) — while in Wyoming, the decline has arrived much more suddenly, as state officials figured they had 200 more years of coal prosperity.

Read the full series:

Part one: What’s next for coal country?
Part two: Coal country faces a healthcare crisis
Part three: Coal communities increasingly rely on federal health programs
Part four: How lax fiscal policy has left states flat-footed as mining declines
Part five: Coal country envisions paths forward in manufacturing, reclamation and renewables
Part six: Survival is anything but certain for coal country

Black Lives Matter in small-town Appalachia (In These Times)

In July, I visited Marion, Virginia, to cover a Black Lives Matter/LGBTQ+ rally, along with a counterprotest. After a previous Marion BLM rally in June, someone burnt a cross outside the home of 17-year-old organizer Travon Brown. One of his neighbors was subsequently arrested and charged.

Read my story at In These Times.

You can also check out my long livetweet thread from the march & counter-protest on Twitter.

You will likely have unanswered questions after reading my story. I went to the march as an unaffiliated freelance reporter, and the story wound up as a “Dispatch” at ITT, which is fairly brief. As a reporter, I often envision an optimal version of a story that I’d write with better support and more length. Well, Michael Miller at the Washington Post wrote that version of this story, which is pretty humbling. It hits every note I could possibly have hit, and more.

Final note: I wrote my story weeks before John Lewis’ death, which came very, very late in the editorial process. I considered asking to have the reference to him removed, because I knew his “good trouble” quote would be everywhere. We ultimately left it, for numerous reasons, including because it answers a specific phrase used to criticize Brown.

The Roanoke Tribune, recording and making Black history since 1939 (Inside Appalachia, WVTF)

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Roanoke Tribune publisher Claudia Whitworth three times in my journalism career.

A good 50% of the reason I bought an audio rig two years ago was because I wanted to capture a long interview with Claudia. West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia gave me an opportunity to report not just on her, but three generations of her family, for a story on the Roanoke Tribune, which has been serving the city’s Black community since 1939. Claudia’s been there since 1945.

Check out my story on the Roanoke Tribune for Inside Appalachia. Although there’s a web story, this piece was intended for radio, so make sure to listen via the widget there. The story runs a little less than 9 minutes long.

A shorter version can be heard at the Roanoke NPR affiliate, WVTF.

Protests and pandemic: Virginia’s historic 2020 General Assembly session (Virginia Business)

The extraordinary 2020 General Assembly session in Richmond memorably demonstrated the extent to which COVID-19 has disrupted Virginia and most of the world. Yet the drama somewhat obscured what had been a momentous 2020 General Assembly session — the first since the 1990s in which Democrats controlled both chambers of the legislature. The partisan flip and sweeping changes to Virginia law will be felt across the commonwealth.

I covered what the session meant for labor and commerce, for Virginia Business. Read my story about the 2020 General Assembly session, along with a sidebar on its legislative highlights.

Pipeline resistance continues (Mother Jones, Daily Yonder)

Virginians and West Virginians have been battling the Mountain Valley Pipeline in regulatory and legal arenas since it was announced in 2014, and on the ground since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved it in late 2017. The pipeline passes about 15 minutes from my house, and I’ve been covering it since the beginning.

Most recently, I looked at the long-running Yellow Finch encampment, which has blocked the pipeline in a hollow near Elliston, Virginia, for nearly two years. For Mother Jones, I spent time at Yellow Finch to consider how the site functions as a place where locals spend time with pipeline fighters from around the U.S., and how they all influence each other.

Read my Mother Jones story, “How a “Bunch of Badass Queer Anarchists” Are Teaming Up With Locals to Block a Pipeline Through Appalachia.”

More recently, I reported for the Daily Yonder on how the activists fighting MVP felt about the July cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a similar natural gas transmission project that’s twice as long and a couple of hours north of here.

I asked Red Terry, a landowner who occupied a tree sit on her own land for 34 days, what she’d say to others facing pipeline battles of their own. “These people need to fight it for everything they’re worth,” she told me. “Never give up.”

Read my story for the Daily Yonder.