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The Genius Journalist

Ken Ward

Questions by Jake Stump
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr

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Imagine doing your job for more than 25 years and receiving a cold call one day from someone offering you a $625,000-“genius grant” with no strings attached. That is what happened to Ken Ward Jr., BS ’90, Journalism, in 2018. Every West Virginia news junkie knows Ward as a hardnosed, longtime investigative reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and also recently as a reporter in the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Those in power hope they’re never on his radar. Ward has built his dogged reputation as a journalist by investigating worker safety violations, environmental hazards and corporate malfeasance. He caught the eye of the MacArthur Foundation, which named Ward one of its 25 MacArthur Fellows of 2018 due to him “revealing the human and environmental toll of natural resource extraction in West Virginia and spurring greater accountability among public and private stakeholders.” Ward, who grew up in Piedmont and Keyser, W.Va., got his first taste of journalism working on the Pasquino student newspaper at Potomac State College. He then transferred to West Virginia University, wrote for the Daily Athenaeum and went on to the Charleston Gazette, now known as the Gazette-Mail, in 1991.

How does one win a “genius grant?”

You don’t apply. There’s no interview. You don’t lobby for it. ...They have a confidential committee of nominators and when people are nominated, they go out and investigate that person. You don’t even know you’re being considered until you get a random phone call from the MacArthur Foundation telling you you’ve been picked. When they called me, they said I could only tell one person. I told my wife and I teared up a little bit. I could not tell my son or my mom or my coworkers. My wife is a lawyer at Legal Aid [of West Virginia], and I’m a newspaper reporter, so the grant changes a lot of things for us. It provides us some security. I’ve got a son who’s 14 who’d like to go to college.

Throughout your career at the Gazette, what stories stand out as ones you consider having the most impact?

I think that the stories that I’ve felt were most important were some of those that lifted up the voices of people who weren’t otherwise being heard. I’m thinking, for example, of when early in my career I wrote about the folks in McDowell County who didn’t like the idea of a huge garbage dump being the economic salvation for their community. And stories like ones where the community really wanted answers, like the water crisis here in the Kanawha Valley. But I have to say that the story I’ve felt was most important was following the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and the trial of Don Blankenship. The trial was something that was unheard of in West Virginia — a dozen miners testifying against the CEO about the horrible conditions they had to work under to feed their families. And more than once, family members of the miners who died let us know that they were counting on our coverage — and that’s a pretty serious sort of honor and duty, in my opinion.

What are three pointers you could give to budding (or even current) journalists?

Take a broad range of courses in college — science, math, economics, history. Learn the tools, but don’t just think of the tools as the only thing. Realize that knowing the subject and being able to tell stories is more important. Don’t stop asking questions. Don’t rewrite press releases. Realize that journalism is not values-neutral — it’s crucial to our democracy, and believing in facts and the public’s right to know is an important value. PR and marketing are not journalism.

Tell me more about the fellowship and what it entails.  

There are no reporting requirements or project summaries to turn in. It’s truly no strings attached. It’s a challenging time for local journalism, and at some point, this will help me be innovative. I want to keep doing the stories I’m doing at the newspaper. I think it’s important to continue providing journalism that serves the people of West Virginia. 

When did you know for sure that you wanted to be a journalist?

It happened after I stumbled into the rundown building that the DA used to be in back in the day. Putting out a student newspaper five days a week was more fun than going to some of my classes. 

Do you have any thoughts on the current state of journalism and how the industry is under attack by some politicians? 

It’s a difficult time for journalism for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is powerful people who don’t want the truth to be told about what they’re up to that may not be in the public’s interest. Some of this rhetoric is increasingly dangerous – as we've unfortunately seen the results. People who understand that information is power need to rally around the media, especially the financially troubled local media. We’ve been through a rough patch at the Gazette-Mail, with bankruptcy and a sale by the Chilton family, the longtime owners. We’re all working hard to find new ways to do things, while keeping up with our history of tough accountability journalism, so we can sort out a successful business model again.  

Did you have any mentors at WVU? 

Ron Lewis and Wes Bagby, of the history department, were both huge influences on me. I really valued history classes. They taught me that if we don’t study the history of our place, we may be doomed to repeat those mistakes again. I try to bring that to my journalism. Dennis Allen in the literature department taught me how to think.

Tell us about your time at the DA.  

I can’t imagine having more fun that putting out the DA. I got to do everything from coming up with story ideas to editing and laying things out and occasionally taking a picture. We tried to serve checks and balances on the administration and tried to be a voice for the campus community and students.  The particular stories that got me noticed by the Gazette were stories about Neil Bucklew, the president at the time and proposed fee increases for students. Don Marsh [Gazette editor at the time] wrote a column about a ‘nosey reporter’ at the student newspaper. I thought that was high praise.  

Most memorable – or contentious – interviews? 

I still remember interviewing Jane Goodall when I was at the DA. It was very humbling. And there were a few interviews with Don Blankenship that were, well, interesting.

What does your son think about your fellowship, and is journalism a career he is eyeballing?  

My son isn’t always that interested in my work. But he was excited when he learned that Lin-Manuel Miranda was also a MacArthur fellow ... he is a huge Hamilton fan. And he’s recently started writing for Flipside, the Gazette-Mail’s publication written by and for teens.

If you weren’t a journalist, what would you be doing? 

Obviously, I would have made it in the major leagues.