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The Story of Appalachia Beyond Elections

Photo of women standing on a bridge spanning a river.  The Rocky Branch Bridge crosses the South Fork of the Kentucky River and connects communities to the outside world in the event of flooding. March 9, 2017 By Nancy Andrews

Written by Zack Harold
Photographs Provided (Main photo by Nancy Andrews)

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When they write the history books on life in the early 21st century, the first 100 days of the Donald J. Trump presidency will undoubtedly stand out as an important pivot point. In the U.S., Republicans took control of the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time in a decade while national polls and news outlets had predicted that Democrat Hillary Clinton was likely to be elected president.

At the same time, the country’s white supremacist movement — having given itself a more palatable moniker, “the alt-right” — seemed to emerge from hibernation. But this was not the only movement with newfound energy. The first 100 days also saw women around the world take to the streets for the inaugural Women’s March, raising awareness about a host of issues from workplace inequality to the destruction of the environment.

And in Morgantown, W.Va., the first 100 days brought a small team of journalists together in the Reed College of Media’s Media Innovation Center. They were working on a new website aimed at making sense of the changing times.

100 Days in Appalachia launched on Jan. 17, 2017. Its first article was a post from editor-in-chief Dana Coester. It began with a short preamble under the heading, “What is Appalachia, and why should you care?”

“Dubbed ‘Trump County, USA,’ and ‘The Heart of Trump Country’ during the 2016 election, West Virginia came to represent ground zero for the rise of Trump,” the post read. “100 Days in Appalachia was created to take a closer look at just what makes this region such a flashpoint for so many of the social, economic and political fractures in American communities. If we are indeed ‘Trump Nation,’ Appalachia’s story is now America’s story.

“While the world is busy asking what the election tells us about our divided nation, we’re asking: What does Appalachia tell us?”

It was an ambitious goal for 100 days. But as it turns out, they were just the start of 100 Days in Appalachia, which is showing the world a story it so often overlooks or gets wrong.

The 100 Days in Appalachia editorial team meets at the WVU Media Innovation Center.
The 100 Days in Appalachia editorial team meets at the WVU Media Innovation Center. (Photographed by David Smith)

Finding the Story

Coester knew she wanted to start a new online publication that would supplement traditional reporting and photojournalism with cutting-edge multimedia technologies. But she needed a theme for the website, a central story that focused the individual reporting.

This was difficult to nail down. Even after months talking with partners at West Virginia Public Broadcasting and rural news website The Daily Yonder, Coester had yet to find that central story.

One idea was to focus the project on Appalachia’s economy beyond coal. Or maybe it would focus on water issues. But as talks continued, a story was beginning to unspool around them.

“The media was firmly affixing the word ‘Trump’ to anything that happened in Appalachia,” Coester said. “It’s not that everything about the stories was wrong. It’s just that there were so many of them, and they were all the same narrow story premise.”

In the mainstream media’s telling, Appalachia was an entirely white, entirely Christian, entirely conservative place. It was a place defined entirely by coal mining, which was one reason its residents supported Trump, who had promised to bring back the flagging industry.

The broader stories of Appalachia’s multicultural history and evolving economies were lost under stereotypes. These journalists wanted to share the region’s multiplicity of stories with frames outside of one politician.

 Crowds cheer as Bernie Sanders comes on stage at his book signing/talk at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. By Nancy AndrewsKatreina Kilgore gets a kiss from her daughter, Andrea Potter. (Photo: Nancy Andrews)
Crowds cheer as Bernie Sanders comes on stage at his book signing/talk at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. Katreina Kilgore gets a kiss from her daughter, Andrea Potter. (Photographed by Nancy Andrews)

The site’s mission statement reads: “The national media has failed Appalachia. They have exploited our struggles, dividing our nation. We are more alike than different. And there is a hopeful story about Appalachia that’s not being told.”

The site’s organizers believe that with the experience and knowledge of its network, it can get an important piece of America’s story correct: “Our team lives and works in the heart of Central Appalachia, spread throughout the 13 states that make up the region. By being able to talk to people face to face, we get the story right.”

Coester and company scrapped their other ideas and decided to create a short-term “pop-up” publication. It would launch a few days before President Trump’s inauguration and end when the administration reached its 100th day. But the site was not meant for policy makers. Instead, it would aim to inform the journalists who were telling Appalachia’s story to the rest of the world.

Once Coester’s “Hello, world” post was live, 100 Days in Appalachia was off to the races. 

“We were working around the clock,” she said. “We didn’t have a staff. We didn’t have freelancers.”

In addition to Coester, there was Dave Mistich, an editor for West Virginia Public Broadcasting who became 100 Days’ digital managing editor. Tyler Channell served as the web developer. Associate professor and photojournalist Joel Beeson was shooting photos for the site. Gina Dahlia, executive producer of WVU News and managing director for the WVU Media Innovation Center, served as general manager.

“Everything was so crazy and fluid,” Mistich said. “A lot of it was letting people know we were publishing content, but also figuring out, what are we doing here? Anybody that’s in journalism wants to tell the story nobody’s telling. It sounds a lot easier than it is in practice.”

Those early days saw the publication of “100 Days, 100 Voices,” a project reported by photographer Nancy Andrews that brought readers a new story each day about diversity in Appalachia. Another highlight was an article by East Tennessee author Elizabeth Catte called “Resisting Myths of Whiteness in Appalachia,” which takes a deep historic look at the – completely fictional – idea of a homogeneously white Appalachia, which has been prevalent since the mid-1800s.

For all the long nights that accompanied those first 100 days, Coester says the experience was exhilarating. One evening, while the team hurried to go live with another article, she looked up from her computer and asked her team a question.

“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were still doing this in 2020? And everybody looked up and said ‘No!’”


100 Days in Appalachia Editor in Chief Dana Coester, right, and General Manager Gina Dahlia, left, during an editorial meeting at the WVU Media Innovation Center.
100 Days in Appalachia Editor in Chief Dana Coester, right, and General Manager Gina Dahlia, left, during an editorial meeting at the WVU Media Innovation Center. (Photographed by David Smith)

Hundreds of Days More

As the calendar leafed toward the site’s self-imposed expiration date, it was becoming increasingly clear that people were paying attention to 100 Days’ coverage.

Early analytics suggested that 40 percent of the site’s audience were people in the media industry and people in politics. The project got noticed by prestigious industry watchers like the Poynter Institute, Harvard University’s NeimanLab and the  Columbia Journalism Review.

“We had people tell us ‘They’re talking about you in the newsroom of The Washington Post.’ That was really validating because that was exactly who we were trying to reach,” Coester said.

Yet the publication was so tied to its self-imposed deadline, it was unclear if it would keep going once that deadline had passed.

Then news began to spread about a white nationalist rally scheduled to occur in Pikeville, Ky., on April 29, 2017.

“The day of that rally was Trump’s 100th day in office. That didn’t occur to us until we had already planned to go down there,” Mistich said. “A story like that has a lot of potential to examine broadly what we were trying to do.”

Mistich and Beeson made the four-hour drive from Morgantown to the tiny Eastern Kentucky town. When they arrived, they found white supremacists on one side of the street and anti-fascist demonstrators on the other. Intermingled were journalists from around the world.


During the faceoff between the alliance of white nationalist and anti-fascist demonstrators in downtown Pikeville, Rob Musick, campus chaplain and religion instructor at the University of Pikeville talks with Brad Griffin, of Eufaula, Ala., who runs the wMembers of the neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Movement, face-off with counter-protestors in downtown Pikeville, Ky., on Saturday, April 29, 2017. (Photographed by Joel Beeson)
During the faceoff between the alliance of white nationalist and anti-fascist demonstrators in downtown Pikeville, Rob Musick, campus chaplain and religion instructor at the University of Pikeville talks with Brad Griffin, of Eufaula, Ala., who runs the white nationalist website Occidental Dissent and is a member of the neo-confederate League of the South. Members of the neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Movement, face-off with counter-protestors in downtown Pikeville, Ky., on Saturday, April 29, 2017. (Photographed by Joel Beeson)

“It seemed like a caricature of the media,” Beeson said. “There was this German documentary team who was following some neo-Nazi. They seemed really frantic to get the story. To get the drama of all that. And then there were two French women who were doing a documentary. And then I saw this woman, she was a reporter for Wired. She looked like a model. She was interviewing this neo-Nazi and said ‘Thank you, it was really a pleasure meeting you.’ I thought, ‘This is really bizarre.’”

In the middle of the fray, Beeson and Mistich spotted a man in a white robe, purple sash, and white knitted skullcap. It was Rob Musick, the University of Pikeville’s campus chaplain. The way Musick saw it, the rally had nothing to do with Pikeville.

“[In the eyes of these white supremacist groups] we’re shoeless ignorant hillbillies that need everyone’s help, and we actually don’t,” he told Mistich. “I just wish they would listen to us as opposed to speaking for us.”

For Beeson and Mistich, that day perfectly captured what 100 Days was all about. And it demonstrated that the site’s job was far from over.

The duo published a story about the rally, framed around Musick’s comments. Then a few weeks later, Mistich published a much longer, first-person essay that recounted his whole experience at the rally. We find Mistich talking with terrified locals, suspiciously eying fellow shoppers at Walmart, accidentally eating breakfast with neo-Nazis, covering the rally from within a scrum of national media and trying to understand how white supremacy exists in 21st-century America.

“I don’t think traditional news outlets are going to let reporters on the scene try to interject themselves,” said Mistich, who left the 100 Days team in 2017 to return to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “There was a lot of freedom that 100 Days was offering me to be truthful about what was happening, but also truthful to myself and truthful to the people reading it.”

For Coester, the rally and 100 Days’ coverage of it was proof there was a future for the website.

Back to Basics

Over the last nearly four years, 100 Days has continued to publish works on Appalachia by Appalachian journalists, aimed at subverting the nuance-less mainstream narrative. It has developed sections dedicated to sports and education, religion and food culture, all in an effort to highlight the diversity found in the region.  

Now the site is at another important milestone — another presidential election. And like that first important milestone, it has caused Coester to re-think the direction of the site.

“This gives us an opportunity to re-assert our origin story and to remind America and Appalachia why we're still here, and why this voice is as important as ever,” Coester said.

The site is moving toward a new format, publishing fewer small pieces and instead focusing on long-form projects “where we feel like we can have the most impact,” Coester said.

That includes documentary work and investigative reporting on white nationalism, including the ways it has invaded youth culture. Another project will focus on guns in Appalachia. “We want to tell a big, in-depth, rich, complicated story around that,” Coester said.

“Instead of it being the last day of our publication, it was Day One for us, really,” she said, “acknowledging and recognizing how much work was to be done telling stories accurately about our region.”

This summer, 100 Days launched the Appalachian Advisors Network, a separate website that is a resource for non-Appalachian journalists who are covering topics like the coal industry or the opioid epidemic. There are suggested readings, such as passages from WVU Press’ Appalachian Reckoning and the 2018 documentary Hillbilly.

“If they could read three articles and listen to this radio story or podcast episode on their drive down to Mingo County, maybe that will allow them to expand their story just slightly,” says Ashton Marra, 100 Days’ current digital managing editor.

The network includes a database of Appalachia-based journalists, photographers, videographers and field producers that media outlets can hire for national and regional stories. And there is a group of advisors who have volunteered to help out-of-town editors and journalists add context and clarity to their reportage. Though they may not be sources in stories, Marra said, they can give accurate information about their communities while offering a diversity of perspectives and connect reporters and editors to others in the know.

“The idea behind the project,” Marra said, “was to help first of all national media outlets connect with local folks who could do the coverage for them but we recognize we can’t stand on the borders of West Virginia and stop people from coming in … so the resource guide is there to help them.”

The team has restarted the 100 Days email newsletter and made a Creators and Innovators series of newsletters, publishing voices from an Affrilachian poet to a photographer from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Marra said the publication has a flexible format that might sometimes highlight the week’s best work on Appalachia or provide a little media criticism where needed. “Like fact checking, but it’s not just going to be the facts. I think for the most part journalists get the facts right. But maybe it’s more of contextual fact checking,” she said.

Marra pointed to a recent newsletter about how an NPR report on the opioid epidemic included the idea that Americans should be more angry about the opioid epidemic. 100 Days’ graduate assistant Kristen Uppercue said that the newsroom’s reaction was that Appalachians, hard hit by the epidemic, are angry.

“We’ve been angry for more than a decade as we’ve watched corporations flood our communities with pills, destroying the people we love,” she wrote. “Appalachians are angry about the aggressive marketing tactics used to convince our doctors that the side effects of prescription opioids were minimal, that they were no longer addictive.

“Appalachians are angry about the pill mills that popped up across our region that taxed law enforcement agencies and took advantage of our people. Appalachians are angry about the overprescription rates. We are angry. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that angry is an understatement.”

She said that the NPR piece by Brian Mann was correct on facts, but it made assumptions and used stigmatizing language about people who have faced this epidemic long before the report ran.

“Our problem is the way he talked about that data, the way he spoke with those experts,” she said.

Of course, the newsroom put a segment on covering substance use in the Appalachian Advisors Network reporting guidelines.

Marion County EMS medics push one of their coworkers into the window of a residence after discovering the front door was locked in Marion County, West Virginia. The patient was presumed to have COVID-19, requiring extra PPE on August 6th, 2020. A Marion County EMS medic waits for the county medical examiner to arrive on the scene of a deceased man believed to have been infected with COVID-19 on August 6th, 2020.
Marion County EMS medics push one of their coworkers into the window of a residence after discovering the front door was locked in Marion County, West Virginia. The patient was presumed to have COVID-19, requiring extra PPE on August 6th, 2020. A Marion County EMS medic waits for the county medical examiner to arrive on the scene of a deceased man believed to have been infected with COVID-19. (Photographed by Chris Jones)
The relative of a deceased man believed to have been infected with COVID-19 stands near the ambulance waiting to take her relative to a local funeral home on August 6th, 2020. Marion County EMS medics prepare to load the body of a man believed to have been infected with COVID-19 into their ambulance on August 6th, 2020. Photo: Chris Jones
The relative of a deceased man believed to have been infected with COVID-19 stands near the ambulance waiting to take her relative to a local funeral home on August 6th, 2020. Marion County EMS medics prepare to load the body of a man believed to have been infected with COVID-19 into their ambulance. (Photographed by Chris Jones)

The Next Big Leap

During COVID-19, the staff has only grown and multiplied their efforts. In June, reporter Chris Jones joined the team as a Report for America fellow who is covering domestic extremism. 

The newsroom received a $5,000 grant from Google and a $75,000 grant from Facebook as part of COVID relief. The funding is assisting the team to hire freelancers to broaden coverage and produce the newsletters.

Marra said that no matter what happens with COVID and the election, there is a need for the work of 100 Days in Appalachia, to set the record straight and advocate for equal opportunities.

“When it comes to those stories – COVID – when it comes to domestic extremism, when it comes to the fallout of politics and an election, what we know is that Appalachians are going to be overlooked and their stories are not going to get told unless we do it ourselves,” Marra said.

“We’re not going to get [access to] a vaccine unless we write about getting a vaccine, we’re not going to find solutions for keeping teenagers from being recruited into white supremacist groups unless we find the solutions, and we write about those solutions. We know that if we don’t do the work, nobody’s coming to save us.

“We have to do it ourselves.”