We’re publishing a series of Q&As with reporters who have uncovered powerful investigative stories. This week we chatted with Ken Ward Jr., a journalist at the Charleston Gazette Mail. He worked with ProPublica on a series on the economic and political impacts of the natural gas industry in West Virginia after the major decline of the coal industry in the state. Communities were hurt. He also reported on whether local owners of gas reserves were receiving the appropriate royalties from drilling companies and gas producers.
How did you get these stories? What led you to pursue them?
We got this story by spending a lot of time talking to people who live in the area where natural gas is being produced, reviewing lots of court documents and scientific reports, and drawing on my many years of experience in the kinds of relationships that our state of West Virginia has historically had with extraction industries like coal, timber and natural gas. I was most drawn to pursue this project because of the historic similarities and this commentary between the broken promises of the coal industry and the ongoing promises of prosperity being made by the natural gas industry.
What were the challenges of reporting and how did you navigate them?
A major challenge with this story was trying to get voices into the reporting from the industry itself. Some companies and industry trade groups, while doing a lot of PR touting their economic impact, basically refused to really engage with us, making it difficult to include them in the narrative. We tried to get around that by going to court documents and other public presentations which were not as helpful as interviews with the industry players, but did give us some insight into their way of thinking and the positions they were taking.
There’s been a ton of great reporting on the natural gas industry that I drew on as inspiration, including previous work by the Center for Public Integrity, the Houston Chronicle, and ProPublica. I also look a lot to history, and to the stories that historians have told – people like Ron Lewis from West Virginia University, for example – about the promises made to West Virginia about the great riches these industries would bring to our communities, and then what really happened. I think way too often we don’t turn to history to help us understand what’s happening now. I also look back at the work that my mentor, the late Paul Nyden, did while he was covering the coal industry in West Virginia.
And, as I watch work being done by other members of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, I really am inspired about what local journalism can and should – and must – be.
Takeaway: Collaboration makes good journalism.
You can find Ken on Twitter here.