How a Small Newspaper Won a Big Award

Last January, the media world focused its attention on 13 miners trapped in a West Virginia coal mine named Sago. The news broke the same day a woman in Kentucky was preparing to bury her husband. That man, a coal miner named Bud Morris, had bled to death three days earlier after a coal car slammed into him.

The national media never showed up on his wife’s door step. But Morris represents the majority of miners in America who are killed on the job: They die alone. And when no one seemed to notice this pattern, along with the alarming number of deaths 2006 brought, a reporter from a small newspaper in West Virginia did.

The work that resulted from Ken Ward Jr., of the Charleston Gazette, won a medal last month from the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ annual contest. In the following Q&A, compiled from phone and e-mail interviews and edited for clarity, Ward gives an inside look at his investigation on mine safety.

What sparked the idea for your investigation?

I’ve covered mine safety on and off for quite a while here, and I had it in my mind that we’ve needed to do a broader sort of look at it. Then in January 2006, we had the Sago Mine disaster and the fire at Aracoma.

It seemed like the right time to give that issue a closer look. They both got a lot of national media attention and both happened in fairly close connection to each other, time wise. Then in May, another disaster — Kentucky Darby mine in eastern Kentucky — killed five miners.

What happened at Sago and Darby and Aracoma were very dramatic explosions. Fires … get a lot of attention because they make for very good television. As tragic as these things are, that isn’t the way most miners die. These [individual deaths] don’t get noticed as much. They just don’t get as much media attention.

I’d always had in my mind that we need to sit down and look at these accidents and see why they’re still happening. I was able to do that last year — to spend a lot of time examining death reports and databases — to find out what was causing these miners still to die 40 years after the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed in 1969, after the Farmington disaster. [The law was updated in 1977.]

How did you get access to the data you used?

Looking at fatality reports was just part of what I did, and that produced two lengthy stories: “One by One” — and the other — ” ‘This is what it’s like to die.’ “

MSHA [Mine Safety and Health Administration] posts the fatality reports on every death in every mine on its Web site. I downloaded and printed them off, and sat and read them for a couple weeks.

I looked at 1996 to 2005. Three hundred and twenty miners were killed during that period of time in something like 290 separate accidents. I read through all of those three times. One to get a feel, two to look for common trends to investigate further and three to build my own database.

MSHA has a data retrieval system — you can look up the inspection record of any individual — but you can only look at one mine at a time. I filed a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request and got the data that was behind the online look-up system. Then I put it on Microsoft Access and played with it for a while.

I looked at cases where miners were killed and how often those produced citations — and if the mine had violated some rule that led to the deaths, what kind of fines were paid. No one had done that before in terms of fatality cases.

What technical skills did you need to do that?

It’s just Microsoft Access. It’s not really heavy lifting computer-assisted reporting. I just used Access and Excel. I didn’t do a linear regression or any fancy stuff like that.

Where else did you look for information?

When Sago happened, I knew who to call. One of things I think reporters should understand that was helpful to me –I’ve always thought one of the first things editors should do when a new reporter walks into a newsroom is say, “Do you have a library card?” I love computers, but the libraries are really wonderful. The MSHA training academy is where they give training to miners from all over the country. They also have just a world-class library with information on coal-mining safety and issues. And the librarians there were just fabulous. The mine academy is in Beckley, W.Va., about an hour from me.

My office is just two blocks from the county library. One of the really valuable things I used was interlibrary loan. I was finding books and congressional-records information and history and all sorts of research, and the little Kanawha County Library got all those for me on interlibrary loan. I’ve always thought one of the first things editors should do when a new reporter walks into a newsroom is say, “Do you have a library card?”

Also, a lot of reporters don’t like to deal with lawyers. Or they think the legal system is too complicated for them. Lawyers who represent these families have tools reporters don’t have. They can subpoena people and documents. If you get immersed in the lawsuits, you get a lot better information from depositions and sworn statements. Matthew Adkins, the driver of the van in ” ‘This is what it’s like to die,’ ” was in a deposition — with that quote.

I always look for lawsuits that have stemmed from the things I’m writing about. Not to report about the lawsuit, but to find information I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

So you had a fellowship while you were investigating this?

Before the Sago Mine disaster happened, I already had a six-month Alicia Patterson Fellowship to cover coal-mining topics. I narrowed it after Sago to coal-mining safety.

Much of the work I did was funded from that fellowship. I was working out of my home from April 1 to the end of September. I still did some reporting on Sago and the aftermath for the newspaper, but I was working from home and spending most of my time on the longer, broader stories.

How much of the series was a result of the fellowship? Would you have been able to do the same kind of reporting without it?

The Gazette is very much a reporter’s newspaper. We’re a small newspaper in a small state, but there’s a long tradition of reporting here and of being a feisty newspaper. We’re family owned, and the people who run it believe in this type of reporting and give reporters the freedom to do it.

Without a doubt, if I hadn’t been on this fellowship, I would’ve spent a lot of my time on coal-mining safety last year. That’s a very difficult question to answer. It was nice to keep my own hours and concentrate on one thing, but I’ve also done that for projects before at the paper.

A few things I did get to do [because of the fellowship]. One of the IRE judges made a point of commenting on this — how small papers can have a big impact on an issue. One of the things I was able to do on this fellowship was travel around Appalachia — Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Alabama — to talk to coal miners there and talk to families who had lost coal miners there. That added a lot of weight to the stories.

That’s not the sort of thing the Gazette normally does — send people out to Kentucky or Alabama. We don’t do a lot of travel outside of the state. The fellowship helped in making it more of national story than just a West Virginia story.

To quote IRE, “Ward’s work illustrated the importance of mastering a subject through dogged beat reporting.” In what ways did it help that you’ve been covering the coal mining industry for years?

When Sago happened, we were doing stories on this that no one else had, and they were being picked up on by Journalists are forgetting about the value of being an expert on the issue …National Public Radio, The New York Times

I told my editors, now you know what I’m doing when I’m over there reading these government documents and not necessarily producing a story from it right away.

With a few exceptions, journalists are forgetting about the value of being an expert on the issue and having a reporter who specializes in things. The fact that I’d spent a lot of time trying to do a lot of these issues, I knew the backdrop of it, the people to call and where the documents were, and we were able to do more stories and better stories than anyone else had. It really shows why giving reporters time to do things besides [digging up] their next story is important. Developing sources on a beat and building up your Rolodex is really important as well. A lot of the documents we needed to report on Sago we already had sitting on the desk.

Do you think your paper is unique that it gives reporters the time and freedom to pursue deeper issues?

At national reporting conferences, I hear a lot of whining from reporters that is really unjustified. I think we as reporters really censor ourselves more than editors or publishers. I think that reporters make their own decisions sometimes, and I think they’re often poor decisions about what stories they’re going to pursue — spending too much time on little daily stories that don’t really mean that much or move an issue forward.

Reporters need to take ownership themselves on how they should cover their beat. Editors and publishers want to fill the paper with what people want to read, and good investigative stories are what people want to read.

What was your interaction with MSHA and other sources like?

MSHA and the U.S. Department of Labor as a whole in the years leading up to Sago, when the Bush administration took control, they moved people out who knew reporters and knew the issues and moved political appointees in who don’t necessarily understand the issues and view their jobs as answering to the secretary of labor in the White House and making the department look good.

MSHA did not talk to us or brief the press in general. They were running and hiding and trying not to answer any questions. They’ve become very combative about FOIA requests. I have had several pending for a few months now that they haven’t even responded to.

On the other hand, like many government agencies, there are many experts who really care about their job, and many of them were very helpful to me in working with stories. But the agency as a whole is being much more politicized, and you see that across the board with FEMA and EPA — where politics is playing a much bigger role than expertise in a field.

[Read more on this here.]

How did you turn the information into a story?

The Gazette‘s writing coach, Kate Long; my editor, Rob Byers; and I made a deliberate decision to smack people in the teeth with the way these guys die. It’s often very gruesome. But we just thought it was important to see how brutal it was. We had pictures of miners and their families so that people would have to see them. I think that that’s really, really important.

With the story on surface mining, we were fortunate enough that investigators took pictures as the truck sat on top of the van. They were pretty gruesome. There were two miners that died, and we just ran pictures of them, of themselves. With “One by One,” we ran a picture of Bud’s widow and little boy. Bud was killed just two months after his second son was born, and we published a photo of him holding the baby.

What was your readers’ reaction?

This has been a very important topic to our readers. Some people are happy we’ve done these sorts of stories and exposed what’s going on. I’ve had a few comments from people who thought the stories were too graphic with the way people died. The coal mining industry isn’t happy with these stories, and that came in letters to the editor. But none of them have claimed anything was wrong. They just didn’t like them.

The pieces evoke anger at MSHA, at the government, at the mine operators. As the reporter and writer, how did you handle your emotions?

The most difficult thing for me was that Bud Morris didn’t get to see his second son’s first birthday and that little boy won’t ever know his father. It is important in these sorts of stories to explain those things and not just make it a complicated story about mine safety — that these are people.

But some of the out-of-state media need to go to Sunday school and learn how to behave. Some of them think it’s OK to knock on people’s doors at all hours of the night and shove mics in people’s faces.

Some of what we’re most proud of at the Gazette — we really felt that our paper did not intrude on privacy and felt for what they were going through. My personal policy is I didn’t call [the victims' families]. They knew how to get in touch with the media, and if they wanted to talk, they knew people would listen. I didn’t go out of my way to try to bother them. I let the lawyers of the families know we were interested. Some folks wanted to talk and some didn’t.

It’s kind of a difference between the national media folks who parachute in to West Virginia. It doesn’t matter if people trust them, because they’re doing one story and moving on. But we live here and work here.

You say in “One by One” that no one seemed to notice a larger pattern was continuing — that more miners were dying in 2006 than in previous years. How did you discover that pattern?

I had read about what had happened to Bud … and his story was very compelling. Last year, 2005, was the safest year on record. Bud was the last miner to die on the safest year on record. No one paid any attention when he was killed. No CNN truck or anything. I thought it was a very compelling sort of thing. These miners, like Bud Morris, died alone.

It was already clear by April — and I started the project in April — that West Virginia had the most deaths in the mines for at least a decade. So it was already a bad year, and unfortunately that continued.

You weren’t there to witness the scenes you describe. How did you make sure the details were accurate?

A lot of that detail comes straight off the investigation reports — and they’re all online at www.msha.gov. If you scroll down on the left-hand side of the screen, you’ll see the fatalities year to date. These reports are a narrative of what happened. And they’re often very, very detailed. In a number of cases, I followed up with FOIA requests for interview-witnesses transcripts.

What approach did you use when talking with victims’ families?

It’s just a matter of listening to what they have to say. Usually the folks that want to talk have something to say, and just listening rather than trying to get them to say something that helps your story really works better.

What was your interaction like with your editors?

I work with Rob Byers, the paper’s city editor, and Greg Moore, the assistant city editor, and I went to college with both of them. So we’ve known each other a long time. They know my weaknesses, and I know theirs. From the Monday morning when Sago blew up, they’ve been very supportive on giving me the time to do these kinds of stories.

I actually didn’t go to Sago. I worked phones and worked databases. That’s one of the things our city editor did very well, is not to try to fit square pegs into a round hole. He knew the people he had to cover these things, and he let them do what they do well.

What advice do you have for people at smaller newspapers who want to do investigative pieces?

I guess my advice is to just do it. Go do the stories. Don’t sweat minor daily stories so much. Make a plan for a big project you want to do, and figure out all of the steps you need to take to make the story happen, and keep chipping away at it every day.

And I think that small papers are still a place this can happen. I run into folks at conferences who work at bigger places and probably make a lot more money than I do. But they don’t seem very happy — they complain about story quotas and rules that stories can’t be long, and have to have this or that in them. We don’t mess with any of that stuff. We just try to do good stories that matter to our readers, and that hold powerful interests — like the government and the coal industry — accountable for their actions. That’s what journalism is all about, in my opinion.

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