Early this year, before we thought much of masks, quarantines and vaccines, three veteran journalists were preparing for life after the newspaper.
Greg Moore, Ken Ward Jr. and Eric Eyre each spent more than 20 years at the (Charleston, West Virginia) Gazette-Mail. On Feb. 20, Moore’s position as editor was eliminated. Ken Ward Jr., an investigative journalist and 2018 McArthur Fellow, went into the newsroom that weekend and cleared out 30 years of stuff. Unopened boxes now sit stacked in the spare room in his house. He quit the following Monday. And Eyre, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his work exposing Big Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis, left a little more than a month later.
Today — mid-pandemic, pre-election, with a few decades’ experience with investigative reporting and a few months’ experience with the business of journalism — they’re launching a newsroom with a staff of eight.
“Things are chaotic out there,” said Moore, co-founder, executive editor and CEO. (“I still cringe a little bit every time I say that,” he said of his title, “but that’s what it is.”)
Add to that chaos the unhealthy state of investigative and in-depth reporting in West Virginia, and “it’s a great time to be up to no good in this region,” Moore said. “We see the need there, and we plan to fill it.”
The three veteran journalists have been talking about what’s become Mountain State Spotlight for years. For most of those years, however, they envisioned it living inside the Gazette-Mail. That newsroom, a product of two merged newsrooms, declared bankruptcy, got a new owner, and was starting to make progress building digital audiences. They hoped to build an investigative hub fueled by the “sustained outrage” former publisher W.E. Chilton III championed. And they figured it could eventually transition to a nonprofit to insulate it from the sustained decline of local newspapers.
The day Moore was let go, Ward said, was a signal that the structural changes happening at the paper meant it wouldn’t be the kind of place that could support the work the three envisioned. Ward, whose work has included covering the impact of coal mining, was funded by ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He reached out to ProPublica, then Report for America and the American Journalism Project.
By the end of March, The New York Times’ Ben Smith reported on the creation of a new, then-unnamed newsroom.
For all it takes to get money, support, talent and buzz for the launch of a new newsroom, Mountain State Spotlight happened pretty fast. And, again, at the start of the pandemic.
That’s meant that until recently, the team hasn’t met in person, and then, only for a photo shoot, masks on, space between them. There’s no physical newsroom yet. They have support from Report for America with four reporters, a partnership with ProPublica and financial and business support from the American Journalism Project. AJP provided $125,000 in funding and will match local donations over $10,000 through the end of the month. ProPublica pays Ward’s salary.
“Ken, Greg and I, we really know how to do the journalism part,” said Eyre.
But what about the business side of running a newsroom, like reimbursing reporters for mileage or figuring out budgets and salaries or the big stuff, like fundraising?
When reporters needed a printer/scanner, Eyre said, “I just ordered one myself on Amazon and had it sent to one of their houses.”
AJP is helping the co-founders figure those details out, plus how to build local philanthropic support, which they’ll have to do to keep running.
“I can’t say enough about the way those national figures in this movement to save journalism have tried to help West Virginia,” Ward said. “It’s really on us now.”
The goal, Moore said, is to give West Virginia the kind of watchdog journalism it needs and deserves while building a sustainable nonprofit newsroom that serves the state, particularly underserved communities.
“We want to diversify our newsroom, to help us report on communities whose voices have traditionally been underrepresented,” Moore said. “One of the ways we do that is to make Mountain State Spotlight a successful and sustainable operation that people will want to work for. That is one of our priorities.”
All three still have friends at the Gazette-Mail and believe a healthy local newspaper is good for their community. They’re focusing on longer-term investigative work around public health, poverty, business, government and politics. Mountain State Spotlight has made listening to the community a fundamental part of how they work, Moore said, starting with a community needs assessment.
The pandemic has made the launch of a new newsroom tough. So has the economy, Moore said, and the issues facing legacy media make investigative reporting even harder.
“But at the same time, partly because of all those things, it’s hard to imagine a moment when people in general and West Virginia in particular need strong accountability journalism more than they need it now, and that’s what we’re doing here.”
Correction: ProPublica pays Ward’s salary. An earlier version of this story got that wrong. It has been corrected. We apologize for the error.
This piece originally ran in Local Edition, our weekly newsletter. Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here. Kristen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.