'I can’t really think of a more important job’ MacArthur Fellow says of staying in local news

Most Saturdays, Ken Ward Jr., his wife and son head to their local library.

Last weekend, when they walked into the main branch of the Kanawha County Public Library, two of the librarians ran over to give Ward big hugs. The day before, he was named a MacArthur Fellow, winning the “genius” grant that comes with a no-strings-attached $625,000. (You can’t apply for the fellowship, and the process of choosing the fellows is confidential.)

When you’re a local journalist, you’re part of the community, said Ward, an investigative reporter at the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette-Mail.

“In a small community,” he said, “if the librarians are fans, you’re probably doing something right.”

Ward shared that story when I asked him what advice he had for journalists just starting out. He didn’t want to discount anyone else’s career or life choices. But you can have a full career and a pretty great life in a small place, he said.

“Being part of a community like that is a whole other set of rewards that I think isn’t always the case when you’re working in a bigger place.”

Ward started at the Gazette-Mail, then just the Gazette, as an intern in the summer of 1989. The West Virginia native came back after graduating from West Virginia University in 1991 and has worked there ever since.

“It’s my home,” he said. “I can’t really think of a more important job for a journalist than to try to write stories that make their home a better place.”

The last year has shown Ward both the value and the obstacles of working at a local newspaper. In the spring of 2017, Ward’s colleague, Eric Eyre, won the paper its first Pulitzer for his coverage of the state’s opioid crisis.

In January of this year, the family-owned paper declared bankruptcy. In March, the paper sold to HD Media and layoffs followed, including editor Rob Byers. Now, Ward’s a MacArthur Fellow.

It’s been a painful time, but it also shows that the kind of work he and Eyre believe in, Ward said — the kind that asks hard questions of people and industries in power, and has tremendous value.

He’s currently working with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network through the end of the year, and it’s a partnership he’s excited about.

Ward is one of seven journalists chosen for the network’s first year, and he’s covering his state’s natural gas industry.

Thanks to the newsroom sale and layoffs, Ward feels like he lost some time from the partnership. Now, he’s trying to make the most of the time he has left. He also thinks the local/national partnership is a smart one.

“I think there’s a lot of learning that goes on both ways,” he said.

He’s said he’s also excited about the second year of Report for America. That project, which brings young journalists into local newsrooms in an Americorps model, launched in the region with a journalist in the Gazette-Mail. Some of the best things happening right now, he said, are coming from partnerships.

“There are, I hope, more people trying to figure this out than there are people throwing their hands in the air and giving up, or worse, thinking that just continuing to do the same thing is going to save us.”

Being a MacArthur Fellow is intimidating and scary, he said. He’s watched videos about current and former MacArthur fellows, and he said he’s realized that someone saw something in him and thought he was capable of doing something big.

“I feel a lot of responsibility to try and figure out exactly what that is,” he said, “and try to do it.”

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