October 4, 2018

Most years, one or two journalists are included amongst those chosen for a $625,000 “genius" grant.

This year, there’s just one, and he’s a local investigative reporter.

The Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette-Mail’s Ken Ward Jr. is part of the 2018 class of MacArthur Fellows. (Reminder: Those five-year “no-strings-attached” fellowships are nominated in a confidential process.)

“Ken Ward Jr. is an investigative journalist whose in-depth coverage of the coal, chemical and natural gas industries in West Virginia is exposing the true economic, social, and health impacts of industrial abuse on Appalachian residents and communities,” his bio on the MacArthur Foundation’s website reads. “As a staff writer for the Charleston Gazette-Mail for more than twenty-five years, Ward fearlessly reports on worker safety violations, environmental hazards, and corporate malfeasance of regional coal and chemical companies.”

Ward is also working with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network right now, which launched last year in seven newsrooms, offering reporters there the chance to partner with a ProPublica senior editor.

“This shows the importance and value of the kind of journalism I believe in, and that most of us have been trying to do for decades here,” Ward said in a piece for the Gazette-Mail.

And it comes as he and his colleagues continue covering their community as the newspaper industry shrinks. Last year, Ward’s colleague, Eric Eyre, won the paper its first Pulitzer for coverage of the pharmaceutical industry’s role in the opioid crisis. In January, the paper declared bankruptcy and was sold to a new owner. In March, the newsroom was hit with several layoffs, including editor Rob Byers.

Past genius grant recipients include New York Times Magazine’s Nikole Hannah-Jones in 2017, The New Yorker’s Sarah Stillman in 2016, and Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2015.

Ward isn’t the first local journalist to get the genius grant. Radio Bilingüe co-founder and director Hugo Morales was in the 1994 class of fellows. In 2009, the Clarion-Ledger’s Jerry Mitchell received the award. Mitchell, an investigative reporter who helped revive cold cases from the Civil Rights Era, also produced work that helped find a serial killer in 2016. 

“Do what you’ve been wanting to do,” Mitchell advised Ward. (He's still driving the car he bought with some of his fellowship money.)

The money is nice, he said.

“Save as much of it as you can.”

Mitchell is getting ready to launch the Mississippi Center for Investigative Journalism, which will work with the Ledger and other news outlets as a nonprofit newsroom. So far, he said, he’s raised $175,000.

Just a few local journalists have gotten the grants, he said, but we’re in a time when he sees increasing support for good journalism.

If you look at what the MacArthur Foundation is funding through the grants, he said, “I think they’ve made a very conscious effort to really make sure their money matters and that they’re sending it in the right direction.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story got the grant amount wrong. It's $625,000, not $635,000. We apologize for the mistake. It has been corrected. 

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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