The New Yorker Covers Media Woes in Coal Country, Interviews SEJer Bruggers

March 27, 2019 — "A year ago, the last Kentucky newspaper staffer dedicated to the environmental beat full-time left his job. He was not replaced."

James Bruggers

That staffer is SEJ's own James Bruggers, long-time member, former board member and president of the SEJ board.

Bruggers was the environmental reporter at Louisville’s Courier-Journal for almost two decades. He covered mining, air quality, water quality and environmental job hazards around Louisville and rural Kentucky. Over the years, Bruggers watched the C-J shrink — newsroom, circulation and staffers. In May 2018, he chose to make a move to InsideClimate News (ICN), where he covers the U.S. Southeast, part of ICN's National Environment Reporting Network.

The New Yorker's Charles Bethea interviewed Bruggers for his story, "Shrinking Newspapers and the Costs of Environmental Reporting in Coal Country," published March 26, 2019.

"A staff reporter focussed on the environment will have the ability to really dig into longer-term issues and develop their own reporting in a way that a freelancer — who is scrambling to get stories and assignments — may not be able to," SEJ's executive director Meaghan Parker told Bethea. What really hurts, she added, "is the loss of coverage of what's happening locally."

Part of Bruggers' job at InsideClimate News is to work toward finding solutions to the problems articulated in the Bethea's story, through ICN’s growing national environmental news network. Said Bruggers, "So far, I’ve been mentoring several journalists in the Southeast and we’re looking for collaborative projects with local and regional news outlets. I’ve been involved in two regional climate science and environmental journalism workshops." Contact James Bruggers via email or follow him @jbruggers.

Other SEJers have long reported on coal country. Ken Ward Jr., investigative journalist for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, was awarded a 2018 MacArthur Fellowship — a $625,000, five-year, no-strings-attached award — in recognition of his dedication to investigating corruption in the coal business.

"As somebody who has done a little bit of coal and environmental reporting in Appalachia, I find the account by @NewYorker a little unsatisfying," Ward tweeted. "As @JeffYoung8 has pointed out, the magazine doesn't want to dwell on any of the efforts that are being made to fill the holes. It also doesn't really suggest any solutions."

Lyndsey Gilpin, an SEJ board member, is founder and editor-in-chief of Southerly, an independent media organization about ecology, justice and culture in the American South. Currently based in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky, she has covered climate change, energy and environmental justice all over the U.S.

"The local journalism crisis in Appalachia and around the U.S. is real, and it's great to see local environmental reporters like James get long overdue credit for their work," said Gilpin. "But there's an incredible effort to fill the gaps, and important investigative journalism is happening in the region. West Virginia and Kentucky public radio stations have dedicated environmental reporters and programs; new media outlets like Southerly have launched to cover energy and climate change; ProPublica's Local Reporting Network and the Report for America program have funded several newspaper reporters who report on environmental issues; and local and regional news outlets, like the Ohio Valley Resource, are collaborating to support a rural journalism ecosystem."

"As Ward points out in his twitter thread, collaboration is critical. If environmental journalism is going to thrive, not just survive, we need to continue to find and expand ways to work together," said Parker. "SEJ's member network is a powerful tool for finding and forming collaborations at all levels. Our programs — such as our mentor program and the Freedom of Information Task Force — help environmental journalists learn from and advocate for each other, whether they are on staff or a freelancer. Only by working together will we navigate today's rocky waters."