Friday, March 05, 2021

W.Va. supports nonprofit news site, suggesting business model based on philanthropy and rural readers can work

Ken Ward Jr., left, and most of his colleagues at Mountain State Spotlight, in a photo from its About page.

About a year ago, Ken Ward Jr. decided that his considerable and frequently proven talents as a reporter needed a better platform, so he followed his editor Greg Moore out the door of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and they soon co-founded with ProPublica a nonprofit news organization, Mountain State Spotlight, to serve one of the nation's most rural states.

Ward told the Knight Media Forum this week that he had tired of working in a newsroom that had many empty chairs and calculated the affordability of pursuing stories, and "I decided West Virginia needed something new, a new model." He got help from the American Journalism Project and Report for America, and now from West Virginians who appreciate accountability journalism.

"The community's out ahead of us about a need for a new model" for local news, he said. "They have caught on to the fact that this is the way they can get it, by supporting organizations such as Mountain State Spotlight." He said MSS has raised $150,000 from 800 contributors, including lawyers who represent Gov. Jim Justice's coal companies, long an object of Ward's accountability reporting, which he continues. 

Ward told The Rural Blog in an email, "What's been most moving - humbling, really - to me over the last year is the extent to which West Virginians have stepped up to support Mountain State Spotlight. It's great to have strong financial backing from national partners. That's key to our success so far. But when retired teachers from the Eastern Panhandle or little old ladies from Southern West Virginia send us a check for $15, with a note about how important the news is to them. Well, that's what gives our team energy and makes us realize how important what we're doing is."

He added, "People who rely on those small-town newspapers know what they are missing when they don't get enough information to know what's going on in their community. And all of us in the journalism community need to follow the lead of those readers. I'll say this, too: We're starting to hear back from those small town editors, those that are publishing our stuff, and they're telling us about stories in their communities that they know need covered, but that they don't have the resources to cover anymore. And they are asking to partner with us to get those stories done. And those collaborations back and forth will be a huge part of what saves local news."

Ward told the forum that Mountain State Spotlight offers its stories to every news outlet in West Virginia at no charge. "We've signed up about two dozen small weekly and daily papers . . . with total print circulation of about 60,000," he said. "We're giving them state-government coverage they couldn't get otherwise and it's increasing our audience around the state."

Mountain State Spotlight has broken stories such as Justice's manipulation of the state's pandemic map, flaws in the state's effort to feed out-of-work families and the financial implications of a bill to eliminate syringe exchanges established to fight the opioid epidemic.

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