Shrinking environmental news coverage and local staffing, with newspaper declines in Coal Country and elsewhere.

Shrinking environmental news coverage and local staffing, with newspaper declines in Coal Country and elsewhere.

A year ago, the last Kentucky newspaper staffer dedicated to the environmental beat full-time left his job. He was not replaced. By March 26, 2019

An abandoned mining operation in Harlan County, Kentucky, 2018.

Photograph by Ross Gordon / Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project

In 1952, American newspaper publishers ranked Louisville’s Courier-Journalas the fourth-most important paper in the nation, behind the Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the St. Louis Post Dispatch. By then, the C-J, as it’s known, was nearly a century old. It was founded in 1868, when two Louisville papers, one that had been opposed to slavery and one that had been in favor of it, merged. (A decade earlier, the papers’ editors had squared off in a duel. Both survived.) For a white-owned, Southern newspaper, the young C-Jwas relatively enlightened on issues of race, supporting improved schooling for blacks—though racial slurs and racist cartoons appeared in its pages. In its early days, news reporting wasn’t the paper’s strong suit. That began to change after it was bought, in 1918, by Robert Worth Bingham, a progressive judge who had married into an oil fortune and saw civic value in good journalism. After the Second World War, the C-J moved into a new Art Deco building downtown, and a quote from Bingham was engraved above the elevators in the lobby: “I have always regarded the newspapers owned by me as a public trust and have endeavored to conduct them as to render the greatest public service.” The paper has won ten Pulitzer Prizes, including the Public Service award, in 1967, for its “successful campaign to control the Kentucky strip mining industry, a notable advance in the national effort for the conservation of natural resources.”

James Bruggers kept a reprint of those 1967 stories on his desk at the office. “I just kept it there all the time because it was inspiration for me,” he told me recently. Bruggers, a gray-haired, ruddy-cheeked man in his early sixties, was the C-J’s environmental-beat reporter for nearly two decades. He wrote about mining, air quality, water quality, and environmental job hazards around Louisville and in rural parts of Kentucky. In 2015, he published a series of stories on a massive rural landfill that was fed by “trash trains” full of sewage sludge brought in from out of state; after his reporting, the practice was curtailed. The following year, he wrote about the hauling of radioactive fracking waste to a Kentucky landfill, prompting the approval of new regulations.

In his years at the paper, Bruggers saw the newsroom and the newspaper grow smaller and smaller. The C-J now has a weekday print circulation of around sixty thousand, down from more than two hundred thousand in 2006. (Kentucky has about four and a half million residents; three-quarters of a million people live in Louisville.) Last May, Bruggers left the C-J, to take a job at the Web site InsideClimate News. He was not replaced.

Judy Petersen, the former executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, was in frequent contact with Bruggers over the years. “We trusted Jim, and he trusted us for background,” she told me, adding, “We often got good coverage on critical issues.” She pointed to the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (orsanco), which, she said, has periodically looked at “loosening the bacteria standards for safely re-creating on the Ohio River,” which absorbs bacteria-rich overflow from more than a thousand sewers during heavy storms. Bruggers went to Louisville’s poorer west side and talked to people who fish along the riverbank to feed their families. “He asked, ‘Do you know about the mercury in the river that’s in the fish you’re taking home?’ ” Petersen recalled. They didn’t. “Jim was able to connect all these dots and tell the story of how we have to make sure we adhere to laws and keep protections in place,” Petersen said. “He really blew the story up.” orsanco dropped a proposal to loosen bacteria standards, in 2006, and Bruggers, Petersen said, was “a big part” of the reason. “He demonstrated how important local newspaper reporting is,” she said.

InsideClimate News won a Pulitzer for national reporting, in 2013, and has been a finalist in the Public Service category. But it reports on the country as a whole and does not, in Petersen’s view, have nearly the same impact as the C-Jin Kentucky. Even in its diminished state, the paper has a particular power where it’s published, Petersen said. “When you get a story above the fold in a major newspaper like the Courier-Journal, it typically has a big result,” she told me. “It gets picked up by other media outlets; governors notice it; orsancocommissioners notice it. People start asking questions. People turn out for public hearings.” She added, “When you just have a story on a Web platform, like the one Jim works for now, the reach isn’t the same at all.”

I asked Tom FitzGerald, the director of an influential nonprofit environmental-advocacy group called the Kentucky Resources Council, if he’d noticed any gaps lately in environmental reporting. “We no longer hear anything about environmental issues out west concerning the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and the massive contamination there,” he said, referring to a former uranium-enrichment facility. “In the east, we’ve stopped seeing any coverage of mountaintop removal, and of the squashing of the health-impacts study on mining that the Department of the Interior had authorized and that this Administration cancelled. More and more, local news of import is being drowned out by generic USA Today coverage—the idea that anything that is more than three paragraphs long is too much for people—and by the fact that, you know, you can basically hold up the entire newspaper and see right through it some days.”

USA Today is the flagship publication of the Gannett Company, which bought the C-J from the Bingham family, in 1986. At the time of the sale, the C-Jnewsroom had grown to more than three hundred employees. It now has around sixty. Gannett owns more than a hundred publications; as measured by the total circulation of its properties, it is one of the largest newspaper publishers in the country. Most of its media properties are struggling, and a New York hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, has been angling to purchase many of them. (Alden currently owns a seven-and-a-half-per-cent stake in Gannett.) Gannett’s profits sank by nearly two-thirds, from more than two hundred and eighty million dollars to ninety-seven million dollars, between 2014 and 2017. Last week, its stock jumped, after another hedge fund expressed confidence that Alden could pull off a hostile takeover of the company. (Gannett disputed the claim.) Alden’s strategy in purchasing Gannett, according to a recent report in the Washington Post, involves “efficiently buying, selling, leasing and redeveloping newspapers’ offices and printing plants.” The company has been called “a destroyer of newspapers.” Since Alden took over the Denver Post, in 2010, that paper has lost nearly half of its staff.

According to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by the University of North Carolina, some fourteen hundred American cities and towns have lost a newspaper during the past fifteen years. There are now more than a thousand communities in the United States that have no local news source whatsoever; recently, Facebook, which has sucked up much of the advertising money that once went to newspapers, acknowledged that it was struggling to find the local news that its users want to read, because, in many places, nobody is reporting that news. A recent study concluded that areas where local papers have disappeared are more likely to be politically polarized. In 2017, fellows at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism conducted a detailed study of attitudes toward the media in two Kentucky communities. They found that residents were more likely to trust local reporting than national reporting and less inclined to see it as politically motivated.

A month after Bruggers left the C-J, the paper got its third editor in four years: Richard A. Green, who also oversees smaller USA Today publications in the Midwest. I asked Green whether he planned to hire anyone to fill Bruggers’s shoes. He told me that he had recently hired an investigative reporter from another Gannett paper, and that the new hire’s responsibilities would “include environmental coverage,” with a focus on the coal industry, the Ohio River, and climate change. Maybe a quarter of the new reporter’s time would be devoted to environmental stories, Green said, “though we haven’t talked specifics much.” (“We’re going after our eleventh Pulitzer,” he added.) No one will cover the environmental beat full time.

A former C-J reporter, who spoke to me on background, lamented the recent changes at the paper. “The C-J used to have bureaus all over the state and in southern Indiana,” she said. “But they’ve retreated and pretty much cover only metro Louisville now. That leaves huge swaths of one of the poorest states in the country without the might of a major metro.” She went on, “That includes the coalfields in eastern Kentucky, some of the poorest places in America, with a long history of being exploited by coal companies who exported their wealth. They are still, and will always be, dealing with the environmental aftermath of mining, and there are fewer local reporters there paying attention.”

For now, the closest thing that the state of Kentucky has to a newspaper staffer on the environmental beat might be Bill Estep, a general-assignment reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader, the second-largest paper in the state, which has a daily circulation of about fifty thousand. The paper once had a half-dozen bureaus around the state but now has just one, in Frankfort. Estep covers southern and eastern Kentucky and occasionally reports environmental stories. He’s written about the reforesting of areas devastated by coal mining, the perils of oil and gas extraction, and flooding from local lakes. “But I only spend about ten per cent of my time on those,” Estep said recently. “I wish I could do more.”

I visited Estep, a fit man in his late fifties, with a graying goatee, at a tiny office he keeps in the Herald-Leader’s one-man Somerset “bureau,” a three-hundred-and-fifty-dollar-a-month room with a flickering fluorescent light, a thirty-five-year-old TV, and stained ceiling tiles. An empty entry room contains a single vacant desk. “When the circulation manager died of a heart attack about ten years ago, they didn’t replace him,” Estep said. “That’s where he sat.”

Estep had just published a piece on a school superintendent accused of having an inappropriate relationship with an employee. “It’s just catch-as-catch-can—if it pops up on your beat or if it’s in your area,” he said, of filing stories like that one. Estep often writes two stories a day in his attempt to cover an eighteen-county area. With the superintendent piece behind him, he turned his attention to a new report on coal-ash pollution in eastern Kentucky. “Here’s an environmental story I have time to do,” he said.

Estep has been at the Herald-Leader for thirty-four years, always as a reporter. “They’ve approached me a couple times about being an editor, but that’s not what’s fun,” he said. “Out here is what’s fun.” He grew up near Somerset, in Pulaski County, population sixty-six thousand, in the southern part of the state that was established toward the end of the eighteenth century. “There’s no real claim to fame for Somerset,” Estep said. “People who were coming to Nashville from eastern Kentucky just got tired of walking and stopped here, I guess.” The walls of his office are covered in maps of Kentucky, drawings by his kids, and mug shots of local criminals whose misbegotten careers he likes to follow. “It’s kind of a perverse thing,” he said, pointing at one of the mug shots. “This poor guy, I’ve seen him in three or four different ones, and he looks progressively worse every time.”

Like most overworked reporters, Estep doesn’t have much time to dwell on the bigger problems plaguing journalism as an industry. “You’re probably missing some stories,” he said, when I asked him about the consequences of a state lacking reporters on the environmental beat. Pressed further, he said, “If I were doing only environmental coverage, I’d focus on more big-picture stuff. Like, with the coal industry contracting, what does that mean in terms of the cleanup of old mining sites in eastern Kentucky? Is the money there to do those types of things? No one is covering that. But it would take, you know, digging through a lot of records. Doing a lot of interviews. And things are constantly popping up, which makes it hard to develop these stories.”

What else might Estep cover with more time? “I’ve been contacted by some people who say that there’s been a pretty significant increase in logging over the last few years in eastern Kentucky,” he said.

Kentucky is a conservative state—nearly twice as many people there voted for Donald Trump as for Hillary Clinton. The Republican Party has a supermajority in the state legislature, which was long controlled by Democrats, and the state has a Republican governor, as well. According to a compilation of state and local polls, only sixty-two per cent of Kentuckians believe that “global warming is happening,” a number eight points below the national average.

I asked Estep whether locals trust him or see him as just another peddler of “fake news.” “People here understand that I’m, you know, an objective reporter—or attempt to be,” Estep said. “And that what I do is not ‘fake.’ I think where I see more pushback is, you know, against the national media. People are either watching Fox News or MSNBC or CNN, and, I mean, they’re divided by those camps, just like a lot of the rest of the nation. But, with me, I’m just Bill, a guy they see around. It’s useful to be around.”

Estep’s e-mail dinged in the other room. His attention shifted. “If I owned the newspaper here, I’d have two environmental reporters, at least,” he said. “I’d have one really focussing on the coal industry and the outlying areas, and then one in the city of Lexington, because they have a lot of urban environmental issues there. But I don’t own a newspaper.”

Barry Bingham, Jr., owned a paper. He was the last of the Bingham-family publishers of the C-J. When he died, in 2006, his obituary ran in the C-J; in it, he was quoted expressing dismay about the shrinking size and influence of the paper that his family had sold twenty years before. “The Courier Journal is not what it used to be, but on the other hand, journalism in America is not what it used to be,” he said. Bruggers showed me an e-mail that Bingham sent him in 2003, complimenting his stories about air pollution, which he kept taped to his desk. “I have followed the pollution story here for over 40 years but I have never seen such a clear explanation before of the problems the city faces,” Bingham wrote.

During his tenure at the C-J, Bruggers watched the newsroom’s staff dwindle by some seventy-five per cent. Work spaces were vacated, then entire rooms. The room once occupied by a business department—several reporters and a couple of editors—became the home of a Ping-Pong table and some whiteboards, where staff would hold “meetings or brainstorm sessions,” Bruggers recalled. “Sometimes discussions about pending layoffs,” he added. “What was once the sports department became a work space for Gannett page designers who were helping to assemble other newspapers across the region.” As the paper did less, readers stopped relying on it as much. “We had a statewide mission and the staff that could handle it,” Bruggers told me, of his early years. “People would call from way out in the state and say, you know, ‘My neighbor just put up these chicken barns and the flies are terrible.’ They’d call with some sort of environmental complaint like that. We had the bandwidth to look into those. Then the staff got smaller and smaller, the bandwidth shrinks, and, eventually, the people stop calling, because you can’t help them. You didn’t help them the last time.”

Though Bruggers’s decision to leave the paper was his own—InsideClimate News was “just, like, too bright of a light bulb for me to not go towards,” he said—there was “some stress” about whether he would have been kept around at the C-J, he told me. “I’d like to think that, if I’d stayed, I would still be there,” he said. “But, you know, when you have that kind of a drop in staffing, one never knows at what point you get caught up in a buyout or you get laid off or something.”

The Society of Environmental Journalists, North America’s largest membership association for journalists who cover energy and the environment, has kept track of the employment status of its members since it was founded, in 1990. The number who identify as “working for newspapers” has declined to a hundred and seventy, about half of what it was thirty years ago, Meaghan Parker, the S.E.J.’s executive director, told me. Freelancers have picked up some of the slack—total S.E.J .membership is now a little over fourteen hundred, more than twice its original number. But, in Parker’s view, some important things are lost in the transfer of reporting from newspaper staffers to freelance journalists. “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,” Parker told me. What really hurts, she added, “is the loss of coverage of what’s happening locally.”

“The C-J’s absence on the coal beat has showed lately,” Al Cross told me. Cross left the paper in 2004, after more than twenty-five years as a staff reporter, to become director of the Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues, in Lexington. He is also a professor at the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Media. Cross detailed highlights from the C-J’s years of reporting on the coal industry, from the Scotia mine disasters, in 1976, to a series from the late nineties on mine safety which, Cross said, “should have gotten some action out of the Clinton Administration but didn’t.” Then he described to me recent “revelations that black-lung disease in central Appalachia is increasing, apparently caused by the mining of thinner seams that require the cutting of more sandstone, putting silica dust into miners’ lungs.” Those revelations were published, in December, by the PBS investigative series Frontline, after a multiyear investigation by the journalist Howard Berkes, formerly of NPR. (Berkes has since retired.) According to the piece, federal regulators ignored data pointing to an outbreak of the disease, which, as a pulmonologist who spoke to Berkes put it, feels like “suffocating while alive.” Health experts say the failed federal response cost lives. Last week, the Associated Press reported that “a tax on coal that helps pay for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was cut sharply Jan. 1 and never restored, potentially saving coal operators hundreds of millions of dollars a year.” The story noted that both President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, have received large financial contributions from the coal industry.

Cross now follows Bruggers’s work at InsideClimate News, and he pointed to a series on the lobbying power of the Farm Bureau as “something that the C-Jprobably would have done in the last fifteen years if its Frankfort bureau had not been largely destroyed.”

Other outlets are trying to fill the gaps. Estep noted the arrival of Will Wright, a young Herald-Leader general-assignment reporter based in eastern Kentucky who is partially funded by the public-service program Report for America, which works to place early-career journalists with local news organizations. (In January, Facebook announced that it was donating two million dollars to the program.) Tom FitzGerald pointed to increasingly strong local radio coverage of environmental stories—a Whitesburg radio station, WMMT, puts out a weekly “coal report” and recently did a piece called “Widows of Miners with Black Lung.” But, he added, “Nobody is able to do the in-depth work that used to be done.”

As for what other big environmental stories are being missed, folks in Kentucky often couldn’t say. “It’s hard to know what you don’t know,” FitzGerald said.

Recently, as Lee Mueller slept in his family home, in Martin County, among the coalfields of far eastern Kentucky, there was, as he put it, a “tremendous rainstorm.” Mueller is a seventy-seven-year-old retired Herald-Leader reporter who worked at the paper from 1980 to 2007. He had a number of beats; he once interviewed the humorist P. G. Wodehouse on Long Island. (Even though he’d gone to see him in person, Mueller recalled, Wodehouse “still insisted I type my questions and allow him to type his responses.”) He often wrote about environmental issues.

Mueller found the rainstorm startling. “This thing came through in the night and caused the damnedest flash flood we’ve had and just about washed my bridge out,” he said, referring to a seventy-foot, four-inch-thick concrete bridge that the Mueller family built on their property. “It swept across the creek bottoms and hollows where my grandfather used to work his sons like slaves, hauling coal with mules,” he said.

In all the years they’ve been there, as far as Mueller can recall, no weather event ever caused a real change in the topography or features of the land. “But this rain the other night, it nearly took out my bridge and my eighty-three-year-old log barn that my uncles built,” he said. “It filled up the branch with rocks and debris, to a point where it’s almost level with my yard.” The cause, he went on, was a significant increase in local logging. “Since the decline of the coal market, logging has been booming here,” Mueller explained. “There’s more logging trucks than cars out here on the roads. They’ve pretty much clear-cut the hillsides six miles up this creek drainage. All this brush and logs and scrap debris from the logging operation came roaring down the creek and did this damage,” he said. “And who’s writing about it?”

It wasn’t just logging that concerned him. Mueller mentioned the area’s poor water quality, which he compared to Flint, Michigan’s, and noted the misuse of coal-related tax dollars. “The future looks really bleak for the kids growing up here, and the papers aren’t on top of it,” he said. A few days later, Mueller told me, he’d be attending a going-away party for “eight of our better and best” at the Herald-Leader. They are taking buyouts and leaving, he said.

Charles Bethea is a staff writer at The New Yorker.