W.Va. reporter Ken Ward wins ‘genius’ award

Source: Dylan Brown, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, October 5, 2018

West Virginia investigative reporter Ken Ward Jr. won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant today for his work covering the coal, natural gas and chemical industries in his home state.

Ward, a staff writer for The Charleston Gazette-Mail, will receive $625,000 over five years as one of this year’s 25 MacArthur fellows.

Since graduating from West Virginia University in 1991, Ward, 50, has doggedly reported on corporate environmental wrongdoing.

Writing with a late publisher’s mantra, “sustained outrage,” in mind, he has earned more than his fair share of enemies in the energy-dominated state.

“Part of the job of a journalist, and the kind of journalism that I want to do, is to expose those kinds of difficult truths so that people can try to confront them,” he said in a video for MacArthur.

Ward has won awards covering major events like the 2014 Kanawha Valley water crisis, but his reporting tends to be detailed, systemic investigations of the industries he covers.

After the 2006 Sago mine disaster killed a dozen West Virginia miners, he wrote about how most mining fatalities happen one by one and are generally the fault of companies not following safety laws.

Last year, Ward became a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. In collaboration with the nonprofit news group, he has written several large stories on natural gas, the latest industry promising West Virginia prosperity.

“Our history with coal is that it didn’t work out exactly that way, so we need to be careful going forward,” Ward said, “and I’m trying to write stories that help people understand that.”

Floored by his still-anonymous nomination, Ward plans to keep working for the Gazette-Mail. The “no-strings-attached” money brings his family financial stability, but Ward told his newspaper, which laid off staff this year, that he feels a responsibility to explore ways to help his struggling industry.

“It seems very clear that this is not a lifetime achievement award,” Ward told the Gazette-Mail.

“What is it that these people saw in me that they think I can somehow go and do to make life better for people in West Virginia? I gotta figure out what that is and go do it.”