MORGANTOWN — The media usually covers the story. But the media — or rather, the ever-changing face of the media in this digital era — was the story at a recent day-long workshop at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media.
The June 9 event, organized and co-sponsored by the West Virginia Community Development Hub, brought together nearly 200 people to the Media Innovation Center. The ostensible topic was “New Story: Changing the Narrative in West Virginia.”
But the discussion ranged far afield. Does a crop of new positive-themed West Virginia web publications foretell a new direction for community-powered media? Can long-form, in-depth stories survive in the bite-size, short attention span era of the digital age? How can the stories of rural life outside central cities get better play?
And just what kinds of stories should media, in all their many multimedia forms these days, be telling about West Virginia?
“Many of you come from that industry and know we’ve got a few problems as well as some opportunities in this evolving digital era — experimenting in new forms of storytelling and new forms of audience engagement,” said Maryanne Reed, dean of the college.
Like it or not, the state’s media landscape is evolving rapidly, said Jake Lynch, director of network communications for the West Virginia Community Development Hub. “We can either be passive citizens, or we can find a way to be engaged in that.”
Jason Koegler is co-founder of weelunk.com, a Wheeling-oriented web publication devoted to — as it says on its “About” page — “making Wheeling a great place to live and work. As a website, our role is to provide people with an honest accounting of what’s current, and the tools, connections, and information they need to shape future happenings.”
In a panel discussion, Koegler, a 1993 Wheeling High School graduate who moved back to Wheeling from California in 2007, said he felt the traditional media were not covering many of the more positive things going on in the city and region.
“It seemed like something we could do is to create something that the traditional media at the time weren’t doing at all,” Koegler said.
Launched in 2014, weelunk.com uses a Wordpress template that is offered to other communities to create sister publications. These include Elkinite.com, focused on the Elkins region; Huntiful.com, focused on Huntington, MiBurg.com, focused on the Martinsburg region, and the upcoming launch of a New River Gorge-area web publication.
Weelunk’s other co-founder, Steve Novotney, is the only paid employee of the operation, as all the rest of the content is provided free by contributors. This can lead to burn out over time for unpaid contributors, as the publications work on turning a profit and move toward paying contributors someday.
Novotney, a prolific writer for Weelunk, also serves as a sort of circuit rider of content creation.
“I just heard that Martinsburg is about to burn out,” he said. “I’m going to reach out to them as soon as we get into the car to go home and schedule a trip there to give them a break. Because all I have to do is go for a weekend, and as long as I properly plan, I’ll get 10 stories. And then over the next two or three weeks, I’ll contribute those 10 stories to those folks so they can get re-energized.”
Whether such a model is sustainable over time is an ongoing question. Eventually, Koegler said, they hope to have enough ad sales and sponsorships to pay writers and to have all the sites funnel into a statewide site.
“That’s a No. 1 concern. We’ve got to raise the money.”
On another panel, David Mistich, digital editor for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, noted that when it comes to public broadcasting’s web presence “shorter stories do much better than really, really long-form things.
“Using digital techniques — bullet points, breaking up a story with subheads, a lot of photos up and down the story as well, works really, really well. I think also the idea of giving the audience something to play with that’s interactive that they can relate to their hometown.
“The trend is shorter attention spans in the audience. They’re not going to be on the page as long as they used to,” he said. “Also our audience isn’t coming directly to our homepage. They’re getting their news through Facebook, through Twitter, then using that as a jumping off point to other content either on our website or elsewhere.”
Mistich and other panelists also spoke of the significance of going in depth on serious topics, including a May 2015 public broadcasting series, “The Needle and the Damage Done: West Virginia’s Heroin Epidemic,” which featured a week’s worth of cross-platform radio and web coverage.
Documentarian and visual journalist Elaine McMillion Sheldon, who won a Peabody Award for her 2013 cutting-edge multimedia project focused on McDowell County, “Hollow” (hollowdocumentary.com), spoke up on behalf of long-form storytelling and delving into the non-sensational aspect of serious stories.
“We’ve been talking about this positive versus negative thing, and that’s OK,” she said. “But I don’t think that the two can’t go together many times.”
Asked what she was doing currently to “change the narrative” and what new stories she was working on, she outlined her new project inspired by West Virginia’s opioid epidemic.
“Right now, I am producing a film about four guys in recovery from heroin,” she said. “When I say I’m making a film about the opioid epidemic, I get a lot of eye rolls. And that’s unfortunate because I actually think these guys can teach everyone in this room a lot. They’re a lot like the state — they’ve hit rock bottom in a lot of ways, and they’ve seen a lot of hard times and now they are building themselves back up and becoming a new person.
“So, I hope that that story is one that will bring a different type of conversation around addiction and how we got ourselves into this problem. Let’s stop saying this is purely negative because when we say that’s a purely negative story, we’re quantifying those stories as unimportant, that we shouldn’t be telling those stories and those people already feel silenced. So let’s not do that.”
Mike Chalmers is editor of The Observer (wearetheobserver.com), a monthly print and online publication serving “Jefferson County, the Eastern Panhandle and beyond,” as its website notes.
“Unlike a lot of the conversation today with building out new concepts, we already had an existing concept — The Observer is a decade old,” Chalmers said. “We wanted to take something that already existed and turn it into something it was begging to become.”
They did a complete redesign and a community survey.
“I spent probably the better part of 12 months surveying the community and trying to get everyone’s feeling on what they wanted to hear about and what stories they wanted told,” he said.
In the digital age, Chalmers said, they wanted to create an online publication for long-term viability but also output a monthly print publication with old school values of storytelling and a clean design, he said.
“It’s the ultimate mobile device. It doesn’t need recharged. It wont give you cancer,” he joked.
As for brand new initiatives, Dean Reed gave a thumbnail description of a new collaborative project the College of Media is launching that is “very much about changing the narrative of West Virginia and Appalachia.”
The school’s partners include the Center for Rural Initiatives, West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the News Deeply franchise. It is developing a new digital publishing enterprise, which will experiment with new forms of storytelling, audience engagement and monetization, she said.
The project will feature “high-quality enterprise journalism that’s both produced by students and faculty and by other professional journalists, citizen journalists and thought leaders across the state and region,” she said.
“Our goal will be to provide a deep dive look into the problems affecting West Virginia and the region as well to explore the solutions that will help drive the region forward towards economic prosperity and well being — and I mean that in the broadest sense of the word.”
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at
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