Paul J. Nyden, a longtime Charleston Gazette investigative reporter who detailed coal industry abuses and government corruption, died Saturday after a short illness. He was 72.
Nyden defended the public’s interests by consistently taking on powerful state businesses and challenging political leaders across West Virginia. He exposed deadly safety violations, renegade strip-mining and unscrupulous tax scams in a career that spanned more than three decades.
Friends, former co-workers, sources and political observers remembered him as a man whose hard-hitting reporting was matched only by his kind personality and his love of entertaining stories and good jokes.
“Paul never labored for riches or title. He labored to bring sunshine to the dark little corners of political corruption and grime in order to make West Virginia a better place to raise a family,” said attorney Bruce Stanley, a longtime friend and sometimes source. “So, so many West Virginians are so much better off thanks to the hard work of this intelligent, caring human being.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., issued a statement that called Nyden “a giant at the Charleston Gazette” and said the “impact of his work was felt across West Virginia and Appalachia.”
“His relentless search for the truth and commitment to his craft set the bar for what responsible investigative journalism looks like,” Manchin said. “West Virginia is safer for our coal miners and healthier for our communities because of Paul’s work.”
Former Sen. Jay Rockefeller said Nyden “was that kind of tough reporter who cut his teeth when journalism was more about coffee and ink and deadlines than social media and 24-hour news.”
Rockefeller called Nyden “an institution at the Gazette” and said he “was a fighter with words for West Virginia, and a wonderful human being.”
Former Rep. Nick J. Rahall said Nyden “was always dogged in his determination to find out all sides of the story and get to the facts of a situation.”
Nyden, a native of New York, came to West Virginia in 1970 following the murder of United Mine Workers leader Jock Yablonski and became involved in the campaign being waged by the Miners for Democracy movement to reform the union.
He spent several years traveling the coalfields of West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and eastern Kentucky and eventually earned a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University in 1974.
His dissertation, “Miners for Democracy: Struggle in the Coalfields,” documented events in mining communities during that period — including the 1969 Farmington Disaster and the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood — and remains vital reading as coal communities are challenged by the ongoing decline of the mining industry.
While a student at Columbia, Nyden had been active in protests against the Vietnam War, and his belief in social and economic justice would frequently bring him into conflict with authority figures. For example, while a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh in 1975, Nyden successfully challenged in federal court an attempt by conservative university administrators to terminate his position.
Later, Nyden ended up in the Beckley area, where he took up journalism as a reporter for the now-defunct Gulf Times prior to being hired at the Gazette by the late W.E. “Ned” Chilton III, whose philosophy of “sustained outrage” journalism Nyden personified.
Longtime friend Pat McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor, said Nyden was a “brilliant scholar and teacher” and that he brought to investigative reporting in West Virginia “a deeply felt appreciation for the labor union movement and the struggles of working men and women for social justice.”
McGinley noted that among Nyden’s heroes were South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Chile’s assassinated President Salvador Allende and early American civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois — and that three of Nyden’s children have middle names taken from those men.
“His soul burned for human rights, racial and ethnic equality,” McGinley said. “He abhorred those who opted for war over peace, politics over integrity.”
Over the years, much of Nyden’s journalism focused on the coal industry, with stories that examined safety problems in the mines, environmental degradation from lax regulation and scandals about inadequate taxation of the state’s valuable coal reserves.
Nyden was also an early advocate of using the power of computers to inform his journalism, building databases of coal company contractors and owners that allowed him to track the industry, sometimes more closely than government regulators.
“His clear-eyed, insightful coverage of the coal industry over his entire career was focused on the people who did the hard work of mining the coal, their families and their communities,” said United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, who knew Nyden for 40 years. “He let others sing the praises of the bosses, the owners and how much money they made, for he knew the truth: The most precious resource in every mine is the miner, not the coal. He told the miners’ stories, and he told them exceptionally well.”
Cindy Rank, longtime mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, recalled that Nyden was writing about the environmental damage from mountaintop removal long before the subject became national news.
“His work and words were invaluable to those of us struggling to hold both industry and regulatory agencies accountable to mining law and to the communities and miners those laws are meant to protect,” Rank said. “His ability to unravel and explain the complexities of mining regulations, to expose the most egregious safety and environmental violations, and to shine a light on the political shenanigans and various schemes of industry held everyone’s feet to the fire.”
Around Charleston, Nyden was well known in several local watering holes, and while he was happy to debate politics, history or rap music with fellow patrons, he was just as likely to want to talk about baseball or books, or to tell and retell his favorite jokes, even if the listener found the latest one a bit crude. While seemingly fearless in print, Nyden was almost unwaveringly kind in person.
For many years, Nyden organized an annual birthday party for his wife, Sarah Sheets, for her birthday on St. Patrick’s Day. Guests frequently included a variety of government officials, including sitting governors and even recent targets of Nyden’s investigative reports.
“Paul Nyden had an extraordinary talent I’ve never seen in a reporter, before or since,” retired Gazette reporter and editor Patty Vandergrift Tompkins wrote in a Facebook post Saturday. “He could excoriate people in print one day and have them as guests at parties the next.”
In fact, that talent was clearly a key to some of Nyden’s most remarkable journalism.
For example, an award-winning series in the early 1990s about unsavory practices of large coal companies trying to hide liabilities through webs of contractors was built largely through discussions with several small coal operators who explained the system to Nyden.
And the public learned much about the misdeeds of the late Gov. Arch Moore when Nyden was able to convince Beckley coal operator Paul Kizer to tell the story of his interactions with Moore.
“Paul had many relationships in the coal industry and dealt very effectively with those relationships,” said Tom Galloway, who was then a public interest lawyer suing coal companies that were trying to dodge liabilities. “Those relationships allowed him to provide depth that no one else could.”
Galloway’s experience working with Nyden was a major driver behind the move by Galloway’s family foundation to help fund a new collection of fellowships to encourage young journalists who are starting work this month in Appalachia.
“If we could develop reporters who were half as good as Paul, we will have succeeded,” Galloway said.
While Nyden won dozens of journalism awards in his career, perhaps his most enduring professional legacy stems from his “Sunday Dinners,” weekly events at which he hosted young Gazette reporters, many of whom were living on their own for the first time and hungry for a home-cooked meal.
As word of his death spread Saturday, social media posts appeared from several generations of reporters who attended those gatherings.
“I was a regular at dinner in his home with his wife, Sarah, their kids and an extended cast of characters on most nights,” wrote Dave Davis, who worked at the Gazette in the mid-1980s and went on to a long career at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Paul loved West Virginia. He was a union guy. He was a great cook. He loved baseball. And he always had my back, even when I was wrong, which was often.”
“The world and West Virginia are better for Paul Nyden’s reporting, but I will remember him most for his generosity and encouragement to young reporters whom he welcomed into his home along with countless others for a meal every week for years,” wrote Lori Kersey, a current Gazette-Mail reporter and editor.
Gary Harki, another former Gazette reporter, now with the Virginian-Pilot, recalled those Sunday dinners as important both professionally and personally.
“Paul always had an open door for reporters,” Harki said. “It’s hard to tell how many were invited to Sunday-night dinners at his house over the decades. You’d sit around with his wife, Sarah, and the kids and a few others and talk about the news, work, life in general. Once you’ve been there a few times, you felt like you were a part of the family. There are reporters from coast to coast that I have met just once or not at all but feel connected to because I know we have sat at Paul’s table and listened to his stories.”
“Paul had a way of keeping you humble and laughing because he was always humble and laughing,” Harki said. “It didn’t matter who he knew, what he’d written or how smart he was, life was too short and too absurd to take things seriously for long. When someone you look up to is like that, it changes you. It makes you realize there’s really no reason to be a jerk. Just do the job, be as nice as you can to your colleagues and your sources and get the things done.”
Nyden was preceded in death by his parents, Paul Vincent Nyden and Ruth Alice Williams. He is survived by his wife, Sarah Sheets; his daughters, Carrie Mandela Nyden and Katharine Allende Nyden; his son, Christopher DuBois Nyden; a stepdaughter, Laura Steck Melton; and a brother, Phil Nyden.
Funeral arrangements are not yet finalized.