Ben Fields: The journalist and the coal miner (Opinion)

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Ben Fields

Ben Fields

A lot of people in the news media, especially here at the Gazette-Mail, get labeled as anti-coal or supporters of the “war on coal” or whatever the latest slogan is.

I can understand how some would see it that way. For a long time, our editorial page has championed moving the state’s economy away from depending on extraction industries, and a lot of reporting for years here and elsewhere has laid out the truths that coal demand is in decline, many major coal operators are filing for bankruptcy, fewer miners are working and the coal itself in this region just isn’t as abundant as it used to be. That doesn’t mean we’re unsympathetic to those whose livelihoods depend on the industry.

In fact, I can relate to coal miners in a way. Let me be clear, I’m not comparing my job to theirs. Mining is physically demanding and dangerous work. From mine explosions to workplace accidents to black lung, these folks take serious risks and make very real sacrifices to earn their check.

My job description couldn’t be any more different, but our paths do intersect at a certain point.

Even though the writing has been on the wall for a while, it has to be hard for miners to constantly hear talk of the need to diversify the economy and retrain them for other careers.

I’ve worked in newspapers since I graduated from college more than 20 years ago. I believe the work I do is valuable, and that work, along with my experience at this stage, is appreciated. At the same time, I work in an industry faced with its own economic challenges for a viable future, and it has been that way ever since I started. I wouldn’t want someone coming in here and telling me I need to learn how to do another job in a completely unrelated field, either, even though I’m well aware that could happen one day.

The late, great Mitch Hedberg used talk about how he had worked most of his life to become a successful stand-up comedian, and it’s all he wanted to do. But once he attained a certain status, the only path for advancement in Hollywood seemed to be in acting or screenwriting.

“They want me to do things that’s related to comedy, but not comedy. That’s not fair,” Hedberg said in his inimitable stoner delivery. “It’s as though if I was a cook, and I worked my ass off to become a good cook, they say, ‘All right, you’re a cook. Can you farm?’”

It’s something I don’t like to think about. I’m sure coal miners don’t enjoy pondering it, either. But looking the other way doesn’t freeze time.

At almost every newspaper, by rule and tradition, the people in the newsroom are insulated from the financial side of things, because dictating news coverage based on business interests is malpractice and a disservice to the reader. But journalists can’t help but be concerned about the financials these days. Newsrooms everywhere are getting smaller. The resources once at journalists’ disposal are now disposed, because times are tough and money is tight.

The major difference between a place like this and a coal operation, from a financial point of view, is that we don’t have to worry about running out of news. In addition, we can try to come up with new and innovative ways to get people interested in the services we provide. Some good examples here include the “Mountain State Morning” podcast and the revived FlipSide publication. Nonprofit partnerships also have produced some great and meaningful reporting for readers without sinking a publication’s budget.

There is hope, and there is reality. Maybe, sometime soon, the two will occupy the same space. I’m no coal miner, and I can’t cook or farm. I love what I do, and I like to think my colleagues and I will get to do it for a long time yet.

Ben Fields is the Gazette-Mail opinion editor. Reach him at 304-348-5129, or follow

@BenFieldsWV on Twitter.

Funerals for Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Adkins, Jason - Noon, Evans Funeral Home, Chapmanville.

Adkins, Joyce - 2 p.m., Noah White Cemetery, Bim. 

Anderson, Harold - 2 p.m., Rock Creek Community Church.

Bailes, Beatrice - 2 p.m., WV Memorial Gardens, Calvin.

Dotson, Sheila - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.

Dunlap, Richard - 1 p.m., Lively Cemetery, Sod.

Fahlgren, H. Smoot - 1:30 p.m., Mt. Olivet Cemetery; also streaming live, see obituary.

Griffith, Zachary - 1 p.m., streaming live, see obituary.

Harris Jr., Everette - 2 p.m., Sunset Memorial Park.

Pendry, James - 1 p.m., First Baptist Church, St. Albans.

Sneed Jr., Clifford - Noon, Cornerstone Community Church, Malden.

Tye, Catherine - 1 p.m., Wallace Funeral Home, Barboursville.

Williams, Glenna - 11 a.m., Williams Cemetery, Whitewater Road.

Womack, Timothy - 1 p.m., O’Dell Funeral Home, Montgomery.