Zen and the !@#Oof!* of Journalism Impact

Illustration from Rio Carnival Services.  Over a year ago DigiDave David Cohn) decided to revive the idea of a group of journalists getting together once a month to write in depth about the same topic, directed by a different host each time. Steve Outing, February carnival host publishes a roundup  with links to  posts by my fellow carnies. 


For the February Carnival of Journalism, our host Steve Outing asks,
What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead? And how do you see it playing out in terms of application by journalists, and impact?

The first definition of  "impact" in the dictionary is "collision" not "effect." 

When Steve raised his question,  I had visions of the Hadron Collider, of accelerating particles banging into each other at great speed "in hopes of grabbing a piece of the primordial fire, forces and particles that may have existed a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang," as physicist Dennis Overbye put it in the New York Times.

For particles substitute tweets and facebook posts and cell phone text messages and pictures and videos, all coming at journalists faster and faster. 

Rather than trying to predict the next killer app, let me give an example of how twitter has democratized the news, not during the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement, but earlier in time and closer to home.

Twitter and the Appalachian Winter of December 2008.

We've always had trouble in this region getting the news out except in the case of mining disasters where lots of folks die.  Right now, we're coming up on the fortieth anniversary of the Buffalo Creek flood.  125 died after the coal company turned down the sheriff's offer to warn people to get to higher ground when the rubble used to dam Buffalo Creek  started to fail to hold back 132 million gallons of  coal slurry.

Then in  Martin County Kentucky we had another sludge spill on October 11, 2000,  which dumped 300 million gallons. Somehow no one died.  As in 1972, the sheriff was taking orders from the coal company, this time deputies turned away media on the road leading  in to the flooded area.   Although there were reports in the Lexington and Martin County papers and on their websites (and in the New River Free Press, which I authored)  the New York Times waited to write about the spill  until Christmas Day that year.

You might not  recall reading about it.  After all, by then it wasn't really news.  Compare that to the coverage of 11 million tons of oil spilled in 1989 by the Exxon Valdez and the images that it still brings to mind.

How twitter changed things

December 22, 2008,  525.2 million gallons of coal ash sludge  at TVA's Kingston coal-fired power plant ruptured the dike of a 40-acre holding pond and covered 400 acres up to six feet deep, damaging 12 homes and wrecking a train.

This time new media and citizens in the area were able to amplify their reports by tweeting.  I remember, at first, the moderator on a coal list serve chastised me for posting the links.  Then, a story appeared in the New York Times by December 24.  The list moderator apologized.

There's the old saying about a tree falling in the forest and, of course, a lot of trees are still falling without the larger world hearing.  There are still plenty of stories that are important to tell, but which haven't accumulated enough quantum mass to reach a broad public.

SAMPLER:  A case of digital journalistic optimism

Like Steve, I'm a "digital optimist."  There are many emerging apps that journalists are embracing, as evidenced by those written about by my fellows in the Carnival and discussed this past week at the Knight Foundation's Media Learning Seminar. That's why I've started work on a new media alliance for our region:  SAMPLER--Southern Appalachian Media Project for Literacy on Environmental Renewal.

We plan to strengthen regional coverage by creating an alliance of  journalists and citizens to provide in-depth reporting on regional topics including sustainable development and transition from dependence on the mono-economy of coal mining, especially the destructive practice of mountaintop removal, as well as a mechanism to crowd source such efforts and critique coverage that is biased or stenographic. You can read more on SAMPLER here. You can make a tax deductible donation designated for SAMPLER to the Ohio Valley Environmental Coaltion at RAZOO..

With  SAMPLER, we're not waiting for the next killer app, although, should it arise, we'll figure out how to take advantage of it.  Rather, we're looking to
find new ways to convey information and news by using existing platforms and human networks.  You know, friends, neighbors, libraries, local citizens groups, email lists.  I'd say mobile phones, but we have lousy reception many places in Appalachia.

What the Big Bang theory means for digital journalism

Steve urges how it's important not be "caught blind-sided, again."   An older friend tells me she always remembers what Dear Abby, or perhaps Ann Landers,  advised when someone was afraid it was too late to pursue a new path:  time will pass whether you make changes or not.

The Big Bang Theory posits a universe starting  small, hot and dense, which has since expanded into something vast.  We're finite individuals and it's tempting to get overwhelmed   trying to figure out what's coming next.  In such vastness, though, there is also space to choose, room to chill.


Good Night, Irene

Dear Irene,

Was this picture taken in your office?  Maybe at home, but I'm guessing from the style of phone  it's at West Virginia Wesleyan. Frostburg used the photo for your reading in  September. Did you help them pick it out? It looks to me like a black and white version is used in part by the Intermountain in Elkins, so I'm guessing your family likes. So do I.

I did a little research and found out that you're holding a broadside of your poem, "Homage to Roy Orbison" which came out in 2009, after you published it Appalachian Heritage and in your fifth collection, Vivid Companion, in 2004.

Like Roy's, your
sense of form
shapes up this shard-filled life.

February 4 I wrote up a little piece telling folks the  news that you were gone.  Talbott Funeral says it will be receiving friends from four til nine tonight and it's already 3  p.m.  I could drive the four plus hours to Belington and still make it if I leave within an hour, but I haven't gotten any work done today, since I've spent the last four hours thinking on you.

I haven't got any work done and they're still blowing up our mountains, (Doh, of course nothing has miraculously changed since Saturday). I'm still looking for a community fund to apply for a Knight grant to  train more voices in our region  to tell their stories.  And  to interest the national press in better explaining what's going on.  Knight's  "live chat" for the grant is tomorrow at noon, just about when folks will be in the midst of the celebration of your life.  I could slip out, even though I don't own a laptop.  Google tells me the library over on Elliot is open all day and has net access computers.  I just liked  the library's page on facebook. 

I could drive the nine hours round trip, meet your family and friends.  Even walk around town and imagine your childhood.  Ask directions to the farm. But besides the grant, Dendron needs help stopping a new coal plant and in Giles they're still dumping ash on the banks of the New. And I've got pitches to write for The Guardian, which hasn't published me since December.

But you're a higher priority.

That song Leadbelly made famous  echoes in my mind.  Not the verses, mind you--the context is off--but the chorus:
Good night Irene
Good night Irene
Good night Irene
I'll see you in my dreams.
Makes me wonder what you thought of that song?  It's been recorded since by so many folks from The Weavers and Johnny Cash to  Michelle Shocked and Tom Waits.  Heck I was just now reading that even Raffi has a version.

I can't  ask you anymore in person--or in letters or facebook--unless I imagine your reply.  And that  isn't usually my nature.  Although it  would make an interesting writing prompt. The Gazette says they're burying you tomorrow.


And, even if I don't make the four-plus hour drive, I plan to sit shiva for at least the next week.  It's not as if  you were Jewish, nor am I close enough kin as it's usually defined.  But, that phrase comes to mind as an explanation: kindred spirits.

I thought about how I'd say we're connected, when I was searching images on Google to find a photograph to use at the top of this post. That word "connected" came to me when I found the photo at  a review of Jayne Anne Phillips Fast Lanes on Critical Mob.  It was tucked away on the tab labelled "connections," not the one marked "influences."

I can't claim that you influenced my writing. I hadn't read enough of you, even though West Virginia named you poet laureate years before we met in Charleston. I was off reading Bill Stafford, who doesn't write anything like me, except in the sense that all three of us were (and I am) writing from a set of common concerns, if not backgrounds.


Thanks to Vic, I'm listening to you reading three of  your poems from that October when I last saw you:
  • "Homage to Hazel Dickens"
  • "At 24"
  • "Sunday Morning, 1950"
I'll research later and try to add links to written versions or if I can't find any, I can check with your sister, Eileen Martin and see how to get permission to transcribe them here. But until then,  folks can listen here:

(I hadn't noticed when Vic posted it to his blog last April, but the West Virginia Book festival posted it in a remembrance. )


I'm also listening Llewellyn McKernan interview you at the West Virginia Writers Summer Conference:
  • your approach to how to start writing writing memoir, how she adapted her draft to write essays to be recorded on NPR and the feedback loop to the memoir
  • your  take on the status and history of the development of Appalachian literature from the times of Louise McNeill  and James Still, and
  •  your thoughts on writing process and teaching creative writing.

Just wish I had known about it before the Book Festival.  I might have asked you to continue the discussion, either when we were sitting on that bench together or during your reading when you asked for questions from the audience.


So, Irene, think of this as a wordy poem for you without line breaks.  Or NaNoWriMo by a poet and ten months early (Jeanne Larsen asked me Thursday night at Hollins, was I ever going to write a novel.)

Don't reckon I'll have more time to write you today.  I've been sitting here now, pushing aside other things.  And now it's been a good five hours and I've never even taken a break to get something to eat. The emergency Lemon Luna Bar from my purse is long gone. The last bit of  Lightlife organic Tempeh smells like it's  several days past turned.

So I don't reckon I'll have more time to write you today. But, if not, goodnight, Irene.  I'll hear you in my dreams.


Irene McKinney, ¡Presente!

Photo of of Irene (right), Denise Giardina and Jayne Anne Phillips at the 2010 West Virginia Book Festival accompanied Greg Moore's Charleston Gazette post:  "Live blog: Sunday at the West Virginia Book Festival."

This will be brief and I'll write more later.  I just wanted to let folks who loved Irene know, if they hadn't heard the sad news. The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine hasn't even posted the news yet at her bio, as I write this. The service is 11 a.m. Wednesday at Talbott Funeral Home in Belington,, WV (Barbour County), where Irene was born and grew up on her family's farm. That's about 2 1/2 hours from Charleston, 4 hours from here.

Phillips, who comes from Buckhannon, WV--where McKinney taught--told the Charleston Gazette,
She is a great loss to the state of West Virginia...She made West Virginia real, sensory and important in all its timeless variety, the land, farms, the people and animals, the rituals. She knew the meaning of home place.

I last saw Irene McKinney that Sunday in October 2010. Before her reading, she sat next to me on one of the benches in the cavernous Charleston Civic Center, talking about how excited she was to start a new low residency MFA Creative Writing Program at West Virginia Wesleyan and asked if I had any suggestions for faculty. I told her about Katie Fallon, whom I knew from her time at Virginia Tech. Irene's announcement followed the first week in November.

The program offers interested writers the opportunity to explore the connection between place and identity, focusing on their home area, one of the field study destinations, such as Ireland, or the Appalachian region itself. The program will officially launch in July, 2011 with a three-day literary festival, and the deadline for applications is March 1, 2011.

Irene was so approachable, so enthusiastic, treating folks as her equal. Outspoken and ironic, she often repeated the words which can be found penned in the introduction to the 2003 anthology "Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia."

I'm a hillbilly, a woman, and a poet, and I understood early on that nobody was going to listen to anything I had to say anyway, so I might as well just say what I want to.
Or in the poem "At 24",

"I don't know who I am, but you can't have me."

I had only met Irene once before, when I got to participate with her and Denise Giardiana as part of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition's West Virginia Writers MTR project. I already knew Denise from Hindman and Jeff Mann from VirginiaTech, as well as Chris Green and Edwina Pendarvis, who had edited an anthology that included one of my poems, as will as Diane Gillam Fisher, whom I had just met that March at the Appalachian Studies Association conference. The project was where I met Katie, Bob Henry Baber and Rob Merritt.

UPDATE 2/7/2012  Good Night, Irene