Exploring a Different Side of Appalachia: A Conversation with Jake Lynch
The rise of Donald Trump has sparked a strong interest in Appalachia among the national media. Much of this attention has been welcome, but it’s also generated pushback from some who are frustrated with media coverage that they see as focused only on a narrow set of narratives and issues. 100 Days in Appalachia, a collaboration of West Virginia University, West Virginia Public Broadcasting and The Daily Yonder, is looking to help fill this gap offering up a more diverse set of perspectives on the region. Spotlight recently spoke with Jake Lynch, Community Engagement Editor for 100 Days, about the work of the project, his journalistic philosophy, and strategies for local newsrooms to better engage their community members and cover low-income issues. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What is 100 Days in Appalachia and how did it get started?
It was started right around the time of Trump’s election. The region was being pigeonholed by the media as just “Trump country.” There were a lot of critical issues that were being overlooked.
The initial goal was to chronicle the first 100 days of the Trump administration and it grew legs from there. We’ve built a number of partnerships with major news media organizations, with the goal of taking a locally-produced story and giving it a national or international audience.
What topics are you exploring?
It’s really broad and we’re looking to make it even broader. In this still early phase, a lot of the work is being guided by the journalistic talents on staff.
I was given the task of exploring issues beyond Trump and opioids. We want to listen to the communities rather than just decide the narrative for them.
The goal of this work has been to get the country to understand that Appalachia, like America, is a place affected by a really diverse set of issues that can’t be condensed down to Democrats versus Republicans.
Your title is community engagement editor? What does community engagement look like in this context?
Throughout my career I’ve always been more focused on being able to talk to different kinds of people as opposed to getting too caught up in journalist protocols. That’s true for this as well.
I’m working to address the erosion that has occurred between communities and local news organizations and trying to find creative ways to rebuild those relationships.
For instance, through 100 Days I’ve worked on a project in Ensley, Alabama that offers residents a medium to ask local reporters questions they had about their community. It provides a bridge for citizens to engage directly with the media and the media to learn about the needs of their community. You can do this without increasing staff capacity and it’s very replicable.
You were also just doing a project interviewing Pennsylvania families at Little League games. Tell us a bit more about that?
With typical engagement strategies, you’re self-selecting a very minor portion of the community—the people who have time to come. I was interested in upending that without a significant expenditure of time and money. In rural communities in Appalachia, the idea is to find people who were coming to a space without any preconceived political, social, or civic idea. Little League was one that just made a lot of sense to us. The questions we asked weren’t used for reporting immediately, it was just about chatting and getting to know each other. That’s not a place you expect to see a reporter who wants to buy you an ice cream and just talk.
I’m interested in trying to do other things like this. For instance, in rural West Virginia, the one ubiquitous community gathering place is the Dollar General stores. I’d love to find a way to use these community hubs as a listening post and as a place for back and forth with the community.
Do you have any big takeaways or principles that you see as important for interacting with rural or low-income communities?
Simplicity is the big one. There can be a lot of bells and whistles in engagement work and presentation of stories. Sometimes it can confuse people. Simplicity looks like once a week, getting out of your office and sitting in a diner you’ve never sat in. Put up a sign saying I’m a reporter and I’d love you to come and talk. And do your best to utilize existing infrastructure in terms of how people are used to seeing and accessing information.
Jake Lynch is Community Engagement Editor at 100 Days in Appalachia.