Why the National Media Can’t Write Successfully About Appalachia

Devil Anse Hatfield Family
Devil Anse Hatfield Family, this photo was reportedly staged at the request of an out of state journalist

In the fall of 2013, I began writing stories about a place I spent most of the summers of my childhood and teenage years, the land of my nativity: The coalfields of Southern West Virginia.

The following spring, I launched Appalachian Magazine as a simple blog, expanding upon these topics and to my astonishment, the number of online subscribers jumped from ten to fifty, then to a hundred and then a thousand.

Though I love writing more than anything else, to put it bluntly, I stink at my passion!  I have no formal training in writing and my grammar is atrocious (which some of you have been gracious enough to email me about… [This is me sticking my tongue out at you!]).

Despite all of these setbacks, however, something incredible has happened: Over the last four years, my little blog has turned into a full-time job for my wife and me.

Today, Appalachian Magazine enjoys corporate partnerships, 105,000+ Facebook fans and a weekly readership of roughly a quarter-million.

How did this happen?  Why has Appalachian Magazine been so successful as a basement operation ran largely by one untrained rodeo clown?  How are we seeing readership numbers a lot of established and well staffed Appalachian-centered publications only dream of seeing?

I have wrestled with these questions many times and though I’m the last person who is qualified to be giving advice to anyone about writing, I think I may have it partly figured out.  We’re different.

The market is saturated with articles and publications talking about “Appalachia” and whether the writers pronounce it “App-ah-laysha” or “App-ah-latcha” it generally makes no difference, they’re all pretty much the exact same.

They’re either going to write about the region as being nothing more than a playground to camp, fish, hike, canoe or rock climb in or they’re going to write about the region as being a hellhole where the best and brightest leave and the staying remnant goes around town wearing red MAGA hats and struggles to purchase a gallon of milk.  That’s the approach nearly all writers (not all, but most) take when it comes to Appalachia.

I dare you to try to find an article written by a single national media outlet that features the word “Appalachia” but doesn’t include one of the three following words, “Trump”, “coal” or “poverty” in the article.

To the average writer, Appalachia is either a playground or a hellhole; which it is neither.  The more sophisticated writers attempt to base their articles from the premise of “Guess what!  There are also progressives, artisans and culinary master chefs living in the mountains, too!”  But this too is disingenuous and paints an inaccurate portrait of real life in the mountains of home.

The truth of the matter is this, Appalachia is a real place, filled with real people.  For millions, it is home. Some of these people are conservatives, some liberals, some artisans, some chefs, and others are simply no different than anyone else on the planet — desiring little more than to simply raise decent human beings who don’t grow up to be some of the crazy people you see featured each night on the news.

For centuries, the American media has attempted to turn Appalachia into a fishbowl for the Yankee elite and sophisticated Southerners to stand alongside each other and stare into as if it were some type of zoo exhibit.

These types of articles are a dime a dozen, but when the typical resident of this area sees it, they keep on scrolling.  To put it frankly, the average Appalachian resident couldn’t care less about someone turning tree bark into a culinary salad or why the coalfields have turned red in recent years.

The truly successful Appalachian writers, Homer Hickam, Sharyn McCrumb and others, have recognized this reality and when they write about home, they write about home.

They write about real life, real people and real Appalachian stories.  There is a market for this, but writing this way requires a degree in “Appalachian Upbringing”, which is not to be confused with Appalachian Studies.

Because of this requirement, very few in the national media are writing about our region properly, to put it simply, the overwhelming majority can’t because they’re not qualified to do so.  They’ve never pulled their time sitting in a gun shop alongside their father for hours as he and his buddies exchanged lies and recounted stories of long ago. They’ve never cried as a child over a bee sting and had Granny spit a wad of tobacco onto the stung area. They never experienced what Appalachia truly is.

Appalachia must first be felt, before it can ever be tell’t.

In the early days of Appalachian Magazine, I went through a stage where I thought I had to write like a Huffington Post journalist in order to be successful and I spent far too much time talking about poverty and McDowell County, West Virginia, than I should have. I regret these days and have come to realize that in order to be a successful Appalachian writer, this is the precise opposite of how one is supposed to write.

Lately, I find myself writing about my father’s pocketknife, reminiscing of snapping green beans with my granny, talking about church hymns we sang as a kid and pondering why the South has biscuits and the North has bagels… you know, the stuff that really matters in life!

If you’re a writer wishing to write about this region, there are some things you need to know: We’ve had our fill of articles that berate us as a people or attempt to pretend like the only thing to do here is eat $50 tree bark mixed into a grassy salad served by someone with a degree in Appalachian Culinary.  We’re so much more than all of this.

We’re real people who had some pretty incredible grandparents, life’s experiences and awesome childhoods.  Some of us voted R and others of us voted D in the past election.  Some of us live in tiny mobile homes and others of us live in large 3-story brick homes. Some of us have children who are addicts and others of us couldn’t recognize a marijuana plant if it was growing in our kitchen window sill. But none of these things define us.  What defines us are the memories that have molded us and the stories that are exclusively our own.

We are Appalachia and it’s time the world understands there’s so much more to us than what they’ve been reading.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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