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Digital project ‘100 Days in Appalachia’ takes closer look at Trump country


The Fairmont News

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It’s 3 p.m. Thursday on the fourth floor of West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media Innovation Center. A handful of modern millennial and some old-school media scholars crowd a pristine conference room. The clear, glass walls can’t contain the overflow of multiple voices mixed with clicking keyboards and beeping smartphones. It’s the weekly content discussion from the bulk of the team that runs WVU’s digital media’s “100 Days in Appalachia.”

Four members of the “100 Days in Appalachia” team, from left, David Smith, Dana Coester, Gina Francis and Dave Mistich, talk during a content meeting at the WVU Reed College of Media Innovation Center.
(Submitted photo)

The digital and social publication evolved from the international media’s obsession with Appalachia soon after the November election. Journalists wanted to understand why people in states like West Virginia overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump for president.

“We knew that there was a national appetite for all things from Trump country,” said Dana Coester, editor and creative director for “100 Days in Appalachia.” “The issues aren’t going anywhere; the appetite is not going anywhere; we’ve only just started hitting our stride.”

The effort, as Coester explained, was to create a digital content platform of feature articles, multimedia reports, creative imagery and social links that go beyond the stereotypical image of folks living and working in the 13 states that make up Appalachia. The collaborative team includes professors and students from the Reed College of Media, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and The Daily Yonder of The Center for Rural Strategies, headquartered in Kentucky.

“We’re trying to respond to decisions that are being made that are coming out of the administration and how that filters through Appalachia,” Coester said.

Those responses come in the form of multimedia stories from an array of community journalists, mainly from West Virginia, Kentucky and WVU students. Dave Mistich is an editor and contributor of the project. Previously, he worked as a reporter and digital editor for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, covering everything from elections to the West Virginia Legislature to breaking national news to local arts and culture.

“It’s a mix,” Mistich said. “It comes down to what fits and how we can get it, based on what’s available to us at that moment.”

Mistich and many contributing journalists write content larger media would never cover. For example, WVU’s Ogden Professor of Media Innovation, Nancy Andrews, who is the lead photographer for “100 days, 100 Voices,” a portrait series depicting the diversity of voices across Appalachia, recently traveled to McDowell County to tell the story of a West Virginia farmer. She teamed up with graduate student Justin Hayhurst.

“I cannot tell you the number of times I’m talking to someone who fits the national view of a Hillary voter and that person is a Trump supporter,” Andrews said. “People don’t fit into nice tidy boxes here.”

Mistich said the mission of “100 Days in Appalachia” can be encapsulated by asking one simple question: “Are we actually putting a spotlight on reality or are we trying to peel something back to understand something that is not being represented in big media?”

Andrews was quick to point out the effort is not a jab at the national media.

“We’re not saying people are not covering us fairly and accurately,” Andrews said.

The material the team continues to craft in the digital and social content arena can die quickly by a single keystroke from an impatient, fickle audience. Because “100 Days in Appalachia” is a purely online project, its success can only be measured by the analytic data of audience impressions, reach, likes, page views and engagement.

“The biggest number is the impressions on Facebook,” said Tyler Channell, “100 Days in Appalachia” web developer and multimedia producer. “That’s huge and is calculated every time someone is seeing it.”

Channell said the Facebook page is receiving about 27 likes per day. From December through March, total impressions had reached well over 11 million, he said.

“Most of the growth is organic,” Coester added. “All of what we do, nearly 75 percent of our time is in getting the story produced and published.”

Coester and the team said the only road to sustainable success is to build consistent social media growth. Gina Francis, “100 Days in Appalachia” general manager, said the team, including herself, is learning how effective social media content distribution is both a science and an art.

“I think what we’ve also discovered is different headlines produce different results,” Francis said. “It’s a science, and we’re still learning about what works on social and who does those posts. It’s definitely a work in progress.”

The name “100 Days” refers to the first 100 days of the Trump administration, but Coester and the team said the media platform will continue and potentially evolve beyond April 29.

“My job right now is resourcing this by figuring out ways for longevity, publishing partners, funding sources, monetization and funding opportunities,” Coester said. “I think we can do this for four years.”

Aside from tracking likes and keyboard clicks, it’s difficult to know whether “100 Days in Appalachia” is having a positive impact. However, Dave Smith, a multimedia producer who helps lead the audience development team, put the effort’s success into his own perspective.

“I don’t know how we are making a difference or even if we are making a difference,” Smith said. “But I think we’re making the effort to make that difference, and I think that matters.”

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