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An uncommon story of how a town copes with a newspaper’s demise

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Less commonplace is the story of what happens to a community after a paper closes — and what is lost.

West Virginia reporter Leah Willingham, North Carolina-based photographer Chris Carlson and Ohio-based videographer Patrick Orsagos collaborated on an all-formats package on the closure of The Welch News, a weekly newspaper in the southern West Virginia coalfields, months after it shuttered in March. Here’s what they were told by Missy Nester, whose mother used The Welch News to teach her to read — and who ran it until it closed: “Our people here have nothing. Like, can any of y’all hear us out here screaming?”

When the paper closed, Willingham reached out to Nester to see if she’d be willing to be interviewed. Nester said she wasn’t ready to talk about it, but the two stayed in touch. Months later, Willingham, Carlson and Orsagos met her and Welch News editor Derek Tyson in Welch and conducted hours of interviews about their love of the paper, the community and their concerns about what Nester called “a crisis for democracy.” Nester declined to do any interviews with any other publications, putting her trust in the AP.

The AP team also spent days traveling the winding mountain roads of McDowell County speaking with residents in the historic coal mining community about their frustrations and grief over the loss of the paper. They detailed their struggle to access public information in a county lacking consistent cell service and internet, and the challenge of finding out about the deaths of friends and loved ones, utility rate increases and programs that provide meals to aging adults and school supplies for children.

The result was a nuanced portrait of a region of the U.S. that is often stereotyped and misunderstood — and a universal meditation on American localism as well.

The piece was the top story featured in the Poynter Report newsletter and featured on the Nieman Journalism Lab’s website. It was tweeted out by the Center for Local Media and Steven Waldman, chair of Rebuild Local News Coalition and a Report for America co-founder. AP’s social media postings of the story and its multimedia elements scored hundreds of thousands of views.

When the story was published, Nester tweeted the story, saying: “Never in all my … life did I imagine that the AP would help me find beauty in my sadness.”

For telling and showing the epic story of American journalism and community bonds on a postage-stamp-sized canvas, and showing dramatically why it matters, Leah Willingham, Patrick Orsagos and Chris Carlson win this week’s second Best of the Week citation.

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