Putting it in the paper

Years ago, I came across a list of snarky reasons why it’s great (and not so great) to be a journalist. If memory serves, one had to do with never feeling like you quite belong because you’re always on the outside, looking in. A related one had to do with not being taken seriously because you’re always writing about people who are in charge, without ever being in charge yourself.

Those feelings get amplified when covering an area like Hancock County. To have a small, insular community as your beat is to straddle a fine line between wanting to be friends with everybody and being an independent, neutral chronicler of life in that community. The minute you write something that people don’t like–I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “Don’t put that in the paper!”–you’re on the outs. So to keep the peace and maintain your sources, you’re tempted to look the other way. It’s only human to want to get along, but it doesn’t always serve the journalist’s purposes to be Mr. Congeniality.

Hancock County has all the good things that come with small-town, rural living. The people here have a history, which shows in the families that have built a life for themselves from one generation to the next. People know each other and watch out for their neighbor. There is the “Almost Heaven” beauty of the hills, the river and the quaint small towns. Residents watch parades on holidays, support their schools and participate in civic organizations. They take an interest in local government. In some ways, Hancock County is a throwback to a simpler time–something I’ve tried to capture in more than 1,800 stories over the past four years and eight months.

Driving on U.S. Route 30 from Ohio to Pennsylvania, Hancock County is easy to miss. It’s the smallest county in West Virginia and just a sliver as it pokes up into the Ohio River. That small geographic area belies the fact that there’s a lot happening here–if you look just a little below the surface:

* While there’s plenty of industry along the river–and more on the way in Chester–there’s virtually nothing in the way of recreation and entertainment opportunities. With all the talk of economic development, what would it take to develop a riverfront venue, say, in Chester or New Cumberland or Weirton, with a restaurant overlooking the river, perhaps with direct access for boats? It’s surprising to me that there’s nothing like this in Hancock County–or Columbiana County, for that matter–with all the communities on the river.

* Hancock County’s fortunes have been tied to horse racing and gambling for decades now. But the long-term value of Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort may be more in the land that it’s giving up than in the land it occupies. That surplus property will become more attractive once it has access to a public water source. Meanwhile, it’s telling that no announcements about development prospects have been made in the year since Mountaineer made the surplus land available for sale or lease.

* As municipalities come to terms with a declining revenue stream from racetrack video lottery and the ubiquitous video lottery cafes, there has been less willingness to acknowledge the social costs of legalized gambling. Does a small town like Chester, with a population of 2,551, really need 22 video lottery cafes? The Atlantic magazine’s lengthy look at the futility of machine gambling (“How Casinos Enable Gambling Addicts,” December 2016) might be a good place to start.

* On the subject of PR, the Hancock County Commission (including new Commissioner Paul Rex Cowey III) will have to find a way forward as the operator of the animal shelter–a way that is transparent, accountable and efficient–while minimizing the damage of the criticism from the HCAS Foundation and its supporters. If commissioners are waiting for the critics to go away, they may be in for a long wait.

The downside of communities as close-knit as Hancock County is the tendency toward provincialism and a circle-the-wagons mentality. But as long as there is the free flow of information, there is hope. “Give light,” said civil rights activist Ella Baker, “and the people will find their own way.”

(Stephen Huba covered Hancock County for The Review from 2012-16)