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Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition's Mountain Reporter Network

The Mountain Reporter Network illustrates the integration of the MJF’s vision of Community Media Collaborations (addressing media policy, accountability, or infrastructure within the context of a social justice issue or campaign) into an ambitious, long-term strategy that is as much an engagement with the existing media system as an attempt to bypass it. With objectives similar to those of THCC, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), in partnership with the Center for Rural Strategies, launched the Mountain Reporter Network. OVEC is “dedicated to the improvement and preservation of the environment through education, grassroots organizing and coalition building, leadership development and media outreach.” Active throughout West Virginia and portions of southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky, OVEC members address environmental concerns including clean air and water, the economic and environmental impacts of coal mining, sludge safety, alternative energy, and clean elections. In recent years, OVEC has become nationally recognized for education and organizing to halt mountaintop removal coal mining.31 OVEC’s partner, the Center for Rural Strategies, “seeks to improve economic and social conditions for communities in the countryside and around the world through the creative and innovative use of media and communications. By presenting accurate and compelling portraits of rural lives and cultures, we hope to deepen public debate and create a national environment in which positive change for rural communities can occur.”32

When ACF awarded a media justice grant to OVEC, the organization had been working on communication strategies for quite some time.33 The Progressive Technology Project provided OVEC with a camera and sound recording equipment, which were used in trainings to raise confidence levels of members as expert spokespeople. “We are constantly being asked by media to put them into contact with individuals,” said OVEC staff member Vivian Stockman. “We have a visually compelling story, an extensive list of traditional media and bloggers, and organize several events each year that draw media attention. When our organizers meet new people, if they have stories to tell, we encourage them to talk to the media.”34

With the grant from ACF, OVEC held eight training workshops with members and youth leaders on framing, messaging, and digital media production skills. The organization, according to its report to AFC, had identified a need to “make and distribute our own media . . . to take advantage of the increasing web-based communications that by-pass Big Media . . . and to produce our own radio actualities and film clips” for radio and TV stations. “We operate on the principle that social change can happen when ordinary citizens feel personally powerful and see themselves as agents of change . . . If people hear their neighbors on local radio or on the Internet, they understand both the importance of the issue and the power available to those who make their own media.”35

OVEC began exploring the use of new media technologies to provide coverage free of coal industry influence as an alternative to local media’s dependence on industry.36 Through the partnership with the Center for Rural Strategies, OVEC trained members in community and web-based radio and PlaceSto- ries, a digital storytelling and communications system, as part of their effort to develop the Mountain Reporter Network as an alternative, community-based media project.37 Community reporters, who have been trained as both spokes- people and citizen journalists, “become leaders, and they model leadership behavior to people they interview as well as to other members.”38 As OVEC’s Vivian Stockman admitted, “We’re having a harder time [building a Mountain Reporter Network with digital media than with traditional media] because of the digital divide.”39 In some counties where OVEC is active, there is no highspeed Internet access and not everyone has computers. After PlaceStories trainings, people are eager to create and share their stories but often need assistance to get them onto the network. Mimi Pickering, who led PlaceStories trainings, described a man who “stayed up all night to baby his computer while it downloaded the software” and who parks outside a fast-food restaurant to log on to their wireless network. He created a PlaceStory but was unable to upload it to the website.40

Stockman made virtually the same point as Susan McKay of THCC about what media justice means for their members and their issues. “It’s essential people be allowed to tell their own stories and be heard without a corporate lens,” Stockman said. “It’s empowering for people in the coalfields to hear their neighbors on NPR; the role model of speaking up enables the next person down the holler to speak up, to be affirmed that ‘what I’ve learned and gone through is real. I should be respected when I stand up and be heard. I count and my opinion counts.’”41

OVEC’s media strategy goes beyond individual affirmation. “The training deconstructs the media,” explained Pickering. “It enables people to become more engaged as activists and citizens.” Pickering described another community organization that recorded stories of people trying to continue their education while enrolled in a workfare program. “They brought the recorded stories to the state capitol and gave copies to legislators who were able to see constituents they’d never see otherwise. When the stories of affected people come to life, they can change policy.”42 Stockman and Pickering see the PlaceStories web platform and the digital stories as tools for community building and outreach, the building blocks of an online community of people of similar interests telling their stories to each other nationally and internationally. PlaceStories is “a way to get around corporate media gatekeepers.”43

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