I started this blog at the end of 2018 to promote Moundsville, the PBS film that Dave Bernabo and I had researched and shot in Moundsville, WV, in 2017-2018. For all of us storytellers, this is a time to experiment with different kinds of writing, reporting, and publishing. For three years, I’ve been writing a couple pieces a month, and slowly have picked up an audience. Not a Joe Rogan audience, but enough people that I couldn’t possibly keep track of all of them. In 2021, for the first time, we cracked 100,000 views.
I’m under no illusion about the limits of writing about a small town for a one-person website with no corporate support and no marketing budget, but I think it means something when people start paying attention. The Moundsville Blog attracted 79,097 unique visitors in 2021, smashing numbers of 2019 and 2020. That means an average of 217 different people a day read essays about the history of pizza in America, prison baseball, the Mother of the Civil War, Night of the Hunter, and a hundred other topics covered here. Also: We got clicks from 144 countries, including in Burundi, Gibraltar, and Swaziland.
I think what the growing readership for this space signals is that there is immense appetite for fresh content about places that the journalistic ecosystem is losing track of. People want stories. Lots of stories. All kinds of stories.
Not surprisingly, clickbait-type stuff, like anything about Lady Gaga and Brad Paisley, pulls in the most readers. Trite? Maybe there’s actually a lesson there for the new wave of nonprofit newsrooms that a high-low context strategy, à la Vanity Fair or Daily Beast, might be a smart way to build an audience for its more serious journalism.
Here are the top overall 10 posts from 2021 (a bar on the left indicates the piece was published for the first time in 2021):
- DOWNRIVER FROM THE MOUNDSVILLE PRISON GRAVEYARD: People love Phoebe Bridgers’ rendition of “You Broke My Heart”, which includes the lyric “Downriver from the Moundsville prison graveyard”, so I contacted the writer of the song Mark Kozelek, and wrote a piece about it.
- “PICK YOURSELF UP” – LADY GAGA’S WEST VIRGINIA ROOTS AND HER GRANDMA’S INSPIRING WORDS THAT HELPED MAKE A STAR: People love this story about a woman named Cynthia Bissett, who grew up around Moundsville, and then moved to New York City, where she gave birth to a girl named Stephanie, aka Lady Gaga. She still visits her grandmother in the Moundsville area.
- DEATH OF AN APPALACHIAN JUSTICE WARRIOR: My friend Michael Iafrate died in May. Michael was a Catholic activist who scorned niceties when it came to theology. “If your interpretation of the gospel doesn’t include you smashing some structure,” he once said. “It’s idolatrous bullshit.”
- ‘TAJ MAHAL OF APPALACHIA’ — WEST VIRGINIA’S HARE KRISHNA TEMPLE NAMED TO NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES HAS CRAZY, FASCINATING HISTORY– KNOWN FOR DRUGS AND MURDER IN 1980S: The Palace of Gold at New Vrindaban, a few miles outside Moundsville, is a Krishna community that in the 1980s was the scene of a violent drug ring.
- LADY GAGA IN TALKS TO PLAY 4TH OF JULY ON TOP OF MOUND: This was the first April Fools joke on the blog. Lady Gaga, did not, in fact, play a 4th of July show on the top of the Grave Creek Mound.
- WEST VIRGINIA’S FORGOTTEN FIGHT: TO BE OR NOT TO BE THE ‘SWITZERLAND OF AMERICA’: A century ago, West Virginia debated how to market itself. One idea: Call it the “Switzerland of America.” But that didn’t go over well with some. Why shouldn’t West Virginia simply be the “West Virginia of America?”
- THE TRUE STORY OF WEST VIRGINIA’S 1863 (BOURGEOIS) REVOLUTION AND BIRTH: The state has a surprisingly pro-business origin story. As a new book shows, it was industrialists in Wheeling who led the break with the slavery-based plantation economy.
- NATIONAL FAMILY ANTHEM: LADY GAGA’S GRANDPA WAS A WEST VIRGINIA CROONER — MANCHIN GRABS GAGA SELFIE: Lady Gaga sang the national anthem at Joe Biden’s inauguration. Joe Manchin wanted a selfie.
- BRAD PAISLEY IS THE PROUDEST WEST VIRGINIAN — COUNTRY STAR SHARES STATE, SMALL TOWN ROOTS WITH LADY GAGA — PUTTING WV ON EVERYTHING: “PITT FANS AREN’T HAPPY”: Glen Dale, Moundsville’s twin town, is the hometown of country music legend Brad Paisley.
- THE SECRET HISTORY OF UNDER ARMOUR IN MOUNDSVILLE: Long before companies went to Mexico and China to manufacture, they went looking on the Ohio River for contractors.
Thank you to all our readers. We’re going to keep this adventure going in 2022. Please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have feedback, or ideas about what we should be writing about.
John W. Miller