On Loving Small-Town Newspapers



Every time I report in an American small town, I am drawn to its newspaper building. I like to drop in, buy a paper and chat with a journalist or two. Then I go get a coffee and read about a famous son or daughter who just died, the drama of the high school football game last week and the op-ed decrying or celebrating the president from afar.

Believe it or not, almost every small American town still has a newspaper. (Moundsville has the Echo.) It’s one of the reasons I love making these visits: I can’t believe all these papers are still going! It amazes and delights me. Many readers depend on their paper, and many older people don’t like reading news online. Some tiny newspapers are brilliant and win Pulitzer Prizes.

The newspaper is often housed in a grand building that looks like a bank. Typically, in the back is an ancient printing press, made a hundred years ago in Germany or Chicago. Usually, it’s a monument, but sometimes, as in Moundsville, that is what is still printing the paper. Sometimes, there are plaques or even statues commemorating legendary newspaper editors. Journalists used to be heroes in small towns. They were leaders in the community, people you knew you could count on. Some of that spirit of admiration remains. I’ve seen old people walk in to drop off the checks for their subscription, as they chat with editors wrapping their newspapers in rubber bands before piling them into delivery trucks.

Today, I was in Washington, PA, a bit under an hour south of Pittsburgh, on assignment for a start-up online magazine, and I dropped in on the Observer-Reporter‘s beautiful old stone building. The paper has roots dating back to 1808 and a circulation a bit over 20,000, and it’s experimenting with a paywall it hopes will keep it profitable, an employee told me, adding that things have been hard. The paper was recently purchased by the Ogden Newspapers, which belongs to Bob Nutting, owner of the Pirates.

These days, my love for these old newspapers, and enthusiasm for these visits, is tinged with sadness. The industry is in turmoil, bleeding readers and jobs. Fewer and fewer people understand and love newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post are doing fine, but these little papers are on death’s door. It’s likely that in a few decades, most will be gone.

But even as they die, we should watch carefully, and cherish them, and grieve their loss. And think about what they represent, and what they still are– an entire industry dedicated to the assembly and publication of the truth, with precious principles of integrity and verification, shared and enforced broadly by editors and reporters around the country. That, when done right and done well, is worth more than any billion-dollar tech company, political cause or phone app. I wish more Americans understood what’s being lost.

John W. Miller

People In Small Towns Like Moundsville Used to Go Watch Prison Baseball For Fun


One extraordinary thing about Moundsville’s old West Virginia state penitentiary, which closed in 1995, is how much it was integrated into the lives of residents.

As Tracey Whorton describes in our movie, inmates would shout out their windows about her choice of flavor at a nearby ice cream parlor. Inmates worked excavating the mound across the street, and decorated its Christmas tree.

The prison was also a place to go for entertainment– like watching baseball games.

Phil Yoho, a retired chemist who grew up in Moundsville, attended our screening last week at the Carnegie Museum of Art. After the movie, he handed me a roll of printed papers with some memories of his childhood, including a description of going to watch boxing fights and ballgames at the prison.

“Called the Prison Red Sox, the inmates even had their own band and vendors selling snacks during the games,” he writes. “Other attractions at the pen for me, were the fish ponds at the main entrance and watching the khaki-clad inmates file singly through the wagon gate, upon returning from the fields during the warm weather.”

Mr. Yoho also describes grabbing softballs hit over the prison walls during the day and trying to heave them back in. He remembers the day his throw cleared the wall and the guard shouted, “Today you went from half pint to quart.”

John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, writes me it used to be common in America for locals to go watch prison baseball games for fun. Historians believe the tradition lasted into the 1950s, “especially in the South, until TV became the way fans watched games,” according to Mr. Thorn.

In fact, one prisoner, Alabama Pitts, became a three-sport star at Sing Sing in the 1930s. After his release in 1935, Pitts played centerfield for the Albany Senators. He bounced around the minors for a few years before getting killed in 1941 in a knife fight on a dance floor in North Carolina.

In an article published on the Hall of Fame’s website, Katherine Adriaanse writes that “there is a long history of baseball teams and even entire leagues being formed within prison walls all across the country from the earliest days of the game itself.”

At Sing Sing, the game was lauded as a path to “self-government.”

In 1929, Sing Sing even scrimmaged the New York Yankees. The Yankees won, 17-3. Babe Ruth hit three homeruns, including one that, it was said, traveled 620 feet. “Prison statisticians,” the New York Times wrote, noted that one “as the longest non-stop flight by any object or person leaving Sing Sing by that route for the past handful of decades.”

There’s still baseball in prisons like San Quentin, but, as a rule, nobody heads out to the local pen to watch baseball as entertainment anymore.

I don’t like how much our culture sometimes romanticizes incarceration, but I think it’s worth celebrating the humanity of a tradition that allowed prisoners to be part of society in some way, even if it was just playing a ballgame people could enjoy going to watch.

John W. Miller




‘Moundsville’ debuts in New York, Pittsburgh; returns to Moundsville


We spent last week touring the movie, and meeting new audiences. On Monday, we screened “Moundsville” at America Magazine headquarters in mid-town Manhattan. America is a thoughtful Catholic magazine, and it published a cover story on Moundsville last year. The magazine’s motto in “Pursuing the truth in love.” More and more, the movie has felt like an exercise in encountering the other, bridging the gap between city and town, and just plain listening without judgment of other people.

The Q&A’s after each screening have been wide-ranging, interesting, and mostly peaceful conversations, touching on subjects like health care, unions, and Trump, without people getting angry. Trump supporters and liberals praised the movie equally as being true. “Y’all showed us how we got in this pickle,” a woman from Arkansas told us.


A crowd of around 70 people packed the magazine’s conference room. We got some nice reviews.

On Thursday night, we were at the Carnegie Museum of Art, for the Pittsburgh premiere of Moundsville. As in New York, we took questions from the audience after the show.


People asked about the economics and politics of the region. Some wondered about how we made the movie. People from Moundsville stood up and said we got the story right.


On Saturday, the Strand in Moundsville screened the movie two more times. It was an ice-cold day, and we couldn’t make it, but 52 people showed up. There was some grumbling that the movie is “too depressing.” The sentiment is understandable. There is a lot about decline in the film.

Somebody asked us in New York if the movie is “hopeful”. The more we watch it, the more we think it is. In the last chapter, we show a successful small business, a fledgling family farm, and the town’s booming tourism sector. Moundsville’s people have a chance to build an exciting new future. They are also grieving the loss of something. Both those parts are important to unlocking a happier, healthier future.

As for the future of “Moundsville”, we have other screenings planned. We’re submitting to festivals, talking to journalists and marketing the movie online. Please keep spreading the word, sharing the link to this site and giving us feedback.


Press & Reviews

Fresh and valuable… The Moundsville film, by Miller and Bernabo, presents the results in a way different from most other documentaries I’ve seen… worth watching. — James Fallows, The Atlantic 

Summarizes the core problem that many small cities and towns face in 21st century America. — Matt Stroud, Postindustrial

This sort of entrepreneurial revival is “one thing that’s happening in Appalachia that is not talked about enough,” says Miller. “There are young creative people doing different kinds of things, and building a new kind of future. And we’re not going back to the past. One thing the mound reminds us of is that civilizations and cultures do eventually move on, and change is inevitable.” — Bill O’Driscoll, WESA 90.5 (NPR)

The city’s rise and fall will be familiar to many who grew up in small, rust-belt towns — yet there’s something distinct about Moundsville, named for the ancient burial mound in the center of town. The Grave Creek Mound Burial Site — which dates so far into antiquity that little is known about the native Americans who built it — provides a physical and spiritual backdrop for the film. — Sean Collier, Pittsburgh Magazine 

Moundsville isn’t just a sad story… The film, indeed, presents the city in pleasant light. – Nora Edinger, Weelunk.com

Miller became fascinated with how a town built on coal mining and steel would recover after the factories closed and its residents found themselves out of work. — Sherry Greenfield, Hagerstown Herald-Mail

Any hard conversation about America’s future needs to start with a shared understanding of our past and present, free of myth and easy narrative. When you’re trying to accept and understand change, the truth always helps. — John W. Miller, Buzzfeednews.com

“Since the 2016 election, the tension on main street between storyteller and subject has polluted public discourse and trust during a difficult and vulnerable time. Getting the story exactly right is always hard.” — John W. Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A gripping look at a fascinating West Virginia town wrestling with its past and fighting for its future, with lots of surprises along the way.” — Joe Barrett, Wall Street Journal 

“This film succeeds by allowing people to tell their own stories – with moments of nostalgia and pride interspersed with flashes of frustration and grief – just like real life. It’s hard to predict the future, but as a viewer (or reviewer, as the case may be), it’s impossible to deny that I’m rooting for Moundsville. These are good folks who certainly deserve a win.” — Tony Montana, United Steelworkers

“I feel energized by the thoughts that this movie has provoked. The way the story is told is brilliant. Communities throughout history like to think others’ success is the reason for their own woes. Rather, they need to look within to figure out how to have their own rebirth. This movie is a step in the direction of understanding.” — C. Donald Brasher, Jr., President, Trade Data Monitor, Inc.

“A provocative documentary about the economic geography of a West Virginia mountain town. It was fantastic! I’m still thinking about it.” – Dr. Bob Ross, Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA

“A lot of stories about the Heartland are depressing, bleak, hopeless — or angry. It’s more complicated than that, and this movie finds a path between the extremes that gets you closer to reality. Everyone should take the trip to Moundsville.”– Joe White, Reuters

“Fantastic! A great job showing the multiple forces driving Appalachian thinking and acting.” – Dr. Jason King, St. Vincent College, Latrobe, PA

“A beautiful, thoughtful, and respectful documentary about my hometown of Moundsville, WV.” – Tracey Whorton, drummer from Moundsville

“Gets to the truth of the place by leaving Trump out of conversations.” Bob Davis, Wall Street Journal

“I highly recommend this absorbing and enlightening documentary about a small West Virginia town and its travails since the halcyon days of the 1950s.” — Paul Blustein, former economics reporter for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, author of “The Chastening” and other books about global trade

“Moundsville” to Screen at America Magazine in New York City

Although I discovered Moundsville on a reporting trip for the Wall Street Journal in 2013, and wrote a fun front-page story about a paranormal hot-dog stand, it wasn’t until 2018 that I tried to write something deeper about the town, and realized how rich a place it was.

By that time, I had left the Journal and was hunting a meaningful, once-in-a-lifetime project. I’ve long been an admirer of America, a Jesuit-run magazine with a circulation of around 50,000. The magazine offers, I think, a unique marriage of truth and faith, of reporting facts, and insisting on respect for each human person. I found editor Tim Reidy on Twitter and offered to pitch some stories. The first one the magazine took was about Moundsville. Since 2013, I had returned to the town a half-dozen times on fact-finding trips. By that time, I knew what I was looking for. I started the story this way:

No matter what time of day it is, Phil Remke, the ebullient vice mayor of this West Virginia river town of 8,700, salutes every constituent the same way: “Top of the morning to ya.”

It is still early enough in Trump’s America for supporters like Mr. Remke to hope that the president can carry more of the fantasies he spun into triumph, and late enough to get a sense of what is actually happening.

The America story, which ran at over 2,500 words on the cover of the magazine, was the first time I realized that the town stood for multiple social, geographic, cultural and economic strands of America’s past, present and future.

Around that time, Dave Bernabo and I got funding from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council to make the documentary. The movie is different, in large part because so much of it is about the 2,200-year-old burial mound in the middle of town, but the article laid some important intellectual and conceptual foundations, and helped convince the arts council that we had a story to tell.

Anyway, now America is going to host a screening of “Moundsville” at 6pm on Jan. 14 at their headquarters in New York, in midtown Manhattan, right across the street from the Wall Street Journal.

The idea is to show the movie to interested journalists, academics, church leaders and policy people, and then have a conversation about it. I’m thrilled, and excited to see what comes out of all this. — John






Why there’s no Trump in “Moundsville”

I have an essay in Sunday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that tells the story of premiering “Moundsville” in Moundsville. It also tackles the T word. One reason journalists got obsessed with telling stories about small-town America is, of course, the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Explaining why people grew to support the reality-TV star was something we thought we’d be doing, too, when we made “Moundsville”. And, when we filmed the movie, we asked every single person (around 40, total) we interviewed about who they voted for in 2016, and why. I’m guessing a bit over half voted for Trump. (In the whole county, it was 73%-22% for the president.) There were some interesting surprises. But when it came time to edit tens and tens of hours of interviews into a 74-minute movie, almost all the material about Trump was, well, boring. People were basically saying stuff they had seen on cable news. And why not? How else would they get information? They don’t live in Washington. What they knew about was Moundsville and what had happened there. Talking about Moundsville is when our subjects sounded smartest and most thoughtful, and we wanted all our subjects to sound smart and thoughtful. And that’s why there’s no Trump in “Moundsville.”

John W. Miller

Details for Pittsburgh Premiere of “Moundsville” at Carnegie Museum

“Moundsville” will premiere in Pittsburgh on Jan. 17 at 8pm, at one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world, the Carnegie Museum of Art. You can buy tickets ($10; $8 for members; $5 for students) via the museum website. The movie will be screened in a small theatre that seats around 200. (So make sure to book soon.) Dave and I will both be there, and we’ll take some questions. The screening is part of the museum’s very fun Third Thursday series. We’re sharing the billing with  DJ Buscrates. The museum is also relaunching Storyboard, its online journal, with activities that include writing a six-word story inspired by artworks in the Carnegie International and participating in “conversations that link art with contemporary issues.” And this, by the way, is what the museum says about the series: “Third Thursday brings together the hottest local talent from around the city to create surprising one-of-a-kind experiences. Turn up the volume with a cash bar, live music, and performances along with late-night access to the museum galleries.” See you there!

The Der Spiegel scandal, parachuting, and why journalists should behave more like anthropologists

I hope the story about the reporter for the German magazine Der Spiegel who went to the small town in Minnesota and made everybody look like gun-toting Trump-worshiping idiots in a long story full of falsehoods highlights the qualities of “Moundsville”.

There is a way to cover heartland America in a way that resonates with all sides of the political spectrum, because it’s based on, well, the truth. That’s the path that avoids liberal condescension and nationalist nostalgia. I’ve been coming to Moundsville to talk to people, off and on, for five years. During trips from my home in Pittsburgh, I got to know people who were trustworthy and authoritative, and, when it came time to make our documentary, that’s who Dave and I chose as our characters. And we came to the town to premiere the movie, and stayed afterwards to hear reactions from townsfolk, whatever they may be. It made me very nervous.

There’s an old tradition in journalism known as “parachuting”, where a reporter goes into a place for a few days, gets wired up with sources, and then writes, in an authoritative tone, a commanding story about a town. The old joke about this is that you can only write about a place if you’ve been there more than 10 years or less than 10 days. Anybody with a long career in journalism has done this. I’ve done it. That’s what the Der Spiegel reporter, Claas Relotius, had been turning into a glorious career. Except he was faking it, and thanks to a couple of local muckrakers with internet access and an insistence on the truth, he, rightly, got got.

At a time when distrust in the media is high — unfortunate, because American newspapers are, I think, world-class — maybe it’s time to empower local sources to be a part of the fact- (and tone-) checking process. One thing I’ve learned recently in talking to cultural anthropologists is that it’s become a custom to present one’s fieldwork to the people it’s about. Maybe it’s time for journalists to adopt similar practices.




“Moundsville” Released Online + Bonus Feature

Hi everybody, we’ve now released “Moundsville” online! You can rent or buy the movie here. We’ve also released a bonus feature where I explain why we made this movie. We’re still figuring out how the life of an independent movie works. But there is one thing I know for sure: We need YOUR help. Please, please share those links on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, reddit, and anywhere else you hang out online. Tell your friends about “Moundsville”. Recommend that your local theatre book us. We want the movie to be part of a larger conversation. Feel free to email or call me anytime if you have questions. More soon! Meanwhile, thank you again for your support. John.

Why Moundsville?

America’s conversation about its shared economy, politics and culture doesn’t have to be divisive. The starting point for a new kind of dialogue is a truthful reckoning with our past, from thousands of years ago, through 20th century boom and sticky bust, to the present of the gas economy and service jobs, and to the wild, open-ended future. By telling the biography of a classic American town — Moundsville, WV, pop. 8,000 — that has all these important elements, in the words of the most thoughtful people we found in a year of traveling there, we hope to lay at least one brick in the foundation for this new kind of conversation. 46919155_10156734794601664_140091684187799552_o