Life as a Freelance Reporter in Rural Virginia During Covid-19
By Savannah Delgross
Between Coasts recently checked in with Mason Adams to hear about life as a freelancer in southwestern Virginia during the coronavirus pandemic and the communities he covers.
Under shelter-in-place, freelance journalist Mason Adams has been doing reporting over the phone at his farmhouse in southwest Virginia. He’s also been feeding and milking his goats, reading Octavia Butler, co-parenting young children with his wife, and trying to keep up with the latest updates on the coronavirus pandemic.
Adams’s email inbox might look like any other hustling reporter’s current inbox — flooded with newsletters from local and national news sites, press releases from healthcare systems, and statements from elected officials. He says he is overwhelmed by the amount of stories he wants to cover, as cases arise in rural, southwest Virginia while the commonwealth and cities like Richmond claim the state’s higher rates.
As a reporter who’s been covering Appalachia since 2001, Adams knows the turmoil rural hospitals have faced, and that a pandemic could be a serious danger to the region’s welfare. With refusals to expand Medicaid in recent years, Appalachian states have expelled many individuals from health insurance as rural hospitals close amid financial devastation. Seeking help with infrastructure, rural health systems are starting to prepare for the expected influx of coronavirus patients, and Adams will be reporting from the ground along the way.
Recently, in an interview with Between Coasts, Adams discussed how journalists, especially freelancers, need ever-dynamic skills while chasing stories in a region that’s preparing for an uncertain future.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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You’ve covered a range of topics in rural America, and last year you did an important deep dive into the high costs of healthcare in Appalachia. How would you describe the work that you do, and will you focus on health reporting in the future?
A lot of my stories tend to be about the transformation of life in rural America and Appalachia, in particular. I often look at big trends, like globalization and the coal industry declining, disruptive things that are transforming life and the economies in these areas. Here [in Virginia], we’re just starting to see coronavirus cases arrive in rural areas, so who knows how it’s going to play out. But, I do think that how the pandemic affects rural communities and how people respond to it will certainly affect my storytelling.
I’ve done some health reporting before, but now I’m looking at it in a much more direct way because that’s what the moment calls us to, as journalists. It’s not just a matter of what we want to do or our level of expertise on the subject — sometimes the moment requires that reporters learn new skills.
What stories are you chasing?
For 100 Days in Appalachia, I’m working on a series on the future of labor in Appalachia. They recently asked me to report on rural hospital infrastructure and how they’re prepared, or not, for coronavirus. I think looking at how our societal infrastructure is being affected by this pandemic is a type of story that journalists between the coasts, and on the coasts, should be looking at. I think there’s lots of room for those sort of stories. The hospital story is evolving every day — it was changing as I was writing it.
What’s the plan for the work you were doing before the pandemic? Will those pieces publish as they are, or do you think you’ll have to do more reporting to make them more relevant?
I was writing about the use of telehealth technology in psychiatry. Psychiatrists in rural America are pretty few and far between — people have to drive hours to see them and, often, the waiting list is months and months. And so, telehealth is becoming a good solution for people to get established with a doctor from maybe another county, or even another state, to have reliable healthcare. Stability is not often built into the system as it should be. I’m working on re-selling that story and I reframed it a little bit, so it addresses the pandemic, but it’s still very much a story about rural psychiatry. All that said, I could see myself chasing another telehealth story, because that’s definitely going to be more and more important, especially in rural America, where many counties are seeing closed hospitals and may not have ICU beds.
So, it’s important to cover preparedness, but also not write like we’re in the middle of it all when we’re not.
Editor’s note: Adams’s story on tele-health in rural Virginia has since been published in the Virginia Mercury.
How are you going to navigate that as a freelance reporter in the coming weeks?
I’ve developed relationships with editors at a variety of publications over the years, so I have conversations with them pretty regularly about new content. I do have ongoing work that preceded the pandemic that I’m still responsible for and might need to turn around. While at the same time, I need to have situational awareness and use some of my capacity to follow what’s happening both in my community and outside of my community. I subscribe to a ton of newsletters, both from newspapers around Appalachia and southwestern Virginia. I’m also on the press release list for Carilion Clinic, which is one of the big healthcare systems in the Roanoke Valley, and Ballad Health, a nonprofit health system. I’m also getting statements from elected officials — governors, senators, and congresspeople.
I’m also a parent, so my work capacity ebbs and flows. My wife and I are still figuring out how to piece together our part-time jobs and freelance work while being home with the kids. Sometimes I don’t have as much capacity as I want. It’s tricky.
How are we going to see the value of local healthcare during this?
I think people will see the value of it, more than ever, and it will affect people’s perceptions of it. There are so many factors and I don’t pretend to know how this will all play out in the end. During a pandemic, I think more people care more about how the hospitals are functioning. More people are going to be thinking about those issues than we have in some time.
What structural changes need to happen in rural healthcare systems?
I’m hesitant to give my own personal opinion. But, Brock Slabach, senior vice president for member services at the National Rural Health Association, said he’d like to see hospitals regulated and administered more like a utility than like a business. Other people I’ve talked to might say that’s an example of the need for a single-payer system. For others, it’s about making adjustments around the edges, like adjusting reimbursement rates for medicare, medicaid, and private insurance — that’s another policy piece that people are talking about. I think, during this pandemic, we will see healthcare approached more from the government’s perspective, as the government hands down regulations and orders — maybe that will open up one of these arenas or policy discussions in a more real sense than it has been talked about in the past. I think we’ll see an opportunity for people to talk about the solutions they see as most viable.
What else has been important to your experience of being a reporter recently?
These times have really shaped my media diet, not just in terms of what news sources I read, but also what books I read and listen to. When I’m out milking our goats in the morning, I’ve been listening to audiobooks about turbulent times and leaders who emerged in turbulent times. I’m trying to put my brain in that space a little bit, to inspire myself and recognize how I can level-up my journalism game in a time when it’s needed and just grab the moment, not necessarily take advantage of it, but be reminded that in a turbulent time like this, I think good journalism is needed more than ever.
Through reading, I’m also paying attention to historical patterns and ways to expand my thinking on politics, policy, and sources. I’m constantly trying to adjust my intake of media and books and words so that it’s optimizing my output. It’s kinda weird, and maybe I think about it more than I should, but I try to regulate my reading based on what I’m working on. Though, I’m also reading some speculative fiction, like Octavia Butler books, including Parable of the Sower.
Rural Healthcare Reporting by Mason Adams
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Mason Adams is a freelance journalist who has covered Blue Ridge and Appalachian communities since 2001, with bylines in Politico Magazine, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Vice, Blue Ridge Outdoors, Scalawag, Belt Magazine and many more. He lives in Floyd County, Va.
Savannah Delgross is a freelance writer and assistant editor of Between Coasts.