Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues seeks funds to continue pioneering work

Entering its second year with a strong track record, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues has started another groundbreaking series of programs while stepping up the fund-raising needed to keep it going.

The institute, based in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications, had what amounted to its national rollout in June, with a five-day national conference on rural issues at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland.

More than 30 journalists from all over the nation, from news outlets of all sizes, gave rave reviews after hearing from experts on rural issues. “Every session turned on a light in my head,” Paul Hammel of the Omaha World-Herald said at week’s end.

Returning to their newsrooms, reporters turned out stories as direct results of the seminar. Leon Alligood of The (Nashville) Tennessean wrote front-page stories about the definition of “rural” and one of the Institute’s favorite issues, rural access to high-speed Internet service.

The seminar, “Rural America, Community Issues,” marked the first time that the 17-year-old Knight Center had turned over an entire week of programming to an outside organization.

Like the Knight Center, the Institute is more of a public-policy institute for journalists -- one that offers reliable information and ideas about issues -- than a program about reporting, writing, editing, presentation, production or management.

Its first seminar, in February at the UK Center for Rural Health in Hazard, was on covering health and health care in Central Appalachia, the Institute’s initial focus region. A similar, smaller-scale workshop is planned for London, Ky., in January.

The National Rural Health Association picked up on the conference by inviting the directors of the Institute and the Center, one of the reporters who attended, and a former NRHA president who attended to make a presentation at the national NRHA convention next spring on how journalism can help improve rural health.

In September, at Somerset, the Institute co-sponsored “Carrying the Capitals to Your Community,” a two-day conference on how news organizations can cover state and federal governments and officeholders without having bureau reporters in the capitals.

The seminar attracted 22 journalists from seven states, including three broadcasters, one from Nevada. Half of those who attended were from weekly newspapers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. That indicated support for the Institute’s position that smaller newspapers are obliged to tackle such government and political coverage because most Americans do not read a daily newspaper, and many metropolitan papers have reduced their regional and state-capital coverage.

The conference was co-sponsored by the National Press Foundation, which provided a day of programming on using the Internet to cover the federal government. The Institute programmed a day on state coverage. The event was coordinated by the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at The Ohio State University, headed by Somerset native Debra Jasper.

Soon after her appointment last year, Jasper told Institute Director Al Cross, “I always said if I got a job like this, I’d like to do something for Appalachian journalists.” Cross replied, “You’re talking to the right person.”

Central Appalachia’s greatest asset and greatest liability has been its vast coal deposits and the mining of them, but many smaller news organizations are reluctant to cover the industry because it can be controversial.

To help such organizations, and even larger ones, report and comment on the industry, the Institute will hold a “Covering Coal” seminar at the South Charleston, W.Va., campus of Marshall University on Nov. 18. Marshall is one of the Institute’s academic partners; another, West Virginia University, will help with the event.

On April 7, the Institute will offer a one-day program on covering and guiding economic development, as part of the spring meeting of the Western Kentucky Press Association at Murray State University. Organizers hope to make the conference a regional event, with attendance from Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois.

The Institute’s most public face is The Rural Blog, a digest of events, trends, issues and journalism in rural America, published Monday through Friday at www.ruraljournalism.org. The list-serve for blog notices has more than 385 members from all over the nation, and countless others have bookmarked it. The Web site’s name indicates that no one else in the world is doing what the Institute is doing.

The Institute is operating on a two-year, $250,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which expires next summer, and a $50,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, which expires next spring. The Institute is raising money for an endowment to give it a permanent home at UK, and the Knight Foundation has invited it to apply for a challenge grant that would match private fund-raising for the endowment. With matching of those monies by the state Research Challenge Trust Fund, known as “Bucks for Brains,” the Institute’s fund-raising goal of $750,000, if achieved, would create a $3 million endowment – enough to hire more full-time, professional staff and make it a truly national program.

While the Institute was created mainly to serve professionals, it is linked to the academic program through the director’s teaching of one class each semester. Last spring, students did a reporting project on the future of tobacco and tobacco-dependent communities and the spending of tobacco-settlement money. Stories have been published in several Kentucky newspapers and on the Institute Web site; pending completion of work by the Institute’s partner at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, stories will be published about the use of tobacco-settlement money in Kentucky and North Carolina, the two leading tobacco states.

Next spring’s special-topics course will be on rural politics, tied to the elections that will fill every partisan and judicial office at the local level in Kentucky in 2006.

The Institute continues to present a three-hour seminar, “Editorial Leadership in Community Newspapers,” at traveling campuses of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.

The SNPA presenters have been Cross, a former rural editor and Courier-Journal political writer who became Institute director in May after nine months as interim director; and former rural publisher Al Smith, chairman of the Institute’s steering committee. The chairman of the Institute’s national advisory board is Rudy Abramson, former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

The Institute recently added academic partners at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Ohio University, Southeast Missouri State University and the Knight Community Journalism Fellows at the University of Alabama. Original partners were Appalachian State University, East Tennessee State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Marshall University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Washington and Lee University and West Virginia University. We welcome more.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-3168

Al Cross, director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: Nov. 16, 2005