Coverage of public-policy issues at newspapers in Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia is lacking

March 2006

Presentation to Appalachian Studies Conference of the Appalachian Studies Association, March 2006
By Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues was founded to help non-metropolitan media define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary – including journalism about regional and national issues that have local impact, such as mountaintop-removal mining, education, health care and economic development in Appalachia. We also try to help all journalists cover issues that affect rural America.

The Institute does that through a Web site, www.ruraljournalism.org, which includes The Rural Blog, a daily digest of issues, trends, events, trends and journalism from rural America; a Reporting Resources section that helps journalists find information about rural issues; and a Reports section with student reporting projects, and research about rural journalism, such as this finding that America’s biggest media company recently became America’s biggest weekly newspaper company.

The institute was created in 2001 with seed money from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation of the Society of Professional Journalists. It hired its first staff in 2004, with a major grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and additional assistance from the Ford Foundation. Funds are being raised for an endowment to give the institute a permanent home at the University of Kentucky, its initial sponsor.

The institute has a national scope and, as a research project of UK, a statewide mission. Its initial focus area, however, is Central Appalachia – a region where its founders first saw a need for such an institute because they detected a decline in the editorial leadership of local newspapers in the region and news coverage by local radio stations, partly a result of chain ownership and absentee management.

One of the founding ideas of the Institute is that every community is in the service area of an institution of higher education, where faculty members should be available to provide story ideas, information and quotes for stories, or write stories and commentaries themselves. To that end, the Institute is a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional organization, with academic partners at 14 institutions, 10 of them in Appalachia.

The Institute has a long name because its emphasis is on issues. At our conferences, we touch on the craft of journalism -- reporting, writing, editing and presentation -- but mainly we try to encourage, inspire and inform coverage and commentary on issues. The issues we focus on are education, economic development, environment and health.

Notice the screen says “health care and health.” That’s to emphasize that the poor health status of some rural areas is not only caused by lack of access to affordable health care, but also by the failure of the people to take care of themselves -- with proper nutrition, exercise and the initiative to seek medical attention when they need it.

For example, in Central Appalachia, the incidence of most cancers is about the same as in the rest of the country, but the mortality rate – the rate at which people die from cancer – is noticeably higher. In large measure, that stems from the lack of screening for cancers of what some folks call the private parts – the breast, the colon, the genito-urinary tract. So, at our first conference, on health care and health, we urged journalists like these to do stories about local people who survived cancer because they got screened. Now we are working on a project that would use advertising and circulation sponsored by health-care providers to underwrite special sections about health that would be mailed to every household in a county, not just those that subscribe to the paper.

Following the health conference, we programmed a week-long national seminar on rural issues; co-sponsored a two-day seminar on how rural news outlets can cover state and federal policymakers without basing reporters in the capitals; and held a one-day seminar on covering the coal industry in Central Appalachia. Next month, we’ll have a conference in West Kentucky on covering and guiding rural economic development.

The coal conference came at a good time – amid increasing controversy about mountaintop-removal mining and about six weeks before the worst mine disaster in many years. Even before the disaster, one of the conference attendees, Kyle Lovern of West Virginia’s Williamson Daily News, did a three-part series on the coal industry in the region, followed by a two-parter on coal-waste impoundments. Soon after the mine disasters in the state, he did enterprise stories about mine safety.

This sort of coverage is rare for this newspaper, which has a circulation of 8,000 and is owned by Heartland Publications, a company that was formed from the sale of 24 papers by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. and quickly ran into trouble after its chief executive fleeced the company for $1.7 million.
Marty Backus, who sat next to Kyle on the front row, is the publisher of the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville, Ky. It’s a three-times-per-week paper, also chain-owned, and its circulation area overlaps that of the Williamson Daily News. Marty has stepped up his editorial criticism of the coal industry, and told me that he wished people from the coal industry and the region’s news media could have a roundtable discussion to discuss the issues they have with each other. So I rounded up support for the meeting from the coal and press associations in the region, and the roundtable has been scheduled for April 17.

That, unfortunately, is most of the good news I have for you about the coverage of public-policy issues in Central Appalachia -- or, as we will focus on from here, in Eastern Kentucky.

Research projects

While those of us who started the Institute think we have read enough Appalachian newspapers to reach some pretty safe conclusions about their strengths and weaknesses, we saw the need for some academic research to support our belief and validate the mission of the Institute.

County budgets: Our first effort examined the coverage of county budgets by newspapers in Eastern Kentucky. We chose budget coverage because the budget is the basic policy document of any government, and county budgets in Kentucky are adopted in a certain time period, which facilitated research.

In Kentucky, counties operate on a July-to-June fiscal year, and must adopt a budget by June 30. Debate on the budget typically takes place in April and May, but often extends into June, and sometimes the deadline is missed, so the survey examined daily and weekly newspapers dated between April 1 and July 31, 2005. The East Kentucky Coalfield was selected as the study area because it is a major focus of the Institute. The survey included the field’s major coal-producing counties, but also ranged north to Ashland, to include an additional daily newspaper, in addition to the dailies in Middlesboro and Harlan.

Our survey of 15 papers found that most of them published only one or two articles about their county’s budget during the budget-adoption period in 2005, and some published no stories at all on the subject. We found not one single comprehensive story about a county budget and how the policy decisions being made might impact citizens of the county.

While the quality of news coverage is not necessarily a function of quantity, and budget situations differ widely among counties, as a whole the survey shows the need for closer media attention to issues that are affected by the budget.

It also suggests a need for instruction, guidance and background information for rural newspaper staffs, on which there is often a shortage of professional journalistic training, and for fresh inspiration for editors, who have seen dozens of budgets come and go. These stories do not have to be dull, as some we found proved.

First, though, the hall of shame: The Middlesboro Daily News’ only budget article included a bullet-point item about the county budget on an inside page and the headline did not mention anything related to it. But that was still better than the other paper in Bell County, The Pineville Sun, which is published in the county seat. It reported nothing about the county budget. Neither did the Troublesome Creek Times of Hindman, even though Knott County was in financial difficulty, and was being managed at the time by a judge-executive who had been imprisoned for vote fraud.

The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg ran two budget stories, both at the top of its front page -- one 23-column-inch story with the headline “County must cut $1.1 million in coal-tax projects” and a 22-inch story with the headline “Fiscal court OK’s budget, list priorities.”

The latter headline and story are worth noting, because they reminded the citizens of Letcher County that a budget is a priority list – what the Fiscal Court thinks is important and how much the judge-executive and magistrates are willing to spend on it.

The Manchester Enterprise of Clay County, the Mountain Citizen of Inez in Martin County and the Salyersville Independent in Magoffin County each ran three budget articles, but they seemed to be caused mainly by conflicts between countywide elected officials and the county Fiscal Court, the local legislature that approves the budget and spends the money.

Editorial pages: A survey of 19 newspapers in Appalachian Kentucky during January 2006 found that only five published local editorials during the month, and only two published editorials with a clear stand on an issue. Six of the 19 newspapers had no editorial page at all.

While local editorials are not the only way to judge the quality of an editorial page, or a newspaper as a whole, they are one measurement of a paper’s willingness to influence public policy in a community, and an indication of its attitude about the role it plays in the community.

The absence of any editorial page in six of the newspapers surveyed suggests that many rural publications are simply opting to stay away from any kind of opinionated content. Those six were all weeklies. The other six weeklies surveyed published editorial pages, but none ran local editorials.

While absentee chain ownership has been suspected of discouraging strong news coverage by community newspapers, papers in the study that are owned by multi-state chains, such as Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. and Heartland Publications Inc., all had editorial pages. However, four of those six papers did not publish local editorials, and none of those that did took clear stands on issues. The strongest editorial page of all was in the Appalachian News-Express, which is owned by a multi-state chain, Lancaster Management Inc. of Gadsden, Ala.

One reason for this phenomenon could be that chains are attracted to larger markets, which provide the advertising and circulation base to support stronger newspapers. Two in-state chains, whose newspapers are generally smaller than the other chain-owned papers in the study, did not have editorial pages – except at the home paper of one of the chains.

Generally, the larger the paper’s circulation, the more likely it was to have an editorial page. The two papers that took clear issue stands are the largest in circulation in the study group.

Jail study: On Feb. 21, 2006, the state auditor of Kentucky, Crit Luallen, issued the first comprehensive analysis ever conducted of county jail costs, which have become a great burden to many counties. Twelve of the 120 counties are spending 30 to 45 percent of their General Fund on their jail, a regional facility or transporting prisoners to another county.

This was a perfect story for newspapers to localize, because the report on the auditor’s Web site included many maps, charts and tables analyzing the data in many ways, in each case with alphabetic and numerical rankings of the 120 counties.

However, most Kentucky newspapers, and most of them in Appalachian Kentucky, ignored the story, according to the clips the auditor’s office received from the Kentucky Press Clipping Service, a commercial service that subscribes to all newspapers in the state. The office received clips from only 26 of the 150 newspapers, and of the 33 news stories, only 18 contained information about the local jail. The auditor’s office provided copies of the clips to the Institute, at our request.

Two newspapers added local information to the Associated Press story about the report, but the 10 others that used AP did not. Three simply ran the auditor’s news release and added no local information. One of those was the Hazard Herald, in Perry County, which spends 45 percent of its General Fund budget on its jail, the most of any county in the state. The newspaper, owned by Heartland Publications Inc., ran the release with the credit line “Special to the Herald.”

The best coverage was in the Big Sandy News, a twice-weekly paper that covers five counties, including those that have collaborated on a regional jail. The newspaper’s editor wrote a front-page story, with a dateline from the state capital of Frankfort, and followed up two days later with an editorial and a story about local officials’ objections to the report and the response from the auditor’s office.

The clips illustrated one encouraging development among chain-owned rural newspapers in Kentucky, the work of the new Frankfort correspondent of Community Newspaper Holdings. However, not all the daily papers are making full use of the correspondent’s work, and none of the weeklies are, according to the clips received by the auditor’s office.

Four of the five daily CNHI papers ran stories by the correspondent, who localized it for three of them. The fourth, the Times-Tribune of Corbin, ran the story without localizing it but ran a chart showing jail costs in its area. No clip was received from the daily Commonwealth-Journal of Somerset or any of the CNHI weeklies in Kentucky.

CNHI, based in Birmingham, Ala., was formed in 1998 and is mainly owned by the Alabama teachers’ retirement system. The company owns 19 paid-circulation newspapers in Central Appalachia, perhaps the largest number of any company, even though it sold several of its publications in the region in the last three years.




Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
College of Communications & Information Studies

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879

Questions about the web site: Contact Al Cross, Institute director, al.cross@uky.edu