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Richard Whitt, 'redneck journalist,' 64

Richard Whitt liked to say that he practiced "redneck journalism." His typical explanation for that was, "It’s the kind of journalism that when you read the paper in the morning you say, ‘Damn, that makes me mad,’ and it makes your neck red. That motivates people to do things.”

But it also reflected his poor, rural upbringing, to which he remained connected -- and which he thought hindered his career. But he rose to the top of his craft, winning the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for local general news reporting for his coverage of a fire in Kentucky that killed 165 people and revealed the weakness and lack of enforcement of fire and safety codes in the state.

He died Jan. 26 at his home in Marietta, Ga., of an apparent heart attack. The Richard Whitt Memorial Fund for Rural Journalists is being established for him at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (see below).

His redneck line had another double meaning, that journalism was also for rednecks -- for those who wanted to practice it, and those who can be served by it. Whitt was driven by a sense of social justice for the working class from whence he came, but never saw himself as a crusader and always wanted to enjoy his work.

Rich Whitt was born, and spent his first eight years, in a tarpaper shack with no running water or electricity, in the Appalachian foothills of Greenup County, Kentucky, at the northeast corrner of the state. (Encarta maps) The youngest of six children, he walked two miles to school. When his railroad-worker father died, his mother went to work in the shoe factory in Portsmouth, Ohio. “We all thought he was going to be a politician," a sister told Jim Robinson of the Ashland Daily Independent, for a profile published in 1990. "He was pretty slick. He could make you believe black was white.” Those skills later served him well in dealing with story subjects and sources.

He graduated from McKell High School and spent four years in the Navy, where he decided to become a reporter because he wanted to write and “like 99 percent of journalists have some sort of bizarre desire to make the world a little better,” he told Robinson. He worked at an Ashland steel mill while attending the local community college, then went to the University of Kentucky, in 1970 becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college, and got a job as a reporter for the Middlesboro Daily News, at the state's southeast corner.

Six months into the job, he set up an interview with a local bootlegger who said he was being protected by the police chief, but the chief got wind of it, intercepted him on the way to the interview, and made Whitt think that he "might get killed if he pursued the story,” Robinson wrote. Whitt told him, “I just went home and loaded my shotgun and kept it by the bed. … I made a decision that if I was going to be killed, it’s a pretty good way to leave this world. I realized I couldn’t be intimidated and do this job. I would be lying to myself if I allowed myself to be intimidated. I never felt that kind of fear again.”

After a year in Middlesboro, he was assistant state editor at the Waterloo (Iowa) Courier, returning to Appalachia in December 1972 to become assistant managing editor at the Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News. He had always wanted to work for The Courier-Journal of Louisville, and joined it in January 1977, as a reporter in Northern Kentucky. Four months later, the Beverly Hills Supper Club burned, and his reporting on it and the aftermath led to criminal investigations, the rewriting of the state's fire and safety laws, and the Pulitzer Prize. He went on to become chief of the Frankfort Bureau, then an investigative reporter for the paper's special-projects unit. He took a similar job with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1989 and retired in 2006. He was a Pulitzer finalist in 1984 for a series on coal-mine safety and in 1988 for public service. He entered the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 1995.

The 1990 profile noted that Whitt failed in attempts to become an editor in Louisville. He told Robinson, “I never really fit into that realm of blue-blood, gentlemanly journalism” reflected by the Bingham family that owned The Courier-Journal until 1986 and the Ivy League graduates he said they liked to hire. “I was much more of a redneck journalist,” he said. But he is fondly remembered at The Courier-Journal; the Louisville paper ran a full story about his death, and the Atlanta paper, which employed him longer, did not.

Rich Whitt was a reporter’s reporter, our friend, and a great example to rural journalists who aspire to the top of the craft.

SUPPORT RURAL JOURNALISM!

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is supported by the University of Kentucky and donors to an endowment that is matched by state funds. To make a tax-deductible donation to the Institute, via a secure Web site, click here. To make a pledge, via the same site, click here. You may designate your contribution to the Richard Whitt Memorial Fund for Rural Journalists (just say "Whitt - rural"). For our annual report, click here.

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 01/28/2009