Seminar explores how to cover state and
federal governments from afar
Technology has made it possible to cover state and federal governments
without having reporters based in state capitals or Washington,
and there are plenty of opportunities to cover politicians at
both levels, 20 journalists from seven states were told last weekend
at "Bringing the Capitals to Your Community," a two-day
conference in Somerset, Ky.
The conference, at the Center for Rural Development, was presented
by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues,
the National Press Foundation and the Kiplinger
Program in Public Affairs Journalism of The Ohio State
University. It was underwritten by the Institute for Rural
Journalism and Community Issues (with major support from
the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and
additional support from the Ford Foundation)
and the Chicago Tribune Foundation.
The event was "groundbreaking exercise for both the presenters
and the attendees," half of whom were from weekly newspapers,
said Al Cross, director of the Institute. "Few programs like
this are designed for journalists at the community level. We hope
further such conferences will enrich and expand the news that
community journalists bring to their readers, listeners and viewers."
NPF Programs Director Nolan Walters agreed: "I can't think
of any other seminar that's had this focus or this target audience
and I think it's a wonderful opportunity for everyone, not just
for the journalists but also for the journalism educators who
want to reach out to a new audience." Kiplinger Program Director
Debra Jasper said, ""We had a terrific group of journalists
in attendance. We all learned a great deal from each other, shared
a tremendous amount of information and can't wait to do it again
Friday's session focused on how small-market journalists can
have a statewide impact by using on-line and state and federal
resources to write about politics, the environment, education,
and social issues. Jasper shared tips on the best ways to find
compelling stories about some of the most vulnerable people in
rural communities, including the mentally ill and mentally retarded,
foster care kids, and medically fragile children.
Jasper and Cross encouraged the journalists to talk honestly
about the issues they face as rural reporters. Several shared
stories about the conflicts that arise in small towns where everyone
knows each other, as well as how difficult it can be to convince
U.S. senators and other federal officials to return phone calls.
Clint Brewer, editor of the Lebanon (Tenn.)
Democrat, told the journalists that they can cover statewide
politics and legislative sessions even without reporters in the
capital. He recommended they write at
least one issue story each week during the legislative session,
and collect political tidbits into a briefs column. He also offered
suggestions for covering local environmental stories.
Other speakers included: Chuck Wolfe, spokesman for the Kentucky
Cabinet for Environment and Public Protection and
a former Associated Press writer; Brad Hughes,
a former reporter who is now communications director for the Kentucky
School Boards Association; David Greer and John Whitlock,
with the Kentucky Press Association’s unique
state-capital news bureau; Al Smith, host of Kentucky
Educational Television's "Comment on Kentucky,"
former weekly publisher in Kentucky and Tennessee, and former
federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission;
and Alan Lowe, with the University of Tennessee's Howard
H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.
Lowe wrapped up the day's session by engaging journalists in
a thought-provoking discussion about whether they view themselves
as watchdogs or attack dogs; how they cover controversial community
issues; how they handle political endorsements, and how they deal
with anonymous sources.
Initial responses by the attendees were overwhelmingly positive.
"This course has inspired me to pay more attention to my
newspaper's government coverage -- something I wasn't much interested
in before," said Anne Adams, a reporter for The Recorder,
a weekly newspaper in Monterey, Va. "I hope other journalists
will take advantage of this kind of discourse."
Greg Johns of the Courier-News in Clinton, Tenn.,
said the conference was "well worth the time and trip."
That was echoed by James Mulcahy, of the Sentinel-News
in Shelbyville, Ky., who said it was"well worth the time
invested." Several attendees said the conference was particularly
useful in helping them navigate complicated Web sites featuring
local, state and federal data. ""It had a great deal
of relevant information that I think I'll be able to incorporate
into my stories," said Kristin Taylor of the Murray
(Ky.) Ledger and Times. "The information
was terrific, providing numerous resources which cover a lot of
ground," said Ronnie Ellis of the Glasgow (Ky.)
On Saturday, the National Press Foundation presented "Opening
Washington's File Cabinet." The sessions offered resources
for examining federal agencies, tracking businesses and covering
natural disasters and public safety. James Carroll, Washington
correspondent for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal
and Patricia Edmonds, former head of online news operations
at National Public Radio and a former reporter
for USA Today, explored the best ways to find
data on everything from school-bus accidents to non-profit organizations.
The Foundation also gave reporters a profile of government agencies
in Washington as well as "A Guide to Statehouse Reporting,"
a book funded by the Association of Capitol Reporters
and Editors (since renamed CapitolBeat)
and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation of the Society
of Professional Journalists.