When a world media uproar comes to a rural town

"World media uproar . . . " How many times have you seen those words above a local story in a weekly newspaper? Greg Wells used them in a secondary headline this week in The Times Journal of Russell Springs, Ky., hometown of Miss USA Tara Conner, who got a repreieve from pageant owner Donald Trump after expecting to be fired for misbehavior in New York City.

Wells told that story, and didn't sugarcoat it, relaying most of the reports about Conner's scandalous behavior, including a local connection: "Since winning the national pageant, Conner has broken off her engagement to Russell County's Adam Mann and has been linked to club owners, disk jockeys and television personalities in the New York club scene."

In an article written at the request of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, Wells tells how he dealt with the story -- and other media who wanted a piece of it, and of him.

By Greg Wells
Editor, The Times Journal

The tale begins before Tara Conner was accused of anything, as far as Russell County knew.

The story broke of a woman arrested for allegedly mistreating children in her care. That woman’s aged mother called me from Florida and all I can remember from the 36 minutes she spent dressing me down for printing the story was “I know all about you news media.”

Best I could, I appeased her while saying that we always print the news, no matter what it is, or who it displeases. “She worked in a psych ward most of her career,” was what I told myself. “What does she know about us high-minded media professionals?” It seems she knew more than I did.

Early Thursday, the first glimmers of the coming tidal wave became clear as Tara Conner’s appearance in the tabloid news was noted by us here at the paper. During lunch with some sources on other stories that day, I was interrupted twice by the national media. In all there were better than a dozen different print, video and radio outlets that called me on my cell, and about as many that called the office.

They all wanted the same thing, my sources. They are more than my sources, though. These are my people. They are the people that look to us for the news, and the community that looks to this paper for support and comfort when troubling things come along.

I can categorize these callers in two groups: Those who were amazed that the first words out of my mouth weren’t “Howdy” or “Hey y’all” and those who acted like trained, experienced professionals. It was so easy to hear the contempt in some of the voices at having to call the lowly country folks, and, heaven forbid, a weekly newspaper editor. I’d like to say I dismissed them with some hillbilly-Shakespeare line, but I said “Sure, I’ll pass along what I find,” and I deleted their number. Lesson: Don’t be an ass to someone you want something from.

There were a few serious news outlets that I would point in the right direction, but even for them there is only so much you can give up. They have hundreds of people on their payrolls and the ability to pay stringers outrageous wages to get them to dig for a day.

During all of this was the first time I’d ever heard anyone say, “Name your price” when talking about a photo. It was a little surreal. I didn’t name a price. I didn’t have to wrestle with that ethical problem, since I don’t think the kind of photos they wanted exist.

So that was by Friday, and yes, they were calling well into the evening, while I was taking photos of kids in Santa’s lap. Early Monday the fun and games were on again. This time it was even worse. I’d also been trying to chase a story on a murder from last Wednesday and another story about a team coming in from Idaho to search the lake for a body. Well, they found the body with technology that hasn’t been used here before. So now there were three major stories working, and there was only one of me, and the calls were still coming in.

That sets the scene for Monday night through Wednesday morning [when the paper goes to press]. That I can boil down to a few simple sentences.

Print what you have, and throw in what everyone else has done as well. It isn’t plagiarism if you don’t claim it as your own, so attribute the stuff you steal. When writing for a community paper the “man on the street” is likely your reader and the person your other readers know, so they already know what he thinks. This isn’t New York. We’ve all heard at the grocery and the gas station and the café what everyone thinks of this. It is all anyone has talked about. Tell the story, tell the feelings of the people involved if you can, and let others tell all the not-so-nice details about the allegations. But take those and add them to the story.
Remember, at the end of the day, or in our case the end of the week, you’ll have to live in your town. Be fair, honest, upfront and nice. That makes life better all around, and it’s good for business.

In all of it, the only thing I regret I have is that when confronted by some of the out-of town types again, I’d do things differently. If I have it to do over I’ll tell each of them I’ll be happy to help if they can tell me the three words at the bottom of their Society of Professional Journalists card.

Editor's note: The sonar story, big news in a county that has many drownings, shared the top of the Times Journal's front page with Miss USA. Below the headline “Tara: 'I will not let you down'” was a photo of Conner and Trump on CNN, superimposed on a photo of people at a local bank watching her on TV. A secondary photo showed a Lexington, Ky., TV reporter doing a stand-up. The story quoted Conner's parents, who had rebuffed national media. The headline above the story's jump read, "TARA: She has a second chance, the praise of her father for facing the music, and media from all over the world buzzing."

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues helps non-metropolitan media define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary on local issues and on broader issues that have local impact. Its initial focus area is Central Appalachia, but as an arm of the University of Kentucky it has a statewide mission, and it has national scope. It has academic collaborators at Appalachian State University, East Tennessee State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Georgia College and State University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Marshall University, Middle Tennessee State University, Ohio University, Southeast Missouri State University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Washington and Lee University, West Virginia University and the Knight Community Journalism Fellows Program at the University of Alabama. It is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the University of Kentucky, with additional financial support from the Ford Foundation. To get notices of Rural Blog postings and other Institute news, click here.

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Last revised Dec. 20, 2006