Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues: Year One

Reporters in Appalachia contemplated the role their news outlets can play in improving the region’s health, and published stories with that goal in mind.
A newspaper in Western Kentucky learned sources of information for stories about the tobacco buyout and local-government ethics questions.
Journalists at newspapers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida learned editorial leadership in small newspaper markets.
Journalists all over the United States learned about rural issues, trends and events in areas they have never seen but have much in common with their own.
And a couple from Eastern Kentucky, who have set a standard for editorial leadership in rural newspapers, were honored with a national award named for them.
All this and more happened in the first seven months that the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues had a staff, housed in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications.
The Institute is operating on a two-year, $250,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and $50,000 from the Ford Foundation. It is raising money for an endowment to give it a permanent home at UK.
The Institute partnered with UK’s Center for Rural Health in Hazard on a conference about covering health care and health in Central Appalachia, one of America’s poorest and least healthy regions.
Breathitt County Voice Editor Colleen Hornsby attended the conference and soon published stories on a cancer survivor and importance of physical therapy.
Edmund Shelby, editor and general manager of The Beattyville Enterprise, said, “It is rare for us to hear from just a few experts, but to be briefed by a series of nationally recognized health care providers was a treat. I am looking forward to using some of the information I gleaned in future articles.”
Harlan Daily Enterprise Staff Writer Adrienne Steinfeldt said, “I left energized and ready to dig for better health care stories, seeing that my coverage can go far beyond the one-shot story,” she said. “The media can and should be a driving force behind improved health and health care in the mountains; the conference pointed to practical ways to embrace that responsibility.”
Steinfeldt, now at the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, and Institute Director Al Cross will speak at the National Rural Health Association convention next May about ways rural media can promote rural health.
The success of the conference means that the Institute will hold future seminars on health coverage. Others are being planned on coverage of economic development, local politics, education and the environment.
The health seminar, in which five University of Kentucky colleges participated in some way, illustrated how the Institute seeks to be a multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary, policy-oriented center with an initial, regional focus but a national scope.
So does the next conference on its schedule, a joint effort with the National Press Foundation and the Kiplinger Fellows Program at The Ohio State University, to help non-metropolitan media outlets cover issues centered in their state capitals and Washington. That conference is scheduled for Sept. 9-10 in Somerset, Ky., and reporters and editors from seven states, as far away as Nevada, plan to attend.
Tentatively planned for Nov. 18 in Charleston, W.Va., is a conference on how to cover the coal industry, a major force in Central Appalachia.
On April 7, 2006, at Murray State University, the Institute will present a day of programs on how to cover and guide economic development in rural areas.
So far, the Institute’s biggest programming project has been a national conference on rural issues at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland, held June 12-17. More than 30 journalists from all over the nation gave rave reviews after hearing from experts on rural issues.
Like the Knight Center, the Institute is more of a public-policy institute for journalists, one that offers information about issues, than a program about reporting, writing, editing and production.
But the Institute will always include some journalism-craft elements in its conferences, and it spotlights good examples of rural journalism – and journalism about rural America – on The Rural Blog, published Monday through Friday at www.ruraljournalism.org. The list-serve for blog notices has more than 360 members from all over the nation, and countless others have bookmarked it. The Web site’s name indicates that the program is unique.
The Institute lifts up examples for rural journalists to follow. At the Hazard conference, the longtime publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Tom and Pat Gish, were presented an award named for them. It will be given to rural journalists who demonstrate the courage, tenacity and integrity often needed among to defend the public interest through rural journalism.
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. This 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 newspapers and 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.
The Institute has made three presentations of a three-hour seminar, “Editorial Leadership in Community Newspapers,” at traveling campuses of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association in Richmond, Va., Lexington, Ky., and Tampa. One editor who attended said he was inspired.
The SNPA presenters were former rural editor and Courier-Journal political writer Al Cross, who became director of the Institute 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.
Others on the 32-member advisory board include Alex Jones, director of the Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University; James D. Squires, horse breeder and former editor of the Chicago Tribune; William Greider, national affairs correspondent for The Nation; Tim Kelly, publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader; Virgil Smith, president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times; Noah Adams, national correspondent for National Public Radio; Bill Bishop, reporter for the Austin American-Statesman; Nancy Green, vice president of Lee Enterprises and publisher of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier; John Mack Carter, former president of Hearst Magazines; Mike Duncan, general counsel of the Republican National Committee; and Jim Clinton, director of the Southern Growth Policies Board.
The Institute has academic partners at Appalachian State University, East Tennessee State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Marshall University, Ohio University, Southeast Missouri State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Washington and Lee University, West Virginia University and the new master’s program in community journalism at the University of Alabama. More are expected in other states in the coming year.




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

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

Last Updated: Sept. 2, 2005