July 7, 2004

To: Friends of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
From: Al Cross, director

As it nears completion of its first year with a staff, the Institute has a strong record of accomplishment, plans for more progress, and some challenges. We hope this report will bring you up to speed, refresh your memory and provide food for thought and advice.


Following a national search, in May the interim director became the director – and an assistant professor of journalism in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, where the Institute is housed.

The director calls himself “an extension agent for rural journalists,” and in addition to the Institute’s public events and publications, he has consulted many individual reporters about story ideas, sources, reporting techniques and other facets of rural journalism. For example, a Western Kentucky newspaper learned sources of information for some of its stories about the tobacco buyout and a local government ethics question.

The Institute is unique, as indicated by our ability last fall to obtain the Web address www.ruraljournalism.org. There are other community-journalism programs in the United States, but none that focus on issues and have a mission to help rural media define the public agenda in their communities. We are more a public-policy institute for journalists than a journalism-craft institute, though craft is an essential part of our program.


In what amounted to our national rollout, the Institute programmed a five-day seminar on rural issues for the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland in June. This conference, “Rural America, Community Issues,” featured a wide range of national experts on various issues and topics important to rural America. The journalists’ evaluations were favorable, and the Knight Center staff told us that the conference was one of the best they have held. “Every speaker has put a light bulb in my head,” said Paul Hammel of the Omaha World-Herald. Thirty-one journalists attended, from all over the nation and most types of media. Brief accounts of several sessions are posted on the Reports section of our Web site.

Our fee for programming the conference will be used to underwrite our next conference, “Carrying the Capitals to Your Community,” Sept. 9-10 at the Center for Rural Development in Somerset, Ky. This seminar will be aimed at media that do not have reporters in state capitals or Washington but want to cover government and political news from the capitals. It will be held in cooperation with the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at Ohio State University’s John Glenn Institute, with which we generated the idea, and the Washington-based National Press Foundation -- which will be responsible for the second day of programming, on how to glean information from Washington. We will be responsible for the first day, on covering state capitals, and have lined up major presenters.

Two major issues for the Institute are economic development and the environment. In our initial focus area, Central Appalachia, coal is a big player in both those issues, and we hope to have a conference in Charleston, W.Va., in the fall on “Covering Coal.” Another major issue for us is education, and we are exploring oppotunities with the Partnership for Successful Schools.

The Institute will be the lead programmer for the spring meeting of the Western Kentucky Press Association at Murray State University in April, with several sessions on economic development and how to cover it. We had hoped to conduct this day of programming this spring, but WKPA wanted to wait a year, with hopes of expanding the conference beyond its membership to include journalists from nearby states.

Our first conference, “Covering Health Care and Health in Mid-Appalachia,” was held in February at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Rural Health in Hazard. Appalachia has one of the least healthy populations in America, and health care another of our major issues. More than 50 journalists and people in the health field attended, including some reporters who wrote stories about health issues in their communities. At the suggestion of a health-education director in the areas, we plan to replicate this conference on a smaller scale in London, Ky., in January.


At the Hazard conference, the longtime publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Tom and Pat Gish, received the national award named for them. We hope to present The Gish Award annually to journalists who demonstrate the courage, tenacity and integrity often needed among rural journalists to defend the public interest and advance the public agenda in rural areas. We invite your nominations for the next award.

Pending adequate staff and financial support, we plan to start a monthly awards program for rural journalists, probably beginning in Appalachia. Laura Coleman Noeth, editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, has offered to help with such a program, saying it would give encouragement and support to rural journalists, who often feel isolated and unrecognized.

Student reporting projects

The director’s Special Topics class in the spring semester, on Rural Journalism, conducted a reporting project on the future of tobacco farming and tobacco communities. With the end of the federal tobacco program, the culture and economics of tobacco are undergoing the greatest change in more than 65 years. One story in this project, by Philip Stith, revealed how the changes are leading to an increase in tobacco production in some parts of Western Kentucky.

Other stories in the project examined the economics of a tobacco-dependent county, a local couple who are making money growing mushrooms, a tobacco farmer who is gradually shifting to flowers and other horticultural products, and the role of the Extension Service in helping farmers and communities adjust to the changes. Some of the have been published in local newspapers and All Around Kentucky, the state Farm Bureau newspaper, and are posted on the Reports section of our Web site.

Three stories yet to be posted deal with how Kentucky has spent the tobacco-settlement money that the state legislature earmarked for agricultural diversification. While our class looked at Kentucky, students at UNC-Chapel Hill looked at North Carolina. Our partner there is wrapping up that project, and we plan to publish our findings this month.

One of the students in the class has an internship this summer at the Casey County News, which has done considerable reporting on controversies over use of tobacco-settlement funds. Because the newspaper has no Web site, and we want to encourage such reporting by other rural media, we have posted the paper’s stories on the Reports section of our site.

We plan to make next spring’s Special Topics class Local Political Reporting, because almost every local office in Kentucky will be on the ballot next year, offering plenty of opportunities for real-life reporting under the guidance of the Institute director, who was chief political writer for The Courier-Journal for more than 15 years and still writes a column for the Louisville newspaper twice a month.


To encourage local reporting on use of tobacco-settlement money, the director conducted a session on the reporting project at the Kentucky Press Association convention in January. At the convention in January 2006, we will offer a session on covering local and legislative elections. We may offer a day of programming on political coverage at the fall meeting of the Western Kentucky Press Association.

Our chief presentation so far has been to traveling campuses of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association in Richmond, Va., and Tampa. These were attended by journalists from Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. Another is scheduled in Lexington in late July and is expected to attract journalists from Kentucky. This three-hour presentation is being made by the director and the chairman of our Steering Committee, former rural newspaper publisher Al Smith. We welcome suggestions for points and examples.

We also plan to make presentations at the conventions of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications in San Antonio in August, and this month at a conference of directors of mid-career training programs funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, our major funder.

The director also made presentations at the Institute at the International Rural Network Conference at Abingdon, Va., in June; the Southern Journalists Roundtable at UNC-Chapel Hill in June; “The Media and Appalachia,” a conference at East Tennessee State University in April; a panel discussion on Appalachian stereotypes at the Lexington Public Library in April; Appalachian Studies Association meeting in March (see below); a Kentucky Farm Bureau young farmers’ conference in January; and had a telephone discussion about rural America with a graduate journalism class at the University of California at Berkeley after the November election.


Our grant from the Knight Foundation calls for the Institute to survey newspapers in Central Appalachia about their training needs. With the help of our academic partners at Appalachian State University, Eastern Kentucky University, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Washington and Lee University and West Virginia University, we have done that, and also asked about staff experience and backgrounds, and what sort of training journalists in the region want and need. Preliminary results of the survey, along with information gathered in the Institute’s pilot phase, at the annual Appalachian Studies Conference in March.

In cooperation with the Kentucky Broadcasters Association, we will survey radio stations in Kentucky to measure the extent of local radio news coverage and changes in it during the last five years. After the Kentucky survey is concluded, we may expand the survey to our other pilot-region states: Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. Suggestions are welcome.

Special projects

The director consulted on a rural-issues planning session held by the Council of State Governments, and helped with planning and promotion of Growing Kentucky: New Directions for Our Culture of Land and Food, a multi-disciplinary conference held in March by the Gaines Center for the Humanities and the College of Agriculture. Our Web site has a report on one part of the conference.

We circulated to Kentucky editors a retired journalist’s request for information about country correspondents in weekly newspapers in the state, and may assist the retiree in continuing his research.

The Rural Blog

Our Web log of issues, events, trends, ideas and journalism in rural America continues to expand its audience and its reach. More than 350 people around the country receive a notice when the blog is posted daily, and many more have it bookmarked. It is the Institute’s primary form of outreach, and during the fall and spring semesters (when graduate assistants work) we send e-mails notifying reporters that their stories have been excerpted. Blog items have been reprinted in various publications, from newspapers to interest-group and government newsletters.

The Rural Blog is not like most blogs, in that it is usually posted only once a day and is not interactive. The blog and Web site are being redesigned to make them more graphically appealing, interactive and searchable.
We’re always looking for blog items, especially from rural newspapers and broadcast stations. Please remember that, and let us know about work worth noting.

National and state notice

Last year turned out to be a good time for the director to move from political journalism to rural journalism. When James Dao of The New York Times wanted an expert to talk about vote fraud in Appalachia and the impact of rural voters on the election, he called the director, who was quoted in Dao’s story in the Times on Nov. 4. The director was interviewed before the election by CNN, NPR, USA Today, People magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer; made many broadcast and personal appearances; and wrote a post-election report on Kentucky for a Southern regional newsletter.

The Institute got a favorable mention in Al’s Morning Meeting, published by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The director and chairman of the national Advisory Board, Rudy Abramson, were invited to, and attended, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s national conference on rural issues in Washington in March. Likewise, the director plans to attend a public-policy conference of the Kettering Foundation in Dayton next week.

Professional affiliations

The director attended Tennessee Press Association conventions in February and June, and plans to attend the North Carolina Press Association convention this month and the West Virginia Press Association convention next month. The first SNPA presentation was held at the Virginia Press Association. Kentucky Press Association editors receive occasional e-mails about the Institute, and we are a featured link on KPA’s home page.

The Institute joined the National Newspaper Association, and the director attended the NNA convention in Denver last fall. He also attended the Associated Press Managing Editors conference in Louisville and joined the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. The Institute also received newsletters from many state press associations.

We posted on our Web site the speeches made in April by this year’s inductees to the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Three of the six were involved in community journalism.


The Institute is operating on a two-year, $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation and a $50,000 Ford Foundation grant that was originally made for one year and has been extended for another year. At the Knight Foundation’s invitation, we have applied for operating funds for the third year. Meanwhile, the University of Kentucky has established a new faculty line for the director’s academic salary, and continues to provide administrative support.

The Knight Foundation also has invited us to apply for a challenge grant that would match our other private fund-raising for the endowment that has been established to make the Institute a permanent part of the university. The combined private fund-raising and Knight match would then be matched by the state Research Challenge Trust Fund, generating a total of $4 for each $1 in initial contributions.

Our fund-raising goal is $750,000, which if reached would create an endowment of $3 million, generating about $140,000 a year. With the faculty salary and the university’s administrative support, that would give us a budget of more than $200,000 a year, which we think would be adequate to support a program that would have a national impact and still give special attention to Central Appalachia and the rest of Kentucky. Anything you can do to help us get this essential support would be greatly appreciated.

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: 10/19/2007