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Covering and Guiding Rural Economic Development

May 2006

Many local news outlets have played a role in bringing jobs to their communities, both with stories and editorials and with civic leadership. Today, they and their communities face new challenges.

For example, smaller towns used to attract jobs — particularly manufacturing jobs — with lower land prices, low taxes and relatively low wages. These workers were skilled enough to get the job done but could be offered less than big-city folks. Today, globalization of the economy has made it more difficult for American communities to attract and retain jobs.

Meanwhile, though, many rural communities face technological obstacles in keeping up with the rest of the country and the world because they lack affordable "broadband," or high-speed Internet service.

How rural communities can overcome those challenges, and where rural journalists fit into that work, were among the topics at “Covering and Guiding Rural Economic Development,” a conference for journalists that the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues held at Murray State University on April 7, 2006, in conjunction with the spring 2006 meeting of the West Kentucky Press Association.

“I hope that we will encourage newspapers to do more coverage of economic development issues and in doing so help their communities improve their quality of life,” Institute Director Al Cross told the Murray Ledger and Times in an interview before the conference.

Entrepreneurship was a strong thread running through the conference. Ron Hustedde of UK's Cooperative Extension Service, discussed the Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute that he runs to develop and encourage entrepreneurs to create jobs in rural areas, and Mickey Johnson, district director of Murray State's Small Business Development Center, discussed how he encourages entrepreneurship in Western Kentucky.

To see Hustedde's PowerPoint presentation, "What Every Journalist Needs to Know about Entrepreneurship," click here. To see Johnson's presentation, click here.

Cross said guiding economic development was a major focus of the conference because small-town news outlets have often been part of efforts to recruit and retain jobs, and can still be -- even in an era where chains own most weekly newspapers. “With chain ownership, local newspapers are a little less likely to become involved in these things, but even chain newspapers play a role,” Cross said. “They are still civic leaders, but they don’t have as deep access to the pocketbooks.”

At the same time, news outlets that are involved in economic-development activities need to ensure that those activities are covered in a way that holds local leaders accountable and ensures that the community is making decisions that are in its economic, social and environmental interests, Cross said.

The dangers of getting in bed with local boosters was brought home by Paul Monsour, former editor of the Union County Advocate in Morganfield, Ky., who now heads the county economic development foundation; and Al Smith, a former weekly publisher in Kentucky and Tennessee who aligned himself closely -- too closely, in some cases -- with local boosters and their anti-union views.

Monsour recalled how he let local boosters mislead him, as editor, into not reporting on what they called a "high-tech industry" coming to Morganfield. It turned out to be nothing more than a call center. "I think some officials feel the city gave too much," he said. Monsour also told this story:

"Many years ago, there was this experimental airplane manufacturer that was eyeing the Sturgis Airport and the surrounding Sturgis Industrial Park for a manufacturing plant. Being a 'good guy,' I stayed away from reporting the specifics about what was going on, as asked by the local elected officials and economic developers. I grew restless and at the annual Sturgis chamber banquet, officials of the firm were in attendance. I told them who I was, asked specific questions, and wrote a front page story."

"I did what I think any good reporter would have done. But when the official came a around to make a formal announcement of their plans, I and The Advocate were ignored. I asked why and I was told that I was suppose to ignore the story until 'It was time.' Of course I was invited to the open house the firm had when it opened its plant." But the plant never really finished a plane, because the Federal Aviation Administration would not approve its plans, Monsour said.

"There were rumors that some locals, including a bank, lost money in the deal," Monsour said. "As I look back, perhaps it would have been a good idea to emphasize in my coverage, if I could have gotten it confirmed, that the firm was dealing with an experimental plane."

Smith, chairman of the Institute's steering committee, recalled in a video presentation how his coverage of union-organization efforts at new factories in Russellville, Ky., in the 1960s resulted in two union-representation elections being invalidated by the National Labor Relations Board. Asked why he was so zealous, he said "labor peace" to bring jobs to Russellville was "in my self-interest," as part owner of the newspaper that he late bought. In later years, the paper's labor reporting was more evenhanded.

Asked when a news outlet should agree to withhold economic-development news, Smith said, "We would agree that the real news was that if we could get the annoucnement that they were coming, or maybe the real news would be that they weren't coming." He said that when a large aluminum plant located elsewhere, he wrote a long story about how Russellville had competed for it. He said he also wrote stories about recruitment of factories when rumors circulated and the public needed authoritative information.

The issue of state incentives for rural economic development was debated at the seminar by J.R. Wilhite of the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet; Justin Maxson of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, which questions the effectiveness of state economic-development incentives and encourages local entrepreneurship; and state Sen. Dorsey Ridley, a Henderson banker.

The future of agriculture agriculture-based industries was discussed by Keith Rogers, executive director of the Governor's Office of Agricultural Policy, which oversees Kentucky's spending of tobacco-settlement money for agriculture, and Laura Skillman, an award-winning journalist who heads news services for the agricultural communications unit at the University of Kentucky.

Other speakers at the conference were Henry Torres of Rural Sourcing of Jonesboro, Ark., which sells rural American towns with high-speed Internet access as an alternative to overseas outsourcing; Michael Ramage of ConnectKentucky, a business-government alliance that promotes broadband and other technology development.

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.

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: 09/14/2007