and Guiding Rural Economic Development
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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news, click here.