Institute making a
difference, seeks endowment
Coverage of big topics like coal, health and economic development
is improving, thanks to the efforts of the Institute for Rural
Journalism and Community Issues.
Most newspapers in Central Appalachia have not been noted for
their coverage of the coal industry, a complex and often controversial
business that can be intimidating to journalists. That is changing,
thanks to recent efforts by the Institute.
The Institute held a “Covering Coal” conference
in South Charleston, W. Va., on November 18. That was six weeks
before a dozen miners died in the Sago Mine near Tallmansville,
W. Va., a disaster that was soon followed by several other fatalities
in the Appalachian coalfield.
But even before that, and after attending the conference, Kyle
Lovern of the Williamson Daily News, which has
readers in Kentucky as well as West Virginia, did a three-part
series on the coal industry in the region, followed by a two-parter
on coal-waste dams.
Soon after the disaster, Lovern did enterprise stories about
mine safety and wrote a column critical of a coal company’s
handling of its public relations. He said the conference encouraged
Others at the conference were complimentary. Pam Kasey of The
State Journal, a West Virginia weekly on government,
politics and business, told the Institute, “It was a rare
treat to have all those people in one room, speaking civilly.
I learned a lot and got a lot of good contacts and ideas.”
Greg Collard of West Virginia Public Radio
said the conference “was a great forum for our reporters
to learn more about the industry. The setting allowed us to get
to know people in the industry, and critics of controversial mining
practices. In our sound-bite culture, it’s important for
journalists to understand issues and the people pushing agendas.
The conference was a great opportunity to educate ourselves so
we can give better context to stories concerning coal.”
Paul Nyden of The Charleston Gazette, a leading
environmental reporter who spoke at the conference, said it was
the first he knew of at which a group of journalists heard from
industry officials, a leading coal-industry analyst, state and
federal regulators, mine-safety advocates and opponents of mountaintop-removal
The conference was held at the Graduate College of Marshall
University, one of the Institute’s 14 academic
partners, which cover a territory ranging from Pennsylvania to
Missouri to North Carolina to Alabama. For more details, click
The conference also had an impact on Marty Backus, publisher
of the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville.
Frustrated at coal companies’ lack of communication with
regional media, he said in a column, “It's a shame both
sides can't get together and air their grievances and come to
The Institute agreed, contacted coal and press associations in
Kentucky and West Virginia and got support for a roundtable meeting,
which was held in Pikeville April 17.
The meeting was again timely, said Ken Ward Jr. of the Gazette,
a leading coal reporter. “"The media and the coal industry
are in a whole new world after Sago," he said.
The day ended with better feelings on both sides. "I think
this is a good first step," said Bill Caylor, president of
the Kentucky Coal Association. For details, click
Earlier in April, the Institute conducted a one-day program
on “Covering and Guiding Rural Economic Development,”
as part of the spring meeting of the West Kentucky Press
The seminar at Murray State University looked
at guiding economic development, as well as covering it, because
many local news outlets have played a role in bringing jobs to
their communities with civic leadership, not just with stories
Today, they and their communities face new challenges. For example,
globalization has made it more difficult for American communities
to attract and retain jobs, and many rural communities face technological
obstacles in keeping up with the rest of the world.
The conference discussed those issues and others, such as the
future of agriculture, state economic-development incentives and
how rural news outlets can help promote their community’s
economic development while remaining enough at arm’s length
to keep public officials accountable.
The Institute’s most public face is The Rural
Blog, a digest of events, trends, issues and journalism
in rural America, published Monday through Friday at www.ruraljournalism.org.
The list-serve for blog notices has more than 400 members from
all over the nation, and countless others have bookmarked it.
The Web site’s name indicates that no one else in the world
is doing what the Institute is doing.
Conferences were held in 2005 on coverage of health in Central
Appalachia and how to cover state and federal governments without
bureau reporters. The centerpiece was a five-day national seminar
at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at
the University of Maryland, on a wide range of
issues in rural America.
The Institute is operating on funding from the university and
the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It
is raising money for an endowment to give it a permanent home
at UK, and the Knight Foundation has invited it to apply for a
challenge grant that would match private fund-raising for the
endowment. With matching of those monies by the state Research
Challenge Trust Fund, known as “Bucks for Brains,”
the Institute’s fund-raising goal of $750,000, if achieved,
would create a $3 million endowment – enough to hire more
full-time, professional staff and make it a truly national program.
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. Last spring, students did
a reporting project on the future of tobacco and tobacco-dependent
communities, and several of their stories were published in Kentucky
This spring, the class was titled “Covering Rural Elections,”
a timely topic since almost every office in Kentucky is on the
ballot this year. Ryan Toombs, a senior journalism major from
Wickliffe, quickly got a story on a state Supreme Court race published
on the front page of The Paducah Sun. Kelly Cross
had a story published in the Estill County Citizen Voice
& Times and The Beattyville Enterprise, and
Parker Reynolds had a story published in the Georgetown
Institute Director Al Cross made presentations at several meetings
around the country, including the annual conference of the Appalachian
Studies Association, a Society of Professional
Journalists regional conference, meetings of editors
of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc. and Community
Newspaper Holdings Inc., and a national community-journalism
seminar in Anniston, Ala.
The latter conference was sponsored by the Knight Community
Journalism Fellows Program at the University
of Alabama, which will begin using The Anniston
Star as a teaching newspaper this fall. Cross is on the
advisory board of the program, and its director, Chris Waddle,
is the newest academic partner of the Institute.
The Institute plans to hold its own national conference early
next year, on rural journalism and how it can help communities
and the nation address the issues that face rural America, such
as education, health care, economic development and the environment.
The Institute is less a journalism-craft program than a public-policy
institute for journalists. Cross’s appointment is in the
Extension Title series, and he says his short job description
is “extension agent for rural journalists” –
as far as the School can tell, the only one anywhere.