Building a national community of rural journalists

Opening remarks by Al Cross, Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, April 20, 2007

As far as we can tell, this is the first event of its kind, and it comes at a critical time for both journalism and rural America. Why are we calling it a summit? You were invited to this gathering because we thought each you had something to contribute to a critical deliberation – on how to address the needs of rural America through journalism.

Most of you are in journalism, including the academic side, but many of you labor in the field of research and public policy for rural areas. We think this interesting mix of people -- from 20 states and organizations that touch all 50 states -- will help us all learn some things in the next day or so, and collectively come up with ideas about helping journalism address rural issues.

The summit is needed because the communities of rural America face many challenges, and are often not well served by journalism. Chain ownership is increasing, and that’s not always bad, as some speakers this afternoon will show, but it’s not always good, either. Metropolitan newspapers are cutting back on their circulation and coverage in rural areas, most recently in Georgia and Texas, and rural news outlets often have difficulty helping their communities deal with issues that come at them from state capitals, Washington, other cities, and sometimes halfway around the world, in our increasingly globalized economy.

Globalization has made rural economic development more difficult; lack of broadband has kept the promise of the Internet unfulfilled in many places; the No Child Left Behind Act has presented new challenges for rural schools; increased activity by extractive industries has heightened concerns about the environment; and rural health still suffers from issues of accessibility and affordability.

I’ll leave the policy details to Brian Dabson of the Rural Policy Research Institute, and the politics to Brian Mann and Bill Bishop, who will moderate their panel. Before we proceed, though, a few words about rural journalism.

When we brought this brainchild into the world three years ago, “rural journalism” was an unfamiliar term. Is it the same as community journalism? No, because there is community journalism, and lots of it, in the cities and suburbs – and metropolitan papers are becoming more community-oriented as they scramble to maintain readership and turn the Internet into their friend.

Is rural journalism what you might think of first, the country weeklies? Yes, but not solely. By our count, there are 740 daily newspapers published outside metropolitan areas of the United States, ranging from the Bisbee Daily Review in Arizona, circulation 738, all the way up to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo, circulation 35,000, and represented at the Summit by Joe Rutherford, the Journal’s editorial-page editor, from whom you will hear later today.

And is rural journalism just in newspapers? No, because despite the recent concentration of ownership in radio, many rural stations still have news departments – and some of them are even getting putting that news into print, as well as online. And increasingly, public radio is providing much of the broadcast journalism for rural areas.

So, that is rural journalism. But what is rural journalism about? Overwhelmingly, it’s purely local. My friend Stan McKinney, who teaches journalism at Campbellsville University, wrote a good book on rural and community journalism, called The World Ends at The County Line.

Because that reminds editors to maintain their local focus, which is their franchise, it’s a snappy title. But the world never really ended at the county line – and especially does not now, when American workers compete in a globalized economy and American youth are sent to all parts of the world to risk and lose their lives defending the nation's interests, real or perceived.

So, one thing we try to do at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is help rural reporters and editors grasp those economic, environmental, educational and health-care issues that some at them from afar. We also try to point out examples of good rural journalism, in our Rural Blog and the Good Works section of our Web site, RuralJournalism.org. And that’s why we established the Tom and Pat Gish Award to honor folks who demonstrate the courage, tenacity and integrity that is so often needed in rural journalism in order to render necessary public service through. You will hear from a winner of that award later today.

Most of us in this room know that it is more difficult to be a forthright, diligent, independent and ethical journalist in a rural community than an urban one, because, as my compadre Chris Waddle likes to say, community journalism is relationship journalism. Those of us who have worked in rural radio and newspapers know that our readers and listeners often don’t separate the personal from the professional when it comes to relationships.

And in much of rural America, there are threats to the economic underpinning of its journalism. Liz Hansen and Deborah Givens of Eastern Kentucky University will talk about that in a few minutes.

Folks in rural communities are accustomed to obstacles, but it’s a trade-off for natural beauty and laid-back lifestyle. That’s one reason we’re meeting at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. It’s not the easiest place to get to or to navigate, but it evokes the beauty and spirit of rural America.

Those who are able to overcome the obstacles in rural journalism, and provide good public service to their communities, don’t really have a community of their own. There’s an International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, but that leaves out the dailies, and the main editors’ groups don’t admit the weeklies. Maybe there needs to be a Society of Community Newspaper Editors, because I know lots of weekly and small daily editors – and some of them are in this room – who could hold their own with metro counterparts.

I often say that there are plenty of good journalists in rural America, and many who could be better, but they suffer from the isolation that defines rurality. They don’t get enough opportunities to rub elbows and share experiences. Technology now makes that more possible, but there’s no replacement for personal contact. We hope this Summit will be a catalyst to help create a national community of rural journalists, and help them help each other to serve their communities and rural America as a whole.

Finally, we must say thanks to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which made the Summit and the Institute possible; to the University of Kentucky, which gives the Institute a home; and to Farm Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, which are providing additional support for the Summit.

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 of 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 daily Rural Blog postings and other Institute news, click here.




Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Journalism Building, Lexington KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879

Questions about the Web site? Contact Al Cross, director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 4/26/07, 10:30 a.m.