John Flavell of The (Ashland) Independent and Todd Garvin of the Glasgow (Ky.) Daily Times talk at Summit.
National Summit focuses
on future of rural journalism
By Mary Jo Shafer, Knight Community Journalism Fellow,
University of Alabama
SHAKERTOWN, Ky. -- The Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near
Harrodsburg, Ky. was the ideal setting for a gathering to discuss
With lambs frisking in the fields nestled among buildings of
the historic site, donkeys peering over the fence rails and ducks
swimming in a pond, attendees at the National Summit on Journalism
in Rural America were greeted by an environment that mirrors many
of their hometowns — the rural counties where they
practice their craft.
Journalists, academics, policy experts and others with an interest
in rural journalism attended the Summit. They heard from a wide
range of panelists and engaged in a robust discussion about the
present state and future of journalism in rural America. They
talked about the challenges facing rural newspapers, policy and
politics that touch their corners of this country, ownership trends,
how to adopt digital culture and how to cover rural issues.
Panel topics included academic centers for rural and community
journalism, newspaper chains that provide good journalism on rural
issues, training backgrounds and needs at small newspapers, and
a group strategy session on the future of rural journalism.
The Summit, hosted by the Institute for Rural Journalism
and Community Issues, was made possible by a grant from
the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with
additional support from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism
Foundation and Farm Foundation.
Rural America is “getting franchised, Wal-Martized and
globalized out of existence,” Rudy Abramson, left, a co-founder
of the Institute and chair of its national advisory board, told
attendees in his opening remarks.
In this environment, media can play a much-needed role, he said.
Communities need newspapers and other media to succeed because
“they can help us to understand the community better,”
Al Smith, a co-founder of the Institute and chair of its steering
committee, also spoke about the connectedness of rural journalism
and the care that these journalists bring to covering community
issues and the people who live in those communities. “That
care will make our journalism successful,” he said.
With that introduction, the Summit kicked off, beginning with
research on training backgrounds and needs at rural newspapers,
and on the challenges facing rural newspapers.
Liz Hansen, right, and Deborah Givens of Eastern Kentucky University
surveyed papers in the counties EKU serves. Their results
show that many rural editors are concerned with rising postal
rates, staffing levels and training.
The difficulties of covering local government also came up --
how to build up trust among readers, especially when conveying
important information, was another issue raised. Attracting and
retaining young readers as well as coping with the changing demographics
of many rural areas were other concerns brought up by survey respondents.
Brian Dabson of the Rural Policy Research Institute at
the University of Missouri shared a presentation chock full of
data on defining rural America. He also highlighted some of the
“hot rural policy issues.” These include agriculture,
energy, education, healthcare, changing populations and regionalism.
One problem is that “no coherent policy framework exists,”
said Dabson, left. “Everybody lives in their own different worlds,
but people who live there are affected by all these forces.”
From policy the Summit moved into politics with Brian Mann’s
presentation. Mann, of North Country Radio in
Saranac Lake, N.Y., and author of Welcome to the Homeland, shared
his insights into the politics of rural America.
“We are observing a revolution, the massive urbanization
of this country,” Mann said, and in the course of becoming
an urban nation, “We have become a starkly divided nation.”
Rural America, which shares similar characteristics throughout
the country, has become a national constituency, according to
Mann. Even as the country has become more intensely urban, political
power is concentrated in rural areas, he said.
After a lunch of hearty Shaker fare, the Summit reconvened with
a session on “How three newspaper chains meet the bottom
line and provide good journalism on rural issues.”
Benjy Hamm, right, of Landmark Community Newspapers,
Frank Denton of Morris Communications and Bill
Ketter of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. shared
their philosophies about journalism and how their companies interact
with the newspapers they own.
They struck a common theme. Their companies believe in local
autonomy, but corporate representatives provide resources, advice
“There is no centralized news operation,” Hamm said.
“We serve as an advisory role. We don’t make our newspapers
do any single thing. We like local control.”
The companies also provide training, legal resources, guidelines
and best-practice examples, and present awards to staff. The help
often goes above and beyond what a small newspaper could afford.
For example, CNHI’s Elite Reporting Program for example
allows reporters the time to work on an in-depth public service
project and to learn Web skills in the process. These reporters
will then go back to the newspaper and teach peers what they learn,
said Ketter, left.
Denton spoke about the appeal of small newspapers. “They
are closer to readers and attuned to the rhythm of life,”
he said. Some are even growing in circulation. But staff of small
newspapers can often feel isolated and don’t get re-energized
Very little training is available, they have a hard time recruiting,
and they “work so hard,” said Denton, right. “The smaller
the newspaper, the harder the people have to work. They constantly
feel swamped and have trouble finding time to be away. They are
so grateful for any attention or help.”
Hamm, Ketter and Denton shared some of their success stories
and the examples of newspapers in their groups that they were
Independent editors and publishers followed this presentation,
bringing to the table their experiences in trying to provide their
communities with good journalism while also staying afloat. (See
story on women editors
and one to be posted on this site, on alternative forms of ownership.) LINKS TO DAY SESSIONS APPEAR AT BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE.
Friday concluded with the Tom and Pat Gish Award Dinner at a Lexington hotel. Abramson
offered a tribute to the couple who have published The
Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years. For a video of his remarks, click here.
The Gish Award was presented to the Ezzell family of The
Canadian Record in Texas: Laurie Ezzell Brown and her mother, Nan Ezell, left. For a video of Institute Director Al Cross's remarks about them, click here. John Seigenthaler, founder
of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and
distinguished editor, provided the keynote address, touching on
the history of free speech in the United States and the courage
displayed by people like the Gishes and Ezzells. For more about
them, click here. For a video of Seigenthaler's remarks, click here.
Saturday brought a bright spring morning to the Shaker Village,
sunny and warm. Attendees gathered at the West Family Wash House
for the final sessions. They started the day by hearing about
the academic side of the equation. While many rural journalists
learn on the job, academic centers specifically devoted to the
needs small newspapers face, can offer training and research and
can also educate the next generation of journalists.
Chris Waddle, director of the Knight Community Journalism Fellows
at the University of Alabama and The
Anniston Star, told Summit attendees about the innovative
graduate program that offers journalists “on-the-job training”
inserted into a working newsroom.
The hope is to “salt the industry” with professionals
who are committed to community journalism and who will be able
to meet the challenges of the future, Waddle said. For video of his presentation and discussion, in two volumes, click here and here.
The State University of New York at Oswego also
has a Center for Community Journalism that provides resources,
critiques and on-site training. It operates e-mails lists for
reporters and publishers, and pursues research related to community
journalism -- work that is needed because there has been very
little written in academic publications on how community newspapers
operate, and Center Director Eileen Gilligan said. For a video of her presentation, in two volumes, click here and here.
Ray Laakaniemi, a retired professor and former weekly editor
led a lively discussion about digital culture and reader interaction,
highlighted by hands-on examples provided by Gary and Helen Sosniecki,
editors and publishers of The Vandalia Leader in
Vandalia, Mo., who have created a successful Web component for
their weekly paper. For their video, click here and here.
The Summit concluded with a group strategy session. Attendees
identified fostering regionalism, encouraging cooperation across
state lines, putting issues in regional and local context, covering
economic development and business news extensively and writing
about the arts and culture as some of the issues they could tackle.
Combating the isolation of rural life is one key challenge, and
several attendees mentioned building a community of rural journalists
and also bringing the world home to their readers.
Strong editorial pages are important and that includes letters
to the editor, they said. The editorial page can provide a forum
for public debate and readers should be brought into the discussion.
One goal of the Summit was to lay the groundwork for a “national
community of rural journalists and help them help each other to
serve their communities and rural America as a whole,” Al
Cross, the director of the Institute, said in his opening remarks.
Attendees made connections, met kindred spirits and engaged in
spirited discussion throughout the weekend in the bucolic setting
of the Shaker Village. Meeting in historic Shaker buildings and
walking along the gravel paths framed by rolling fields and white
fences, attendees were immersed in a quiet and pleasant place
in which to think, talk, and refresh, but they also spent the
three days of the Summit engaged in an ongoing conversation with
each other about the challenges they face as reporters, editors,
publishers and supporters of rural media.
The hope is that the conversation will continue.
Following are links to Friday's presentations.
Survey of Training Backgrounds and Needs at Rural Newspapers in
the United States and Threats
Faced by Rural Newspapers (video
of both presentations)
Issues Facing Rural America: Policy and politics
with Brian Dabson and Brian Mann (videos)
How three newspaper chains meet the bottom line
and provide good journalism on rural issues (video)
Covering rural issues and exploring alternative ownership
forms with an independent publisher who sold to, and works for,
a new kind of chain; and three independent editors and publishers
in a world of box stores and chain papers," by John Wylie
of the Oologah Lake Leader in Oklahoma, who was
scheduled but couldn't attend.
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