Good Works: 2006

This is a collection of journalism that has won, should win, and should have won awards -- taken in 2006 from The Rural Blog, a Web log of rural issues, trends and events that is regular reading for hundreds of journalists who cover rural issues and need story ideas, sources, comparisons and inspiration.

Dec. 31, 2006

Mountain Eagle publishers celebrating 50th anniversary of their purchase

On New Year's Day, Tom and Pat Gish will have published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for 50 years. They "have survived floods, death threats, arson and theft. They've covered poverty, corruption and mining disasters. And when they weren't hunched over typewriters and printing presses, they fought for the First Amendment," reports Samira Jafari of The Associated Press.

"These people have demonstrated more tenacity than almost any crusading rural newspaper in the country," Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, told Jafari. "Fifty years is a long time to ride a white horse." Photo shows the Gishes at the 2004 announcement that the Institute was establishing the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism. They were the first recipients. The next award will be given in April at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America in Lexington, Ky. Click here for an article adapted from a tribute to the Gishes when they got the first award.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the weekly Eagle published "scores of stories that attracted national attention to Appalachia, serving as an impetus for the War on Poverty and the 1977 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act. They covered the lack of health care in the hills, the dilapidated schools, jobs lost to the mechanization of the coal industry and dangerous mining conditions," Jafari writes. "And in an unusual move for most rural weeklies, they followed stories that took them beyond the county line. Cross cited The Mountain Eagle's stories that held the Tennessee Valley Authority -- established as a federal natural-resource agency -- responsible for encouraging large-scale strip mining without adequate reclamation."

Jafari notes that the Gishes have won several national journalism awards. Mimi Pickering, an Appalshop filmmaker who is doing a documentary about the Gishes, told the AP reporter, "I think they've set the standard for what high-quality journalism should be, whether it's in a small town or big city." (Read more)

Dec. 24, 2006

Sunday, Dec. 24, 2006

When ignorance begets fear, rural news media need to shed light

When Rep.-elect Keith Elliston, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress, said he would use a Quran for his ceremonial oath, Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., wrote constituents, "I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America."

Goode has Muslim constituents, and they want an apology. “This is a country of immigrants,” Sarwat Ata, chairman of the Danville Masjid Islamic Center, told Bernard Baker of the Danville Register & Bee. "Ata said he voted for Goode in the November election," Barker reports. "Ata said Goode should sit down with local Muslims and learn more about them if he won’t apologize. Ata said Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding. They want to be free and share many of the values Goode supports, such as the Ten Commandments, he said." Goode not only refused to apologize, but repeated his words for local TV.

Baker quoted a Danville resident calling Goode's letter an embarassment, but Brian Todd of CNN reports that in Goode's home town of Rocky Mount, "Nearly everyone we spoke with stands by Virgil Goode. Does that make them racist? Not neccesarily, but their comments reflect the gray areas of race, religion and demographics in small-town America." Todd followed that with interviews of the misinformed and the uninformed at a Rocky Mount restaurant. "I'm not against the Muslim faith," a man said, "but I'm against him forcing his rules, his opinion, upon us." A woman said everyone who takes the congressional oath should use the King James Version of the Bible. You have to wonder if those folks know that last winter, a Muslim cleric from Roanoke, next to Goode's district, gave the invocation in the state House. (View story)

In Danville, The Register & Bee published an editorial that made more sense. The newspaper called Goode's remarks "mean-spirited . . . because in the 5th District, Muslims are an easy group for him to pick on. Their numbers are small and their influence is nil." Then the paper explained why rural Americans need to learn more about Muslims: "The only way to defeat radical Islam is to recognize that it’s not the same thing as the mainstream branches of that faith. Some of the people Goode would bar from this country are part of the force we need to defeat radical Islam. Insulting Muslims won’t hurt Goode in the 5th District, but it makes it harder for his views on immigration to be taken seriously in a big, complex, diverse and dangerous world. Pandering to hometown fears and unfounded worries by attacking a defenseless local minority is certainly no way to make this country safer." (Read more) For the Bee's news story, click here.

We'd like to see some other papers in Goode's largely rural district follow the 21,000-circulation Bee's lead. They could take some cues from The Washington Post, which verbally horse-whipped Goode for what it called "colossally stupid . . . bigotry," and concluded: "Mr. Goode was evidently napping in class the day they taught the traditional American values of tolerance, diversity and religious freedom. This country's history is rife with instances of uncivil, hateful and violent behavior toward newcomers, be they Jewish, Irish, Italian or plenty of others whose ethnicities did not jibe with some pinched view of what it means to be American. Mr. Goode's dimwitted outburst of nativism is nothing new. No, the real worry for the nation is that the rest of the world might take Mr. Goode seriously, interpreting his biased remarks about Muslims as proof that America really has embarked on a civilizational war against Islam. With 535 members, you'd think that Congress would welcome the presence of a single Muslim representative. Whether it can afford a lawmaker of Mr. Goode's caliber is another question." To read the entire editorial, click here. For a Post story today giving background on Goode, immigration and his district, click here.

Dec. 20, 2006

Miss USA's hometown editor reflects on how his weekly did the story

"World media uproar . . . " How many times have you seen those words above a local story in a weekly newspaper? Greg Wells used them in a secondary headline this week in The Times Journal of Russell Springs, Ky. (population 3,000), hometown of Miss USA Tara Conner, who got a reprieve from pageant owner Donald Trump after expecting to be fired for misbehavior in New York City.

Wells told that story, and didn't sugarcoat it, relaying most of the reports about Conner's scandalous behavior, including a local connection: "Since winning the national pageant, Conner has broken off her engagement to Russell County's Adam Mann and has been linked to club owners, disk jockeys and television personalities in the New York club scene." The Times Journal's cutline for the photo above in a local bank read, "Life in Russell County halted momentarily as news networks carried live the news conference at which Donald Trump agreed to keep Tara Conner as Miss USA, following a week of allegations about her New York lifestyle."

In an article written at the request of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, Wells offered this advice to rural editors in similar situations: "Tell the story, tell the feelings of the people involved if you can, and let others tell all the not-so-nice details about the allegations. But take those and add them to the story. Remember, at the end of the day, or in our case the end of the week, you’ll have to live in your town. Be fair, honest, up front and nice. That makes life better all around, and it’s good for business."

Wells expressed disdain for many out-of-town journalists who called him: "They all wanted the same thing, my sources. They are more than my sources, though. These are my people. They are the people that look to us for the news, and the community that looks to this paper for support and comfort when troubling things come along. I can categorize these callers in two groups: Those who were amazed that the first words out of my mouth weren’t “Howdy” or “Hey y’all” and those who acted like trained, experienced professionals. It was so easy to hear the contempt in some of the voices at having to call the lowly country folks, and, heaven forbid, a weekly newspaper editor." The paper's circulation is 5,000.

Wells added, "During all of this was the first time I’d ever heard anyone say, “Name your price” when talking about a photo. It was a little surreal. I didn’t name a price. I didn’t have to wrestle with that ethical problem, since I don’t think the kind of photos they wanted exist." His story in the newspaper said they wanted photos of "anything of her less than fully clothed or with a beer at a party."

Amid the uproar, Wells had another big story to chase, the quick recovery of a drowning victim in Russell County's signature feature, Lake Cumberland, with special, rarely used sonar equipment from Idaho. "I’d also been trying to chase a story on a murder from last Wednesday," he wrote. "So now there were three major stories working, and there was only one of me, and the calls were still coming in." (Read more)

The sonar story, big news in a county that has many drownings, shared the top of the Times Journal's front page with the headline “Tara: 'I will not let you down'” and the above photo. A secondary photo showed a Lexington, Ky., television reporter doing a stand-up. The story quoted Conner's parents, who had rebuffed national media. The headline above the story's jump read, "TARA: She has a second chance, the praise of her father for facing the music, and media from all over the world buzzing." For a PDF of the newspaper's front page, click here. For the jump page, click here.

Thursday, Dec. 14, 2006

Rural editors sometimes need to look well beyond the county line

Decades ago, many rural editors opined on national and international events. Some, like William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette in Kansas, became nationally known for their editorials. But with the advent of national TV networks and national circulation of major newspapers, rural and other community papers tended to their local-news franchises and observed the maxim "The world ends at the county line." Larry Timbs of Winthrop University even wrote a good book about community journalism with that title.

But the world does not end at the county line -- especially 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 from time to time, we like to see rural editors have their say about bigger events. It brings the events home to their readers -- many of whom don't read a daily newspaper and get little substance from the sound bites of radio and television. But those readers are just as much citizens of the United States as readers of metropolitan papers, and they discuss the same big issues with each other, so the local editor ought to join that conversation and bring knowledge to it. We believe that if you pay money for a newspaper, you deserve to know what the editor thinks.

One rural editor who often goes past the county line is Ben Chandler of The Woodford Sun in Versailles, Ky. This week, in his column (which is not online), he started with the 65th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and took readers to current conflicts, calling the war in Iraq "one of the greatest mistakes ever made by a U.S. president." He said President Bush, "a decent, patriotic man," took a "cowboy approach, and his foreign-policy team either didn't or couldn't give him the correct advice -- or he wouldn't take it."

But Chandler rejected suggestions for talks with Iraq's neighbors-- in vivid, personal terms. "It makes me sick to see pictures of the beanpole from Syria hugging and kissing the little squirt from Iran," he wrote. Suggesting a withdrawal of troops to Kuwait and Kurdistan, he concluded, "I say get our people out of harm's way without the humiliating 'hat in hand' approach to Syria and Iran. When we regain our military strength, spending on our own self-interest rather than throwing billions to the winds trying to fashion a democracy where there has never been one, then we will be able to talk to those skunks as equals."

As you may know, Ben Chandler is the father of the Democratic congressman of the same name, and son of the late A.B. "Happy" Chandler, who was governor twice, senator, and baseball commissioner. But it doesn't take a political pedigree to write about national and international issues and help rural readers think about them. --Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Friday, Dec. 1, 2006

Weekly editor in rural Oklahoma shares tale of grief, blame, and courage

Sharon Johnson came under fire after writing an article about a kidnapping and assault, when two days later the man came back to kill his wife and himself. Johnson is the editor of the weekly Stigler News-Sentinel in Stigler, Okla., population 2,731. In the latest issue of the Oklahoma Publisher, from the Oklahoma Press Association, she summed up the original incident: “The man held his wife hostage in their home, struck her in the stomach and later vandalized the home, taking many of her personal items.” She wrote a story about the incident, and “Everything in it was based solely on the D.A.’s report. I was satisfied that it was beyond legal reproach,” she said. “What it was not beyond, however, was reproach from the public.”

An in-law of the couple, who handles advertising for his family’s car dealership, called the paper immediately, saying angrily about the husband, “We’re afraid this is just going to set him off.” The ads were cut, but Johnson said that was “the least of our concerns.” The murder-suicide occured two days later, and some local residents said the article triggered it. “We have been told that we need to ‘watch our backsides’ and even had some that said they were praying something would happen to us,” said Johnson. She said the paper probably would have been accused of a cover-up if it had not reported the first incident.

Some questioned why the paper did not publish her husband’s suicide six years earlier. She said she didn't understand how people could compare the incidents, because her husband was alone when he killed himself and “It is not our policy to publish stories about suicides. If the man involved had simply shot and killed himself that first night, there would have simply been an obituary.”

Johnson said the National Newspaper Association convention in Oklahoma City in October came at just the right time for her. “It allowed me to share my heartache and fears with those who understand it best – fellow journalists,” she wrote, adding that that “journalists do bleed like everyone else. They also hurt like everyone else. No one but other journalists understand this.” (Read more)

Small daily helps resort town deal with population boom, new industry

The Post Independent, a daily with a circulation of 12,000, is helping its community of Glenwood Springs, Colo., adjust to rapid population growth created by natural-gas drilling. Most residents of the ski-resort town of 8,564 work in tourism. The gas industry has brought new jobs and a newcomers who have filled schools and increased housing demand. The incidence of crime and methamphetamines has also risen, reports Jeremy Weber of The Inlander, the monthly newspaper of the Inland Press Association.

Andrea Porter, publisher of the Independent, told Weber that the paper has learned how to deal with the impact on the community -- “how to report it, and how to take different approaches to it. It’s fun – it makes the day and what you’re reporting on very interesting.” Monday papers have reader-submitted photos, and a section called “Community Faces” features residents nominated by readers. The Independent has begun offering an online edition this year to give extra coverage and provide fast access to breaking stories.

The Independent is one of 16 papers in Swift Newspapers’ Colorado Mountain News Media group. “The 36-page tab highlights local news and entertainment, produces 20 special sections and regularly seeks reader input,” writes Weber. The paper is unusual in that it has both a paid circulation and distribution on free racks, brought on by the merger of a paid daily and a free paper. Porter said that their paid and free circulations are about evenly split. (Read more)

Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006

Mountain Eagle says taking of its election-eve edition was a theft of rights

The Mountain Eagle, the nationally known weekly newspaper in Whitesburg, Ky., came out a day early last week to give its readers last-minute election news and one last round of advertising from candidates. But soon after the paper was distributed, it disappeared from news racks, either bought or stolen. The paper's countered by posting election-related articles online, marking the Eagle's first appearance in cyberspace.

"The community consensus, as we hear it, is that every copy of the Eagle that could be found was taken off newsstands to keep voters from reading information that refuted false statements circulated on radio, television and in other publications against Letcher County Judge-Executive Carroll Smith," Eagle Publisher Tom Gish said in an editorial this week. Most Eagle readers get their copies on the newsstands, and the mailed copies arrived in boxes on Election Day, presumably after many voters had been to the polls.

Smith, a progressive Republican, lost to Democratic Magistrate Jim Ward by 347 votes out of 8,039 cast, or 4.3 percentage points. The paper's lead story, headlined "Smith, others answer attacks in radio, TV ads," reported records refuting claims by Smith's foes that he was lax in seeking money for water and sewer lines in the mountainous county, and that a prosecutor had discredited Ward's claim that Smith's "billing practices" were being investigated. A sidebar gave Smith's reply to a Ward ad on another issue.

Gish called the thefts "an effort . . . to put The Mountain Eagle out of business. Take the paper away from the people who read it each week and the paper will die a quick, short death." He said 4,000 of the paper's 7,000 circulation is through single-copy sales. When readers discovered that the election-day issue had disappeared from groceries, convenience stores and other outlets, "Large numbers of readers came to the Eagle office to buy copies of the paper, but we had only a few left for sale. But we did hear countless descriptions of events from angry citizens who had been denied their God-given and American Constitution-guaranteed right to liberty and the freedom to read, to gain information, to think for themselves."

Then, like any good rural publisher, Gish turned to the business side, to the rights of the advertisers who make the paper possible: "That issue of the Eagle contained a number of advertisements from automobile dealers, furniture stores, groceries and other merchants who wanted to reach the thousands of Letcher Countians who read the Eagle each week. . . . The right of those merchants to benefit from that advertising was stolen. And you, dear readers, might have missed a rare buy on a good car."

The Eagle found itself at odds with a major advertiser, Abingdon, Va.-based Food City, which first told the paper that it had removed its news racks for clearning, then said it put the copies on a nearby counter because a customer complained about "caustic information" on the front page. The Eagle's story on the controversy quoted a reader as saying another store kept the papers in a lpocked room until the day after the election, and said "a publication in Cromona, Ky.," the competing Letcher County Community News-Press, "reported the Democrat Party was responsible for the plan to get the papers off the stands."

Gish's editorial concluded, "We think it will all trace back to a handful of very powerful interests who want to control every single thing in the county, no disagreements, no opposition, no hints of dissent to be tolerated — the old way of doing things — fire the coal miner who wants a union, don't re-hire the teacher who disagrees, take away the food stamps, the free medications, the welfare checks of anyone who dares express a thought of his own. Shoot and kill the famed Canadian television producer who shows a casual interest in Letcher County problems, burn down The Mountain Eagle, make The Mountain Eagle disappear from the newsstands." The newspaper's office was firebombed in 1974, and a city policeman was convicted of arranging the arson. "We are troubled now by the effort to take the paper from the hands of its readers. But we are determined to continue doing what we do: Give you readers the facts on the things that happen in the county and sometimes elsewhere. We don't have the time, the reporting staff, to report it all, but we do what we do with good intentions, determination, and a lot of love for the mountains and mountain people. And, yes, let's hope no one person, no organization, can keep you from this week's paper and another 100 years of The Mountain Eagle."

Gish and his wife, Pat, will mark 50 years of Eagle ownership on Jan. 1. The newspaper will mark its centennial about 10 weeks later. Tom Gish appears at right, speaking at the October 2005 announcement of the establishment of the Tom and Pat Gish Award, presented by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism.

Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2006

Rural papers net distinguished reporting awards in Pacific Northwest

Rural dailies in the Pacific Northwest cover everything from methamphetamine addiction to locals dying in Iraq, and those efforts brought several papers C.B. Blethen Memorial Awards for Distinguished Newspaper Reporting.

"Frank Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, presented this year's awards at the annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association. It marked the 30th year the awards have been given in memory of the man who published The Seattle Times," reports The Associated Press.

Among papers with a circulation of under 50,000, reporter Peter Zuckerman and the staff of the Post Register in Idaho Falls won for the investigation called "Scouts' Honor," a series about the Boy Scouts program in eastern Idaho and its decade-long problem with child molesters. (Read more)

Other winners among newspapers with under 50,000 circulation included: The Chronicle in Centralia, staff, for Distinguished Deadline Reporting with "Iraq ambush kills Centralian"; the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Nicole Stricker, for Distinguished Feature Writing with "Of meth and motherhood"; The Daily News of Longview; Tony Lystra, for Distinguished Enterprise Writing with "Living in the Highlands" (click here to read); and the Yakima Herald-Republic, Philip Ferolito, for Distinguished Coverage of Diversity with "Native Sons." Many of the articles were not online or the newspapers charge fees for access.

Friday, Oct. 27, 2006

Rural Danish paper tries to build bridges between natives, refugees

In rural Denmark, the newspaper Nordjyske Stiftstidende is trying to integrate Muslim refugees with native Danes with a series called “Kontakt.” Reporter Lars Hofmeister came up with the idea after another Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, raised international controversy last September by publishing editorial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Inger Lise Kobber-Jønsson, assistant managing editor of Nordjyske Stiftstidende, told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues that the series is designed partly to help dispel negative images of Denmark and Danes that the cartoons may have created.

To foster understanding between “new Danes” and “old Danes,” the paper ran a story last month inviting a native family to have dinner with a family of Afghan immigrants. The Afghans were refugees from the country's civil war before getting permanent-residence permits in Denmark. Hofmeister's story describes their dinner with a family in the town of Sæby (population 18,000), the food they ate, their conversations and how the children played. It occupied a two-page spread with six color photographs. The story talked little of politics, and focused on the interactions between the families and their new friendship.

Nordjyske Stiftstidende is a daily with a circulation of about 70,000, with six local editions. We think this series is an excellent example of how rural newspapers anywhere can become engaged in their communities, to interact with the public and build bridges across cultures. To read the article, click here. (Article in Danish, and for subscribers only; for a translation, contact the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, address below.) To visit Nordjyske Stiftstidende’s home page, click here.

Monday, Oct. 16, 2006

Journalism class at Indiana U. covering local elections in several counties

Students in Carol Polsgrove's Public Affairs Reporting at Indiana University in Bloomington are getting out of the classroom to cover this fall's elections and news in largely rural southern Indiana. The stories have been sent to local newspapers, and at least one has been published.

The first package of stories, on the elections, is available on the class blog, Southern Indiana News. Students talked to candidates and officials in several counties, including Dubois, Jackson, Owen, Greene and Lawrence, to cover election issues and races. Click here to read the stories.

Student Benjamin Weller wrote, "Dubois County, with towns like Jasper and Huntingburg, is by all accounts a deeply conservative community. A large German Catholic population, rural industries like farming and furniture manufacture, and scores of churches make up the backbone of the county. Pro-life billboards dot the countryside, and the county consistently votes for Republican presidential candidates. Most of the local elected officials, however, are Democrats, with several running in uncontested races. This contradiction reveals a more dynamic electorate than partisans on either side would care to admit."

Students also just returned from one of what will be several visits to Orange County in preparation for the semester's centerpiece project -- reports on the changes in West Baden and French Lick as those towns prepare for the opening of a new casino and renovated hotels.

Polsgrove is the newest academic partner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Before starting the course, she consulted Director Al Cross, who gave her copies of stories his students at the University of Kentucky did on judicial elections in a Special Topics course last spring. Next semester, Cross's students will cover the primary elections for governor of Kentucky.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Miss. publisher spurs economic boost for rural area via paper, foundation

George McLean, the owner of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo, Miss., population 34,211, is committed to economic development in rural America, and he became one of the first people to adopt a regional approach through his Community Development Foundation. The paper's circulation of 35,490 is larger than the population of its home city, so it has a truly regional role, as its name indicates.

David Rumbarger, the foundation's CEO, recently told economic consultant Jack Schultz of Boomtown USA about how McLean began his effort: “He would rent recent movies and go out with his projector into some of the rural towns on Saturday night. He would give a 20-minute talk before he would show the movie. He also had a tote board in each town to show them how they compared to other towns in the region. He had them cooperating as a region but also competing with each other to try to do better."

The paper's Web site says the foundation aims "to be a catalyst for positive change in Northeast Mississippi by committing its resources to projects that will improve the quality of life for all citizens of Northeast Mississippi and by helping individuals and groups of providing financial support to meaningful projects."

McLean elaborates on his regional approach and the role played by the newspaper in a column: "The good newspaper is its community's encourager which by making known what groups and individuals are doing brings mutual support for each other's projects and invites still greater personal initiative. It is a community's semi-official provider of pats on the back through news stories, pictures or editorials. The good newspaper can contribute perhaps more than any other institution to development of an active, mutually serving citizenship." (Read more)

Friday, September 8, 2006

Publisher doesn't hide unflattering description of him from his readers

It's not often that you find a newspaper publisher described as follows in his own column: "A dilettante and effete snob who imports Ivy League reporters just to bedevil the community, and cares mainly about unnamed famous friends." But that's how H. Brandt "Brandy" Ayers translated for his readers the image of himself presented by a new book about his town of Anniston, Ala., and his paper, The Anniston Star.

The book, My City Was Gone, was written by Dennis Love, a former Star feature writer. Ayers called it "an entertaining, well-written, sometimes funny and sad, gripping account of the titanic struggle to wring justice and good sense out of Anniston’s environmental crises," such as pollution by a chemical plant and the fight over disposal of nerve gas stored at the local Army post -- a fight that ended with the alternative favored by the Star, incineration on site.

"Love couldn’t quite make up his mind about The Star," Ayers wrote. "He quotes it dozens of times, calls it progressive, an experience that gave him a larger, more mature picture of his city, but through some languid, mysterious path reached the wrong conclusion about burning nerve gas. He is more certain about the editor and publisher, me. In his pages, my nearly 50-year career is reduced to a cartoon," quoted above.

"My liberal view of the world, constructed from inheritance, education, experience with enlightened Southern governors and presidents, wide reading and travel, is reduced to flighty 'contrariness'. Frankly, when I read that, the raging bull of ego flooded my mind, its horns aimed straight for the soft fanny of my former feature writer," Ayers wrote. "In defense I will call only two witnesses: Time magazine, which twice named us one of the nation’s best newspapers, and Columbia Journalism Review, which named us among America’s 30 best. I rest my case." (The 25,000-circulation Star recently became the teaching newspaper for the Knight Community Journalism Fellows Program of the University of Alabama.)

Then Ayers went back to praising Love's work, ending with two requests to readers: "Read Dennis's book . . . but . . . please clip this column and stick it back with the index — just to keep him fair and balanced." (Click here to read more; the Star's Web site is for subscribers, but it offers a one-day free trial.)

Friday, September 1, 2006

Veteran rural journalists win awards from National Newspaper Assn.

Donald Q. Smith and Diane Everson will be honored at the 120th annual convention of the National Newspaper Association, where Smith will recieve the James O. Amos Award and Everson will accept the Emma C. McKinney Memorial Award.

"Recognized as the highest and most dignified tributes in community journalism, the Amos and McKinney awards are presented to a working or retired newspaperman and woman who have provided distinguished service and leadership to the community press and their community," NNA says..

Smith, retired publisher and editor of the Monticello Times in Monticello, Minn., will receive the Amos award, established in 1938 in honor of Gen. James Amos, a pioneer Ohio journalist. Everson, co-owner and co-publisher of the Edgerton Reporter in Edgerton, Wis., will receive the McKinney Award, established in 1966 to honor Emma McKinney, co-publisher and editor of the Hillsboro (Ore.) Argus for 58 years. (Read more)

Aug. 8, 2006

Wis. writer wins CapitolBeat award for story on developmentally disabled

Tom Sheehan, who covers Wisconsin state government for the mostly small-circulation Lee Newspapers of Wisconsin, recently won the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors (CapitolBeat) award for a single report in a newspaper of less than 75,000. His winning story was about families who resist moving their developmentally disabled relatives out of state institutions.

"For about three decades, the state has mirrored a national trend in encouraging a shift in care for the developmentally disabled from public and private institutional settings to community-based residential settings, such as group homes. The transition has been slow and steady. But political, legal and budget pressure to empty the state centers, as well as county-run and private institutions, known as intermediate care facilities for the mentally retarded (ICFs/MR), has never been greater," wrote Sheehan, who has been the Lee Newspapers' statehouse bureau reporter for five and a half years.

Sheehan interviewed both families and industry experts, many of whom agreed that the push toward community-like settings does not work for all patients. "Some developmentally disabled people who have moved into community settings have unnecessarily died, been injured or placed in jeopardy in situations that could have been avoided, said Carolyn Kaiser, a field representative for the state union employee district, which includes Northern Center," he reported.

Sheehan's story appeared in about five newspapers including the LaCrosse Tribune.

New Mexico writer wins AP award for probing illegal campaign donation

When David Giuliani of The Las Vegas Optic in New Mexico learned the Luna Community College Foundation gave $1,000 to the campaign of Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, in July 2004, he started investigating because charitable nonprofit groups are not supposed to give such donations. Guiliani's efforts recently earned him the New Mexico Associated Press award for an investigative story in 2005.

Giuliani described his investigation in an e-mail to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues: "Late on a Saturday afternoon in November 2005, I was surfing the Internet and visited the followthemoney.org Web site, which tracks contributions to candidates across the country. I noticed that a local educational foundation had contributed to a local state senator's re-election campaign. I believed that a foundation couldn't make such a donation with its federal nonprofit status. I then visited the IRS Web site and found educational foundations, indeed, couldn't make such donations.

"I knew I had a story. I had the donation confirmed with the foundation's director on Monday morning; she said the IRS had fined the group. But when I started calling foundation board members, several were in the dark and had no idea such a contribution was made. In the last of my three stories, I had an indication that the state senator returned the money, although he didn't confirm it. As you know, it can be hard for a small paper to do enterprise reporting. That's why we must be strategic with our resources."

To read Guiliani's initial story, click here. To conduct your own such investigation of monetary contributions to legislative candidates, visit the National Institute on Money in State Politics Web site. It's a good starting point for reporters in any state, with links to each state's campaign-finance agencies.

July 31, 2006

Small Newspaper Group wins another prize for teacher-tenure series

Scott Reeder, the Illinois state capital reporter for the Small Newspaper Group, has won a fifth major award for a series on "The Hidden Costs of Tenure" for teachers in Illinois public schools.

Reeder's latest prize is the Clark Mollenhoff Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting, sponsored by the Institute on Political Journalism, part of the Fund for American Studies, a Washington-based educational foundation that advocates democracy and free markets, and co-administered by Georgetown University. It carries a $10,000 cash prize, and it advises judges, "Since there is only one annual award, a light thumb on the scale should be awarded to smaller publications that produce strong investigative entries despite limited resources."

Reeder's employer has this image of him and the Illinois Capitol on its Web site. The company's name reflects both its family ownership and the size of its seven daily newspapers, five of them in Illinois -- The Dispatch of Moline (circulation 32,000); The Daily Journal of Kankakee, home of the company headquarters (28,000); The Rock Island Argus (13,000), The Daily Times of Ottawa (11,650) and the Times-Press of nearby Streator (9,000) -- plus the Herald-Argus of LaPorte, Ind. (12,000) and the Post-Bulletin of Rochester, Minn. (44,000). The chain also has weeklies and two reporters in Washington, D.C., where it has had a bureau since 1978.

Reeder's six-month investigation relied on more than 1,500 Freedom of Information Act requests with almost 900 government entities, with which he followed up to get a response rate of 100 percent. He found that "of an estimated 95,500 tenured educators in Illinois, only two on average are fired each year for poor job performance. ... Reeder faced obstacles from an entrenched school-system bureaucracy and powerful teachers' unions," reports Illinois PressLines, the newspaper of the Illinois Press Association.

Reeder beat out the Copley News Service investigation that led to the bribery conviction of California congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham and a New York Daily News probe of wasted 9/11 relief. Reeder's project was "a testament to the power of open records," said Investigative Reporters and Editors, which gave him its Freedom of Information Reporting Award this year. It also netted a finalist slot for the Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting, a special citation from the Education Writers Association and a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. To read the series, click here.

July 28, 2006

Without federal program, big tobacco growers boom, small ones fade

"Domestic tobacco production was not supposed to flourish in the absence of a quota system," part of the federal tobacco program that was repealed almost two years ago, wrote Joe Parrino in the Kentucky New Era of Hopkinsville. "Growers lacked the guarantee of a decent price and lost any leverage on tobacco companies, the critics said. . . . The naysayers were half-right. Plenty of Kentucky producers have quit or are on their way out of the business. But there are many midsize to large growers in Pennyrile region, that are discovering an unprecedented business opportunity."

Parrino's story focuses on Jeff Davis, who is raising 205 acres of tobacco, 108 in a single field -- “the biggest single tobacco plot I’ve ever seen,” University of Kentucky extension agent Gary Palmer (at left in above photo, with local extension agent Jay Stone; photo by Danny Vowell), who is helping Davis with a cultivation experiment, told Parrino. Davis hopes his acreage will produce 600,000 pounds.

"Under the federal tobacco program, Davis was limited to as little as 12,000 pounds of burley on his own land. He could lease quota from other farmers. But that cut deeply into profits," Parrino wrote. Without the burden of leasing costs, which were reported as high as 90 cents a pounds contracts, "Davis can still manage a decent profit . . . even with prices dropping down from more than $2 per pound to $1.30 per pound or less," without the price supports that were the other major part of the federal program. The end of the program was accompanied by a buyout -- payments to farmers for their quotas. “The buyout gave me the opportunity to farm it,” Davis told Parrino.

But the story can be much different for smaller growers like Todd Long, who moved to the area from Lancaster, Pa., in 1991. "About 2001, quota restrictions began to tighten. After several years, Long was allowed just 2.5 acres to grow his burley. Quota leasing was not a profitable option. He sold his farm in 2004 and invested in real estate instead," Parrino writes, quoting Long: “The small-time farmer is done for. There was a time when you could see a light at the end of the tunnel. But that is diminishing.” (Read more)

As the number of farmers declines, so does tobacco's political clout. In the same edition, the New Era called for a ban on smoking in publicly owned buildings in Christian County, long one of the state's leading tobacco producers, and sad city officials in Hopkinsville are contemplating such a ban. (Read more)

July 27, 2006

Columnist's mother lives on, or so creditors claim to collect debts

"My mother allegedly died on April 2. I say allegedly because a collector representing MBNA said he talked to her on June 21. Until I saw a letter from Dale Lamb, I felt pretty certain my mother was dead. I viewed her lifeless body at the hospital. A funeral director I have known since the second grade gave me an urn that supposedly contained her ashes. I have a death certificate from the state of Kentucky," writes Don McNay, "the business columnist with a rock-and-roll attitude."

McNay writes that despite the overwhelming evidence of his mother's death, "Lamb claims to have talked to her on June 21. You can find a copy of the letter from Lamb and my mother's death certificate at www.donmcnay.com. Thanks to MBNA and their collector -- the ironically named, True Logic Financial Corp. -- mom is now in a category with Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison. She has been deemed alive despite tremendous evidence to the contrary."

"The story about my mom and MBNA is an example of why credit card companies need more regulation. I was named administrator of mom's estate after she supposedly died. I then received a letter from a company called Mann Bracken, saying MBNA had obtained an arbitration award against mom. No one in my family knew anything about a debt to MBNA or had seen notice of an arbitration hearing," continues McNay, who hired an attorney to look into the matter.

"Instead of responding to my attorney, MBNA shifted the alleged debt to True Logic. The True Logic people didn't claim that MBNA actually had an arbitration award -- only that they might get one. Taking MBNA and True Logic at their word, I'm curious as to what mom said to Mr. Lamb. I hope they have a tape recording. Mom was known to use salty language, and I'm sure Mr. Lamb would have heard some," McNay concludes. (Read more)

McNay's journalistic base is The Richmond (Ky.) Register, which announced yesterday that it will publish a bilingual column "to facilitate cross-cultural communication," Editor Jim Todd said. (Read more)

July 26, 2006

Kentucky weekly probes background, aftermath of prayer dispute

Adam Gibson writes for The Times Journal of Russell Springs, Ky.: "For a short time in May, because of two very different teenagers, this community was turned into a microcosm for the debate on the separation of church and state when a federal judge ruled to block prayer at the 2006 Russell County High School graduation." That's the lead of a story that is a good example of a rural, weekly newspaper delving deeper into a highly charged issue and revealing the lives and feelings of the main protagonists.

The story revealed that after Megan Chapman talked about her faith in God during a graduation speech, Rev. Jerry Falwell was so impressed that he offered Chapman and her twin sister Mandy a scholarship to his Liberty University. The picture is not so rosy for Derrick Ping, the student who got the American Civil Liberties Union to file a lawsuit blocking the traditional prayer at the commencement -- and who has since been subjected to verbal and physical harassment, reports Gibson.

Gibson chronicles how Ping's personal convictions, both before and during the graduation period, made him an outcast in Russell County, on the shores of Lake Cumberland: "Ping is a 19-year-old whose personal convictions run counter to his community's strong religious framework. When Ping decided to act on his own convictions he created a firestorm of controversy that both enraged and united a community."

Ping told Gibson his acknowledged lack of Christian faith caused him to be singled out and ridiculed by classmates throughout his schooling. Nevertheless, he found it important to speak out about officially sanctioned prayer before the graduation. "I was trying to take away a little power from the religious regime here. They've gone unchecked for a good while now and if I didn't speak out, nothing was going to happen," he said, adding that one of his middle-school science teacher once summarized the theories of evolution and the Big Bang in 30 seconds, then read from Genesis "for quite a while."

Chapman told Gibson that if a majority wants prayer, it should get it, and if someone wants to complain about it, they should not be surprised by the backlash. "I hate to say it, but I'm sorry, the minority doesn't win," she said. To read a PDF of the newspaper's front page, including the beginning of the story, click here. For the rest of the story, continued to an inside page, click here. For a one-page version, which has much lower resolution, click here.

July 13, 2006

At least 14 rural counties expelled blacks over six decades, research finds

"It is America's family secret. Beginning in 1864 and continuing for approximately 60 years, whites across the United States conducted a series of racial expulsions, driving thousands of blacks from their homes to make communities lily-white. In at least a dozen of the most extreme cases, blacks were purged from entire counties that remain almost exclusively white, according to the most recent census data," writes Elliot Jaspin of Cox Newspapers' Washington Bureau in a remarkable report.

"It is impossible to say exactly how many expulsions took place. But computer analysis and years of research . . . reveals that the expulsions occurred on a scale that has never been fully documented or understood. The incidents are rarely mentioned in the numerous books, articles and movies about America's contentious racial past."

Census records revealed that in about 200 counties, mainly in border states, black populations of 75 or more disappeared from one decade to another. Jaspin narrowed his probe to identify expulsions that were documented through contemporaneous accounts and where few if any blacks ever returned. "Within those narrow parameters, Cox Newspapers documented 14 countywide expulsions in eight states between 1864 and 1923, in which more than 4,000 blacks were driven out," reports Jaspin.

Expulsions took place in the counties of Whitley, Laurel and Marshall in Kentucky; Washington and Vermillion in Indiana; , Polk and Unicoi in Tennessee, Sharp and Boone in Arkansas, Forsyth and Dawson in Georgia; Lawrence in Missouri, Comanche in Texas, and Mitchell in North Carolina.

In Kentucky, Whitley and Laurel are adjoining counties that each lost about half their black population between 1910 and 1920. In 1919, in the railroad town of Corbin, in the northeast corner of Whitley, "Whites, believing that the arrival of a black railroad construction crew had spawned a crime wave, rounded up blacks at gunpoint, herded them to the train station and forced them to leave," Jaspin writes. (Read more) News of the Corbin expulsion may have generated repression and departures in Laurel.


July 6, 2006

When rumors harm, not humor, a newspaper steps in -- and wins

A editorial attempt by a newspaper publisher in Vandalia, Mo., population 2,500, to turn his community's focus away from rumors about local school officials has earned the Golden Quill Award from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

Gary and Helen Sosniecki own The Vandalia Leader, circulation 2,200. In the winning editorial, headlined "Stop the rumor-mongering," he wrote, "In The Leader that was published the morning after last year's school-board election, I editorialized that it was time for the community to put its disagreements behind it and move forward. That prompted a visit from an unhappy reader who informed Helen that nobody who had lived in the community for only six months -- she meant Helen and me -- was going to tell her to move forward. She then canceled her subscription. It's obvious now that our critic knew the community better than we did. Despite the best efforts of many, the community has not moved forward. Rumors about what has or hasn't happened at the school this year with regard to administrative performance have festered below the surface all year."

"After more than 30 years in the newspaper business, it's no surprise to Helen and me that we have been drawn into the controversy. The 'side' that didn't appreciate our attempts at objective coverage a year ago sends us 'I-told-you-so' e-mails. The 'side' that liked our attempts at objective coverage last year but doesn't like us being so objective this year simply snubs us and complains about us behind our backs. Every other small town we've lived in has taken up 'sides' over one thing or another, often involving the school, and the newspaper gets the blame whenever one of those sides doesn't get its way."

Sosniecki said the town is prone to rumors about all sorts of things. "Let's find something to talk about instead of hurtful rumors," he concluded. "If we must spread rumors, let's not be so gullible as to believe those that couldn't possibly be true. Vandalia is a good community with good people. Stopping the rumor-mongering would make it even better." (Read more)

Author and journalism professor David Dary, who judged the contest, said, "Newspapers can make a community better. In this case, the writer had earlier observed how a school administrator was run out of town and a high-school principal replaced because of unfounded rumors. When critical rumors of the new principal's efforts began, the paper realized it was time to comment on the obvious."

Sosniecki is one of only five people to win the award twice in its 45-year history, having notched it at Seymour, Mo.'s Webster County Citizen in 1998. In the society's Grassroots Editor, he wrote of his latest winner: "Both sets of rumors contributed to divisiveness in the community that broke up longtime friendships. They also could be blamed for the failure of a bond issue to build new science rooms at the high school, a step backward for the community that, fortunately, was corrected recently in a second election. Sometimes the news in a small town is bad enough without it being embellished by rumor. When rumors reach a point that they harm rather than humor, they need to be reeled in."

Other finalists included Jim Painter of the West Valley View in Litchfield Park, Ariz., with "A bureaucrat is stomping on your rights" (click here to read); Elliott Freireich of the West Valley View with "Would you do whatever it took?" (click to read); Richard McCord of the El Dorado Sun of Santa Fe, N.M., with "The Mansions That Ate Santa Fe" (click to read); and Betta Ferrendelli of The Observer of Rio Rancho, N.M., with "What about diversity?" (click to read).

July 5, 2006

Small-town newspaper investigates fatal drug overdoses in its county

A small daily newspaper in Kentucky investigated the fatal drug overdoses that plague rural America, and a reporter emerged with the harrowing stories that so often get lost in superficial coverage of the subject.

Winchester Sun Managing Editor Randy Patrick wrote in a column about the project, “Tim Weldon's three-part series on drug overdose deaths, 'Clark County's Secret Scourge,' is community journalism at its best. It is the kind of hard work and hard-edged investigative reporting that many papers our size rarely attempt, either because it's too difficult or because they fear the public reaction that might come from uncovering what lies beneath the surface of a pleasant community. But exposing problems is a necessary part of what good newspapers do. It is at least as important as providing publicity for local groups and events or recording the details of government actions.”

“It has often been said that the role of a newspaper is to 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.' . . . I've always felt that it's a good motto for editors and other journalists to live by. We should speak the truth, especially to those in authority, and make people uncomfortable enough to want to change things. And we should help those in dire situations by revealing their suffering so that others might help,” Patrick continues. To read the rest of Patrick's column in the 7,200-circulation paper, click here.

In part one, Weldon, wrote that between January 2005 and March 2006, Clark County averaged one drug-overdose death every 32 days. During 2005, 11 people, ranging in age from 19 to 52, died from overdoses in the county, compared to seven in 2004 and six in 2003. Weldon found that prescription drugs may deserve blame for the increase, despite a Kentucky law that prohibits shipments of prescription drugs by companies not registered with the state. (Read more)

For part two, Weldon explored how injuries can cause people to get hooked on drugs. He described how a mother discovered her son's secret habit: “Every week her son would receive a check from his injury settlement, but he never had money after cashing his checks. In the months leading to his death, Joey also became friends with a group that Linda didn't know. She is convinced one or more of them convinced Joey that cocaine would help him feel better and rid him of his constant pain.” (Read more)

In part three, Weldon, a former Lexington TV reporter, discussed the lack of addicts getting treatment: “Professional Associates operates clinics in four Kentucky cities: Lexington, Morehead, Paducah and Corbin. There are half a dozen other methadone clinics in Kentucky. In all, [Medical Director Stephen] Lamb estimates approximately 2,000 people, including about 50 in Clark County, receive regular methadone treatments for their addictions. Yet, he says, that number represents only about 10 percent of the people believed to be addicted to opioids in the state.” (Read more)

Thrice-weekly keeps sharp eye on promotional mailers from Congress

It happens every summer in even-numbered years: The local member of Congress uses federal funds to send full-color, promotional brochures to all households in the district, with an eye toward the fall election. Congressional rules prohibit unsolicited mass mailings within 90 days of a congressional election, so July is a prime month for them. Members might think twice about their mailings if more of them got the kind of criticism that The Kentucky Standard of Bardstown gave Rep. Ron Lewis of Kentucky's 2nd District.

"I was appalled. . . . It proved to be just a bunch of Republican and administration tripe," wrote Ron Filkins, publisher of the paper, published three times a week. "The tab for all of this being picked up by the public, including mailing, in part is the result of the congressional franking system, which is virtually as old as the Republic. It is a system used and abused by incumbents of all political stripes." (Read more)

The rules for such mailings are available at http://cha.house.gov/services/memberhandbook.htm. Want to know how much your congressman is spending on such mailings? Members' reports for the second quarter of the year are due July 14 at the House Committee on Administration.

June 27, 2006

Tennessee's Leaf-Chronicle reports on all Iraq stories involving locals

"Since the Iraq War began more than three years ago, The Leaf-Chronicle (circulation 21,154) of Clarksville, Tenn., has seen it all. As the closest daily paper to the Fort Campbell Army post, where tens of thousands of soldiers in Iraq from the 101st Airborne Division are stationed, the Leaf-Chronicle has reported on deaths, deployments, and disputes from Washington, D.C. to Baghdad," reports Editor & Publisher. The daily,owned by Gannett Co., covered last week's stories about three Fort Campbell-based soldiers facing murder charges for alleged misconduct in Iraq, and two others once considered missing but then determined to have been murdered, reports Joe Strupp.

Leaf-Chronicle Executive Editor Richard Stevens told Strupp that covering such stories can overwhelm readers: "It is getting pretty weary here dealing with a lot of sad stories, a lot of sensitive stories. A kidnapping story can present a long, protracted search. Both of these have the potential for being very sensitive stories. Our community and newspaper staff is getting pretty weary of the drumbeat of trouble." (Read more) The Kentucky New Era (circ. 11,090), a smaller, independent daily in Hopkinsville,Ky., on the other side of Fort Campbell, used coverage from The Associated Press for both stories.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Small-town newspapers thrive with innovation, avoid dailies' pitfalls

Lee Enterprises Inc. owns 58 newspapers and is one example of a chain where smaller newspapers -- like the Waterloo Courier in Iowa or the Missoulian in Montana -- are outdoing larger publications.

For some data confirming that small papers are outperforming big ones, the Audit Bureau of Circulations shows that "weekday circulation over a six-month period fell 4.7 percent at Colorado's Denver Post, but rose 2.5 percent at the Grand Junction Sentinel; Florida's Orlando Sentinel dropped 8.3 percent, but the St. Augustine Record rose 11.2 percent; California's Los Angeles Times dropped 5.4 percent, but the Stockton Record rose 1.2 percent," reports Reuters.

"In many ways, community newspapers are still enjoying the advantages that big metropolitan dailies such as the New York Times or Chicago Tribune have lost," writes Paul Thomasch. "Readership has held up better, and fewer people have defected to the Internet for news and classified ads. The trick for smaller newspapers is to keep that advantage, particularly as more local content becomes available on the Internet, be it from bloggers or other media companies."

Small-town newspapers are using innovation such as The Monroe in Wisconsin, which allows companies to run ads on one page with a related "how-to" advice article on the facing page. The News-Press in Oklahoma prints its city's visitors guide for free, uses some of its own photos in the publication, and then gets the ad revenue, notes Thomasch. (Read more) In another example of innovation, The Rural Blog reported on June 8 about leaders in Jonesborough, Tenn., paying the community's weekly Herald & Tribune to send a copy to every resident. Click here for the archived item.

June 19, 2006

Virginia editor calls for slavery apology during acceptance of SPJ award

Small-town newspaper editor Ken Woodley is challenging his fellow journalists in Virginia to support a national apology for slavery.

Accepting the 2006 George Mason Award from the Society of Professional Journalists -- Virginia Pro Chapter, The Farmville Herald editor called for a push to have politicians support a congressional resolution of apology that would be delivered publicly by the president, reports Kathryn Orth of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "When he died, there was one thing, and one thing only, that George Mason was unreconciled to in this world. . . . Slavery," Woodley after receiving the award last week.

Journalists must use their power to influence society, Woodley said. "When we see someone drowning, there are times when we are uniquely situated, because of the power of the press behind us and within us, to be their life preserver,"he said. Woodley played a key role in establishing Virginia's $2 million Brown v. Board Scholarship Program, which goes to victims of school closings in Prince Edward and other areas. The George Mason Award recognizes journalists who contribute to civic journalism and freedom of the press, writes Orth. (Read more)

June 7, 2006

'Mississippi-owned' newspaper sent team to Iraq for up-close coverage

When the 155th Brigade of the National Guard traveled to Iraq from Tupelo, Miss., the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal provided its readers with a first-hand account of the action.

"Committed to covering local news, the 35,000-circulation paper sent a reporter and photographer over to Iraq in April 2005 to bring the war home to hundreds of local families affected by the deployment," writes Jeremy Weber in the Inlander, the weekly tabloid of the Inland Press Association. "During its daily Iraq coverage, the paper devoted its front-page centerpiece or a full inside page to the stories and photos from Iraq. The Daily Journal covered local troops teaching agricultural techniques to Iraqi farmers, delivering supplies to schools, and other aspects of daily life."

The Daily Journal calls itself the largest “Mississippi-owned” newspaper, and editor Lloyd Gray's mission is "building the community." He said the Iraq coverage "touched a chord like nothing I’ve ever seen in my 35-plus years in the newspaper business." Click here for the paper's Journal of War. The paper recouped much of the expense of sending photographer Thomas Wells and reporter Jennifer Farish (right) to Iraq with a 48-page special section, reports Weber. (Read more)

June 6, 2006

Rural journalists in Pakistan organize to advance press freedom, ethics

"Supporters of press freedom are growing more vocal in Pakistan, where a Rural Media Network Web site has launched to defend freedom of expression and support journalists in the country’s rural areas," reports the Editors Weblog of the World Editors Forum. (Read more)

The site, http://online-rmnp.tripod.com, says the network was organized to to monitor and defend freedom of expression in rural Pakistan, provide support for rural newspapers, provide a forum for debate, and help build the professional capacity of rural journalists and other sections of civil society "to better equip them in political mediation." The network publishes Sadiq News, a newsletter covering various issues for rural journalists, including freedom of expression, press-freedom violations, ethics and training.

"The network launched the site with a small ceremony on May 28 in the newsroom of the Nawa-I-Ahmedpur Sharqia newspaper, in Ahmedpur East," reports the International Journalists' Network. "Ehsan Ahmed Sehar, head of the network and chief editor of the newspaper, built the site with help from Pieter Wessels, chairman of the Commonwealth Journalists Association's Australian branch."

The emir of Bahawalpur, Nawab Salahuddin Abbasi, said at the ceremony that the Internet is, as IJNet reported, "helping to bring freedom of expression within reach of people in the rural areas of developing countries." For more information, contact Sehar at ehsanshr@hotmail.com or ehsan.sehar@gmail.com, or telephone +92-62-2273092.

May 19, 2006

Texas writer finds many violations in open-records audit of schools

Many state press associations and other media groups have conducted open-records audits in most states, but it's unusual if not unprecedented for an individual reporter to focus one on a particular type of public agency in a region. Keith Plocek of the alternative Houston Press offers an example to follow.

Ploeck writes, "In February and March, I drove 1,683 miles in Harris and its surrounding seven counties, visiting 63 school districts to test for compliance with the Texas Public Information Act, which is designed not just for reporters like me but for everyone." Houston is in Harris County.

His findings included: "44 percent of districts violated the part of the public information act that prohibits them from inquiring why the information is being requested; 30 percent of districts incorrectly said they had ten business days to fulfill the request. The public information act does mention ten days, but requests should be fulfilled 'promptly'; and 10 percent of districts did not respond at all." As for being asked why he wanted the records, Plocek writes, "Many of these violations were just the product of small-town curiosity." To read an extensive account of his encounters, click here.

May 11, 2006

FBI investigates 2,000 cases of public corruption, gets help from press

Here's a reminder that journalists everywhere need to be on the lookout for wrongdoing by local officials, and by state legislators, who are locally elected: The FBI says it is finding a lot of corruption in local and state governments.

"Bureau officials believe that the investment in corruption cases is easily worth the cost. In 2004 and 2005, more than 1,060 government employees were convicted of corrupt activities, including 177 federal officials, 158 state officials, 360 local officials and 365 police officers, according to F.B.I. statistics. The number of convictions rose 27 percent from 2004 to 2005," reports The New York Times.

"Almost every one of the F.B.I.'s cases has been the subject of widespread news reports by local news organizations, and Time magazine has reported on the national scope of the effort. In some instances, . . . reporters appear to have been the first to uncover some aspects of possible wrongdoing. Agents regard such articles as tips for which they can claim success if they succeed in bringing a case," writes David Johnston. (Read more)

People can provide the F.B.I. with tips on corruption at this Web site. The tips cannot be anonymous.

May 10, 2006

Sacramento Bee wins Taylor Family Award for newspaper fairness

A series in The Sacramento Bee about the misuse and abuse of Latino immigrants who work in America's forest industry has won the 2006 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers. The award, which carries a $10,000 prize, was established through gifts for an endowment by members of the Taylor family, which published The Boston Globe from 1872 to 1999. Judges praised The Bee's series, "The Pineros: Men of the Pines," for including "all the groups affected by this timely issue and for the way the pictures and stories gave a voice to people who are rarely heard." The contest is administered by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. --California Newspaper Publishers Association

April 28, 2006

Charlotte Observer illuminates shadowy lives of illegal immigrants

An ongoing Charlotte Observer series that started in February is revealing startling insights about illegal immigrants' presence in the U.S. and is shining new light on legal problems. This newspaper's investigative approach can serve as an example for all journalists, even those at small newspapers in rural areas where minority immigrant populations have been growing fast.

The most recent installment of the Observer's "Hiding in plain sight: Illegal immigration in the Carolinas" exposes a problem that may exist in many areas. "Federal immigration agents say they arrest a document counterfeiter every few weeks in the Charlotte area. Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Julie Myers called the buying and selling of counterfeit documents 'an epidemic' that has turned into a multimillion-dollar criminal industry," writes Franco Ordonez. (Read more)

By pursuing the rise in illegal immigration and not turning a blind eye to the story, Editor Rick Thames wrote in a column, the newspaper was sure it "had uncovered the classic news exclusive -- clear, decisive and complete. There were a few loose threads, however. So we pulled. And pulled. And pulled." (Read more)

In part one, Liz Chandler and Danica Coto wrote about the tragic stories that exist in many communities populated with illegals: "Their rising numbers bring rising tension: An immigrant driving drunk kills a schoolteacher; Hispanic gangs clash in shootouts; and public schools and health departments struggle to accommodate the newest Carolinians."

Coto spent part of her time in a van packed with illegal immigrants hoping to cross the border. As she describes in part one, those attempts can sometimes be deadly: "Nearly 1,000 of them have died in the Arizona desert since 2000 from dehydration, injuries and illness and clashes with authorities, smugglers and thieves. The death toll is dwarfed, though, by the hundreds of thousands who make it." (Read more)

In part two, Chandler and Coto explored the debate about how to handle immigrants. (Read more) Part three took a look at illegal immigrants who return to their homelands for visits (Read more). Part four began the examination of the market in illegal Social Security numbers: "In fact, several million immigrants here illegally have likely hijacked Americans' numbers. But don't count on the Social Security Administration to alert you if you become a victim," wrote Tim Funk, Liz Chandler and Stella M. Hopkins. (Read more)

Columnist offers index to ethanol as starting point for journalists

Readers of The Rural Blog have seen many items about ethanol, which is boosting the economies of many rural areas. Journalists who want to do stories on the subject can take some guidance from Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institiute.

In today's Morning Meeting, Tompkins offers an "index to ethanol" with legislative news, explanations of terms, stock and investment information and details about building "your own ethanol still." With President Bush urging the nation to become less energy-dependent, all of this information proves timely.

A certain percentage of all fuel sold must be ethanol-based in Washington, Minnesota, Montana and Hawaii, and several other states are considering similar requirements. Is your state one of them? Journalists should take up the story. Click here to read Tompkins' column at Poynter Online.

April 20, 2006

Virginia weekly shows value of independence, community focus

The Smithfield Times of Virginia won the small-paper category of the Virginia Press Association's annual award for Journalistic Integrity and Community Service, the group's highest honor. The paper also won the award in 2003.

The Times, circulation 6,219, beat out many other papers in the category, for those with less than 30,000 circulation -- a threshold that we think best defines the upper limit for "community journalism." "The quality of coverage underscores what several other entries in this size class demonstrate as well: You don't have to be a big-city newspaper to serve readers with strong, vigorous citizen-based journalism that initiates and facilitates community discussion of important issues and helps citizens find solutions to community problems," the judges wrote.

Its winning formula was a combination of "event coverage and enterprise reporting, backed up with editorial-page campaigning that offered citizens choices and ways of taking action as well as a forum for their own viewpoints, The Times undertook and encouraged strident discussion of issues ranging from the newest developments--not all call them advances--of agriculture, the symbiosis of public and private organizations for the public good, and the performance and responsibility of governmental agencies designed to help citizens but not always able--or willing--to fulfill their missions," the judges wrote.

The Times began 80 years ago covering the Isle of Wight and Surry counties in southeastern Virginia. John and Anne Edwards bought it in 1986 from Thomas Phillips. Click here to see the paper's Web site.

April 17, 2006

Charleston Gazette wins SDX award from SPJ for mental-health series

A Charleston Gazette staff series on mental health has won a Sigma Delta Chi Award in Public Service ,for newspapers with less than 100,000 circulation, from the Society of Professional Journalists.

The annual Sigma Delta Chi Awards honor radio, magazines, newspapers, television and other outlets for excellence in journalism. The Charleston Gazette series, titled “Brothers Keeper: West Virginia’s Mental Health Crisis," attempted to answer the question "Is the state failing the estimated 50,000 West Virginians with severe mental illness?" To read the stories from January and February 2005, click here.

The Sigma Delta Chi Awards will be presented July 14 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. For a complete list of the award winners, click here. This year's Pulitzer Prize winners are slated to be announced Monday afternoon.

April 12, 2006

Rural topics present in awards from business journalists' society

Stories on rural topics were among award winners in the Society of American Business Editors and Writers contest, announced recently.

The Lexington Herald-Leader, at 140,000 circulation considered a "small" paper by SABEW, won recognition for two pieces. The first, "Wrong Side of the Track," by Janet Patton, exposed the lack of workers' compensation in the horse industry, which draws heavily on migrant workers. The second, "Win, Lose or Draw: Gambling for Jobs" by John Stamper, Bill Estep and Linda Blackford, looked at lack of accountability for Kentucky's incentives for job creation, a key tool for rural economic development.

A Des Moines Register piece, "On New Ground," by Philip Brasher, Jennifer Dukes Lee, Anne Fitzgerald and Lee Rood, investigated a new trend in farm ownership with over half of Iowa's farmlands owned by residents over the age of 65. Because of this trend, massive transfer of ownership when the current owners pass is looming over the state economy.

The Times Union of Albany, N.Y., produced "Tiny Town a Roost to Big Bamboozles," a story about Champlain, N.Y., pop. 5,967, along Lake Champlain in the northeastern corner of the state. Because of its proximity to Canada and its remoteness, the town has become a breeding ground for scams run by Canadian companies. These companies like the town's easy access to the border and a U.S. post office box, which they think gives them more credibility, the paper reported. For more, click here.

April 5, 2006

Arizona weekly spotlights local problems with No Child Left Behind Act

We've written a good bit about the impact on rural schools of the No Child Left Behind Act, but there's nothing like an object example to put the issue in clear focus. The weekly Payson Roundup in central Arizona did that with a story and editorial in Tuesday's edition, and the situation it covered will almost surely be repeated in hundreds of school districts across the nation in the next couple of months.

The Roundup's story by Max Foster reported hat six special-education teachers at the local high school would not be rehired "because none met the No Child Left Behind mandate that requires all teachers must be 'highly qualified' in their subject areas by June 30, 2006. The teachers . . . are qualified and certified in their core areas but not in Special Education."

The six could be rehired if the district cannot find "highly qualified" teachers to replace them, but recruitment could be difficult for local officials because they must compete with salaries in the Phoenix metropolitan area, about 50 miles away, and "they must find instructors who have bachelor's degrees or college majors in each core teaching area plus Special Education," Foster reports. "In other words, certification mandates are doubled, sometimes tripled, for teachers of Special Education students."

The situation prompted an editorial which began, "Few of us can imagine the nightmare of watching a lifelong career disappear in an instant with the passage of sweeping federal legislation." It went on to say, "NCLB is an awkward fit for small towns, and we are feeling the squeeze as a new portion of the legislation goes into effect in June of this year."

The editorial said the certification requirement "is logical in the classrooms of Chicago and New York City where the hiring pool is deep and the wages are competitive, (but) destroys the very system that has kept rural schools running since the beginning of public education. In small towns across the country, 'pitching in' is the tradition. Teachers often teach numerous subjects and multiple grade levels."

The Roundup's Web site says it was judged best in the nation last year by the National Newspaper Association. The paper's latest edition indicates that it doesn't just have a good site, it has excellent content in print and online. Its lead story, by Felicia Megdal, does a good job of localizing an important story -- "Arizona's rate of underage alcohol, drug and tobacco use ranks among the highest in the nation, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration."

March 28, 2006

Small Newspaper Group reporter wins FOI reporting award from IRE

Scott Reeder, the Illinois state capital reporter for the Small Newspaper Group, is the winner of this year's Freedom of Information Reporting Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, for his series on "The Hidden Costs of Tenure" for teachers in Illinois public schools.

Reeder "filed 1,500 Freedom of Information Act requests with almost 900 government entities, then worked full-time for two months policing those requests to get a remarkable 100 percent response rate," the IRE judges wrote. "With this information, he was able to show that the state's 20-year-old law aimed at making it easier to dismiss underperforming teachers had failed and been thwarted by the state's powerful teachers unions. The data he amassed showed that of the state's 876 school districts, only 38 were actually successful in firing a teacher. This work is a testament to the power of open records."

Reeder's employer has this image of him and the Illinois Capitol on its Web site. The company's name reflects both its family ownership and the size of its seven daily newspapers, five of them in Illinois -- The Dispatch of Moline (circulation 32,000); The Daily Journal of Kankakee, home of the company headquarters (28,000); The Rock Island Argus (13,000), The Daily Times of Ottawa (11,650) and the Times-Press of nearby Streator (9,000) -- plus the Herald-Argus of LaPorte, Ind. (12,000) and the Post-Bulletin of Rochester, Minn. (44,000).

The chain has weeklies, including The Agri-News, which circulates in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. It not only has a bureau reporter in the Illinois capital of Springfield, but two reporters in Washington, D.C., where it has had a bureau since 1978. Reeder beat out entries from much larger newspapers -- the Detroit Free Press, The Dallas Morning News and The Journal News of White Plains, N.Y. -- and Scripps-Howard News Service. To read his series, click here.

March 24, 2006

Weekly editor conducts Sunshine Week records audit; criticizes police

In an example of editorial leadership, the editor of The Puyallup Herald, a weekly in Washington state, published a column during Sunshine Week criticizing the not-so-public records in his county.

"I'm disappointed, I'm concerned and I'm puzzled," Roger Harnack writes. "Why is it so difficult to obtain public records here in east Pierce County?" The newspaper staff conducted a public records audit for police, schools and municipal agencies in the paper's area of coverage -- Puyallup, Sumner, Bonney Lake and other towns in Pierce County -- and did not "flash our press passes," Harnack notes.

One request was for the names of the last five DUI arrests, which no one in law enforcement would provide to the auditors. Someone in the Pierce County Sheriff's Department told an auditor the names were not public. Requests for municipal records fared better, Harnack said, saying that documents were provided almost immediately, as were school records, with the exception of the Puyallup School District superintendent's contract.

"Washington State Patrol officials vowed to be as responsive as humanly possible, and Capt. William Hilton of Puyallup, who heads the District 1 detachment here in Pierce County, said he'd gladly accept input on making the public records process easier for both the general public and staff," Harnack writes, adding that he will continue to keeping tabs on public records. (Read more)

Weekly attacks Oregonian meth series; first-grade teacher faces charge

The Oregonian started an exhaustive chronicle of the rise of methamphetamine with a series in October 2004. After 261 stories, several awards and a Pulitzer Prize nomination, an alternative weekly says the daily Portland newspaper "manufactured an epidemic."

"In its effort to convince the world of the threats posed by meth, The Oregonian has sacrificed accuracy," opines Angela Valdez of the alternative Willamette Week. "According to an analysis of the paper's reporting, a review of drug-use data and conversations with addiction experts, The Oregonian has relied on bad statistics and a rhetoric of crisis, ultimately misleading its readers into believing they face a far greater scourge than the facts support."

In one of several examples, Valdez writes, "On March 3 of this year, The Oregonian described meth as 'a potent stimulant now consumed by 1.4 million Americans from Oregon to the Carolinas.' . . . In fact, the number, which comes from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, refers to those people who report using meth at least once in the past year. They may have used it one time or 100. According to the same study, fewer than 600,000 people report using meth within the past month — a closer approximation of addiction, according to drug-abuse experts." (Read more)

Questioned by Willamette Week, The Oregonian defended its reporting. The weekly did not elaborate. Last year, Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss won a Pulitzer for his investigative reporting of ex-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's sexual abuse of a teenage girl in the 1970s. (Click here for more on the weekly's rare feat) To date, The Oregonian has not published a response to the attack on its award-winning coverage.

Meth beat: In Belen, N.M., the weekly News-Bulletin reports, "A first-grade teacher who told police she was at a rural Los Lunas elementary school shortly after midnight Sunday grading papers was arrested on charges of possession of methamphetamines." Joanna Chavez, 37, is facing one count of first-degree felony possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute on school grounds. (Read more)

Hilton Head newspaper calls for 'defensible, documented' stories

A reunion of journalists who worked the old, afternoon Raleigh Times gave some who are now at The Island Packet (circ. 18,416) in Hilton Head, S.C., the occasion to reflect on the recent past and the future of newspapers.

"It tells us that we've come full circle," says the collective column. "It tells us that, with the help of the Internet, we're back to providing today's news today. It tells us that there is tremendous value in a small group of accountable, well-guided individuals who hustle to gather defensible, documented information and share it with a large audience. It tells us the need for local news, local knowledge, local leadership and a local civic conversation has not gone away and newspapers are uniquely qualified to provide it."

New York Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., who was a reporter at the Raleigh Times in the mid-1970s, attended the reunion. Despite new options, journalism hasn't changed, he told his former associates. "Newspapers are best when they reflect communities back to themselves," he said.

The column concludes, "Now at the Packet, we do it around the clock, using paper, cyberspace, sound, film clips and real-time feedback from our readers. We may not be barefoot street urchins [like those] who sold the Times when it bore slogans like 'To-day's News To-day' and 'All The News While Its (sic) News . . . but we're scrambling to get you today's news today."

The Packet's parent company, McClatchy, announced last week its pending $6.5 billion purchase of the Knight Ridder chain, making it the nation's second largest newspaper chain. (Read more)




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

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