Rural journalism that has won, should win, or should have won awards or that that we just like from The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com.

Dec. 6, 2008

Weekly doesn't shy from reporting on hard times

As the economy worsens and more people fall into dire straits, that's news. But in our experience, most rural newspapers shy away from enterprise reporting about hard times. Some are reluctant to shine the spotlight on neighbors; some think there's enough bad news already. But if a newspaper is to be what it should be, a mirror of the community, it needs stories like the one published in The Coalfield Progress of Norton, Va.

"While many of us looked forward to sumptuous Thanksgiving feasts and holiday gift bargain shopping on Black Friday, others worried about simply getting enough food to fill their families’ bellies," Jeff Lester began his story about a surge in clients at the Wise County Food Bank. He didn't include material from any interviews with clients, but Melanie Lane took this photo of unidentified clients at the facility. (The paper often runs photos showing the Appalachian county's natural beauty.)

Lester told readers that the food bank "could find itself hurting within a month," and told readers how they could donate. He gave the hours of the bank's two locations and its eligibility rules. (Read more; subscription may be required)

Lester, who is the twice-weekly's news editor, told us in an e-mail, "I agonized over this photo for several days before publication -- knowing that if I was a food bank client, no way would I agree to be photographed like this. The shot is so intimate it's practically invasion of privacy, though the subjects agreed to be photographed. But the shot also wallops you between the eyes with a powerful message about hunger and hardship that doesn't depend on the story for context. I sought reactions from several folks in our newsroom, and we finally concluded that the photo's potential impact on getting more help for the hungry trumped other concerns."

Lester was ahead of the regional curve. Two days later The Roanoke Times reported that some area food banks were running out of food. On the same day, the weekly Galax Gazette reported that local food banks in its counties were struggling to feed the needy -- who were not pictured.

Feb. 29, 2008

Spanish newspaper proves profitable in rural Iowa

Across the country, growing Hispanic populations present largely-untapped markets for newspapers. In Iowa, one company and its Spanish- language newspaper show one of those rural markets can be lucrative. In late 2007, Gargano Communications began publishing La Voz ("The Voice") in six Northern Iowa communities, and the free newspaper's success has the company considering expanding the publication, reports Douglas Burns of the Iowa Independent, an online publication.

"La Voz is published twice a month and distributed for free in the communities of Humboldt, Fort Dodge, Webster City, Eagle Grove, Clarion and Belmond," Burns writes. "The paper continues to grow in reach, and Gargano has his eyes on other communities in north-central Iowa for distribution."

Publisher Jim Gargano and editor Maria Hadar, a bilingual Costa Rican immigrant (in an Iowa Independent photo), told Burns they see La Voz as a traditional community newspaper and they try to fill it with local coverage. The paper is drawing advertising from both Spanish and Anglo businesses, they say. "Something like this is actually bringing the community together," Hadar said. (Read more) Here is a feature on Hadar that ran in La Voz's sister newspaper, The Humboldt Independent.

Feb. 28, 2008

Texas weekly editor backs Obama, rebukes racists

The editor of the weekly Canadian Record in Canadian, Tex., minced no words this week in supporting the presidential candidacy of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and rebuking two racists who had come by her office to disparage him.

"I’ve just been roused from post-publication stupor by back-to-back visits from two of my elders and fellow Democrats," Laurie Ezzell Brown, left, wrote in her "Field Notes" column. "Believing, I suppose, that I am a sympathizer, both men affirm their staunch opposition to presidential candidate Barack Obama — which is fine — in terms that raise haunting images of the Deep South, white sheets and burning crosses — which is not. I feel shame and rage, but I also feel the stirrings of resolve as my now-unwelcome guests depart."

And the rage shows in Brown's next paragraph: "Their vitriol and animosity infuse this office with a stink I had thought, hoped, and prayed — though never quite dared to believe — long gone from my hometown. My stomach roils in remembrance of similar words spoken to me as a child — words that lay like weights on my conscience, as if I myself had said them."

After quoting Obama, Brown concludes, "These are so much more than just words. They are ideas that light the darkness. They are a call to arms. They have power. Just as those old words of hate and fear held us down, these words have the power to lift us up, to awaken our resolve, to engage us, to make us whole. And now it seems possible to hope that they will also bring us back to the voting booth, to reassert our citizenship and to pledge ourselves to an active role our country’s renewal—and our own."

Whew. You can see why the Ezzell family and the Record won last year's Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism. For more information about the Gishes and the award, click here. For the full column and the rest of the editorial page, including a handwritten letter from a child pleading for motorists to stop speeding and littering, click here.

Feb. 12, 2008

Photo submission section of Kentucky daily's Web site becomes showcase for local artists

Many newspapers have created sections of their Web sites that solicit and display readers' photographs. The sections help increase Web traffic on the sites, but The Independent in Ashland, Ky., has seen its photo section start to become an artistic showcase.

"Although we've received our share of cute pet photos, and I like those, we're getting some visually high-brow submissions as well," chief photographer John Flavell wrote in an e-mail. "What started out as a blatant way to attract readers to interact with the Web site could become a public space for the artistic types in the region."

The Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. newspaper recently displayed a collection of photos from Tim Webb, a commercial photographer in Richmond, Ky. (including this photo of his family's home in nearby Carter County). The paper presented a gallery of some of Webb's photos and some biographical information about Webb. The paper also plans to feature the work of another Carter County native, photographer Steve Shaffer. Shaffer works for Kentucky Educational Television and produced an audio slideshow for the network's special on Abraham Lincoln. (Read more)

Mississippi weeklies take on government secrecy

"Secrecy in Mississippi," a collaborative, eight-day series by the state's news organizations to focus attention on the flaws, loopholes and omissions in the state's open-government laws, is now running in weekly newspapers after starting in dailies.

"These articles represent an extraordinary effort by reporters and editors who are concerned that the lack of transparency in Mississippi is harmful to the state's well-being," wrote Stan Tiner, executive editor of The Sun Herald in Biloxi, which was among the papers running an overview of the series Sunday. The paper also ran an editorial saying, "Don't wait until a government door is slammed in your face or you are tossed out of a public meeting or you are denied a public document of vital importance to you to become concerned about these issues. The time to concern yourself is now."

In addition to the overview, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson ran a column by David Hampton on the topic. "Until 1975, there were no laws in Mississippi requiring that government meetings be open to the public," he writes. "Public officials routinely closed meetings at every level of government. Tax money could be spent and public policy decided behind closed doors. Officials decided just how open they wanted to be."

Yesterday's installment examined high legal costs citizens face when they fight for records and challenge closures of meetings. "In Mississippi, a state with a long history of government secrecy, it can be difficult, expensive, time-consuming -- and sometimes all but impossible -- to know what government leaders are up to and what special interests pull their strings," write The Clarion-Ledger's Emily LeCoz and Geoff Pender. "That's because enforcement of the state's Public Records Act and Open Meetings Act falls not on the shoulders of the state but on those of the public itself."

Ink Blots, the blog of the Mississippi Press Association, has plenty of links to stories related to this series, and it is being updated throughout the week. (Read more)

Feb. 9, 2008

Noted Mississippi weekly reports on new competitor

The Neshoba Democrat, the oldest business in Philadelphia, Miss., and a factor in helping bring a racist killer to justice, got competition this week -- after reporting on the competitors' plans. (Encarta map)

The first editions of The Philadelphian appeared this week, preceded by a press release saying "A community newspaper should tell the happenings of a place, but more than that, serve the readership in a positive, constructive manner." Managing Editor George Yates said in the release, "The City of Philadelphia, the County of Neshoba and all the surrounding communities are ready for a positive voice in news reporting. The Philadelphian will be that voice."

The weekly Democrat quoted all that and more in its Jan. 30 edition, in a story by Managing Editor Debbie Burt Myers. It noted that the other principals of the new corporation, Red Barn Media, which is also an advertising agency, were "all former marketing or advertising executives at Pearl River Resort," the local casino of the Choctaw Tribe. Myers interviewed Yates, who told her, "We're not out to put anybody out of business like some of the rumors out there. We are doing it just to have fun with it."

Perhaps that depends on the definition of "fun." The day after The Philadelphian appeared, the local hospital administrator told the county-owned nursing home to stop free distribution of the Democrat, "a practice that has been going on for at least three decades," Myers wrote. "Administrator Karin Fiducia did not return telephone calls to a Democrat reporter." Fiducia had already crossed swords with the paper, after not providing all the necessary data for a study of the hospital's future, and that week, an editorial in the Democrat criticized her for that. The hospital reduced its advertising in the Democrat and ran a full page in the first Philadelphian.

Last year, the paper endorsed the re-election of the Choctaw chief, who lost to a candidate the paper said was supported by outside gambling interests. "The Tribe is, without a doubt, driving the local economy," the editorial said. "Outside gaming interests should not be running the Tribe."

The Democrat has a reputation of strength and independence. As the 40th anniversary of the murders of three civil-rights workers in Neshoba County neared, without a conviction, some local folks thought there needed to be one final effort to see that justice was done. Democrat Publisher Jim Prince co-chaired a committee to make the effort, and went beyond editorializing to active crusading. As his committee sought justice, his paper marked the anniversary with a series that included pages of the Democrat from 1964 – pages that often didn’t reflect well on the paper because 40 years ago, it was reflecting the prevailing community opinion. In the end, with the help of more reporting from Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, charges were brought and a killer was convicted.

Feb. 8, 2008

Ky. weekly examines local impact of diabetes

Kentucky ranks high in diabetes, and some places are estecially high, so a few weeks ago, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues made personal invitations to the newspapers serving Kentucky's 20 most diabetic counties to attend the Kentucky Diabetes Summitt. Starting this week, the Casey County News, a 6,000- circulation weekly in Southern Kentucky, began a series on diabetes and its impact in the county.

In the first installment, Brittany Emerson reports on how Bobby Foster manages his diabetes, and provides an overview of the situation in Casey County. (Emerson also took the photo of Foster, above.)

"The current rate of diabetes in Casey County is nearing 16 percent, one of the highest in Kentucky, according to 'The Health of Kentucky 2007,' a report published by the Kentucky Institute of Medicine," Emerson writes. "Diabetes is a chronic disease that has become a significant health problem in Kentucky, affecting 9.9 percent of the state's population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 267,000 adults in the state have been diagnosed with the disease while another 109,000 have it, but have not been diagnosed." (Read more)

Small weekly describes farm familiy's loss, resolve

The Johnstown Breeze is a n independent, 1,800-circulation weekly in northern Colorado that covers the farming community of Johnstown, population 4,000. In this November article he just sent us, editor Matt Lubich tells the story of a farm family coping with the unexpected death of Alan Rieder, 54 (in family photo).

Lubich recounts how Rieder’s wife, Lori, and sons, Chad and Travis, are going on with the farm, because "that’s what farm families do."

"So much has changed in the past nearly three weeks since Alan Rieder died, and so much has remained the same," Lubich writes. "There is still work to be done to get ready for another season, and Rieder brothers will again be out in the fields doing it. In a decade that has seen so many changes in Johnstown, the family’s field along North Second Street, just east of the high school, remains a rural vista unchanged by the growth. A place where the only thing growing this summer will be another crop, planted by another generation of Rieders." (Read more)

Feb. 6, 2008

N.Y. paper defends request for gun-permit list

The Glens Falls Post-Star is at the center of controversy — all about something that has not even run in its pages or on its Web site. Ken Tingley, the editor of the 32,000-circulation daily in upstate New York, wrote to readers this week to explain the situation, which was turning into a fight between gun owners and the paper.

Tingley writes that a month ago, a reporter filed an open-records request "to the county clerks in Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties asking for the names and towns of residence of all gun permit holders in their counties." He explains the concerned response of gun owners, especially those who want to know what the paper was planning to do with that information. He emphasizes that the paper would do nothing "to endanger private citizens or make information conveniently available that might lead to a safety concern." The purpose of the request was to aid in computer-assisted reporting. One of the possible stories to come out of the research would be to cross-reference a database of convicted felons with the database of gun permit holders to see if there were any felons who had guns who shouldn't.

Tingley wrote, "We consider this newspaper an institution that is an important part of each and every community as a news source, a watchdog of government and an entity that seeks to serve our readers and make our communities better." Since being published online Feb. 4, the column has received more than 50 reader comments, with a fairly even split between those for and against the permit request. (Read more)

Jan. 30, 2008

Paper chases story about police chases, overcomes roadblocks to get records

When the town of Oak Grove, Ky., population 7,000, refused to give the Kentucky New Era of nearby Hopkinsville a copy of a police report of an accident that ended a police chase, "the paper began a lengthy investigation of police pursuits in Oak Grove," writes Julia Hunter, whose stories on the subject appeared in the 11,000-circulation daily last weekend. (Photo of Oak Grove cruiser by Danny Vowell of the New Era)

"It was one of at least 12 high-speed Oak Grove police pursuits in a six-month period between March and December 2007," Hunter wrote in her main story. "Five of these resulted in wrecks and four people were injured. ... Eleven reports were issued to the New Era as a result of the request. It is unknown how many are still under investigation, and, therefore, how many were omitted."

In her sidebar about the difficulty of obtaining records from the city, overcome with help of the state attorney general's office, Hunter illustrated why such stories are worth pursing (no pun intended). First, she quoted a telling statistic from the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that one person dies every day as a result of a police pursuit. Then she quoted PursuitWatch.org, a group that pushes for safer police pursuits: “When an innocent is killed, most reporters are spurred to ask the questions that need to be asked, to do the research that needs to be done. Unfortunately, if they had done this in the cases they reported previously, where no fatality resulted, they might have prevented the death of an innocent bystander.”

Police chases are big news in small towns. In our mailbox today, with the weekend edition of the New Era, was the nearby McLean County News from last week. Its main headline: "Police chase leads to arrest." The weekly is not available online.

Jan. 24, 2008

Small daily in Ky. uncovers county's improper tax

A small daily newspaper in southeastern Kentucky revealed this week that a county government has been improperly using a tourism tax to fund an airport. Whitley County has a reputation of making its own rules, and The Times-Tribune, a 6,200-circulation daily in Corbin, has found the county up to its old tricks after checking with the state attorney general.

"Since 1999, Whitley County has allocated its transient room tax revenues to the Williamsburg-Whitley County Airport — but an informal opinion from the state attorney general’s office states the tax is improperly instituted because the county has no tourism commission," Managing Editor Samantha Swindler wrote for the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. paper.

The 4 percent transient room tax is paid by visitors to the county's hotels and motels. Revenues within the city limits of Corbin and Williamsburg go to the cities' tourist commissions, but revenues from Cumberland Falls State Resort Park — $50,995.15 in 2007 — go to the Williamsburg-Whitley County Airport, under a 1999 county ordinance. (Read more)

Jan. 22, 2008

Rural homeless people face unique challenges

While homelessness is considered an urban concern, it also occurs in rural areas. The story of Barbara Trivitt and her children Eric, 13, and Jennifer, 15, (right) highlights the issue of rural homeless, writes Emma Brown (who also took the photo) of High Country News, a magazine focusing on the American West.

"Federal homeless aid is hard to come by all over the rural West; needy people are dispersed, and it’s impractical to provide a full range of services in every tiny town," Brown writes. "Meanwhile, federal funding structures favor cities and leave rural organizations wanting."

Philip Mangano, head of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, coordinates the federal response to homelessness. He told Brown: “Rural folks need to get beyond the idea that someone’s going to come from Washington to solve their problem. They have to be strategic and creative in fashioning a solution.”

Brown follows Trivitt over the course of Thanksgiving week, as she and her kids live out of her Jeep Grand Cherokee at an RV park in Coos Bay, Ore. By week's end, Trivitt has lost her Jeep to repossession despite saving up $200 from her minimum-wage job. A local politician puts them up in a local motel for a week, but after that, their prospects are slim. In the West, rising housing costs and dwindling federal housing programs make finding an affordable home difficult — especially on minimum wage, Brown explains. (Read more)

To get this story, Brown obviously had to find to Trivitt and gain her trust, but there was more to the reporting than that. Here are some helpful links for researching the issue:

  • The Department of Agriculture Rural Development Web site has information on lending and other financing related to rural housing.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development has a Web site devoted to homelessness that includes information for those who are homeless plus national facts and figures. It includes plenty of links to other great sites, too.

Jan. 12, 2008

Ky. weekly reports on ripoff of retirees by builder, puts question of local code on the public agenda

One of the most controversial steps that an isolated, rural community can take is to impose restrictions on the use of property, such as zoning and building codes. While such measures are a fact of life for most Americans, they are not for many in rural areas, and sometimes those folks pay an unexpected price, as Sharon Burton of the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., wrote this week:

"Wayne and Connie Feese visited Columbia numerous times spanning several decades to research their genealogy. When it came time to retire, they purchased a lot ... and [built] a house in Day Lily Meadows. Their dream retirement plan has since turned into a nightmare, and the Feeses would love nothing more than to be able to sell their home and leave town."(Encarta map)

The Feeses, who lived in Illinois, presumed the county had a building code for single-family homes and required a certificate of occupancy. It does not, despite pleas from the state and local building inspectors. Their home has major flaws that they are still spending to fix, though “We were told the inspector approved the house, the building inspector approved everything,” Wayne Feese told Burton.

Burton's analysis: "Forcing restrictions on citizens is never popular and shouldn’t be done lightly, but victims like Feese believe it’s also the county’s responsibility to protect its citizens. ... The lack of restrictions also costs the county. According to the Adair County Tourism Commission, every retiree who moves into Adair County is equal to 3.5 jobs." (Read more)

Jan. 10, 2008

At 100, Nebraska newswoman keeps on reporting

Mildred Heath's journalism career began at Linotype machine in 1923, and she has been on the job ever since. Last Friday, she celebrated her 100th birthday at her office, the newsroom of the Beacon-Observer in Elm Creek, Neb., reports Paul Hammel of the Omaha World-Herald (who also took the photo). Heath is a former co-publisher of the Beacon-Observer, and is now the 1,400-circulation weekly's correspondent for the town of Overton.

"Today, Heath may well be the oldest working journalist in the country, said Allen Beermann, executive director of the Nebraska Press Association," Hammel writes. "A National Newspaper Association official offered no contrary evidence, and Internet search found one contender, Dina Sundby, who was a correspondent for the Hillsboro (N.D.) Banner until her death at age 97 in 2003."

Heath's career began when she worked the Linotype machine for the Curtis (Neb.) Enterprise, and she still carries the burns from the machine's hot lead. In 1938, she founded the Overton Observer with her husband, Blair. In 1948, they bought the Elm Creek Beacon and later merged the two papers. Today, Heath works five days a week at the Beacon-Observer answering phones, filing photographs and writing an "Overton News" column.

"People tell me to keep at it. I enjoy people and I enjoy life," Heath told Hammel. "I enjoy the work. And I'm needed." (Read more)

Kentucky journalists focus on diabetes at summit

"Thousands of Kentuckians are in danger of literally eating and lounging themselves to death," Ben Gish of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg reports from this week's Kentucky Diabetes Solutions Summit. In another weekly newspaper's story published about the event, Edmund Shelby of The Beattyville Enterprise wrote, "Lee County holds the second worst percentage of the prevalence of diabetes in Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Institute of Medicine."

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues made personal invitations to the newspapers serving Kentucky's 20 most diabetic counties to attend the summit, and six sent their editors or reporters. Also attending was a reporter from a county that has a low diabetes rate but lots of people living unhealthy lifestyles, the reporter told us.

The summit was designed to focus attention on the state's high incidence of diabetes and ways to address it -- including news-media attention that can help those in danger of developing diabetes life healthier lifestyles and avoid the disease. This is a big problem for America, where 21 million people (7 percent of the population) have been diagnosed with diabetes and 54 million are considered at risk for it -- and may already have it. In Kentucky, the rate is 10 percent, and in some counties it is around 15 percent.

For more from the summit, including remarks by keynote speaker Newt Gingrich, right, CEO of the Center for Health Transformation, click here.

Jan. 7, 2008

Obama worked rural papers in Iowa, and it paid off

While Barack Obama didn't run as strongly in Iowa's rural caucuses as he did statewide, his courting of rural newspapers probably helped him rack up his surprising margin of 8 percentage points. The freshman Democratic senator from Illinois was endorsed by more newspapers than any other candidate in any party -- nine, including four weeklies -- and probably benefited from the coverage that he and his staff enabled. For more detail on endorsements, click here.

"The Obama campaign developed a reputation for doing the little things as it carefully built its organization in Iowa, where personal relationships famously matter in politics. The effort to win coverage in the local media was more ambitious, by far, than anything other campaigns put together," Peter Slevin of The Washington Post's Midwest Bureau wrote in The Trail, the Post's general political blog.

Slevin's example of the attention that Obama paid to small newspapers was Douglas Burns, a columnist for the Daily Times Herald of Carroll, circulation 6,000, and a frequent writer for the Independent (shown with Obama). "He has interviewed the presidential candidate no fewer than six times, including a pair of 15-minute sessions during the crazy final days of December," Slevin wrote on caucus day, Jan. 3. "Look, they kept giving me interviews, and I thought I was putting some good questions out there," Burns told Slevin, noting that he asked Obama about his drug use as a youth. "I wasn't just rolling over. They still did interviews with me after that, which is to their credit. They kept taking the questions."

The campaign's first contact with the Herald came "in March, just weeks after Obama declared his candidacy," when one of its Iowa spokesmen came to Carroll -- population 10,000 and seat of Carroll County, 21,000 -- and met with two staffers for an hour and a half. "Those early efforts to cultivate relationships probably helped," Burns told Slevin. "When they showed us a lot of respect, I looked at it that they were showing Carroll a lot of respect."

In contrast, some small papers in Iowa reported difficulty dealing with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who placed a disappointing third in the Democratic caucuses. A survey by NBC News of 15 weekly and small daily papers in Iowa -- which has 272 weeklies -- found they had "mixed experiences with all the campaigns, Democratic or Republican," the NBC political unit reported in First Read. "The majority of newspapers reported being able to get a few minutes with a candidate either immediately after the event during the rope line or with a one-on-one interview. Senator Clinton was the exception in this case." (Read more) The survey was prompted by a report from by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

"Clinton spent 45 minutes at Sam's Sodas and Sandwiches in downtown Carroll with Burns, Lopez and two other reporters," Slevin reports. Burns got 15 minutes with Romney, but "Edwards made no effort to reach out to the local media during his four visits, Burns said." After writing a column headlined "Why Barack Obama will win the Iowa Caucuses," and reporting that as fact, Burns is "back to covering streets and sewers and eight-man football." (Read more)

For Good Works in September, October, November and December 2007, click here. For Good Works in Jan.-Aug. 2007, click here. For Good Works in 2006, click here.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu