Institute making a difference, seeks endowment

Coverage of big topics like coal, health and economic development is improving, thanks to the efforts of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Most newspapers in Central Appalachia have not been noted for their coverage of the coal industry, a complex and often controversial business that can be intimidating to journalists. That is changing, thanks to recent efforts by the Institute.

The Institute held a “Covering Coal” conference in South Charleston, W. Va., on November 18. That was six weeks before a dozen miners died in the Sago Mine near Tallmansville, W. Va., a disaster that was soon followed by several other fatalities in the Appalachian coalfield.

But even before that, and after attending the conference, Kyle Lovern of the Williamson Daily News, which has readers in Kentucky as well as West Virginia, did a three-part series on the coal industry in the region, followed by a two-parter on coal-waste dams.

Soon after the disaster, Lovern did enterprise stories about mine safety and wrote a column critical of a coal company’s handling of its public relations. He said the conference encouraged his coverage.

Others at the conference were complimentary. Pam Kasey of The State Journal, a West Virginia weekly on government, politics and business, told the Institute, “It was a rare treat to have all those people in one room, speaking civilly. I learned a lot and got a lot of good contacts and ideas.”

Greg Collard of West Virginia Public Radio said the conference “was a great forum for our reporters to learn more about the industry. The setting allowed us to get to know people in the industry, and critics of controversial mining practices. In our sound-bite culture, it’s important for journalists to understand issues and the people pushing agendas. The conference was a great opportunity to educate ourselves so we can give better context to stories concerning coal.”

Paul Nyden of The Charleston Gazette, a leading environmental reporter who spoke at the conference, said it was the first he knew of at which a group of journalists heard from industry officials, a leading coal-industry analyst, state and federal regulators, mine-safety advocates and opponents of mountaintop-removal mining.

The conference was held at the Graduate College of Marshall University, one of the Institute’s 14 academic partners, which cover a territory ranging from Pennsylvania to Missouri to North Carolina to Alabama. For more details, click here.

The conference also had an impact on Marty Backus, publisher of the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville. Frustrated at coal companies’ lack of communication with regional media, he said in a column, “It's a shame both sides can't get together and air their grievances and come to some understanding.”

The Institute agreed, contacted coal and press associations in Kentucky and West Virginia and got support for a roundtable meeting, which was held in Pikeville April 17.

The meeting was again timely, said Ken Ward Jr. of the Gazette, a leading coal reporter. “"The media and the coal industry are in a whole new world after Sago," he said.

The day ended with better feelings on both sides. "I think this is a good first step," said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. For details, click here.

Earlier in April, the Institute conducted a one-day program on “Covering and Guiding Rural Economic Development,” as part of the spring meeting of the West Kentucky Press Association.

The seminar at Murray State University looked at guiding economic development, as well as covering it, because many local news outlets have played a role in bringing jobs to their communities with civic leadership, not just with stories and editorials.

Today, they and their communities face new challenges. For example, globalization has made it more difficult for American communities to attract and retain jobs, and many rural communities face technological obstacles in keeping up with the rest of the world.

The conference discussed those issues and others, such as the future of agriculture, state economic-development incentives and how rural news outlets can help promote their community’s economic development while remaining enough at arm’s length to keep public officials accountable.

The Institute’s most public face is The Rural Blog, a digest of events, trends, issues and journalism in rural America, published Monday through Friday at www.ruraljournalism.org. The list-serve for blog notices has more than 400 members from all over the nation, and countless others have bookmarked it. The Web site’s name indicates that no one else in the world is doing what the Institute is doing.

Conferences were held in 2005 on coverage of health in Central Appalachia and how to cover state and federal governments without bureau reporters. The centerpiece was a five-day national seminar at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland, on a wide range of issues in rural America.

The Institute is operating on funding from the university and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It is raising money for an endowment to give it a permanent home at UK, and the Knight Foundation has invited it to apply for a challenge grant that would match private fund-raising for the endowment. With matching of those monies by the state Research Challenge Trust Fund, known as “Bucks for Brains,” the Institute’s fund-raising goal of $750,000, if achieved, would create a $3 million endowment – enough to hire more full-time, professional staff and make it a truly national program.

While the Institute was created mainly to serve professionals, it is linked to the academic program through the director’s teaching of one class each semester. Last spring, students did a reporting project on the future of tobacco and tobacco-dependent communities, and several of their stories were published in Kentucky newspapers.

This spring, the class was titled “Covering Rural Elections,” a timely topic since almost every office in Kentucky is on the ballot this year. Ryan Toombs, a senior journalism major from Wickliffe, quickly got a story on a state Supreme Court race published on the front page of The Paducah Sun. Kelly Cross had a story published in the Estill County Citizen Voice & Times and The Beattyville Enterprise, and Parker Reynolds had a story published in the Georgetown News-Graphic.

Institute Director Al Cross made presentations at several meetings around the country, including the annual conference of the Appalachian Studies Association, a Society of Professional Journalists regional conference, meetings of editors of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc. and Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., and a national community-journalism seminar in Anniston, Ala.

The latter conference was sponsored by the Knight Community Journalism Fellows Program at the University of Alabama, which will begin using The Anniston Star as a teaching newspaper this fall. Cross is on the advisory board of the program, and its director, Chris Waddle, is the newest academic partner of the Institute.

The Institute plans to hold its own national conference early next year, on rural journalism and how it can help communities and the nation address the issues that face rural America, such as education, health care, economic development and the environment.

The Institute is less a journalism-craft program than a public-policy institute for journalists. Cross’s appointment is in the Extension Title series, and he says his short job description is “extension agent for rural journalists” – as far as the School can tell, the only one anywhere.

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

Last Updated: 10/19/2007