National Summit focuses on future of rural journalism

By Mary Jo Shafer, Knight Community Journalism Fellow, University of Alabama

SHAKERTOWN, Ky. -- The Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg, Ky. was the ideal setting for a gathering to discuss rural journalism.

With lambs frisking in the fields nestled among buildings of the historic site, donkeys peering over the fence rails and ducks swimming in a pond, attendees at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America were greeted by an environment that mirrors many of their hometowns — the rural counties where they practice their craft.

Journalists, academics, policy experts and others with an interest in rural journalism attended the Summit. They heard from a wide range of panelists and engaged in a robust discussion about the present state and future of journalism in rural America. They talked about the challenges facing rural newspapers, policy and politics that touch their corners of this country, ownership trends, how to adopt digital culture and how to cover rural issues.

Panel topics included academic centers for rural and community journalism, newspaper chains that provide good journalism on rural issues, training backgrounds and needs at small newspapers, and a group strategy session on the future of rural journalism.

The Summit, hosted by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, was made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and Farm Foundation.

Rural America is “getting franchised, Wal-Martized and globalized out of existence,” Rudy Abramson, a co-founder of the Institute and chair of its national advisory board, told attendees in his opening remarks.

In this environment, media can play a much-needed role, he said. Communities need newspapers and other media to succeed because “they can help us to understand the community better,” he said.

Al Smith, a co-founder of the Institute and chair of its steering committee, also spoke about the connectedness of rural journalism and the care that these journalists bring to covering community issues and the people who live in those communities. “That care will make our journalism successful,” he said.

With that introduction, the Summit kicked off, beginning with research on training backgrounds and needs at rural newspapers, and on the challenges facing rural newspapers.

Liz Hansen and Deborah Givens of Eastern Kentucky University surveyed newspapers in the counties that EKU serves. Their results show that many rural editors are concerned with rising postal rates, staffing levels and training.

The difficulties of covering local government also came up -- how to build up trust among readers, especially when conveying important information, was another issue raised. Attracting and retaining young readers as well as coping with the changing demographics of many rural areas were other concerns brought up by survey respondents.

Brian Dabson of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri shared a presentation chock full of data on defining rural America. He also highlighted some of the “hot rural policy issues.” These include agriculture, energy, education, healthcare, changing populations and regionalism.

One problem is that “no coherent policy framework exists,” he said. “Everybody lives in their own different worlds, but people who live there are affected by all these forces.”

From policy the Summit moved into politics with Brian Mann’s presentation. Mann, of North Country Radio in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and author of Welcome to the Homeland, shared his insights into the politics of rural America.

“We are observing a revolution, the massive urbanization of this country,” Mann said, and in the course of becoming an urban nation, “We have become a starkly divided nation.”

Rural America, which shares similar characteristics throughout the country, has become a national constituency, according to Mann. Even as the country has become more intensely urban, political power is concentrated in rural areas, he said.

After a lunch of hearty Shaker fare, the Summit reconvened with a session on “How three newspaper chains meet the bottom line and provide good journalism on rural issues.”

Benjy Hamm of Landmark Community Newspapers, Frank Denton of Morris Communications and Bill Ketter of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. shared their philosophies about journalism and how their companies interact with the newspapers they own.

They struck a common theme. Their companies believe in local autonomy, but corporate representatives provide resources, advice and funding.

“There is no centralized news operation,” Hamm said. “We serve as an advisory role. We don’t make our newspapers do any single thing. We like local control.”

The companies also provide training, legal resources, guidelines and best-practice examples, and present awards to staff. The help often goes above and beyond what a small newspaper could afford. For example, CNHI’s Elite Reporting Program for example allows reporters the time to work on an in-depth public service project and to learn Web skills in the process. These reporters will then go back to the newspaper and teach peers what they learn, Ketter said.

Denton spoke about the appeal of small newspapers. “They are closer to readers and attuned to the rhythm of life,” he said. Some are even growing in circulation. But staff of small newspapers can often feel isolated and don’t get re-energized very often.

Very little training is available, they have a hard time recruiting, and they “work so hard,” Denton said. “The smaller the newspaper, the harder the people have to work. They constantly feel swamped and have trouble finding time to be away. They are so grateful for any attention or help.”

Hamm, Ketter and Denton shared some of their success stories and the examples of newspapers in their groups that they were proud of.

Independent editors and publishers followed this presentation, bringing to the table their experiences in trying to provide their communities with good journalism while also staying afloat. (See story on women editors and one to be posted on this site, on alternative forms of ownership.)

Friday concluded with the Tom and Pat Gish Award Dinner. Abramson offered a tribute to the couple who have published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years.

The Gish Award was presented to the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record in Texas. John Seigenthaler, founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and distinguished editor, provided the keynote address, touching on the history of free speech in the United States and the courage displayed by people like the Gishes and Ezzells. For more about them, click here.

Saturday brought a bright spring morning to the Shaker Village, sunny and warm. Attendees gathered at the West Family Wash House for the final sessions. They started the day by hearing about the academic side of the equation. While many rural journalists learn on the job, academic centers specifically devoted to the needs small newspapers face, can offer training and research and can also educate the next generation of journalists.

Chris Waddle, director of the Knight Community Journalism Fellows at the University of Alabama and The Anniston Star, told Summit attendees about the innovative graduate program that offers journalists “on-the-job training” inserted into a working newsroom.

The hope is to “salt the industry” with professionals who are committed to community journalism and who will be able to meet the challenges of the future, Waddle said.

The State University of New York at Oswego also has a Center for Community Journalism that provides resources, critiques and on-site training. It operates e-mails lists for reporters and publishers, and pursues research related to community journalism -- work that is needed because there has been very little written in academic publications on how community newspapers operate, and Center Director Eileen Gilligan said.

Ray Laakaniemi, a retired professor and former weekly editor led a lively discussion about digital culture and reader interaction, highlighted by hands-on examples provided by Gary and Helen Sosniecki, editors and publishers of The Vandalia Leader in Vandalia, Mo., who have created a successful Web component for their weekly paper.

The Summit concluded with a group strategy session. Attendees identified fostering regionalism, encouraging cooperation across state lines, putting issues in regional and local context, covering economic development and business news extensively and writing about the arts and culture as some of the issues they could tackle.

Combating the isolation of rural life is one key challenge, and several attendees mentioned building a community of rural journalists and also bringing the world home to their readers.

Strong editorial pages are important and that includes letters to the editor, they said. The editorial page can provide a forum for public debate and readers should be brought into the discussion.

One goal of the Summit was to lay the groundwork for a “national community of rural journalists and help them help each other to serve their communities and rural America as a whole,” Al Cross, the director of the Institute, said in his opening remarks.

Attendees made connections, met kindred spirits and engaged in spirited discussion throughout the weekend in the bucolic setting of the Shaker Village. Meeting in historic Shaker buildings and walking along the gravel paths framed by rolling fields and white fences, attendees were immersed in a quiet and pleasant place in which to think, talk, and refresh, but they also spent the three days of the Summit engaged in an ongoing conversation with each other about the challenges they face as reporters, editors, publishers and supporters of rural media.

The hope is that the conversation will continue.

Following are links to Friday's presentations. Saturday's will be posted later.

Research: A Survey of Training Backgrounds and Needs at Rural Newspapers in the United States and Threats Faced by Rural Newspapers (video of both presentations)

Issues Facing Rural America: Policy and politics with Brian Dabson and Brian Mann (video)

How three newspaper chains meet the bottom line and provide good journalism on rural issues (video)

Covering rural issues and exploring alternative ownership forms with an independent publisher who sold to, and works for, a new kind of chain; and three independent editors and publishers (video). Also: "Thriving in a world of box stores and chain papers," by John Wylie of the Oologah Lake Leader in Oklahoma, who was scheduled but couldn't attend.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues helps non-metropolitan media define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary on local issues and on broader issues that have local impact. Its initial focus area is Central Appalachia, but as an arm of the University of Kentucky it has a statewide mission, and it has national scope. It has academic collaborators at Appalachian State University, East Tennessee State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Georgia College and State University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Marshall University, Middle Tennessee State University, Ohio University, Southeast Missouri State University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Washington and Lee University, West Virginia University and the Knight Community Journalism Fellows program of the University of Alabama. It is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the University of Kentucky, with additional financial support from the Ford Foundation. To get notices of daily Rural Blog postings and other Institute news, click here.




Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Journalism Building, Lexington KY 40506-0042

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

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

Last Updated: 4/24/07, 7:40 p.m.