Women rural editors share their experiences and advice

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

Two women editors, one who is fiercely independent and another who has kept her spunk after selling to a chain, shared their personal observations about the challenges and joys of doing journalism in a small community at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America on April 20..

For both, it is a story that is closely intertwined with family, roots, and tradition. Passion and public service play a role, too. A deep understanding of the important role journalism can play in a community also plays a part -- with equal helpings of commitment and stubbornness, kindness and courage.

They offered Summit attendees a portrait of individuals struggling to maintain journalistic traditions. They spoke about the tough day-to-day life of the rural journalist and the sense of purpose that they share as rural editors and publishers.

Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian ( Tex.) Record, and Jenay Tate of The Coalfield Progress in Norton, Va., also offered some heartfelt and practical advice for other journalists who may find themselves grappling with the same issues.

Brown and her mother, Nan Ezzell, in photo above, were honored Friday night with the Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, recognizing the crusading attitude established by her late father, Ben Ezzell.

Nevertheless, Brown had caution for would-be crusaders.

“Not everything’s a fight,” she said. “Write about the good things too.” That’s part of the newspaper’s job, too, covering the everyday life of its community, she said.

But when it’s time to take a stand, “Be fierce and don’t duck a fight. Don’t lose your credibility. . . . In a small town you have such a huge voice,” and that means you have the opportunity to truly make a difference, she said.

When dealing with difficult issues, she advised, “Find the common ground where they’ll read a little bit and ease your way into it.”

Her thoughts were motivated by a query earlier in the day from a young editor who has faced her fair share of challenges in covering her community.

Have a sense of humor, Brown said. “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” Also, “Don’t let yourself be the story. It’s about the community.”

Brown told her fellow rural editors that she’s willing to talk about difficulties in covering a community, including backlash from readers or advertisers. “If you need to talk about those things, talk to us,” she said. “We are a family.”

All the issues that challenge rural America — isolation, economic development, out migration and more, present difficulties for newspaper survival as well.

“We’re in places that struggle as much as we do,” Tate, left, said.

Like many who have worked at small newspapers, Tate got an introduction to virtually every aspect of the newspaper during her career, including reporting, layout and delivery, before becoming managing editor and later editor and publisher.

Tate’s grandfather bought the Progress in 1924. The newspaper stayed in the family until 2005 when Tate and her brother sold to American Hometown Publishing. It was not an easy decision.

In 1998 Tate and her brother bought the newspaper from other family members. In the process the newspaper went into debt. Further debt accumulated when they made upgrades to equipment.

Soon they were faced with making the decision that they had hoped to avoid. The paper would be sold.

Tate told Summit attendees of the sorrow she felt when her and her brother made this choice. She felt guilty, and sad. And unfortunately, she said, it is a common tale.

“What happened to us is what is happening everywhere,” she said. “People are worn down.” Long hours, no vacations and small staffs drain the people who put out small newspapers.

All the issues that challenge rural America — isolation, economic development, out migration and more, present difficulties for newspaper survival as well.

“We’re in places that struggle as much as we do,” Tate said.

So it wasn’t with much happiness that Jenay Tate and her brother started meeting with potential buyers.

Tate was determined that the newspaper would go to a company that shared her values and would allow the paper to carry on its journalistic tradition – be a good “caretaker for our babies,” as she put it.

Her days were a blur of meetings and discussions and a lot of what she was told all sounded the same.

Then one day a company came along that was different, Tate said. American Hometown Publishing was a new company, promising to keep Tate and her editorial independence.

Because the company was new, Tate said, she felt like she could help write on a blank slate. The Coalfield Progress became its first acquisition.

So far, she reported, she has been comfortable with the transition, although taking on new business-related roles, like crunching numbers, has been its own challenge. “There isn’t editorial interference, but there is a whole lot of help,” she said.

That means that The Coalfield Progress, The Post of Big Stone Gap, and The Dickenson Star of Clintwood, can continue to practice community journalism.

For Tate, that means “being invested in your community, involved in it, putting the community first.”

Both Tate and Brown spoke of the hardships running a small newspaper can put on families but they also spoke of their love for the craft.

When it is the family business that means that the newspaper is part of the family as well.

“It’s a tough job, tough on families,” Brown said. “We grew up tougher. We learned how to have an opinion and be able to defend it. It’s a hard life, but it’s a good life.”

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, 9:40 a.m.