Rural American communities face significant challenges, and so do the journalists who cover those communities.
To understand those challenges, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues convened the first National Summit on Journalism in Rural America. Al Cross, director of the institute, noted that a goal of the program was to create a national community of rural journalists.
The institute identified these issues that significantly impact rural America: education, heath and health care, the environment; jobs, including globalization and isolation issues; and watchdog journalism — how a rural news outlet can most effectively cover the local government.
Over the course of two days, approximately 70 journalists, policy experts, educators and funders discussed the issues and how journalism can help address them.
Within each of those categories, discussion leaders talked about specifics, such as how rural schools can meet requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, and how they can attract and keep teachers.
In covering economic issues, Brian Dabson of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, pointed out one of the biggest mistakes a news outlet can make — being too anxious to advocate for new industry without knowing the full implications of what that industry and the types of jobs can have on the locality.
Brian Mann, a conference presenter, journalist and author of “Welcome to the Homeland,” pointed out that in the United States, nine states have more than 50 percent of the population, but only 18 percent of the power in the U.S. Senate. “Rural America is more powerful than we sometimes perceive,” he said.
In addition to the policy discussions, representatives from community newspaper chains and family-owned publications shared their perspectives on newspaper ownership and how to address the needs of rural communities.
“These are the papers that are closest to the people,” said Bill Ketter, vice president/news for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. “We believe in autonomy … that each newspaper is in charge of its own destiny.” CNHI owns 93 daily newspapers and more than 40 weeklies.
During the weekend, the institute honored the Ezzell family of the Canadian Record, with the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism. The Ezzell’s own and publish a weekly newspaper in Canadian, Texas.
Throughout the years, the family never shied away from controversial issues. In 1971, someone fired shots through the paper’s door and window after an antiwar editorial. Ben’s response, “Someone was expressing and editorial opinion. It is a great American privilege.”
Ben died in 1993, and Nancy continues to work at the paper today. She writes a weekly column. Their daughter, Laurie Ezzell Brown, now edits the paper.
During the conference, one participant shared her frustrations about fear in small towns. Her paper covers controversial issues and attempts to hold public officials accountable for their actions and decisions on public issues. The editor noted that while individuals and business owners might support the paper privately, they were not quick to support it financially through subscriptions and advertising.
After thinking on it a bit, Laurie Ezzell Brown offered this advice, “Try to start where they are. Try to start where your community is. Try to start with the common ground. Not everything’s a fight.”
But, she added, don’t be afraid to fight when it’s necessary. “Your credibility is the most important thing you have.”
The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is based at the University of Kentucky. It provides research, reporting resources, seminars and a regular blog. For more about the institute, visit www.ruraljournalism.org. The Sigma Delta Chi Foundation helped to establish the institute with a $25,000 grant in 2001.