Saturday, January 24, 2009

New Ky. Press Assn. president wants group and its members to help make unhealthy state healthier

State newspaper associations exist to protect the interests of newspapers, and also the shared public interest in open government and freedom of imformation. But we've never heard of one doing what the new president of the Kentucky Press Association wants to do -- encourage health and wellness through its activities and those of its members.

Edmund Shelby, editor of the Beattyville Enterprise, said in a speech to KPA's annual convention yesterday that its directors had granted his request to "move the association into areas of mutual concern for the people of Kentucky," as part of a process of "re-branding" newspapers and the trade group. He said the first should be health and wellness, and he also mentioned research on renewable energy. "Our future is inextricably tied with our communities, and with our state. To help ourselves we must help Kentucky and all Kentuckians."

"Kentucky is one of the unhealthiest states in the union," Shelby noted, citing the state's dismal rankings for smoking, obesity, diabetes and oral health. "These statistics all relate to behavior, and so, in theory, can be changed," he said, asking Gov. Steve Beshear, who spoke next, to form a task force to make proposals for wellness, such as required physical education in schools, paid for with a tax on junk food. Then he introduced representatives of the state medical and hospital associations and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, whom he said should be on the task force, and said its ultimate goal should be universal health care.

Not all of KPA's members, or even its directors, embrace such specific ideas, but there was a sense at the convention that Kentucky's newspapers -- almost all of them community papers, and most of them rural -- could play a role in helping improve the state's health status. Shelby said KPA "could use influence in the legislature to push forward a health-care agenda. Also, we would share ... editorials and stories on the subject." He said the group will start a story-sharing service and discuss issues at a series of regional meetings.

It remains to be seen whether this initiative will outlast Shelby's one-year presidency, but we hope it does. As we said in a presentation on health coverage at last year's KPA convention, and elsewhere, "If a newspaper can't stand for better health care and better health, what can it stand for?" As our research shows, most weekly newspapers in Kentucky don't have a regular editorial page, and only a third have a real voice, through editorials or columns by the editor or publisher. Campaigning for better health could provide some needed exercise to those flabby editorial muscles.

Shelby's call for action was well timed. That day's Louisville Courier-Journal had a Page One story by Laura Ungar about a new federal report saying that "Smoking kills Kentuckians at the highest rate in America," and Beshear has proposed more than tripling the state cigarette tax to help meet a state revenue shortfall and reduce health-care expenses in the long term. "I've got a health initiative for you, and I hope each of you will take it to heart," Beshear said. "I know how loyal people all across Kentucky are to their local newspapers." For KPA's press release, including all award winners, click here.


John Nelson said...

Indeed it is easy to say that if a newspaper can and should be in support of anything, it should stand in support of health and wellness in its community. We all, or most of us, do that routinely with our own stories about health and wellness, and in cooperation with our local hospitals and health departments in dissemination of their news releases. Many of us have done so editorially in support of smoking bans and higher cigarette taxes. Let no one suggest that our state's poor health is in any way a reflection of a lack of available information.

And there is no reason our press association cannot help to distribute educational information about good health or even to facilitate the sharing of our work to that end, including our editorials. But it is quite another thing to suggest that the association will take a position on any political solution to any issue which is not directly industry-related.

The best recent examples of appropriate efforts like that have to do with the issues of openness in government -- which we routinely support with our association's money -- and literacy, which enhances the sale of our products.

But we must be careful as an association not to find ourselves in compromising positions with organizations our members must cover -- like hospital associations and chambers of commerce -- by getting into bed with them on a political solution to a problem totally unrelated to the association's mission. And we need to avoid alienating ourselves with members who might disagree with the specific solutions the association is pushing.

The barely mentioned, but clearly noted target in Shelby's speech is universal health care. Some of our members might want to go there on their editorial pages -- and it's a safe bet there will be opinions on both sides -- but the association needs to stay away from such endorsements.

If the KPA board wants to encourage its members to promote wellness, and to facilitate their ability to do so, that is admirable. But the KPA board does not need to become an editorial board for the industry.

Al Cross said...

Edmund Shelby sends the following comment to your chief blogger, who posts it:

Just a few comments on John Nelson's response. I agree that we should not belong to any organization or group about which we might have to report. In fact, I quit attending my church for that very reason. What we are proposing is that the governor establish a task force to focus on wellness. We do not see that as all that controversial.
This proposal, and some others that may follow, are a direct result of our strategic planning. We discovered during that process that we must be more relevant. The old ways are just that -- old ways, and just because we've always done something a certain way is no recommendation to continue. We must me open to change. Certainly on-line news has shown us that.
--Edmund Shelby