Thursday, May 26, 2011

Last Eastern Kentucky news bureau is closing

First it was The Courier-Journal of Louisville. Then The Associated Press. And now the Lexington Herald-Leader, the main daily newspaper serving Eastern Kentucky, will no longer have a bureau in the region, one of the nation's most rural places but one with more than its share of topics that need coverage, such as "politics and government, corruption, drug abuse, poverty, child welfare, health care, coal and the environment, to name a few," as Publisher Tim Kelly put it in an email to The Rural Blog.

Tomorrow is the last day for Pikeville bureau reporter Dori Hjalmarson, left, whose job was among those in the latest round of cuts for the newspaper, owned by the McClatchy Co., which is burdened by the huge debt it incurred to buy the old Knight-Ridder chain of which the Herald-Leader was a part.

The paper's coverage of Kentucky's Appalachian coalfield will now be done mainly by veteran reporter Bill Estep, who has already been covering coal from his Southern Kentucky hometown of Somerset, just outside the coalfield, which is the most common demarcation of "Eastern Kentucky." The western edge of the coalfield is roughly defined by the western edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest, the dark green diagonal strip on this Google map, the blue line on which shows the 156-mile, three-hour route from Somerset to Pikeville. (Click on image for larger version)
The coalfield's western counties have little if any mining. Most of the small white splotches in the east are strip mines, several just north of Hazard, just east of midway on the route. The Herald-Leader once had a bureau in Hazard, too, and its eastern coverage was supported strongly by Kelly, a native of Ashland, the largest city in the coalfield but far from the heart of it. He is retiring next week. He told us, "I expect that the paper will continue to do enterprise and investigative work on subjects of statewide significance, including the issues significant to Eastern Kentucky . . . regardless of where bureaus are physically located. We have always done that, and it remains central to our journalistic mission. Also, I have no doubt that the editorial page will continue to explore and comment on the issues of importance to Eastern Kentucky."

But there is no replacement for boots on the ground of the coalfield, as former Herald-Leader columnist Bill Bishop suggests in an article for the national Daily Yonder, which he co-edits from Texas. "To understand a place, you have to live there," he writes. "With the bureaus closed, the distance between the cities and the rest of the state will widen. The growing economic inequality between rural and urban in Kentucky will be matched by a social and political distance."

Bishop, a former reporter for The Mountain Eagle in the coalfield town of Whitesburg, recalls the 1960s and 1970s, when "Bureau reporters were gunslinging paladins of the powerless. The reporters covering Eastern Kentucky were able to change the nation from their little offices," with coverage of coal, poverty and other issues. He says it's fitting that Hjalmarson's "last big story" for the Lexington paper was about the population decline in the region, focusing on the valedictorian of Breathitt County High School, who would like to return to the mountains but can't yet see how. "That's what I've been raised in," Emily Tackett said. "That's my home." After tomorrow, one less reporter will call it so.

To hear an interview about this by Alan Lytle of WUKY-FM with the undersigned, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, both at the University of Kentuckyclick here.


Betty Dotson-Lewis said...

This is so sad. Coalfield residents need news coverage so badly. It's terrible they are going to be left alone. At least with news coverage of events that happen in the coal culture - residents have a support team, even if invisible.

ac repair Fairfax said...

Coalfield residents need bad news coverage. It is terrible to be left alone. At least with the news coverage of events occurring in the culture of coal - residents have a support team, but invisible.