Rural station is ‘glue’ for Eastern Kentucky, but satellite TV and its rules are eroding it

By Ivy Brashear
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

HAZARD, Ky. – Becky Campbell watched Hazard's WYMT-TV every day when she lived in nearby Viper, Ky., and enjoyed its news and sports coverage about her home southeastern Kentucky. But she moved across Perry County to an area where cable TV wasn’t available. “So many people started to get satellite that the cable company pulled out,” she said.

So Campbell subscribed to satellite TV, and because a combination of federal regulations and business decisions keep WYMT off satellite, she could no longer see local news and weather reports.

As people in Eastern Kentucky increasingly choose satellite TV, the number watching WYMT decreases, eroding connections and regional identity the station has created among the 24 Kentucky counties it reaches.

“It’s the glue that sticks the Eastern Kentucky counties together,” said U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, left, whose 5th District includes all 24 counties. “Before WYMT, there was no community newspaper or any other media that covered the entire region.” (Photo by David Perry, Lexington Herald-Leader)

Rogers said WYMT allows people from all corners of the region to share ideas and concerns that affect them all, and said he couldn’t have started regional organizations like Personal Responsibility In a Desirable Environment without WYMT reminding people of common problems that needed action.

But despite its importance, no satellite service carries WYMT. Satellite companies don’t have to carry more than one affiliate of a network in a market, and WYMT and its parent, WKYT of Lexington, are both CBS affiliates.

TV markets are defined by The Nielsen Co., the national ratings service. Hazard is in Lexington’s Designated Market Area, but Perry County borders counties in two other DMAs, Knoxville and the Tri-Cities of upper East Tennessee, and is one county away from the Charleston-Huntington DMA, which includes five counties in WYMT’s coverage area.

WYMT is on Kentucky cable systems in those markets, but satellite customers are not able to watch it or any Kentucky commercial stations because they live in an out-of-state market.
In September, the Kentucky River Area Development District asked the Federal Communications Commission to let WYMT be transmitted via satellite to subscribers in Leslie and Letcher counties, which are in the Tri-Cities market, citing their need to get local news, weather and emergency broadcasts.

“In today’s world where I can talk to my nephew in Afghanistan, and another in Iraq, and another at Fort Hood, all because of technology, I don’t see any reason this can’t happen,” said Mike Miller, the district’s executive director.

A recent FCC report estimated that nearly 2 million U.S. households can’t get any in-state stations via satellite. The report attempts to define alternatives for getting in-state news to residents in an out-of-state market.

Rogers said he has been trying for years to get WYMT on satellite, but “What we’re trying to do with WYMT runs contrary to the national scope of satellite companies,” he said. “It’s become a sticky wicket.”

Wayne Martin, the regional vice president who oversees WYMT for Gray Television, said negotiations between Gray and satellite companies to get WYMT on satellite ended in December 2008, but he said these negotiations have been constantly revisited since then.

Rogers co-sponsored a bill in 2009 that would have required – upon request – satellite companies to carry all local television signals in a local market. The bill went nowhere.

Direct TV didn’t reply to requests for comment, but a Dish Network spokesperson said the company doesn’t carry WYMT because it has an agreement with Gray to carry only one CBS affiliate per market. Martin said Gray asked Dish to carry WYMT, but Dish refused.

Martin said satellite companies claim limited bandwidth keeps them from carrying WYMT, but “I don’t buy that. What they’re really saying is they don’t want to do it, because they know the lobbying effort has been going on and that we somehow might open up a loophole where they could carry WYMT.”

Gray could ask Nielsen to give Hazard its own market area, but WYMT General Manager Ernestine Cornett said “We have never seriously considered forming our own DMA because we would be ranked as a small market – next to the last market – by Nielsen and we could have a hard time getting national business.”

Creation of a Hazard DMA could cause problems for Gray, which also owns profitable stations in Knoxville and Huntington, W.Va., as well as the one in Lexington. If a new Hazard DMA took counties from those stations’ markets, that could mean less money for the company.

Rogers said that creates a conflict for the company on the issue. Asked if Gray opposed his 2009 bill, Rogers said he couldn’t recall.

Martin dismissed the idea of a conflict. “If that was a concern for us, we would have never put WYMT as a CBS affiliate and do stand-alone news and staff a newsroom,” he said.

Rogers, who was a radio broadcaster in Lexington and his native Monticello, is sure about the value of the Hazard station.

“WYMT is the most important news outlet – print or electronic – in the mountains,” he said. “No one comes close to them in terms of local coverage, depth of coverage.” Rogers said he keeps cable in his Somerset home specifically to keep access to WYMT. If he ever switched to satellite, he said, he would also keep cable to keep WYMT.

WYMT News Director Neil Middleton said in an email the station’s main priority is serving the people of the region as their only local, commercial TV outlet.

“Our call letters WYMT stand for ‘We're Your Mountain Television,’ and sum up the bond between WYMT and our viewers,” he said. “We consider our viewers and clients as family, and they look at us the same way.”

He said the station’s focus is to be a community journalism outlet for the region, providing news about what people expect to see.

“We strive each day to do more than just report or focus on the problems our region and people face,” he said. “We also have a responsibility to seek out solutions to those problems because this is our home.”

WYMT viewers seem to agree with Middleton about the importance of the station. In September, a self-selected viewer poll on WYMT’s website asked: “Do you think WYMT should be available on satellite television to viewers in Eastern Kentucky?” The station said 97 percent of the 2,106 people who responded want it on satellite.

Figures on satellite subscribers in WYMT's coverage area are still being gathered, but state tax records show that collection of sales tax on satellite service in the 5th District has increased more than 15 percent over the last two years. For a local breakdown, in an Excel spreadsheet, click here.

Ivy Brashear, a former reporter for the Hazard Herald, is a graduate student at the University of Kentucky and an assistant for its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which produced this report. She can be reached at

As rural journalism adapts to new, digital world, Institute breaks new ground in researching it

Though most news outlets in America are community newspapers and broadcast stations, many if not most of them rural, they have been the subject of very little research. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is trying to correct that, to guide and fuel its efforts to help rural America through journalism, and to help rural news outlets adapt to the Internet and other technologies.

While the Internet has clearly hurt the print circulation of major newspapers, it has had less effect on community papers. Why? Starting a panel he moderated at the 2010 convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in Denver, Institute Director Al Cross gave three main reasons for community papers’ relative strength:

They have a strong local news franchise, serving communities that are usually not covered well by other news outlets; their classified-ad revenue is less important than metropolitan papers’ was, and has not been lost to Craigslist and similar services; and many of them (40 percent of weeklies) are independently owned and not subject to the obligations of debt and the profit demands of Wall Street.

(From left, the AEJMC panel: M.E. Sprengelmeyer, editor-publisher, Guadalupe County Communicator, Santa Rosa, N.M. and former Washington correspondent, Rocky Mountain News; Benjy Hamm, executive editor, Landmark Community Newspapers; Dean Lehman, president, Cañon City Daily Record and Longmont Times-Call; Brenda Brandt, publisher of the Holyoke Enterprise; Jock Lauterer, director of the Carolina Community Media Project at the University of North Carolina; and Brian Steffens of the University of Missouri, former executive director of the National Newspaper Association)
The Institute helps set the pace for research in this field. It conducted the first survey of training backgrounds and needs at the 4,000 rural U.S. newspapers, as part of its initial grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The survey found that almost half of the papers offered no training opportunities to their employees in 2006, and the most common form of specific training mentioned was not in journalism, but in layout and design, as papers struggled to embrace digital technology and spread design work around.

However, the survey also found that most rural papers are willing to support journalism training, and are more likely to do so if it deals with issues of concern in their coverage areas. Only seven of the 137 papers in the survey reported training for coverage of specific issues or subjects.

The survey also found that more than two-thirds of reporters at the papers had at least a bachelor’s degree. Generally, the larger a paper’s circulation, the more likely its reporters and editors were to have degrees. About 16 percent of the reporters had only a high school diploma or GED.

The survey’s findings guided the Institute in its training efforts, and provided a useful resource for further work. The survey was the first of its kind, so it required the Institute to develop a first-ever database of newspapers in the rural U.S.

The full report can be read on the Institute’s website at It was presented in 2007 at the Institute’s National Summit on Journalism in Rural America and the annual Newspapers and Community Building Symposium, conducted by the Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media at Kansas State University for the National Newspaper Association.

Because the Institute is based in Kentucky, a major Appalachian state, much of its work has focused on the mountainous, coal-bearing region, and it has presented research at annual conferences of the Appalachian Studies Association.

“Coverage of Public-Policy Issues at Newspapers in Central Appalachia” reported that Eastern Kentucky newspapers generally had weak editorial pages and provided poor coverage of county budgets, the basic policy document of the main local government.

Following up on the editorial-page study, Cross worked with students in his Community Journalism classes to take a closer look at Kentucky papers’ editorial pages. One did a detailed study of the pages’ content, and another surveyed daily papers about political endorsements.

The students’ work formed the basis for “Keeping Quiet or Taking the Lead?,” a paper that Cross and Dr. Elizabeth Hansen, right, of Eastern Kentucky University, presented at the National Newspaper Association’s 2008 symposium. Hansen chairs the Institute steering committee, comprising its 28 academic partners in 18 states.

Their research found that about a fourth of the state’s weekly newspapers had no editorial pages at all, and only half published material that was clearly the voice of the newspaper (editorials presented as the opinion of the paper or columns by the publisher or editor). There was no such material in over a third of papers that had editorial pages. Just under half of weeklies had an editorial page in every edition.

While all of Kentucky’s daily newspapers have editorial pages, less than half made endorsements in elections for any particular race in the election cycle studied, and they were more likely to endorse in major statewide races than in legislative or other major local races, in large measure because they wanted to avoid ruffling local feathers.

Cross and Hansen did a paper for the 2010 NNA symposium, “Discerning a train coming down the track: Three rural weekly newspapers and the Internet.” This paper detailed the Institute’s effort, funded by the McCormick Foundation, to help rural weeklies adopt and embrace the Internet and multimedia. It said that for weeklies, the prospect of adapting to the digital, 24/7 world “is like looking down a railroad track at a train gaining momentum.”

Hansen, who has conducted research for and about community newspapers for 20 years, and her Community Journalism students conducted polls in the two counties (two papers are in the same county) on residents’ newspaper readership, their use of the Internet and what they would like to see from their newspapers online. The paper said the responses showed that “Weekly newspapers need to establish a Web presence if they wish to remain the primary source of news for their communities.”