Those who have done it promote, explain rural investigative reporting to weekly publishers
SAN ANTONIO, Oct. 4, 2014 – "When you think of investigative journalism, you typically don't think of small towns." That's how Tommy Thomason, director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism, at Texas Christian University, started a challenging panel at the National Newspaper Association's annual convention.
|NNA members lined up for a copy of Kathy Cruz's|
and Tommy Thomason's book, You Might Want to
Carry a Gun, on small-town investigative reporting.
Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, noted that large news outlets have largely pulled ot of rural America, so "If you don't do it, nobody's going to." Thomason called that "maybe the most important thing I've heard this morning."
The need for such sales pitches was demonstrated by Marshall Helmberger, publisher of the Timberjay in northern Minnesota. He asked two questions of the crowd: Did they publish newspapers, and did they do investigative reporting? About half as many hands went up in response to the second question.
Helmberger said he got a similar response at a recent Minnesota Press Association meeting, "but the nice thing about it was, the room was packed, so what it told me was there was a lot of interest in small-town investigative reporting."
Then why isn't there more of it? For "a lot of them . . . it's just plain fear," Helmberger said. "It does take a stiff upper lip. . . . We have had boycotts." But he said his paper also has the largest circulation of any weekly in its region, partly because of its investigative work.
"People in our region have learned that having a newspaper that takes its watchdog role seriously, though it can be an irritant at times, is a community asset."
He added later, "You've got problems that could use some attention from your paper. . . . All it takes is one enterprising person to ask the right questions."
The Timberjay has revealed much about the school-building scheme by Johnson Controls Inc., which Helberger said required "the largest tax increase local residents had ever seen."
The Timberjay's story shows the impact that investigative journalism, and the lack of it, can have. Voters in the Timberjay's part of the geographcially bifurcated school district overwhelmingly opposed the bond issue for the plan, but were outvoted by those in the other part, which has no local paper and was persuaded by weekly Johnson Controls newsletters, Helmberger said.
Later, the paper exposed shoddy construction work on the new schools, and fended off the company's threat of lawsuit by telling it that the paper's defense would be truth and that it would be happy to put all its documents in front of a local jury.
"We don't carry libel insurance," Helmberger said. "that's why we always make sure what we're putting in the paper is accurate and fair."
The personal nature of community journalism can help you be certain about what you publish, said Horvit and Samantha Swindler, whose investigation of a Kentucky sheriff when she was editor of The Times Tribune in Corbin, Ky., led to a 15-year prison term for the Whitley County sheriff.
"You should never print something that you wouldn't say to somebody's face," said Swindler, whose work earned her the Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and
Community Issues for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism.
She offered another principle to follow: Don't be so focused on turning over rocks that you forget the more traditional civic functions of a community newspaper. "When you print the good stuff," she said, "people will listen to you when you say something is wrong."
|Jonathan Austin and Samantha Swindler|
Swindler's probe began after she heard her sports reporter say that if someone needed a gun they should go to the back room of the sheriff's barber shop. After deciding to pursue the story, Swindler found that she had a reporter who "didn't think this was the kind of story we should be doing," and quit. She had no better luck with a fresh journalism-school graduate, and finally hired a 20-year-old who had a degree in criminal justice and told him, "If you don't do anything else, this is what you're going to do."
The paper made an open-records request that also sought a physical inspection of the evidence room, something that the Kentucky open-records law doesn't mention. "Sometimes you gotta bluff 'em," Swindler said. It paid off.
Two days later, the sheriff staged a burglary of the evidence room and said the records Swindler was seeking were also taken. That got the federal firearms bureau interested, she said: "If he had not responded to our open-records request in this crazy way, the ATF probably wouldn't have gotten involved."
The investigation developed slowly, but one story led to another, partly by generating tips. "We took the chunks as we had them and we printed them," said Swindler, now the editor of the Forest Grove Leader in Oregon.
Kathy Cruz of the Hood County News in Texas said she follows the same approach, which also helps develop support from readers who may be skeptical of initial investigative efforts.
"Readers need us," Cruz said. "They just don't always realize . . . maybe it is good to have a newspaper we can trust, who can watch our backs for us." Her paper, published by former NNA president Jerry Tidwell, has a button on its home page to readers to submit tips for investigations.
Cruz also went after her local sheriff, for temporarily freeing felons, some of whom he had failed to send to state prison. She got him to admit it with a direct approach: a call to his cell phone.
"I said, are you granting weekend furloughs to convicted felons." The sheriff hesitated a moment and said, "Yes."
"Well, how do know they're not molesting kids or cooking meth?" He replied, "I guess I don't." At the next election he got only 19 percent of the vote.
Cruz also exposed mismanagement of a local charity headed by powerful people. "Sometimes all you have to do is not ignore what's put in front of you," she said. "You have to have a strong sense of right and wrong."
She offered this final point to the publishers in the room: "Advertising is the bread and butter of the business, but newspapers should also be in business to make a difference."
Horvit noted that IRE and the Institute give two fellowships a year to rural journalists to attend IRE's Computer-Assisted Reporting Boot Camp. For more information on it, click here.
|Swindler speaks to NNA members as Cruz, Helmberger and Austin listen.|
By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
The Yancey County News, born in western North Carolina three years and five months ago, died last week after a life that can only be described as meteoric.
The weekly newspaper never exceeded a regular circulation of 1,000, but punched above its weight from the get-go, reporting in its first edition about a state investigation of vote-fraud allegations. Then it analyzed state investigators' records to report that the county had an unusually high number of absentee ballots, many of which were witnessed by employees of the county sheriff’s department and cast by criminal defendants, some of whose charges were then dropped.
The paper also revealed that the mountain county's chief deputy, the arresting officer in several cases in which the suspects immediately voted and were given leniency, was also pawning county-owned guns for personal gain. He has resigned and pleaded guilty to failing to discharge his duties.
For that and other work, publishers Jonathan and Susan Austin won the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism, the E.W. Scripps Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment, and the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky.
|Jonathan and Susan Austin in Burnsville, N.C.|
(Photo: Bill Sanders, Asheville Citizen-Times)
The Ingles move came in May, after an April that had been the new paper's best ever for revenue, Austin said. "We had a great spring," he said, partly due to political ads from unexpected sources. Still, circulation didn't grow, despite two-for-one special. Asked why, Austin started to say, then demurred and said he didn't want to pop off so soon: "Ask me in six months. . . . I'm accepting of the closing of the newspaper. It's fine."
Austin said he and his wife will remain in Yancey County, where they own a home without a mortgage. "We do have some opportunities that we're pushing on that don't require heavy deadlines,"
such as specialty guides for Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains tourists, focusing on the many artists and craftspeople in the area.
Austin said he considered keeping the paper as an online-only publication to maintain his editorial voice "for about a nanosecond. I just couldn't see how it could be paid for."
He said the paper lost money its first two years but was running "pretty even" when Ingles dropped its ad. "I'll be proud to make more contributions morally and personally," he said, "but I won't drop more money down a sinkhole."
The paper's Facebook page is here. Back issues are available here.
Weekly publishers, mostly rural, ask Congress for help on postal issues, advertising taxWASHINGTON – Leaders of the weekly newspaper business reported some success as they lobbied Congress on postal and advertising issues on March 13, but they also heard warnings to be vigilant because things could change after this fall's elections.
The big issues are a bill to reform the U.S. Postal Service and a proposed restriction of the deductibility of advertising as an ordinary business expense. The first issue has been bouncing around Congress for years and seems stuck between versions that have passed House and Senate committees but not the floor; the second has arisen as part of a bipartisan tax-reform plan that is going nowhere this year but might next year.
The advocates for rural newspapers were officers, directors and members of the National Newspaper Association, the lobby for about 2,500 community newspapers, including some small dailies but mostly rural weeklies that depend on the Postal Service to deliver their product. "This is a core chore of what NNA does," said Robert Williams of Blackshear, Ga., president of the group.
NNA has been sponsoring lobbying trips to Washington since 1971, but the effort "has never been more critical," Williams told the publishers as they gathered for briefings before heading to Capitol Hill.
The Postal Service is bleeding billions because of the Internet, and that has brought newspapers higher postage rates, poorer delivery service and lost subscribers. Now it wants less control over its rates, expanded ability to make special deals with direct mailers that take advertising from newspapers, and the power to stop Saturday delivery, except packages, on which it makes money.
NNA opposes the bill the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee approved last month. It would give the service most of what it wants, allowing it to reduce delivery to five days a week when the total volume of mail falls to 140 billion pieces, but not before October 2017. At current rates of decline, volume would fall below the trigger level at about that time or a few months later.
A House postal-reform bill would allow the service to cut back delivery to five days without limitations, but opposition to that is helping keep the bill off the floor, said Art Sackler of the Ford & Huff law and lobbying firm. "Overwhelmingly, [House] sentiment is in favor of maintaining Saturday delivery," he said, and the more time that passes without the bill coming to the floor, the less that House leaders "will want to ask their members to take a tough vote."
Matt Adelman of the Douglas Budget in Wyoming said he helped persuade Rep. Cynthia Lummis to oppose the House bill, but will keep on seeing her and the state's senators, with whom he has met about 30 times.
The bill's prospects in the Senate also appear poor. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio "came around" and opposed the bill in committee, said Keth Rathbun, publisher of The Budget, an Ohio-based weekly for Amish communities, which delivers 97 percent of its circulation by mail. "We're basically the poster child of poor delivery," he said.
The tax proposal would allow businesses to deduct only half of their annual advertising expenses, and require them to amortize the other half over the next 10 years. "It means less money for us to keep," Williams told his fellow publishers. Jim Davidson of The Advertising Coalition said the idea is being driven by 42 multinational corporations that don't want to pay U.S. taxes on their foreign profits and need "something really big" to offset the revenue the federal government would lose.
Davidson said the chief tax counsel for one of the multinationals told him that the corporate executives "don't understand . . . the power of local media, local newspapers, local broadcasters, local magazine publishers, all local media" to fight such proposals. "Your voice is probably more important than any other lobbying voice up there," he said. "If they don't hear from you we're going to lose this fight."
The idea includes an exemption for businesses with annual revenues under $1 million, but Davidson said major community-newspaper advertisers would exceed that, and so would the major corporations that subsidize retailers' advertising of their products.
Several publishers reported that their senators and representatives had told them the idea is going nowhere, but Davidson said tax reform won't die as long as the multinationals are pushing it. "Right after the election . . . I think it's going to take off with a vengeance."
Matt Paxton, publisher of the twice-weekly News-Gazette in Lexington, Va., said he doesn't know if the ad tax will ever get off the ground, but "It scares the hell out of me. . . . If you want a civil society, and think the media have some value, something that affects 80 percent of our revenue should be frightening."
The Washington trips will continue because they are effective and will remain necessary, said Randy Mankin, publisher of small weeklies in Eldorado and Big Lake, Tex.: "If we don't toot our own horn, who's going to?"
Editor of dailies, former editor-publisher of weekly wins Al Smith Award for public service through community journalismLEXINGTON, Ky. – A leader for openness in government and quality in journalism during his career at weekly and daily newspapers received the 2013 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism Nov. 16.
Before joining the Danville newspaper as an editor, Nelson was editor and co-publisher of Pulaski Week, which was an award-winning weekly paper in Somerset. He began his career at the Citizen Voice and Times in Estill County.
The Al Smith Award is named for the rural newspaper publisher who was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky.” It is presented by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, part of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. Smith is a national SPJ Fellow and co-founder of the Institute, and chairman emeritus of its national advisory board.
Nelson, 61, is a native of Mayfield who grew up in Valley Station and earned a degree from Eastern Kentucky University. As president of the Kentucky Press Association in 2004, he oversaw the state’s first open-records audit and spearheaded a lawsuit to open juvenile courts, and was named KPA’s most valuable member for 2005. He also served as president of the Bluegrass SPJ Chapter.
“John Nelson has been known for decades as a newspaper manager who has always had public service at the top of his mind,” said Institute Director Al Cross. “Few people have carved out the kind of record he has left: part owner and co-editor of a superb weekly, editor of an excellent daily and now executive editor of two dailies and two weeklies. He is an exemplary community journalist.”
KPA Executive Director David Thompson said in his endorsement of Nelson’s nomination, “John has always been about public service through community journalism.”
Nelson joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in April. He has received the Barry Bingham Freedom of Information Award from KPA and The Courier-Journal, and the James Madison Award for Service to the First Amendment from the UK journalism school’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center.
“John Nelson has ‘done it all’ in the newspaper business – country editor, daily editor, exemplary crusader for ethics and transparency in government and business, including journalism, passionately committed to his community, and inspiration to his family and friends,” Al Smith said, recalling Nelson’s Journalism Hall of Fame induction:
“He is one of the few editors who ever made a speech so moving that I wrote for a printed copy. In an era of troubling transition for the news business and vexing conflicts in government, business and education, the strength of this country is in the character of its citizens who do the next right thing in the everyday challenges of life at the grass roots. John Nelson has been an enduring voice for Americans who do honest work, teach their kids to treat others as they want to be treated, respect education, and try to make the world a better place. He is a hero of community journalism."
Smith was the first recipient of the award, which is presented for a career of public service through community journalism in Kentucky, or anywhere by a current or former Kentuckian, with preference given to those outside metropolitan areas.
The 2012 winners were Jennifer P. Brown, opinion editor and former editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, and Max Heath, retired executive editor and vice president of Shelbyville-based Landmark Community Newspapers Inc.
Small-daily editor, retired group executive win Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism
Jennifer P. Brown, opinion editor and former editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, and Max Heath, retired vice president and executive editor of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc. received the award from the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.
The award is named for the rural newspaper publisher who is a national SPJ Fellow and co-founder of the Institute, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. Last year Smith was the first recipient of the award, which is presented for a career of public service through community journalism in Kentucky, or anywhere by a current or former Kentuckian, with preference given to those outside metropolitan areas.
|Brown, Smith, Heath|
(Photo by Janice Birdwhistell, UK)
Brown helped change the culture of the newsroom at the small, independently owned daily, gave it a strong editorial voice, diversified its contributors and made it one of Kentucky's leading fighters for open government.
In her remarks to the awards dinner crowd at Eastern Kentucky University's Center for the Arts, Brown gave a clear picture of the fortitude and high goals often required be a good community journalist.
"Reporting in your hometown means you occasionally wade around in your own history. And it’s messy," she said. "It is sometimes lonely because you have to write unflattering things about people you know —about your own people even. You have to be careful with friendships, and you have to tell the truth. And then you see the subjects of your stories in the toilet paper aisle at Kroger."
She added later, "Often, I learn that we don’t expect enough from people. I mean we don’t expect enough from our own journalists and from the people we cover. Setting the bar high usually works. I hate to see people at smaller papers accepting crumbs. If you don’t do good journalism at small papers —and doing good journalism includes filing open records requests and complaining when the open meetings law is violated —then you are telling people who live in rural areas that their place in life, in the world, is not that important." For her remarks, as part of her column, click here.
Heath largely established the editorial principles that have earned LCNI national recognition. He told the crowd that his work on journalism ethics and freedom of information was guided by the values of SPJ, and that Landmark still benefits from the legacy of the late Frank Batten Sr., who "provided a degree of editorial autonomy that allowed us to thrive."
Heath began his career in his hometown of Campbellsville, Ky., where he rose from teenage sports reporter to editor. He was also editor of the Landmark paper in Tell City, Ind. "He is and always will be a country editor," Landmark executive Editor Benjy Hamm told the crowd. Heath said, "Country editor is still the highest title one can hold, for its community impact."
In retirement, Heath has continued his contributions to the health and future of community papers by serving as a consultant to them on increasingly critical postal issues, on which he has been active for almost 30 years. David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association, gave Heath more than 35 letters from newspapers and state press associations thanking him for his work. Heath said, "I really feel like I've helped newspapers achieve their First Amendment rights to be distributed." For his remarks, click here.
Newspaper does its first online-first editorial to focus attention on rush to identify, interview and hire local school superintendent(Background:http://irjci.blogspot.com/2012/06/ky-paper-does-first-online-first.html)
Special KNE Editorial
Superintendent decision should wait
During two public events today in Hopkinsville, an educator under consideration to run the Christian County school system was unable to articulate what this district could expect from him in terms of leadership and philosophy. That’s unfortunate for both the candidate, Marvin Welch, 50, an assistant superintendent in Madison County, and for the local school board, which could vote tonight on whether they want to hire Welch.
We have to urge the school board to slow down on this decision. If the board is serious about Welch’s candidacy, the members must take more time to answer questions that are left unanswered following his speeches to the Chamber of Commerce and to a community group. In response to specific questions about how he would run local schools, many of Welch’s answers lacked meaningful detail. Many of his answers seemed too vague to explain exactly how he would lead. Some questions, unfortunately, could not be answered. For example, Welch could not say what the graduation rate is in Madison County, although he said his vision for a school system is to ensure that every student graduates“college and career ready.”
The school board should not vote to hire Welch this evening. That decision cannot be made in the absence of a better understanding of how this candidate would lead the district.
The Christian County Board of Education has a tough job on its hands. We respect that. Hiring the next superintendent ranks among the most influential and impactful decisions that will occur locally in this decade. It would be a mistake to hire someone before developing a complete understanding of his or her abilities.
The board should give itself more time on this decision. Christian County Public Schools deserve a top-notch educator to lead the district, its employees and students. It is simply not clear yet if Welch is that person.
Newspaper, radio station help rally tornado-ravaged townBy Ivy Brashear
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
WEST LIBERTY, Ky. – How do you keep publishing your weekly newspaper when a tornado has blown away the office? You find a way, and some new ways, because your community needs it.
The staff of the Licking Valley Courier was out of the office when a tornado roared through West Liberty on March 2, destroying the entire downtown. “Our office was below Main Street behind City Hall,” reporter Miranda Cantrell said. “It’s pretty much destroyed.”
Cantrell (interviewing school officials, in photo by John Flavell) said no one started covering any stories until three days after the storm. “I felt like I should have been writing about it – but everybody was in sort of a state of shock. Nobody could really believe it, or could really even talk about it.”
First, Cantrell was a community member, helping at a shelter set up close to her home. “Finally, I just decided I was going to start working,” she said. She established a Facebook page for the newspaper, its first online presence, to keep the community updated about business relocations, fundraisers, donations and emergency information.
“I don’t think there was ever any question that the paper was going to go on; we just didn’t yet know how we were going to go about it,” she said.
Local radio station engineer Paul Lyons said he drove through downtown about 10 minutes after the tornado, and it looked like a “war zone.” The next day, he and operations manager Steven Lewis and his friend Nate Lewis talked their way through the police blockade of the city and found their building had sustained only minimal damage.
Most of the equipment was still intact, so they restarted their automated programming computer, which runs music and commercials, and had WQXX and WLKS back on the air within 20 hours of the tornado.
“We got lucky,” Lyons said. “That’s all there is to it.”
Lyons said he’s slept an average of three to four hours a night since the stations got back on the air, and “pulled a couple of all-nighters” trying to keep them on, because of technical difficulties related to the storm. “We’re hanging by a thread, but we’re hanging and that’s all that matters right now,” he said.
The dual radio station is primarily an entertainment outlet, broadcasting country on FM and rock oldies on AM, but after the storm, its duties suddenly included providing news updates to the community because all other forms of communication were cut off.
“There was no cell phone service, no phones, but they still had radios and that’s where a lot of people got their information,” Lyons said. “We felt really good about our ability to help the community.”
In a small town like West Liberty, local news media play an important role in everyday life. Cantrell and Lyons said returning the stations and newspaper to somewhat normal operation was a small way to give the community a sense of normalcy.
When the Licking Valley Courier published its tornado-delayed edition on March 9, local leaders called it a sign that the community would continue.
The Courier is a “big part of the fabric of the local community,” and even though the tornado edition was smaller than usual, it was a “big relief in people’s minds,” and gave confidence to the community, Commercial Bank CEO Hank Allen said. “It didn’t matter what was in it,” Allen said. “It was still alive and still living and breathing, and it gave the community hope that we could recover.”
Allen said the newspaper and local radio were “critical” in the days after the storm. Logistics for businesses were difficult and communication was non-existent, and the bank needed to communicate with its customers, as did many other businesses that regularly advertised in both media.
After four meetings in the two days after the tornado, the bank took “unprecedented step,” he said, running ads on Lexington television stations and regional radio stations and newspapers. He said it had never bought advertising from a non-local station or paper.
“The importance of the local newspaper was really clear then,” he said. “It really sinks in in a big way.” He said the community is blessed to have a local radio station and newspaper that provides a sense of security and stability.
After so much had been destroyed, Cantrell said, the paper is something familiar to the people of Morgan County: “We had a lot of people before we went to press that first time say, ‘It would make us feel a lot better if we still had that part of the community.’ They would probably be really disappointed if we couldn’t get the paper out to them.”
It has not been an easy year for Courier owner Earl Kinner, 73. His wife died last summer, and the tornado destroyed his home as he took refuge in the basement. He was forced to live in a Red Cross shelter for a day. But still he felt it was so important to keep publishing that he hand-wrote a story for the tornado edition.
He had no way to contact anyone because landline, cell phone and Internet services were down, so he mostly collected information from television reports, he said. “My thinking was if we get something out, it will bring some sort of normalcy and do some good,” Kinner said. “We can’t quit.”
The Kinner family has owned the 101-year-old Courier for more than 60 years, and he said reporting is “just in your blood, and a matter of pride.” That shows most in times of crisis, of which the paper has seen its fair share. Its office burned to the ground in 1985, but the paper published the next day.
“All I know how to do is get out a little country newspaper,” Kinner said.
Allen said he saw Kinner with pencil and notepad in hand in the shelter just moments after Kinner was pulled from the rubble of his home. Later, in the first shelter established in City Hall, he told him about the mass destruction.
“It was shocking to him to hear about the community and the people he’s known and covered being destroyed,” Allen recalled. He said the Kinner family has always been important to the community, and he has known Earl Kinner since he was a boy, when his aunt was a reporter for the Courier.
The paper’s staff was able to salvage the computer with its subscriber list and all its bound volumes of old papers, which are being stored in the public library. Kinner and his son Greg, whose home was also destroyed, are living with his son’s sister-in-law. Kinner set up the computer in a closet and is working from there.
Kinner said he hopes to locate a mobile office on the destroyed building’s foundation until more permanent plans can be made. That’s when, he said, they can “get back to being a good old country newspaper.”
The next issue, dated March 15, contained a front-page notice to the readers from Kinner, asking for their patience as the paper replaces equipment and resumes normal operation.
“With no central office to work from, staff members and news and production staff isolated in several locations and unable to communicate except sporadically, it will be a small miracle if this paper makes it to press, and almost certainly, it will be late,” he wrote. It was late by one day.
The issue contains coverage of the recovery efforts and more pictures of damaged buildings. Much space is given to obituaries of those killed by the tornado, and there are stories about the Courier “rising from the rubble.”
Kinner said he’s getting too much credit for keeping the paper going, because Cantrell and Adkins are the main reason for the paper continuing the way it has. “I’m proud as a peacock of my staff,” he said.
Cantrell said Kinner told her it’s the Courier’s responsibility to promote the community and the people in it, and said that’s what they’ve always tried to do. “We’re still trying to do it now because it’s more important now that what it ever has been,” she said.
Lyons said the primary job of a local radio station is to serve the community in which it operates. “If the building had been destroyed, we would have still got the station back on” he said, “at least broadcasting information updates as we had them from whatever makeshift arrangements we could have come up with.”
Lyons is confident the station will quickly recover, and Kinner and Cantrell said likewise about the Courier.
“I just can’t wait until the next city council meeting,” Cantrell said. “I never thought I’d ever say that, but I would just be glad that we’re able to have one and that there’s still a place to have one and people to hold it.”
Louisiana editor and weekly win Gish Award for courage, integrity, tenacity in rural journalism
The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, presents the award in honor of the couple who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years. Tom Gish, who died in 2008, and his wife Pat were the first recipients of the award.
Nelson and the Sentinel showed courage and unusual tenacity in investigating an unsolved murder from the era of conflict over civil rights, and in January 2011 named a living suspect in the 1964 killing of African American businessman Frank Morris. A grand jury was convened and continues to investigate.
A prosecutor on the case, David Oppeman, told James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, “I told Stanley the other day he is the hub in this and everybody else is just a spoke. He did the work that needed to be done.” Click here to read the Times story.
The newspaper showed integrity and courage in the face of reader resistance to its dogged, detailed reporting in more than 150 stories. “The owners of the Concordia Sentinel never hesitated in following the story,” Nelson wrote in the fall edition of Nieman Reports, of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.
"While most readers read the stories with interest and outrage over what happened so many years ago, many of the most vocal were those who detested the coverage and who questioned our motives," Nelson told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
“We knew some would be angered to read about the parish's ugly racial past,” he wrote for Nieman Reports. “Some canceled subscriptions. We were threatened. Our office was burglarized. One irate reader called to find out my ultimate goal. ‘To solve a murder,’ I said. ‘You can't do that,’ she snapped. ‘You're just a reporter!’ She hung up. We pressed on.”
Nelson said in the latest edition of Columbia Journalism Review that he was following the example of the late Sam Hanna Sr., the Sentinel’s editor-publisher, who taught him that it was the newspaper’s duty to ask tough questions. When he saw the Morris case on a 2007 FBI list of unsolved civil-rights murders, he knew “It would be morally irresponsible not to learn more, write more, and see who was accountable.”
“Mr. Nelson's four-year effort certainly demonstrates the courage, tenacity and integrity the award was set up to acknowledge,” said Ben Gish, editor of The Mountain Eagle, son of Tom and Pat Gish, and a member of the award selection committee.
Nelson and the Sentinel were nominated by Albert P. Smith Jr., co-founder of the Institute and chair of its national advisory board. A former weekly newspaper editor and publisher in Kentucky and Tennessee, Al Smith recalled his early days as state editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, handling news from the Ferriday area, which he said was “known on both sides of the Mississippi River for a tradition of violence, prostitution, gambling, and corrupt cops and judges.
“Nearly 50 years later, I still shudder when I think what life was like for a threatened black person there, or a reporter who took risks for a story. I offer this nomination with a profound respect for all in journalism, law enforcement, political office and civic activism who have changed the culture and improved the administration of justice in Ferriday and Concordia Parish.”
"We at the Sentinel are certainly humbled by being honored with the Gish Award, which recognizes the role community newspapers across the country play in advocating justice for all," Nelson said. "The award is also a great tribute to the Hannas, one of Louisiana's great newspaper families." The Hannas also publish the Franklin Sun in Winnsboro and the Ouachita Citizen in West Monroe.
The Gish Award is not the first prize for Stanley Nelson. He won the first Courage and Justice Award from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in local reporting, and won a 2011 Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the University of Oregon. The Payne judges cited “the huge social, economic and political pressures on a paper in the South to keep a racially motivated killing in the past. This is as pure a definition of journalistic courage as one could craft in 2011.”
The pressures on a rural, weekly newspaper are usually greater than those on its metropolitan cousins, because such newspapers have small staffs and small revenue bases, and are thus more vulnerable to advertiser and reader boycotts, upstart competition and peer pressure, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. “The Hanna family has set a fine example, and not just for weekly publishers,” he said. “The courage, integrity and tenacity displayed by the Sentinel and Stanley Nelson are examples for everyone in journalism to follow.”
Besides Tom and Pat Gish, other winners of the award have been the Ezzell family, publishers of The Canadian (Tex.) Record, in 2007; former publisher Stanley Dearman and Publisher Jim Prince of The Neshoba Democrat of Philadelphia, Miss., in 2008; and Samantha Swindler, editor-publisher of the weekly Headlight Herald in Tillamook, Oregon, for her work as editor of the daily Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky., and managing editor of the Jacksonville (Tex.) Daily Progress, in 2010. No award was made in 2009. Nominations for the 2012 award are welcome at any time before Sept. 1, 2012.
Click here to read all Concordian Sentinel stories related to the Frank Morris case.
Click here to read the Civil Rights Cold Case Project's summary of the case.
Click here to read The New York Times coverage.
Click here for National Public Radio's Feb. 15, 2011, report.
The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, gives the award in honor of the couple who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years. Tom Gish, who died in 2008, and his wife Pat were the first recipients of the award.
Like the Gishes, Samantha Swindler is being recognized largely for her courage, integrity and tenacity in Eastern Kentucky, but also in Texas, where she began her newspaper career less than seven years ago. She has been in Oregon since July 2010.
The award will be presented to Swindler on April 1, at the spring symposium of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association in Albany, Ore.
As managing editor of the daily Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky., circulation 6,000, Swindler spearheaded an investigation of the Whitley County sheriff that helped lead to his defeat for re-election and his subsequent indictment on 18 charges of abuse of public trust and three counts of tampering with physical evidence.
Swindler and her reporter, Adam Sulfridge, received repeated warnings about their safety as they revealed irregularities in how Sheriff Lawrence Hodge accounted for missing guns his officers had seized, problems with his alleged payments to informants, his failure to present cases against anyone arrested for felony drug violations, failure to send seized drugs to the state crime laboratory, and his officers' repeated failure to testify, resulting in dismissal of serious drug charges.
“She did not let anyone scare her off the story or push her around,” said William Ketter, who worked with Swindler as senior vice president/news for Community Newspaper Holdings, which owns the Times-Tribune.
The prosecutor, Commonwealth’s Attorney Allen Trimble, told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues that the paper's "very persistent" reporting "was a very significant influence on me."
Swindler recounts her experience in the latest edition of Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.
“There is a great need for good investigative journalism in rural America,” she writes. “Young reporters tend to think they need a byline from The New York Times to make a difference in the world. If they really want to have an impact, get a job with a community paper and start asking the tough questions that no one ever asked before.”
The investigation of the sheriff was the capstone to Swindler’s four years in Corbin, in which she held local officials accountable on a wide front, revealing that the county was improperly using a tourism tax to fund an airport and that city officials spent $20,000 on tickets to a country-music concert for city employees and their friends.
When Swindler was managing editor of the Jacksonville, Tex., Daily Progress, the paper won a Freedom of Information Award from the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors for coverage of city police corruption. The city manager was fired after Swindler, then a reporter, found he was illegally burning condemned houses.
A native of Metairie, La., Swindler is a 2002 graduate in communication from Boston University.
“She makes a wonderful example for the rest of us,” said Ben Gish, editor of The Mountain Eagle, son of the couple for whom the award is named and a member of the award selection committee.
“If in the past decade there's been any other journalist in America, rural or city, who has demonstrated the level of tenacity, courage and integrity Swindler did with that series, then I'd like to meet them,” Gish said. “Unless they were able to walk in her shoes, it would be impossible for a reporter/editor at a large metropolitan daily to understand the danger Swindler faced while letting Whitley County know its top law enforcement officer was a crook.”
Ketter said, “Never has there been a greater need for perceptive, courageous reporting in smaller communities as big city papers reduce their resources and reach across rural America. That’s why it is so important that journalists such as Samantha Swindler stand their ground, however fraught with risks, as the people’s surrogate, holding public officials accountable.”
The Gish Award has a criterion of tenacity “because our craft has had many courageous rural journalists whose achievements have been meteoric, ending in burnout,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. “It’s very difficult to show courage over a long period, as Tom and Pat did. So, I never really anticipated that the award might go to someone who hasn’t turned 30. But in her short career, Samantha Swindler has demonstrated the tenacity, courage and integrity that we had in mind when we created the award.”
Besides Tom and Pat Gish, other winners of the award have been the Ezzell family, publishers of The Canadian (Tex.) Record, in 2007; and former publisher Stanley Dearman and Publisher Jim Prince of The Neshoba Democrat of Philadelphia, Miss., in 2008. No award was presented for 2009. Nominations for the 2011 award are welcome at any time before Sept. 1, 2011.
The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues was created to help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary. It has academic partners at 28 universities in 18 states. It offers help to rural journalists on its Web site, http://www.ruraljournalism.org/, on The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com/, and through seminars, conferences and publications.
In an amazing life, Craig mixed preaching and rural journalism, and never backed down
“Judge me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity. I have also trusted in the Lord; I shall not slide. . . . I have not sat with vain persons; neither will I go in with dissemblers. I have hated the congregation of the evil-doers, and will not sit with the wicked. I will wash mine hands in innocence so will I compass thine altar, O Lord, that I may publish with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works.” –Psalm 26:1-7
By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
University of Kentucky
– Larry Craig had integrity, he loved to expose dissemblers and evil-doers, and he published – longer as a Baptist preacher, but more famously as a rural newspaper reporter, editor and publisher. (For his obituary click here.)
Early in his eulogy of our friend on Wednesday, Bro. Roger Skipworth read Psalm 26 and praised Larry’s integrity. In that day’s edition of The Butler County Banner, which also carries the name of the Green River Republican, the paper Larry edited throughout the 1980s and owned from 1982 to 1990, integrity was the main theme of Publisher Jeff Jobe’s tribute.
“People of integrity don’t abandon their values and principles under pressure,” Jobe wrote.
Larry stood up to plenty of pressure, and not just in journalism.
Skipworth elicited one of the many rounds of laughter from the overflow crowd at Jones Funeral Chapel when he recalled what Larry said to a parishioner who was giving him trouble: “I’m not worried about you making it to heaven, I’m just afraid you might overshoot.”
“About a month later, he had to move” from that church, Skipworth said.
He also had to move a congregation, when Ku Klux Klan members or sympathizers burned down his church after he called the Klan “a putrid cancer” in an interview with the student newspaper at Western Kentucky University, where he was teaching journalism after selling his paper.
As Skipworth read Larry’s pungent quote, he said he might have to duck. “Of course, they got those two fellows,” he noted, and after someone shot through the front window of his newspaper, Larry kept after the dissemblers and evil-doers. “Larry did not have a fear of man,” he said.
Neither did he fear death, as he struggled for many years with liver failure, and he selected his nine pallbearers, who were an interesting mix: the former county judge-executive and sheriff, a former state trooper, a local businessman, his best friend from high school, a professor and former professor from WKU, and two former parishioners, one of whom provided the mules and wagon that took Larry’s body to its final rest. (Photo by Steve Smith)
Skipworth called Craig “the smartest man I ever knew. . . . You sure didn’t want to get into a battle of wits with him, ‘cause you’d lose every time.”
Still, Larry “never tried to impress anyone, but along life’s way he influenced many people,” said Bro. Curtis McGee, the other eulogist.
McGee struck a chord with me when he said of our friend, “He was easy to take up with.”
I first met Larry when we were working (him part-time, me full-time) for Al Smith, the Russellville-based publisher who sold Larry the Green River Republican after making him editor. We did take up easily, and I think that skill made him both a successful journalist and a successful minister.
After he died Sunday, at 61, I wrote on The Rural Blog (http://irjci.blogspot.com/) that he was “a distinctive if not unique figure in rural journalism.” At the funeral, I concluded that he really was unique, an oft-misused word these days, and told his widow Patty so.
As McGee said, “He wasn’t in anyone’s mold, but he was a follower of Christ.” And he was a leader, too, for rural journalists who need the inspiration and courage to take on the dissemblers and evil-doers. May his inspiration live on.
As more weekly newspapers charge for obituaries, many editors and publishers resist
The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors posted a query to its membership in December 2010 asking about instituting a fee for publishing previously free obituaries. One editor asked, "Come the first of the year we are going to start charging for obituaries, and I just wanted to check with you for some ideas. One area newspaper has a flat rate charge. Another charges by the character. Ideally, we would charge by the column inch or the line but we have to figure out how our funeral homes could figure those rates. ... Thanks in advance for your advice. " Here are most of the responses, more or less in the order they were received:
The 22 years Guy and I owned The Chronicle here in Angel Fire, N.M., we never charged for obits. Nor did we at our three other weeklies.
We believed, and still do, that the milestones of one’s life — birth, marriage, death — deserve complimentary coverage. We often did extensive obits, on both the “prominent” and not so prominent. Every life has a story. My mom recently passed away and at a time of grief it seemed heartless when one newspaper charged over $350 for a small obit (The Denver Post wanted over $1,000 for that same obit!). Our hometown paper charged $188.
One has to wonder when deaths stopped being news. Is there a trend to charge for other types of news? No wonder the public is angry with newspapers! Anytime you can intersect with readers on a positive basis is the right time.
Working with a family to help get information for an obit can produce lasting goodwill for the paper.
If revenue is tight, sell more ads! Come up with a new special section. But please don’t charge for obits.
Our obits continue to be free. Our major competitor, a daily, runs two to three pages of paid obits a day, so we figure we're doing our local readers a service. And as long as we have space, we publish with minimal editing. For significant deaths, we'll run the obit and do a news page story.
Mo Mehlsak, The Forecaster, Portland, Me., http://theforecaster.net/
We do not charge for obits or death notices. They are such a part of the news of our small county, that it seems akin to charging to run sports photos or school news. Until last year, we didn't charge for memorials either, but they got so out of hand that we had to start charging, much as we hate to. Most obits and memorials are for people we knew and loved. It's just a part of the small community experience. We have to help each other as much as we can.
Paula Barnett, Publisher, Woodruff County Monitor, McCrory, Ark.
We do consider obituaries to be news. Last month I had one that explained the deceased woman's grandfather was a bootlegger and the grand kids had to hide under the porch when customers came to call. While under the porch she saw Bonnie and Clyde buying whiskey. Apparently she told the story all her life. That's good stuff.
In another instance, the woman had written her own obit, about 2,500 words and pretty interesting. I couldn't run that much, so I cut it back, but noted in the paper that I had done so and invited anyone interested to stop by the paper and I'd give them a copy of the entire thing. About four people showed up, and the library asked for a copy for its archives.
Obit rules include that the deceased has to have some sort of Leadville connection. Just having friends up here doesn't count.
The obit also can't say or imply that someone went to heaven. I tell people God and I have a deal that he makes that determination, not the Herald Democrat. I haven't gotten an obit yet that says that the deceased went to hell. That would be tempting.
Marcia Martinek, Editor, Herald Democrat, Leadville, CO
We run obits free of charge at the Sounder, with a word count of 300. Anything over 300 gets edited or people can pay for space at standard display-ad rates. Haven't had anyone run one over 300 so far
Derek Kilbourn, Editor,Gabriola Sounder, 250-247-9337
We are attempting to keep our obits FREE for as long as the economy makes it possible to do so as a community service. Our free obits are edited to our format (listing ONLY immediate family names in the survivors list and preceded in death list; bare-bones biographical info such as marriage date, employment, military service, education; no eulogizing or "he was a great family man" stuff or personal remarks, etc.) and family members are aware of that policy. That helps limit length, provides consistency, and established boundaries to use with people.
If a customer wants the "fluff" they will need to take out a paid obituary at our normal column-inch rate ad we'll include mention of the family dog. :-)
Bryan E. Jones, Editor, Versailles Leader-Statesman, 573-378-5441
Here at The Eastern Door in Kahnawake Mohawk territory, we offer announcements, memorials and obits at $5 for a box, $15 for a box of text with a photo and $25 for colour. Some have gone further and purchased larger ads, which are sold at standard ad rates.
I don't believe in giving these types of things for free; our space is valuable and if they want to put something in the paper, whether it's an obit or a birthday, they should pay, whether they are local or not.
What if 15 people wanted to put obits in? Would you run them for weeks and weeks or would you make space in your already tight areas for ads and copy in a single issue? It sets a precedent by giving it for free.
We do give other things for free, however: We run a blood donor clinic, spring cleanup and Halloween house decorating contest, all which we make no profit on and we spend rather earn.
Those are just three of the things we promote. I don't want to sound cynical, but that is a lot for one paper that is barely making any money, to give.
Publishers/editors: Charging for something like an obit is not disrespectful, it is merely a business practice that we should all be doing.
Steve Bonspiel, Editor/Publisher, The Eastern Door
Our obits are formatted at 9 pt., 2-col wide. Each line is $5.40.
If one photo is used, it costs $25. No more than one photo.
If we have to type out an obit, there’s an additional $25. If the funeral home or individual makes a mistake after the obit goes to print, we will reprint the obit at half price. Our mistake: we will rerun at no charge.
We do run a death notice free of charge: name of deceased, age, date of death, day and time of services, and name of funeral home.
Steve Ranson, Lahontan Valley News, Fallon, Nev.
$25 for one column and photo / $20 for one column and no photo / free is one paragraph of details of obits.
Gretchen Daniels, Thompson Courier & Rake Register, email@example.com
We maybe a little higher, but we charge a flat $100 for obits (up to 350 words - $150 to 450 words), including picture, plus we sell them a thank you ad, if they want, for an additional charge.
It works well and we have plenty of them. It's still cheaper than running a simple death notice in the city daily paper, which is $300-$400 for an inch or two.
Kelly Clemmer, Editor-in-Chief, Star News Inc., Wainwright, Alberta
We wanted to keep things as simple as possible, so we have a flat charge of $45 for the obit and a $5 picture charge. We fax a copy to the funeral home for proofing and bill the funeral home at the end of the month in our regular billing cycle. If an individual brings in an obit, we charge in advance. We offer free obits that include just name and basic info, including service information. We started charging last year and are very happy with our system.
Steve Zender, The Progressor-Times, Carey, Ohio
Here at The Weekly Press, local obituaries are run free of charge. If they are being placed otherwise, it is $7 for 30 words or less, and $.11 for each additional word.
Abby Cameron, Editor, The Weekly Press/ The Laker, firstname.lastname@example.org
Our obits for both of our newspapers are FREE picture included.
Here in sub-arctic Moosomin, Saskatchewan we charge $50 for the first 250 words, and 10 cents per word above that. We charge $15 for a b+w photo and $40 for a color photo.
And on days when it's 35-below we consider taking mitts and toques as payment.
Kevin Weedmark, Editor and Publisher, The World-Spectator, email@example.com
All five of my community newspapers charge $5 per column inch, including photo and headline. It's easy to calculate for the funeral homes and bookkeeping, and even less than our non-profit rates. Keeping it inexpensive was a goal, and we still allow small free obits (without pic) that include name, age, city of residence and date of service.
David Brown, Publisher, Cherokee Scout, 89 Sycamore St., Murphy, N.C.
We at The Lakeville Journal charge $25 for the first 8 inches, includes a photo. An additional $6 per col. inch for every inch after that.
Janet Manko, Publisher, The Lakeville Journal, Lakeville, Conn.
As to why we charge for obits: It's to make life simpler for us and eliminate issues with bereaved families.
Galena is served by two daily newspapers on the east and west. They began charging for obits and people began preparing longer and longer obits, which included pet names, etc. When we edited those obits, the response was always, "Well ... the Dubuque paper ran my obit exactly the way I wanted it."
And then came the day when a woman called to complain about the obit of her mother being wrong in the paper (some pieced of information that wasn't sent us) and told her that we'd need to charge for running the obit the second time. She became furious, because the funeral home had charged them $300 for running the obit in my newspaper. She was even less happy upon learning that we didn't charge for obits.
We started charging the very next week and haven't looked back. . .
P. Carter Newton, publisher, Galena Gazette, Galena, Ill. firstname.lastname@example.org
For sure, 'celebrity' types become news items when they die. But death is not news across the board. if Joe Blow dies, it won't make the news section. We live in a community of 8000 and we have 50 deaths a year roughly. it would be impossible to write about each and if you leave one out you are the devil.
It sounds to me like the papers most of you guys are with have a lot more forgiving readers. Ours are politically-charged and take grudges to the grave. We've had two boycotts since we took over 2 and a half years ago, mostly because I'm from another Mohawk reserve and we fired the editor when we took over. Petty, I know. I want to come work for y'all, sounds peachy.
Allow me to re-phrase.
We have allowed larger obits to be printed for free, filling in where content normally would, on occasion, but it is rare.
It's interesting that Marcia mentions "No wonder the public is angry with newspapers!" That sounds like a very general, self-defeating comment that should not be coming from a journalist! I would posit: no wonder newspapers are in trouble, some give too much for free and then the publishers wonder why they have to cut down the page count or close their doors.
Space, like time, is money. We aren't in it for the cash, obviously, but we are also not in business to give away the kitchen sink.
Steve Bonspiel, The Eastern Door
The Consort Enterprise in Alberta still runs obits at no charge, which is becoming an issue here as obituaries are becoming biographies.
We publish three small, weekly papers. We do not charge for a standard obituary which includes basic information without children's spouses' names, grandchildren's names, and "He was a good husband and father." Our paid obits are per column inch with most costing less than $100.
Susan Berg, Editor, Marion County Record, Hillsboro Star-Journal and Peabody Gazette-Bulletin, Marion, Kan.
I haven't read all of the responses, but I salute Marcia Wood for hers.
The advantage community newspapers have is local news.
Many people pick up the newspaper to look at the obits first.
They are news. Marcia is right.
What's next - dean's lists, engagements (oops, too late, at my paper), weddings (again, too late here).
How about a column-inch rate for births based on the baby's weight and height?
Think about the community history that's lost because obits have become ads.
In my newspaper's pages, many people's lives have been boiled down to a name, age, hometown and date of funeral - two or three sentences tops.
(We do a free death notice of a couple of sentences - all obits are paid, after years of free obits and longer paid obits).
Why? Probably because these families don't have the money to capture their loved one's life.
That's a sad delineation and a loss for history.
If your paper insists on money for every obit, you'll actually be preventing the community from knowing anything about certain deaths. It will be creating, in effect, a separate system for people with money and those without.
Finally, ask the genealogists in your area what they think.
Andy Schotz, Hagerstown, Md.
Our policy here at Gateway Publishing for our two weeklies (Sun-Argus & Woodville Leader) changed about a year ago from all free for obit and death notices to a flat fee of $20 (with or without photo b/w).
We do not charge this to our three advertising local funeral homes, but do to all other funeral homes or other submitters. We have never written any obits we leave that to the families and funeral homes.
We do not charge for any death notices.
We post all on our website at no charge.
I have increased the size of the deceased's photo from when I took over the papers six years ago from a 1" x 1" mug shot to a 2 1/8" x 2 3/4". That was much appreciated.
I agree this is community news. I made the decision to start charging "others" because I felt the local funeral homes were carrying the cost the obits for the "others". We have received no complaints about our obits policy.
Paul J. Seeling - Owner, Editor and Publisher, Gateway Publishing (Sun-Argus, Woodville Leader, My Gateway News, ADRC News, Valley Values), Woodville, Wis.
I am also editor of our county historical society, and I can’t tell you how exciting it is to find a detailed obit with lots of family info. Where would we be without them?
Paula Barnett, Publisher, Woodruff County Monitor
About five years ago we switched to a three-tiered system for obituaries here in Medford. Prior to that we ran them all for free, but they had to conform to our style and our policies (no flowery language, in-laws listed by name only when the spouse was still alive, grandchildren listed by number and not name) which led to a lot of headaches and disgruntled customers who would argue they only had 1 grandchild as compared to so and so who had 55 and couldn't we please make an exception just for them. As a result we were getting a lot of people angry because of arbitrary policies tow which we blindly adhered (if you couldn't tell I wasn't a fan of that system.)
We also found out that our local funeral homes were charging customers an "obituary preparation fee" to send us in the notice of death form, which bugged us more than a little bit since we were the ones who wrote up the obituaries and got the grief when the information provided to us by the funeral home was incorrect.
After discussion with the funeral homes, we came up with three options.
The first is the basic obituary is still free, written by our staff and includes a brief biography, picture, survivors etc.
The second option is an "Add-on" obit where they can pay $35 to add things such as the complete list of grandchildren, great grandchildren, pets, special friends, etc. Or if they want additional bio info in it beyond what we would normally include. Overall these conform to our style and do not include flowery language.
The third option is a full-paid obituary which is charged at our standard advertising rate. These are for the people who wish to state how their loved ones were "Taken by the angels to meet their heavenly maker while surrounded by loving family and friends and their dog Fido after a long and courageous battle . . . " Typically it is not so much length of obituary as to the style in which it is written that dictates which option is chosen.
We also switched to a modular design for our obituary page to make it easier for customers to cut out and save the obituaries. The Add on and fully paid obituaries are boxed with a one point border and a small note at the bottom saying they are paid obituaries and have the advertising routing number. There is no distinction in layout between the add-on and full-paid obits.
The three-tiered approach has been tremendously well received in our community and about 60 percent of the obituaries take the add-on route, 25 percent take the free and about 15 percent take the full paid option.
We are also looking at developing a process to make it easier for people to pre-write their obituary as part of preplanning their funeral. Our community holds a senior health and wellness event each fall and we are planning to have a booth at it next fall to talk with senior citizens about their obituaries and explain their options and provide them with a worksheet to collect the pertinent information in advance or think about which picture they would want used for the obituary.
As a side note, we have a standing directive in the news room that prominent citizens such as those who have been recognized by "lifetime achievement" awards from the community or other similar honor get a news obituary written about their death regardless of what the family chooses to do for obituaries. The scope of this story depends on the impact the person had on the community and newsworthiness.
Recently we had one of the founders of Tombstone Pizza (a major employer in Medford) die. She and her husband have been major supporters of the community and its organizations. We gave her death two weeks of front page coverage, an editorial eulogizing her, and full coverage of the funeral with color photos and a complete write-up.
Brian Wilson, News Editor, The Star News, Medford, Wis.
I'm afraid Gary's client wouldn't want to hear what I have to say. If obituaries aren't the most important news stories in the newspaper, surely they rank in the top 5 percent of what weeklies print. Charging for obituaries is a good way to start your newspaper on a downhill slide. The newspaper should be printing every obituary it can get its hands on free to record the life stories of the people in the community and to provide a historical record. Charging for obituaries will cause some people not to submit them. Whether that percentage is 10 percent, 25 percent or 50 percent, I don't know, but even the smallest percentage is too much. People in your community should know who died; it shouldn't depend on whether the family wants to pay to tell the community. The only time we charged for an obituary was when the family insisted on a certain wording rather than letting us write it in news style, such as "Betty went home to be with Jesus." Then all we did was charge the same space rate as all our other ads.
Charles Gay, former weekly publisher, Sheldon, Wash.
We don't charge for obits but they have to be local. That sometimes raises questions about, "How local?" If a second cousin of the village president dies in the Bahamas, we probably wouldn't run it.
David Giffey. Editor, Home News, Spring Green, Wis.
We do not charge for obits, birth announcements, weddings, engagements or anniversaries. Heck, we don't even charge for the thank-you notes that follow, although some people choose to buy ads so they can make their thank-you note prettier.
My goal is that we will never have to charge for these things. We have a seasonal economy and charging would mean a lot of those announcements would never make it in the paper. We also use a very light hand to edit them ‹ especially on obituaries.
They're the very things that connect the community to the newspaper, and they're the very things that tell the history of the community.
Lori Evans, editor and publisher, Homer (Alaska) News
We charge for the "death notice" - details of the death and where the funeral is. It's a flat fee, about £30 for a limited number of words. For the funeral report - biographical details and list of mourners - we don't make a charge and I can't imagine doing so in the near future.
It was very interesting reading all the responses.
We're clearly out of step by NOT charging, but I still agree with Charlie Gay that obituary reports are news, and a popular part of the paper - go into any shop in Congleton on a Friday and one of the first things people turn to is the obits.
We do lose money by not charging but on the other hand, every one at the funeral is going to buy the paper to see their name - some of them might be new readers and could then realise what a fantastic paper we are. People also buy the paper to post out to relatives.
Biographies are also part of our town's record, both for future historians and for friends and acquaintances who might not know, for example, that Bill next door was a Lancaster bomber rear gunner and was awarded a medal for bravery.
I would stress that we DO charge for death notices (ie announcing the funeral) and for "expressions of thanks" after the funeral - the fee for the two is about £60 and about to go up. However, the biog, a photo and a list of mourners is free of charge.
I am however currently having a house ad created to encourage people to send more biographical information - it makes for fascinating reading at times and I'd hate to think we'd limit it by charging.
If I get time I will pick some biographical details and write something for the magazine!
Jeremy Condliffe, Editor, Congleton Chronicle, Cheshire, England, U.K. (ISWNE president)
Here at the Yellow Springs News, we don't charge for obits, considering them a community service. And their lengths vary wildly— we try to print what's submitted, although of course we reserve the right to edit or cut them if necessary. A recent obit, of a long term Antioch College theater faculty member, was about 35 inches long, which we were happy to print, as it was chock full of interesting local history.
I had no clue how unusual it is that (some) community papers don't charge until in recent years my own mother died, and like several other editors who wrote in, I was shocked at the high price of putting anything in her hometown paper, much less something long (I'm afraid the editors of those obit pages were the puzzled recipients of my misplaced rage). I remain proud that we can offer this service and believe it creates remarkable good will in the community, which is, of course, priceless.
Diane Chiddister, Yellow Springs (Ohio) News
I edit three community weeklies, and we do not charge for obituaries.
We take out comments such as "he was loved by his family" but publish pretty much all the factual details the funeral home sends, and a photo if provided. We look at it as news.
Leslie O'Donnell in New Hampshire
The Alcona County Review in northeastern Michigan still considers obituaries news and doesn’t charge to have them published.
They must adhere to our “style” which excludes eulogizing and other personal comments. If someone doesn’t want to follow our guidelines, then they are welcome to pay for an obituary and it is marked as paid advertising. In this case we charge our open adverting rate. This is done very rarely. Our only stipulation in having an obit published is that there be a local tie to the community – even if it is a survivor or the person lived here years ago. Obituaries are important historic records and the newspaper has, we feel, an obligation to publishing them and not limiting that to those that can afford it.
At different times in the last few years we’ve discussed charging for obits, but feel that the good will that is gained from it and the thank you ads that are almost always placed in our newspaper after the funeral (to friends, family, etc. that have shown support) more than makes up for the “lost revenue.” Additionally, we don’t charge for birth announcements, engagement announcements, weddings, and milestone anniversaries – we still consider these news items and important happenings in our community. (If any of these items have personal messages, we edit them out or give the person placing the information the option to leave them in and pay for an ad.)
Cheryl Peterson, editor/publisher, Alcona County Review
We charge for all standard death notices including more wordy messages. The ads are charge per word or line (4 words) and this same rate applies to what might be described as brief notices simply noting the passing and more detailed messages of remembrance and respect, including expanded biographical information. These all run at ‘personal notice’ rates, which carry the highest premium in our classified section.
On the other hand we run ‘Vale’ editorials initiated within our editorial teams or from the community at no charge. These are run somewhat sparingly and most often feature community and social leaders; long serving doctors, sporting legends, political and council or political leaders. Most often this is done with the close support and involvement of the family of the deceased.
The result of this is that we run approximately 7-8 death notices per week in my largest weekly and the same paper runs fewer than a dozen ‘Vales’ in a year.
Matt Jenkins, General Manager, Benalla Ensign, Australia email@example.com
Are you freakin' kidding me – charging folks for obits seems a VERY slippery road indeed.
First, let me attempt to get everyone on the same page.
There is editorial content, and there are ads.
Funeral announcements and family generated memorials – with the names of the deceased's favourite goldfish – should be booked through the ad department.
But editorial decisions to chronicle a person's life – low or high born alike – should be free. And editorial staff time should not be sold off at $5 per column inch to write them on demand.
Because a paper's lifeblood is credibility.
People read a paper because, hopefully, the editorial staff is choosing the best stories for their readers, not selling out its services to the highest bidder and churning out crap.
A paper serves the reader. It does so by generating compelling stories and feisty commentary. The question should always be, how does this serve my reader? Is it a good story? Is it important to the community?
Should my readers know this stuff?
Now, we all compose clunkers. But they're our clunkers, not dictated by the family of Joe Average – single, cheap and boring – who just forked over a whack of cash so your talented reporter can craft a 1,000-word obit.
What has your reporter missed while writing that obit?
And what are your readers going to think when they flip the page and see your staffer has churned out crud and passed it off as editorial content?
How long will they continue to buy your newspaper? And when they leave, are your advertisers going to stick around?
Newspapers are hurting, but, believe me, prostituting your newsroom isn't going to solve your problems. Not in the long run, anyway.
Richard Mostyn, Editor, Yukon News, firstname.lastname@example.org
Greetings: The story we write when the mayor dies is news.
The obituary his family wants in the newspaper is paid for and runs at the beginning of our classified section. We deal with the funeral home which buries the cost (ha ha) in its fees. Obits are posted to our website. No complaints.
We don't seem to deal in many death notices unless the death occurs at deadline and the funeral is going to be right after the paper comes out. They are paid as well.
George at PonokaNews.com
The Hickman County Times tries to run all obituaries for free. We do not succeed.
Our basic obit includes names of immediate family, limited highlights of the deceased's life -- where born, parents, occupation, civic involvements, military affiliation, church -- and service information. Also, we include names of immediate family who have died. Picture is free.
Our hardest problem is on out-of-town obituaries, which often arrive with no apparent local connection. We don't run if we can't explain why we're running it; usually, the person was born here, which is sufficient. I had a 10-year argument with a funeral home director in a nearby town who did not want to give us any more than what he wanted to give us -- and he eventually became incensed that we would call at all to ask any question of any type. It's the only funeral home that would occasionally forget to list the day that the deceased died!
Beyond that . . . we don't run grandchildren's names, the name of the deceased's dog, hobbies, spouses names . . . you get it.
If a family wants more than our basic obit -- which usually runs 4-5 inches and is pretty comprehensive -- they can say what they want for $40.
Brad Martin, Editor, Hickman County Times, Centerville, Tenn.
When we began publishing 17 months ago, it never occurred to me to charge for obituaries. We are a small town and more than half of our population is composed of seniors. Of the 131 members of the local senior center, the average age is 80.
We could use the revenue, but the response to our obituaries is priceless. Literally.
We often run obits from the funeral homes, but at least half the time, I'm asked to come and interview the family and write the obit. I include the usual stats, but I also treat it like any other interview and look for the personal traits and foibles that folks remember and loved about that person. I think writing obits is an important job. In a town this small, I often know the deceased and have sometimes been friends with him or her.
You are crafting the only memory/news/stories that a grandchild or great grandchild might have access to. I take it very seriously and have had at least one man ask his wife to have me write the obit when he died. That's a compliment that means a lot to me.
If the person was well-known in town, we might also follow up with a photo and caption for Celebration of Life. Again, treating it like local news, which it is.
However, if someone wants to purchase a 'memory' ad, we charge our going rate.
I understand the need/urge for revenue, but sometimes I think we forget that not everything should be reduced to cost. Should someone's death not be noticed in the paper because the family couldn't afford to pay for it? Ugh. Leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Just my two cents. I recognize that other don't or can't feel the same way.
Jessica L. Lloyd-Rogers, Coast Lake News, Lakeside, Ore.
If, 40 years ago, when I bought my newspaper, someone had told me I could:
• have someone else provide me, on a regular basis, a mini-feature story on someone in my circulation area or who had a connection to my area ...
• be guaranteed these mini-features would, week after week, be one of the most well-read features in my newspaper ...
• have people call me and thank me for printing the story about their friend and family member exactly as they wanted it ...
• provide a lasting piece of history guaranteed to be clipped and kept, recorded for posterity, and be a part of history books ...
... I would be sad about the cost someone else pays to make these possible, but happy about the fact I do not have to pay for them myself.
Our newspapers generally accept obits only from funeral homes, print obituaries free, do virtually no editing for style, are eager to add photos and have, virtually no complaints, only compliments about this vital part of the service we provide. Yes, we need revenue. Just not that bad. I like the responses given by Marcia Wood and Andrew Schotz and this is my two cents worth. I considered for a brief period charging for obits. All of my funeral homes said they were surprised we did not already charge, encouraged us to do so if we felt the need, but ... then one director made a fateful remark.
"Robert, everyone here wants their obit in your newspaper. But they feel they have to have their obits in the (nearby daily) because it makes the news available quickly. They don't like paying for it there, but feel like they have no choice. Once they have paid for the obit to appear there, if it is going to be another several days before your obit appears, then some people are likely to say: 'Nah, let's don't pay a second time, since we've already paid to put it in (the daily.)"
That's when it dawned on me that he made sense and, ultimately, we would soon no longer be the "newspaper of historic record" that everyone knows will have EVERY obituary. I did not want to risk that and that's when I fully realized how lucky I am to get and print FREE obituaries and don't plan to change.
For those who choose to charge, I respect your position. It's just not my choice.
Robert M. Williams, Jr., Publisher, SouthFire Newspapers Group, Blackshear Ga. (The Alma Times, The Blackshear Times, Charlton County Herald, The Monroe County Reporter, The Telfair Enterprise, Three Rivers Gazette)
Input from a just-sold-out weekly publisher:
1. I agree with the Marcia Wood sentiment. Deaths are news, not revenue opportunity. I second the excellent points of Robert M. Williams, Jr.
2. Running obituaries for "free" is the wrong terminology, approach. Do we run City Council stories for "free?"
3. I always operated by the motto "look for ways to get reader submissions into the paper rather than making up rules to keep them out." Yes, we have a necessary role as news gatekeepers, buy I've had readers respond to the darnedest submitted "news" items that didn't exactly follow the high-minded ambitions learned in J-school.
4. I understand tight finances, but newsprint's cheap. Open up those newsholes as much as possible. Create features to encourage No. 3 above, which one might think of as a prehistoric precursor to Facebook.
5. Here's an idea to satisfy all, even the journalistic purists among us: Make your main obituary wholly fact based, journalistically sound. Add a sidebar that might say: "Here's how family and friends remembered the late Joe Blow:" Maybe several bullet points to follow about his favorite dog, devotion to God, and how he coped with his dyslexia when he got them mixed up, etc.
6. In hindsight, the call on when to take an obituary/death story to Page 1 or other prominence was flawed under my watch. The dead that got the "treatment" were probably made more important than they were, and many who deserved added spotlight didn't get it. Lessons, I guess, are that this is more art than science, or that I never bothered to think out some standards. Or that's it's better to err on the side of giving somebody the bigger spotlight.
7. As many "Arrangements by Crippin Funeral Home" notes as I ran at the end of obituaries, I should have done a much better job insisting that all mortuaries had advertisements weekly on the obituary page. That's where the revenue component here is, as it should be, parlaying strong editorial content into readership that in turns benefits advertisers, funeral homes included.
David Mullings, former owner, Ouray County Plaindealer and The Ridgway Sun, Ouray, Colo.
We treat obituaries as essential news. Because they are not paid advertising, we feel we can write, edit or rewrite as we would any other news story. We want our paper to be the place where people find all the obits, as complete as possible, and well-written. The funeral homes are helpful in sending obits but we rarely use them just as they are.
We may edit for space in a tight week. For example, it is common practice here for families to include a long list of honorary pall bearers; sometimes we cut those. We try to treat everyone equally, so we don't do anything special for "prominent" people. We make use of our local history books for fact checking. We try to maintain a high standard of quality for the photos, although we sometimes run what we are given even if the photo is not good because we think it's important to have some image of the person with their obituary.
I can't imagine that we will ever charge for obits. We do have ads from the local funeral homes on the obit. page and one is also on our website obituary page.
We have started a $5 charge for baby photos (no charge for the announcement). Part of the reason is that we get a lot of babies that are grandchildren of local residents and the baby and parents don't live here. It's time consuming to handle the photo, and grandmas are always glad to pay.
We do very little of the check passing thing. Once in a while someone who got a grant will request that and we oblige but it's not something that happens much in our community.
We bought the paper 30 years ago and established from the beginning that organizations that do fund raising are expected to pay their own way by buying an ad. They do — for pancake breakfasts, bake sales, rummage sales, the high school rodeo, etc. If it is a benefit for someone's medical expenses or a family whose home burned down, we run ads but donate the space. But churches, the fire department, etc. all buy ads. On the news side, we often take pictures at these special events — such as the KC's flipping pancakes for the fundraiser to help the elderly with their winter heating bills, or the winner of the fire department's rifle raffle — but the news coverage is our option and it isn't guaranteed. Although we charge for the ads, we usually do make a donation to the worthy causes and events and we buy almost everything some group is selling — Christmas wreaths from the cheerleaders, calendars from the rodeo club, etc.
But again, we decide which ones. We have tried to have a policy that we don't "donate" to individual private fund raising, such as a student going to play basketball in Australia or entering a teen beauty pageant.
That's how we do things in our little corner of the world.
I should mention that we are a 1400 circulation paper in a town of 400 people located on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. We try to have our policies (such as free obituaries) fit the local culture and economic environment.
Kathy Nelson, Timber Lake Topic
I was nine or 10 years old when my grandfather, Edward Newberg, died. The daily Grand Island (Neb.) Independent published his obituary and photo on page 1. He was no celebrity or public figure -- he was an area farmer who'd lived most of his life in the area. But his death was front-page news to the Independent. As a kid, I was really impressed with the newspaper. I still have the clipping.
When I owned, published and edited a weekly in Montana (the Bigfork Eagle), I refused (at times, even angering family members) to run paid obituaries.
They were news -- often the deaths were the talk of the town. The obits were news, and we re-wrote the pabulum that most of the funeral homes submitted.
We did allow family-written obits (no charge) if they were well written.
We required that a cause of death be included. (If it was a suicide, we wouldn't include that detail in the obit.) Remembering my grandfather, I tried to publish obits as often as I could on page 1.
I think our obit policy was both good journalism and a good business practice.
We are now charging. The Express traditionally did not charge but we edited the obituary for according to our style guidelines. When we added the Record (the two share a common obituary page) we had a problem because the Record published obituaries as written with no editing. Record readers were unhappy with our editing so the compromise was to charge 30% of our display ad rate to run the complete obit. We still correct grammar but if they want to list a dog among the survivors, or whatever, we will where we wouldn't have before. We mark them as paid obits and they are well read. We also are charging $7 to include a photo with the obit. That has been surprisingly popular.
We operate in an area with substantial out migration and run a dozen or more obituaries a week and publish about 16 pages a week. Our charge is $1.00 per inch. Average charge less than $20.00 $10 gets a lot of them.
For example, this week we received an obituary for a man who left here 61 years ago. His mother left here more than 50 years ago and no other family, but I remember hearing of the family, enjoyed reading his obituary and I suspect many others did as well. We edited about 50 percent as didn't see that we needed to print a report on all the vacations he had taken though his home town paper did. We listed the names of his children but not his grandchildren though we would run grandchildren if he had lived here more recently.
One of the things we get complaints about is our policy for children's spouses. We publish the children and grandchildren's names but not their spouses. And we are a bit old fashioned about the way we handle married survivors. We still use the following format: Mrs. John Smith (Barbara).
Some think we discriminate by not publishing the husband's name. One critic suggested we should do it as follows: Mr. Barbara Smith (John) to be consistent.
Everybody dies, no one passes on, We don't determine where they went upon death, we remove the church where confirmed or baptized and the name of the minister doing so. We do include memberships, boards etc.
This week we had a customer come in wanting us to run a birthday story and offering to pay the obit rate if we would agree not to edit.
Traditionally we have accepted nothing that we couldn't edit. But the payment offer was tempting. If we accept payment, we marked the story as paid.
Bill Blauvelt, The Superior (Neb.) Express / Jewell County Record, Mankato, Kan.
The Sanpete Messenger charges $22 for a basic obit up to 250 words with one photo. We add $5 for a second photo (some people like to run and younger and older photo). If the obit goes over 250 words, it's 10 cents per additional word.
The reaction we get is that people appreciate the fact that we're so cheap--I put my own father's obit in the two Salt Lake City dailies a few years ago. It cost $800.
Sampete (Utah) Messenger
Personally, I agree with Andy Schotz, Marcia Woods, Charlie Gay, Cheryl Peterson, Lori Evans, Richard Mostyn and others that deaths are news, and that news shouldn't be sold. However, Helen and I sold our last weekly three years ago, and I do understand the financial pressures that have impacted many of you in that time.
Helen and I didn't charge for obituaries at our weeklies in Humansville, Seymour and Vandalia, Mo., though we insisted on editing what the funeral home or family submitted. Once in a while, a family member would complain that we wouldn't run what the family submitted word-for-word and offered to pay for it. I'd try to convince the family to wait until the paper came out, see what we wrote, and then decide whether it still wanted to pay for something different. Only once or twice did that happen.
We also wrote lengthy front-page stories on the deaths of prominent folks.
We've all had the experience of receiving obits from two "sides" of a family when the deceased has been divorced. Each side submits a different list of survivors. In those cases, we went with what the funeral home supplied.
One more story: I lament the return of the word "passes" as a substitute for "dies." John Jones didn't pass (unless he was in his car); he died. A predecessor owner of our Humansville Star-Leader published front-page obits in the 1950s. And, yes, around 1956, he had the misfortune of publishing an obit with a typo in the headline: "Mrs. Brown pisses."
I want to thank everyone for the thoughtful responses to my customer's question. I enjoyed the vigorous discussion, one of the best we've had with the hotline.
Gary Sosniecki, newspaper consultant and former weekly editor and publisher