Thursday, April 25, 2013

Rural editor recalls changes, core values and a reader who realized why a sad story needed telling

Rural editor John Nelson reflected on the changes in journalism and the unchanging mission of community newspapers as he was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame at the University of Kentucky this week.

"A community and its newspaper are each both plagued and blessed by the human condition, by the shortcomings and successes of their members. Only when those are revealed can they be overcome or celebrated. That's part of the newspaper's mission, and that may be the only way today's product resembles the one at which I began in the early '70s," Nelson said.

"For the most part, however, we still use the same words and write about the same topics. There is just more work and fewer people to do it. One day consumers of news will again accept that you get what you pay for, but that will first require those who hire journalists to accept the same thing. Good journalism is costly in a variety of ways. It often will offend friends, alienate acquaintances and anger customers. But when it works, you hope it makes a difference. Sometimes, you get a hint that it has, like I did in a letter I received many years ago after a particularly costly story."

Nelson then read from a letter from a reader who was horrified that his weekly newspaper would print a story with the awful details of the sex-abuse charges against a leading local citizen:
I am going to call them right now and cancel my subscription … tell them off and do everything I can to put them out of business. But, first I read it all. Oh, please Lord, I don't know about this. What do I feel? … Suddenly, it was like a great burden lifted, I was able to really face the truth for the first time. ... Nothing is ever exactly what it seems. Life is not black and white. It has many colors. I already had learned at great cost that having too much faith and trust in someone can be a great mistake… So, with all that said … I knew today would not be a good day at your newspaper … I appreciate your intentions … I feel so much better about myself and I can handle the answers that I must give to my family, my children and grandchildren, friends and political allies … Keep up the good work. You are what newspapers should be about. Facts, with a heart."
Nelson is executive editor of Advocate Communications, which owns dailies in Danville and Winchester and weeklies in Nicholasville and Stanford, and is a subsidiary of Schurz Communications. He was editor and co-owner of a weekly in Somerset after working at a weekly in Irvine, all in Kentucky. His induction citation called him "a leader for openness in government and quality in journalism" and noted his work as a leader of the Kentucky Press Association president on the state's first open-records audit and efforts to open juvenile courts.

Others joining the Hall of Fame were Akron Beacon Journal sportswriter Marla Ridenour, Bill Goodman of Kentucky Educational Television, retired news director Dan Modlin of Western Kentucky University's WKYU-FM, and the late Ralph W. Gabbard of Lexington's WKYT-TV and founder of Hazard's WYMT-TV, which might not be thought of as a community-journalism outlet, but in fact has created a greater sense of regional community among the topgraphically isolated and politically fractious communities of southeastern Kentucky.

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