Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Al Smith showed that few jobs are more important than local editor, and success isn't about your location, but your impact

Al Smith, second from left, with winners of the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians. From left are are John Nelson of Danville, now executive editor of Landmark Community Newspapers; Smith; Jennifer P. Brown of Hopkinsville, Stevie Lowery of Lebanon, Ryan Craig of Elkton, Sharon Burton of Columbia and The Farmer's Pride, the statewide agricultural newspaper, and Max Heath, a retired Landmark vice president and editor.
"Kentucky journalist Al Smith helped start multiple state and national organizations, steered to safety a federal agency that Ronald Reagan targeted for elimination, and produced and hosted one of the longest-running public TV programs on government affairs in America. But, according to his memoir, Wordsmith, none of his many jobs was more important than being editor of a small-town weekly newspaper in rural Southern Kentucky," The Daily Yonder says in introducing a discussion about Smith, who was federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission and co-founded the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. He died March 19 at the age of 94.

Yonder Editor Tim Marema, who moderated the discussion, read these lines from Wordsmith, about a turning point in Smith's life, when he gave up his desire to return to big-city journalism like he practiced in New Orleans before drinking himself out of jobs and out of town. He had kicked alcohol, and he thought he wanted to kick Logan County, Kentucky. But then he had these thoughts:

"Why would I leave a community where they had taken me in; a drunk, itinerant editor no one knew? The people of Logan County had saved me from myself . . . They read my paper when I told them their schools weren't good enough. A lot of them didn't like my politics, but our circulation was growing. What was this place I was trying to leave? . . . Logan County was a microcosm of Kentucky, maybe even of the world; there was no bigger job than the one I had."

Renee Shaw, who co-produced Smith's "Comment on Kentucky" show at at KET, Kentucky’s public television network, recalled, "We both had roots in Sumner County, Tennessee. . . . We often talked about the culture of place, and being from somewhere small and thinking that you deserved to be somewhere bigger." Shaw said she wanted to be in a place like Atlanta, but "Al convinced me to bloom where you're planted. .. . Success is not about where you are, it's about the impact that you make, and Al taught me that lesson."

Other panelists in the discussion were Julie Ardery, author and founding co-editor of the Yonder;
her husband, Bill Bishop, founding co-editor of the Yonder and former daily and weekly newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist; Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Yonder (he talks about how Smith got the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to fund the Institute); John David Dyche, Louisville attorney and former public-affairs columnist; and Jamie Lucke, former editorial page editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Lucke said Smith exemplified the best rural editors, who "find that sweet spot between muckraking and accountability, and boosterism, and whimsy. To me, that's sort of the magic of a newspaper." She noted a line in his obituary that said his curiosity about people went beyond a reporter's curiosity but was born of a love for humanity. "Seems like it's not on the table anymore, doesn't it? It's like, who can we be snarkiest to, and how can we divide people. Al really was about community and unity, and about bringing people together."

Dyche recalled a trip with Smith: "Al was just always for the good for everybody. It was just like an exploding supernova of good desires and intentions, for individuals, for communities, for whoever he was with." The discussion goes a lot deeper than journalism; to watch it, go here.

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