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Monday, July 19, 2021
David Hawpe, who advocated for rural Kentucky as head of the state's largest newsroom, dies at 78; here's a tribute
By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky
David Hawpe died last night at 78. He was my friend and colleague for more than 40 years, and he was a great friend to rural journalism in Kentucky, where we both lived almost all our lives.
David V. Hawpe (1996 C-J photo)
David was editor of the Louisville Courier Journal (formerly The Courier-Journal), and before and after that managing editor and editorial director. During that span, I was a regional reporter, city reporter, state-capital reporter and political writer, and I still write a political column that appears in the paper.
When another longtime friend and colleague, CJ reporter Andy Wolfson, asked for David's legacy and accomplishments for his story, I said for that me his greatest legacy was the preservation of the newspaper as a statewide voice until his retirement in 2009.
The C-J had a statewide system of news bureaus that I do not believe was surpassed by any other paper, and it was one of the last to close its far-flung bureaus, in 2005. The one closest to David's heart was in Hazard, where one of his first big stories was the Hurricane Creek coal-mine explosion that killed 38 miners at the end of 1970. He told Alan Maimon, the paper's last Hazard reporter, that he vowed after the disaster to "do what he could as a journalist to bring attention to, and advocate for, mine safety," Alan writes in his new book, Twilight in Hazard.
David made good on that promise as managing editor from 1979 to 1987, as editor from 1987 to 1996, and even as editorial director, a job that had no news responsibilities. Hazard reporter Gardiner Harris's revelatory 1998 series about dangerous coal dust in mines might not have been published if David hadn't pushed for it. It helped to have a ranking person in the building who had lived significant pieces of his life in Eastern Kentucky; he was born in Pikeville, in the state's easternmost county, and grew up in Louisville.
Even from an office that was on a floor below the newsroom, David had influence, and people listened to him, because beneath the initial bluster that he would often use to start a conversation, he was a first-class journalist dedicated to our craft's role essential role public service. I have no doubt that without him, the paper would have closed its bureaus earlier; outside the Louisville television market, they made no commercial sense, because Louisville advertising sold very little goods and services in the farther reaches of Kentucky, a state that lies in 10 TV markets.
Map shows TV market areas that include Kentucky.
The state's Balkanized media landscape meant that even after TV became the leading news source for Kentuckians, The Courier-Journal had reach and influence. It was a statewide institution, helping Kentuckians in cities, small towns and rural hamlets realize that they had something in common, and the newspaper was a place to find it. It still plays that role online, but to a much lesser degree.
When Alex S. Jones, then of The New York Times, asked me in the C-J newsroom the day Gannett Co. bought the paper from the Bingham family in 1986 what the test of the new owner would be, I said it would be the maintenance of the statewide news operation. That faded in fits and starts, and it was a proximate reason that I left the paper in 2004. But I am sure that if it hadn't been for David, the fade would have come sooner. For that, rural Kentucky owes a debt to David Hawpe.