Friday, November 04, 2022

Newspapers are in a battle for the truth and they must innovate to win it, weekly publisher says in accepting award

Chris Evans of The Crittenden Press in Marion, Ky., spoke after receiving the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians, which he shared with his wife, Allison Mick-Evans. They own the weekly newspaper in Crittenden County, pop. 9,000. (Photo by Yung Soo Kim, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media)

The loss of community newspapers "has left our country ripe for an invasion of mistruth," and the remaining newspapers must adapt to the digital age to survive, an innovative weekly editor-publisher told an audience of journalists and their supporters Thursday night in Lexington, Ky.

Chris Evans and his wife, Allison Mick-Evans, of The Crittenden Press in Marion, Ky., received the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog) and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The award citation mentions that the Press was an early adopter of online journalism and uses it frequently to serve Crittenden County, pop. 9,000.

Evans recalled a statement attributed to World War II Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto: "You cannot invade [the] mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind every blade of grass."

"We are losing community newspapers, one blade of grass at a time," Evans said. "Losing those town criers has left our country ripe for an invasion of mistruth. Study after study has found that the most trusted media are local.  . . . Forces that are eroding national trust in media can be blamed on two things. One if that blurred line between commentary and news, and No. 2 is that there is a decline in rural journalism. Myths are finding a foothold in our society because there isn't a journalist in every county and every parish in the country. There's not a journalist behind every blade of grass.

"Friends, we are being disarmed by a natural ally: the Information Age. In days gone by, we were a nation of small-town newspapers: trusted local sources of information that helped debunk lies and exaggerations. Part of the reason The Big Lie and fake news prevail is our society today is because we have lost the voice of truth, the voice behind every blade of grass. Well-trained journalists who made mom-and-pop ink one of the strongest collective corporations in America are fading. They're fading from our Main Streets, our courthouses and from our city halls. A newspaper in every town was the underpinning of America's First Amendment and the freedom of information. An armed journalist behind every bush is the caretaker of truth."

Evans quoted from the Gospel according to Luke: "To those whom much is given, much is expected." He wears the quote on his wrist.

"As journalists we have been given the keys to a powerful platform," he said. "Our industry, our presentation of the truth, is deeply rooted in American culture, but it is changing. The trust we have given must not be taken for granted. Much is expected of us, and we have an obligation to see that it long endures. Our power rests on our ability to innovate and persevere. To do that, we are going to have to morph into something a bit different. . . . The internet has given us a new, less expensive mode of delivery. Now, I am not proposing that we all stop our presses today, but we have to embrace the future. We cannot be too stubborn or too proud. Honestly, the same innovation that has bloodied our noses can be repackaged and deployed as community news. . . . We're reluctant to admit the truth because we have always printed newspapers. . . . We just have to convince ourselves and our advertisers to go with us. We do not need to convince our readers. They're already there. 

"As the town crier, we've got to have the loudest voice, but right now we're being muffled by social media. We have to create our own platform, pool our resources and figure out whether it's an app or a network or something else, but our model must change. I don't know that anyone in the newspaper industry has really figured out how to make that move. . . . If we don't find a way to change our model . . . we're going to die. . . . We must keep community-based reporting behind every blade of grass, or we are going to lose that war on truth. We have to do it with reporting, podcasting, webcasting, livestreams or whatever else we can package as trusted content and sell it. . . . We are simply going down with the ship rather than getting on a lifeboat that exists right before our eyes."

Noting that he has coached over 40 years, Evans said a coach has to ask before a game, "What will I do in the heat of the moment when what I am doing is not working? We have to be able to adapt. To be a winner you must have a plan and a backup plan. . . .What is your plan? I'd like to know. What's our plan? My question and my challenge to all of us in the business of community journalism is this: Are we going to keep making buggy whips or are we going to analyze, adapt and overcome? How do we keep a reporter behind each blade of grass? I welcome your input, because I want to know what people are thinking. We are all in this together, and together we can find a way forward."

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