International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors 2022 Conference

By Al Cross
Director and professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Editorial critique session at an ISWNE conference

Gathering in person for the first time in three years, ISWNE members explored the history, culture and newspapers of Kentucky’s Bluegrass region and some of the challenges facing their craft – including the evils of social media, dealing with the local impact of national politics, and the need for new business models – and, of course, editorial critiques.

It’s usually substandard journalism to report a meeting chronologically, but I’m doing it this way (more or less) to give members and prospective members a better sense of what it’s like to attend an ISWNE conference. It’s even more questionable to report on an event you planned, but consider this a sharing of information among friends – and people who should be friends.

ISWNE conferences are always on college campuses, to save money, and we use part of the savings for bus tours to show attendees interesting places in the region. At this conference, we were able to weave local newspapers, issues and culture into the trips, with some speakers who we were lucky to add to the program shortly before the conference.

Bourbon, cannabis and controversy

Our first bus trip took us to the historic Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, where we learned how bourbon whiskey is made and got a chance to taste several bourbons. The boom in bourbon sales has the distillery looking for new places to put warehouses, and one spot is along scenic Elkhorn Creek. Some residents don’t want warehouses and the “distillery fungus” that puts a thin black coat on many outdoor surfaces. Transylvania University professor Richard Taylor, who lives on the creek, explained his opposition, but spent more time discussing the history of the creek, site of some of Kentucky’s earliest settlements.

After the creek tour and a spin around the State Capitol, we headed to Midway to tour Kentucky Cannabis Co., which produces Bluegrass Hemp Oil and other products from industrial hemp that it grows. At dinner we heard from owner Bill Polyniak, who explained how he and his wife got into hemp production to control their son’s seizures; from Jennifer Greer, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information, a former newspaper reporter; and former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, publisher of The Woodford Sun, the weekly his family has owned since 1942. The Sun now has the Midway Messenger, the mostly online news outlet that I started with my UK community-journalism students, and is actively pursuing the idea of converting to a nonprofit operation.

Becca, Becky, Ouita and Claiborne

Another publisher thinking about the nonprofit option is Becca Lawyer, publisher of the Bourbon County Citizen, the oldest newspaper west of the Alleghenies. She owns it with three siblings, one of whom was present for Becca’s post-lunch interview with me, so I asked them if they would be willing to take less for their paper if bought by a nonprofit required to run it as a public service. They immediately said yes.

We also heard from Becky Barnes, who has spent her entire working life at one newspaper, The Cynthiana Democrat. She won a public-service award for publishing a sample-copy edition when her county had Kentucky’s first case of Covid-19. That was when it was owned by Landmark Community Newspapers and had a building with a press; now it’s owned by Paxton Media Group and is housed in a second-floor office over an insurance agency. Becky isn’t happy about that, but she’s not sure if she will retire next May, when she turns 65. “I don’t want to give it up, because it is a dream job,” she said. “You get to know everybody’s business.”

Earlier, outside the town of Paris, we toured Claiborne Farm and saw the shed where six of the 13 Triple Crown winners were bred. We saw the grave of Secretariat, and got to pet and pose with the farm’s top stallion, War Front, valued at $80 million. We couldn’t have had a better tour guide: Joe Peel, the stallion manager, who has been at Claiborne for 37 years.

On the way home, we stopped for supper in the country at Windy Corner Market, one of seven eclectic restaurants owned by chef Ouita Michel, the frequent James Beard semifinalist who specializes in farm-to-table food. She dropped by and said her enterprise depends on human capital and manual labor that should be respected: “You can be smart and work with your hands.” A member of the national-champion debate team at UK, she advised the newspaper folks, “Tell it like it is.”

Libraries and newspapers: Natural allies

Four leaders from the Lexington Public Library began Friday’s professional-development sessions by reminding us that libraries and newspapers are natural allies in the battle for free, accurate information.

Executive Director Heather Dieffenbach said newspapers aren't obligated to support disputed books, but can correct misinformation often at the heart of such disputes, and help facilitate communication among locals. They can also help readers understand how libraries choose materials to add to their collections.

The misinformation can also come from foes of book bans, said Alan Wartes of the Gunnison Country Times in western Colorado. He said when a local woman wanted Gender Queer, which is a frequent target of objections around the nation, taken out of the juvenile collection, defenders of the book said "This person wants to ban books." Wartes noted in a column that the woman followed procedure and went to the county commission only after the library didn't respond for two months.

Those who bring challenges often accuse libraries of being biased against conservative values, but librarians are bound by a code of ethics that calls on them to represent diverse viewpoints and ensure that they're bringing in factually accurate materials, said Tonya Head, deputy director of the Lexington library. Chief of Staff AnnaMarie Cornett, the daughter and sister of ISWNE stalwarts Tim and Bix Waltner, said she is building a toolkit to help library patrons better understand these principles.

She said patrons, newspapers and concerned citizens can do much to help advance intellectual freedom: "We can be visible and vocal supporters when censorship comes for us; when it comes for libraries, for newspapers, for schools. This is hard and it takes courage, especially for marginalized members of our communities. But we have a responsibility to use our voice, to use our privilege."

Libraries have long been seen as a symbol of resistance to tyranny, Dieffenbach noted. In 1939, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish warned in a speech that failure to educate Americans on how to value and preserve democracy would spur a descent into fascism. "Those of us who are concerned, for whatever reason, with the preservation of the civilization and the inherited culture of this nation find ourselves in a situation in which time is running out not like the sand in a glass but like the blood in an opened artery," MacLeish said. "There is still time left to us. But we can foresee and foresee clearly the moment when there will be none."

After quoting MacLeish, Dieffenbach said, "A lot of that could have been said yesterday."

A fraught political landscape

In a somewhat related vein, ISWNE President Mike Buffington and I discussed navigation of the political landscape, made trickier by the intrusion of national issues and personalities into local politics.

Mike talked about what it’s like to speak out against Donald Trump’s falsehoods in a county where 80 percent of voters voted for him twice. I drew from the chapter I wrote for the recently published book, The Future of the Presidency, Journalism and Democracy. It was based in large part on a survey of ISWNE members, which found that weekly editors had become more cautious about political commentary because the polarization of national politics is being felt locally.

“I don’t think we can separate local and national as much as we used to,” Mike said. “You might say, ‘Well, you’re not gonna change anybody’s mind in a community where 80 percent of the people disagree with you, so why do you even bother to write all that? There’s probably a few people here and there that are kind of on the fence; maybe you influence that 2 or 3 percent of people in the community, and that can make a difference.

“And even bigger, just historically speaking, my grandkids or great-grandkids can look back and say, ‘Where was my grandfather during the great schism of the early 2000s? I kind of want to be on the right side of that when people look back. . . . If you look at newspapers in the South throughout the civil-rights era, very, very few were on the right side of history. . . . I think we have a responsibility to be on the right side, and to say the right things, and to do the right things.”

Mike said his stands have cost him subscribers and friends but not advertisers, “and we get nasty emails” and marked-up subscription notices, sans checks. But he said he thinks many still buy single copies of the paper.

Alan Wartes asked how newspapers can both speak out on controversial issues and still be trusted community moderators.

“Tone matters,” said Tim Waltner, retired publisher of the Freeman (S.D.) Courier. “You don’t have to be acerbic. . . . We have a responsibility to lead by example, to try to bring the temperature down.”

I said a crusading newspaper needs to always have at least one continuing cause that has broad community support, so it will be seen as an ally of community improvement.

In closing the session, I noted that few weeklies had taken advantage of The Associated Press’s favor, allowing them to republish its comprehensive investigation of vote-fraud claims in the six states that decided the 2020 presidential election: “Here is the fundamental lie that is roiling the country, misleading missions, and the local newspapers of the country aren’t interested in printing the most factual report, the most reliable report, available on it. . . . It shows a fundamental reluctance to go where you don’t have to go. You have to cover the local stuff. You don’t have to cover the national stuff. But . . . your readers are citizens not just of your locality. They are citizens of your state, and citizens of the nation, and from time to time you have the responsibility to tell them the truth when it comes to the state and the nation.”

Help from colleges and philanthropy

Allison Frisch of Ithaca College and Gina Gayle of Emerson College discussed how weekly newspapers can collaborate with college journalism programs, and use that as the basis to seek philanthropic funding, first locally, which can build credibility with larger philanthropies.

Their paper on the topic won the annual Huck Boyd competition and scholarships to the conference, in which they actively participated from start to finish. At Paris, Gina remarked that she is hearing more students concerned about misinformation, which was encouraging.

Their research is continuing, and they said they plan to assemble “a consortium of local news champions and stakeholders to create tailored case-studies for communities and news organizations based on factors such as location and coverage, collaboration and funding opportunities.”

Later in the day, I gave a report on new business models for weeklies, based on presentations at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America. Since ISWNE has already published my report on that, I’ll just refer you to it:

Voices from Canada, and government’s role

Ken and Christine Waddell, owners of the Neepawa Banner in Manitoba, attended the conference on the Brian Mazza scholarship, named for the late Canadian editor who was a leader in ISWNE at a young age.

When the Waddells started their paper, they were dairy farmers, and Ken said there are “three or four legs to the milking stool of journalism: news, ads, editorials,” and one he’s recently added: paper. He believes it’s valuable to have a printed paper because it offers total accountability, unlike digital material, which can be changed. “If ever there was a time when we needed permanent, accountable news records, it’s now.”

Ken said his paper doesn’t accept subsidy for reporters that the Canadian government offers through its Local Journalism Initiative because he doesn’t like the conditions.

That set the stage for a discussion a bit later with incoming ISWNE President Gordon Cameron about the role of government in the news business in the U.S. and Canada.

Gordon said that in addition to the Local Journalism Initiative, non-daily Canadian newspapers and magazines with paid circulation get government aid that replaces a subsidy Canada Post gave until 2010. The money is divided among those who qualify by competing a 70-page application. Sometimes the money or the decisions are delayed for months, which can play havoc with budgets.

Gordon said LJI is very much like Report for America, except that it’s government money. Available for all news media by 12-month contracts, it is managed by News Media Canada, the national trade association. Any content produced by an LJI-paid journalist is free for any news organization to use, and content must be uploaded weekly.

Canada has passed but not implemented a Journalism Labor Tax Credit, which is refundable, meaning that if you owe C$10,000 in taxes and have a C$13,000 credit, the government will pay you the difference. The government has also put aside C$40 million for additional aid to papers that haven’t qualified for other forms of help, but that money hasn’t been allocated. Some people (especially newer, digital-only outlets) have insisted that government subsidies mean the government is buying out the paper and forcing them to print whatever the government wants.

I noted that the role of the government in the news business is hundreds of years old, dating to the days when public-notice advertising was essential to newspapers. Now it is again, with the migration of advertising to digital platforms, but in most states local governments are lobbying legislatures to cut back on public notice. That has already happened in a big way in Canada; Gordon said papers there would be much happier with the old public-notice insertion orders than with direct subsidies.

Because those digital platforms prosper from sharing of news that they don’t pay for, the News Media Alliance is lobbying Congress for a limited-time exemption to anti-trust laws to negotiate payment deals with Google and Facebook. The National Newspaper Association, the main lobby for papers that use the mail, has formed a lobbying alliance with NMA; many small dailies now use the mail.

NNA’s big success this year was getting into the Postal Service reform bill a revision of the 1909 law that allowed newspapers to send up to 10% of their annual circulation to non-subscribers in their home counties at subscriber rates. The new limit is 50%, thanks to Rep. James Comer of Kentucky and one of his constituents, Sharon Burton of the Adair County Community Voice, who lobbied him at NNA’s behest. Comer was key because he is the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which handles postal matters.

Sample-copy editions are usually seen as an advertising vehicles, but I said they are also good vehicle for editorial matter, such as special sections on health or elections.

Dealing with social-media evils

Brad Martin, editor-publisher of the Hickman County Times of Centerville, Tenn., described how he handled a local controversy that was inflamed by social media.

When some teenage girls complained to school officials that a local boy had sexually harassed them at school, they became impatient at the slow pace of the administration's inquiry and announced on Facebook that they would hold a public protest. The Times reported that, then went to the protest and interviewed students and adults – some related to the situation, some supportive of the quest for action.

School officials, claiming Title IX requirements, wouldn't discuss the case, beyond saying the full process could take 55 days – and even then, there would be no public announcement of the outcome. Local police provided reports from girls who claimed harassment;  touching without permission was the thread, the most notable a touch on a thigh. The Times provided context by reporting that records for the previous year showed 30 bullying cases in the school system.

The father sent the Times a letter saying that the accusations were false, and that his son chose to do his senior year in a dual-credit online program. The letter also revealed that the mother, a teacher, stopped teaching because students threatened her several times. It said there needs to be some kind of regular discussion at the school about how to deal with conflicts, and communicate, before they become problems.

Brad’s story shows the importance of paying attention to local social media. I noted a ProPublica story about a Black teacher who was run off by parents in north Georgia; the local paper didn’t write about it until the teacher was already gone, and I wondered what would have happened if the paper had been on the ball and watched what was happening on social media.

Mike Buffington noted that, before social media, the news media could “gatekeep the sludge.” At least we still have editorial pages so journalists can battle misinformation while elevating the discourse.

Editorial critiques

The hallmark of the conference, the roundtables critiquing editorial pages and editorials, was held Saturday morning. With a videographer, I sat in on the session moderated by the great Bill Haupt, a retired editor from Wisconsin. It was testimony to the value of editorial leadership in weekly newspapers.

The significance of the critiques was driven home by Molly McRoberts, the only person at the Potter County News in South Dakota: “I did not have an editorial page until I came to ISWNE.” She said the fact that she grew up there may make readers “more appreciative of what I have to say.”

Kyle Troutman, editor of the Cassville (Mo.) Democrat, is not from the town of 3,200, but said he has been doing a column for two years, and “It really has helped different people in the community see me in a different way. . . . You build a relationship with the community as a whole.”

Much of the discussion in the session was with Editor Stacie Barton of The Leader-News in Central City, Ky., who won praise for an editorial that questioned that lack of rape and incest exceptions in the “trigger law” banning most abortions in the state when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Paul MacNeill of Prince Edward Island told Barton that her editorial was well-written, and “a leadership editorial . . . That was a courageous piece to write.” But he said she downplayed it, putting it below a column on the topic from the local state senator, “ceding ground to someone who doesn’t deserve to be at the top of an editorial page.”

Troutman said, “I don’t run politicians’ columns. If you run one, you gotta run ‘em all.”

Some politicians can be guided. Haupt said he told then-U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold that he wanted to run columns that were informational, not promotional, and Feingold started sending columns that acknowledged differing opinions: “Pro, con and how I view it.”

Barton said she told the local state representative that she would no longer run her column, mainly because it was too long, but had to keep publishing it when the politician told the publisher that she would no longer advertise with the Leader-News, which is not the only paper in Muhlenberg County.

“I probably would have written about it if I had met you all,” Barton said.

Editorial critiques also include the design of editorial pages. Haupt told Barton that her editorial pages are too gray, and encouraged her to use pull quotes. “You’re on a sales mission,” he said. “Sell it.”

We are processing the video of the editorial critique and will make it available soon, along with a trailer that will give prospective participants an idea of what a critique is like. We hope that will encourage more participation, and more and better editorials – and more attendance at a conference that never fails to inform and inspire.

Finally, I should note that we were honored by the attendance of Enkhbat Tsend, chair of the Press Institute of Mongolia, who plans to write about it for a future newsletter. But he told us at the awards dinner, “It was a very valuable conference for me.” And hopefully for all.

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