INTO THE ISSUES: Columns about rural journalism and community issues

"Into the Issues" is a monthly column in Publishers' Auxiliary, the newspaper of the National Newspaper Association.

Stand up for the truth in your community
February 2022
By Al Cross

This column is titled “Into the Issues” because it began as an effort to help community newspapers explore issues that affected their communities, sometimes from afar. It has evolved to include editorial issues that face community papers. But for an increasing number of papers, the main issue is on the business side: How can they sustain themselves when their revenue is being eroded by digital media, online shopping, big-box stores that don’t advertise, and in many rural communities, population losses?

Answers to money questions are the province of other columnists with more business-side experience, but this column stands for this proposition: Community newspapers will not be sustainable unless they are indispensable servants of their audiences – offering the news, information and leadership that communities need. That is what distinguishes them from other forms of media and makes them worth reading – and buying.

Those other forms, especially social media and partisan or ideological media, appeal to many people in a fractured media environment where audiences gravitate to information that entertains and validates them, rather than news and opinion that challenge their beliefs. And we live in an era where misinformation has become part of national political strategies and business models – which have been so effective that national political divisions are now causing tension and fractures at the local level.

That became clear to me last June as I did research for a book chapter on the effect of Donald Trump on rural communities and their newspapers. I­ sent an email to the listserv I­ co-manage for the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, advancing two propositions: (1) Trump makes you be for or against him, and you get defined that way, creating divisions in families, churches, businesses, and other organizations. It’s community-corrosive, not community-building. (2) People are less interested in local news now because Trump has made national news more compelling, and local news media are losing out in the “attention economy” created by the tsunami of online information and their reliance on social media.

I received a dozen replies, none of which disputed either proposition. And I found that some papers had adjusted to new realities. Kris O’Leary, publisher of four weekly newspapers in central Wisconsin, said she ordered her editors to stop covering and commenting on national issues after the January 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Kris said on the ISWNE listserv, “I ­got tired of the paper being part of the problem with people treating each other with a lack of respect. I­ realized we weren’t going to change anyone’s mind and it wasn’t worth my mental health and the Star’s to be caught in the middle of this thing. . . . Our sales people were facing backlash, and it wasn’t fun running a paper and explaining every week why freedom of speech didn’t give them freedom to say whatever the wanted in the paper. I ­still operate under libel and defamation rules. . . . We had a few hotheads that screamed like hell about their freedoms being taken away, but most people were relieved not to have to read the letters and editorials on national politics.”

That’s not the approach of Bill Tubbs, publisher of The North Scott Press in Eldridge, Iowa. While he said people in his community are increasingly identified as pro- or anti-Trump, and that “has permeated many things in community life . . . You can’t escape national politics in the community if you have your core values and principles.” He added that it can be hard to define what’s a national issue: “Agriculture is foundational in Iowa,” so newspapers there have an obligation to cover issues such as international trade and farm subsidies. To that, I­ would add energy (such as ethanol subsidies) and environmental regulations.

Former NNA president Reed Anfinson of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Minn., a left-leaning editor in a county Trump won almost 2-1, told me that he’s being more cautious.

“We’ve lost subscribers and advertising because of the intolerance pervading society today,” he said. “In these fragile financial times, it has me weighing the political cartoons I­ will publish. As I­ write, it has me being more thoughtful in how I ­word my columns. That is not all bad, but it makes me wonder sometimes if I­ am pulling my punches. I­ still write about national topics because they are talked about by my readers. However, I­ try to ensure the vast majority of what I ­publish focuses on local issues.”

A few months later, Reed was the focus of an Associated Press story about national divisions becoming local, quoting one of his neighbors (a Lutheran pastor!) as accusing the paper of lying by not reporting what the pastor believed but is not true: that many people in Swift County have been killed by Covid-19 vaccines.

That reminded me of how Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser who has been charged with contempt of Congress for not cooperating in the investigation of the Capitol assault, defined his and Trump’s strategy this way in 2018: “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media, and the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” Translation: “The enemy is the truth, so we flood the zone with lies.”

Your zone is your community. Please don’t let it be flooded with lies and misinformation. Many Americans have lost sight of the truth, but I think more of them expect newspapers to stand up for it.

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier-Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is extension journalism professor at the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at

Rural newspapers could play an important role in dispelling pandemic misinformation
December 2020
By Al Cross

What is the proper role of community newspapers at a time of national crisis?

Stand up for the truth. And for community.

This isn’t about the election, or about the presidential transition, which hopefully will have begun by the time you read this. It’s about the novel coronavirus.

With winter and the holiday season here, the virus is out of control, especially in rural areas, and we’re more at risk than ever – partly because millions of Americans have mistaken beliefs about it.

The most extreme example we’ve seen: A South Dakota emergency-room nurse told CNN that she has seen many covid-19 patients continue to deny that the virus exists, right up until they die from it. (That’s in a story on The Rural Blog at

Changing strongly held beliefs is not a job for newspapers. But not all beliefs are strongly held, and a lot of people aren’t sure what to believe – partly because social media dominate the debate and amplify the extremes.

News media can still play their traditional filtering and moderating roles as they provide factual information, and community newspapers are in an ideal position to do that because they have a higher level of trust among their audiences than news outlets in larger communities.

However, many community editors are naturally reluctant to get too far into the business of telling people what to do or what to believe, especially on a topic that is so politicized and so divisive – and probably growing more so in places where surges in cases have led to new restrictions.

Editors from Rapid City and Lincoln said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Nov. 22 that they have three kinds of readers, as Lincoln Journal Star Editor Dave Bundy described them: those who say "Just give me the data;" those who say "Tell me what I can and can’t do;" and those who say "Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do. . . . There’s covid fatigue, there’s covid conspiracy; there’s a lot of things at work." (See

Most pandemic coverage in community newspapers seems to be about data: numbers of coronavirus cases, covid-19 hospitalizations, and so on. In chronological context, that conveys the local magnitude of the pandemic. But there are fewer stories about why the numbers are going up; is it bars, restaurants, social gatherings, or what?

Health officials have some idea of that, through their contact-tracing efforts. Unfortunately, many state and local health agencies haven’t done the best job of explaining the “why” or the specific reasons for emergency orders, such as mask mandates, or the research that supports them. They may make a point once or twice, but even important points need repeating to have impact.

Newspapers can and should do all of that, as well as debunk common misconceptions about the virus and measures to thwart it. Plenty of good information is available, but often it needs to be translated for general audiences. Too often, local newspapers just fill a hole with a medical article that is too dense or too long to get much readership.

Translating such information for the local audience is important. Stat, the medicine-and-science publication of The Boston Globe, says “Retention of health messaging is lower in rural areas,” so “It must be tailored to communities, recognizing cultural norms and engaging local community leaders.” The Rural Blog excerpted that article at

Newspapers need to go beyond the data and the science and write the stories of people affected by the virus, and the health-care workers who are fighting it, to bring home how serious it can be. With urban hospitals filling up, they can’t accept covid-19 patients who need to be transferred for a higher level of care, so “People are going to die,” the hospital chief of staff in Canadian, Texas, told The Canadian Record. The Rural Blog excerpted Laurie Ezzell Brown’s story at

Laurie put that story on her editorial page, and it’s an example of the leadership that newspapers need to exercise at a time like this. Too many local officials, fearful of controversy, aren’t leading enough on the issue, and in many communities they could use some bucking up. A well-argued editorial can do that. It can also be a voice of reason at a time when people are upset about new state mandates, as Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in very rural eastern Oregon showed in an editorial published on The Rural Blog at

Les wrote, “Those who doubt the virus is real or serious are deluding themselves and likely putting their families and friends at risk. . . . Too many people are still clinging to the fallacy that is it their right not to wear a mask and to hold large family gatherings. Every credible medical expert, from Dr. Anthony Fauci to our local hospital professionals, say the simple act of wearing a mask is now the single most important step we can all take. . . . We need to react as if a wildfire is burning towards town, threatening every home. We need to act as if we’re being invaded by an enemy – which we are.”

Of course, the people who most need this information are likely those who aren’t newspaper readers, and who are most likely to be misled by other media. So, to reach every household in your county, you should try a sample-copy edition, perhaps subsidized by local governments or health agencies. At least two newspapers in Kentucky have done this, and it’s helped their counties keep infections down.

Some may think wading into this battle is bad for business, at a time when business is already bad. Yes, that may be a risk, and each local publisher and editor has the best sense of that, so they must steer their own course. But what they cannot do, in my opinion, is ignore the fundamental changes in our media landscape. Social media are flooding us with divisive opinion and must be countered with a flood of facts, from trusted sources. Those are you.

Bold, persistent experimentation is needed
June 2020
By Al Cross
               Our country may not be in a depression, but the newspaper business is, and its fatality rate may be as great at that of the coronavirus. The pandemic and its economic restrictions have accelerated closures and mergers, which have increasingly affected county-seat weeklies, long the most stable type of American newspaper.
               The economy is gradually reopening, but with no vaccine or proven treatment, the virus remains a threat, and that threatens a resurgence of covid-19 cases and more economic reversals. To get through this, newspapers need to prove their value, and they need to try new things.
               The pandemic is spawning rivers of misinformation, an if there was ever a time for newspapers to reassert their franchise as the main finders of fact for democracy, this is it. But they must remember to assert that on social media, too, and to remind social-media consumers how those media and newspapers differ.
               We must repeatedly explain that news media offer journalism, which has a discipline of verification: we emphasize facts, attribute opinion, and clearly separate the two. (That separation has eroded lately, and needs shoring up.) Social media have almost no discipline and no verification, so the facts get lost in a sea of opinion and invective, driven by algorithms giving people what they want, not what they need. They need to know that.
               Don’t like online arguments? This is a fight for your life, so you should wage it on all fronts. Ask your critics to cite specifics, and when they do, remind them that it’s easy to pick examples of bad journalism from thousands of reports. As someone who got into journalism as a youth baseball scorekeeper and correspondent, I like to say journalism has a fielding percentage about as good as Major League players, around .984. By my reckoning, we’re fair and accurate 49 times out of 50. We do make two-base errors sometimes, but unlike social media and ballplayers, we correct them.
               Newspapers’ survival depends on more than trust. They must provide value, which means good public-service journalism. How do you pay for that when advertising has dried up? Community newspapers need to be more aggressive in following their metro counterparts in asking their audiences to provide a greater share of revenue, and they need to be frank with their readers about their paper’s finances.
They also need explore a source of revenue that’s becoming more common: philanthropy. It’s unlikely that many community papers will have reporters paid by nonprofits, or get grants from foundations, but in every county in this country, there are people with money who would like to put it to good use. Many of them would define becoming a sponsor of a newspaper, to help it offer good journalism and stay alive, as a good use of their money.
               Perhaps the best example of that is the Foothills Forum, a nonprofit in Rappahanock County, Virginia, that finances high-quality, in-depth journalism for the weekly Rappahannock News. The county has more money and more journalists than average, because it’s a little over an hour from Washington, D.C., but its paper has more than four years of experience that could provide guidance for others. We’ve written about it several times on The Rural Blog.
               Philanthropists often want to help students, and that includes student journalists. When many University of Missouri journalism students’ internships fell through, faculty members Kathy Kiely and Damon Kiesow created a pop-up newsroom to produce stories for news outlets across the state, with students paid with funds from the school, the Knight Foundation and alumnus Walt Potter. As paid internships have become less common, students are accepting unpaid internships at community papers, and the relationship is mutually beneficial.
               Universities can help in other ways. There is scant published research about community newspapers, and state press associations or newspaper groups should get researchers to examine the relationships of community papers and their audiences – including why they are losing readers and how they might get them back.
               Another potential source of help is government – not the direct subsidies that are anathema to most journalists, but public-service advertising during the pandemic. In Kentucky, local governments have financed sample-copy editions of weeklies loaded with information about the coronavirus and preventing covid-19, and there is even more reason to do that now, as we need to take care to prevent a resurgence.
               Now also might be a good time for a makeover, to spur single-copy sales. Think about a magazine format like The Canadian Record in Texas, which runs a compelling color photo on the front with blurbs about major features. It goes for $1.50 a copy, and folks in Hemphill County snap it up, because they know it’s good journalism.
               Many other ideas are out there, in Pub Aux, state press groups and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors’ online discussion board and monthly newsletter. The May edition had ideas on advertising, covering covid-19, online journalism, dealing with social media and helping communities get through the crisis.
               Ideas are what we need. Not all will work, but our industry is at a juncture much like the bottom of the Great Depression, when presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt called for “bold, persistent experimentation.”
That’s not something for which newspapers are known, especially community papers, but they’d do well to follow it. After all, FDR’s line was written by a newspaper reporter, Ernest K. Lindley of the strongly Republican New York Herald Tribune. When Lindley and other reporters chided him about the lack of zing in his pre-convention remarks, FDR challenged them to draft a speech. “Lindley took the bait,” wrote presidential historian James MacGregor Burns, and bold, persistent experimentation helped save the country. It might save newspapers, too.

Newspapers need to explain “How We Work”
March 2019
By Al Cross
               Newspapers cover almost every imaginable topic, but when it comes to understanding and explaining their own roles in society, many community newspapers fall short.
               They keep doing business and journalism pretty much like they always did, with digital media as a sideline because they can’t make much money at it. Their presence on social media is often desultory and uninspired, even though social media have become the dominant form of mass communication.
               These newspapers are disengaging from their audiences – or perhaps we should say their former audiences and their potential audiences – at a time when they need to be more engaged than ever. There’s a war on journalism in America, and it’s not just being waged in Washington, D.C.
Today’s media maelstrom has left much of the audience uncertain about what a newspaper is, or what it is supposed to be. Newspapers need to explain that clearly and consistently, through all available forms of media (more on those later).
At a time when Americans are more dubious than ever about sources of information, newspapers remain the primary finders of fact. But for some reason they have been bashful about making that their brand, or even thinking of themselves as having a brand.
What is our brand? At last month’s Ohio News Media Association convention, I said it can be built around three Rs: reliable, relevant information, delivered responsibly. The third R most needs explanation.
When I was first learning journalism and the news business, one newspaper I read regularly ran a standing box on its editorial page. “Daily News Platform” told readers what the paper stood for. It’s been a long time since I saw such a device, but it’s time to bring it back, in a different way.
If I were running a newspaper today, its home page would have a button labeled “How We Work.” It would take readers to a page explaining the paper’s purpose and the ways it tries to achieve it. Shorter versions of it would run in print every day, usually on the editorial page.
“How We Work” would start by explaining the different forms of information media, to help readers understand the different and special roles that newspapers play in our society, and the challenges they face. Here’s the version I offered in Ohio:

This is a newspaper. It reports facts. To do that, we verify information, or we attribute it to someone else. That is called the discipline of verification, and it is the essence of a craft called journalism, which you find in news media.
There are two other types of information media: social media, which have no discipline, much less verification; and strategic media, which try to sell you something: goods, services, ideas, politicians, causes, beliefs, etc.Newspapers once relied on one form of strategic media, advertising, for most of their income. Today, social media get more of the ad money, so newspapers must get more income from the only other reliable place they can get it: their readers, in the form of subscriptions or single-copy sales. As you might guess, we prefer subscribers, so we hope to earn your respect and loyalty.
How do we do that? By being honest and straightforward about our business.
That means we must separate fact from opinion, reserving our own views for the editorial page. Of course, our views have some influence over what news we choose to cover, so if you think we’re not covering what should be covered, or have failed to separate fact from opinion, or make another mistake, we want you to tell us. You can do that privately, or publicly, in the form of a letter to the editor. If you raise an important issue that we think needs wider perspective, we may invite you to join us in a discussion on social media, and perhaps bring that discussion into the newspaper itself.
We want to hear from you. We are in the business of holding others accountable, so we must be accountable to you.
Accountability journalism is necessary if our democratic republic is to function the way the Founding Fathers intended. That’s why they put the First Amendment in the Constitution. It gives us great freedom, but with that freedom comes a great responsibility. If you think we are not living up to that legacy, please tell us.

That’s fewer than 350 words, about the length of a little-longer-than-usual letter to the editor in most papers. We need more letters from the editor, not just statements of general principle, but explanations of how and why we do certain things. If we demand transparency from officials and institutions, we must practice it ourselves. And build our brand at the same time.
One good example came from Brian Hunt, publisher of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, in a column he wrote in May 2017, titled “Community Journalism in the era of fake news.” We excerpted it on The Rural Blog; you can read it at Hunt’s best passage gave examples of the extreme without being judgmental:
"I’ve been challenged on why we include people of color in our newspaper. I’ve heard from readers who question why, when two-thirds of our region voted for Trump, the U-B would ever publish anything remotely critical of his presidency. I learn things in these conversations. Most notably, the people I speak with are not unaccomplished, not unintelligent, not uncaring.  We know these people. You know these people. Fake news and the isolated intolerance that can feed it gets to us all."
After the column ran, Hunt said the paper got fewer calls, and fewer subscription stops, complaining about bias in the paper. Good journalism is good business, especially when you explain it.

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for RuralJournalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at

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