After the Raid: Lawsuits, Boosted Circulation, Fallout from the Death of a 98-Year-Old Mother

Kansas’s Marion County Record drew national support following a police action with a fatal aftermath, but the small weekly still needs journalists willing to work there

Local News Initiative
Northwestern University

The Marion County Record in Marion, Kansas, a city of fewer than 2,000 people, hit the national spotlight last August when the town’s police raided the small, weekly newspaper’s office and publishers’ home and, in the course of lengthy searches, seized computers and cell phones. Marion County Record Publisher/Editor Eric Meyer’s 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, was in her home during the police action and died the following day.

Eric Meyer
During the raids Eric Meyer told officers, “You’re going to be on national news tonight.” His prediction came true, as reporters across the country covered the story and weighed in on an apparent breach of journalists’ constitutional rights.

Gideon Cody, Marion’s police chief at the time, justified the action, saying police believed the newspaper and one of its reporters potentially had committed identity theft while gathering information about a restaurateur’s driving records. Eric Meyer countered that the raids were retaliation for critical coverage of city officials, including a story about Cody that had yet to be (and still has not been) published.

The county’s top prosecutor withdrew the search warrants days later, citing “insufficient evidence” to link “this alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized.” Marion Mayor David Mayfield suspended Cody for his actions in late September, and the police chief resigned the following week.

Since then, three Marion County Record current and now-former employees have filed suits in response to the police action, and on April 1, Eric Meyer, his mother Joan’s estate and the Marion County Record sued the city of Marion, its former mayor and police chief plus other officials. That federal lawsuit accuses the “co-conspirators” of violating the First (freedom of the press) and Fourth Amendments (protection against unreasonable searches).

“Eric Meyer and the Record bring this lawsuit to seek justice for the intolerable violation of their constitutional rights and the constitutional rights of Joan Meyer, and to deter the next crazed cop from threatening democracy the way Chief Cody did when he hauled away the newspaper’s computers and its reporters’ cell phones in an ill-fated attempt to silence the press,” the lawsuit states.

It also notes that Joan Meyer told the officers in her home: “You know, if I have a heart attack and die, it’s going to be all your fault.”

Before returning to his hometown to run his family-owned newspaper, Eric Meyer had been an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for 25 years and previously worked in multiple capacities at the Milwaukee Journal (now Journal Sentinel). In this conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Meyer speaks from his newsroom about his and his family’s long history with the Marion County Record and the current state of the paper, its legal conflicts and journalism itself. 

How long have you worked at the Marion County Record?

I started working here in fifth grade, but then I left, and I went together with my parents and bought the place in ‘98. I was still teaching at U. of I., and I would come down on spring break, summer, break, winter break, fall break, all the breaks, and visit and sometimes work here. I came in 2020 at spring break, and I couldn't go back [to campus because of COVID]. So I stayed here and taught my classes from here for the rest of the semester and for all of the next year. When I heard that we were going to still have online classes in the fall and some weird hybrid—half of it was online, and half of it was in person—I said, “Enough of this. Online sucks. Nobody's learning anything.” I said I could retire, so I did.

What were your parents doing at the paper?

My dad was the editor and publisher, and my mother was a copy editor, community news editor. He'd been here since '48, so he'd been here forever. We bought it in '98 because he was getting ready to retire, and he was helping the Hoch family that owned the paper. He'd come to work for Wharton Hoch, and Wharton Hoch died in the ‘60s, and [my father] just stayed on for him and ran the paper after that. But the Hoch family was going to have to sell it because my father was retiring, and they looked around to see, gee, who can we sell it to? And they found somebody, [a company that] became GateHouse, which became the modern Gannett, and we didn't like that idea, so we decided to buy it.

The Hochs gave us a good deal on it, and my father turned down a bunch of money to do it because the company that was wanting to buy the paper was going to give him a non-compete contract, which was probably worth as much as the paper was. So we took it over, and he worked for another five or six years and then retired completely and eventually passed away. But my mother kept working. She worked one day a week all that time.

So your father had been at the paper for 50 years before you bought it?

Oh, yeah. They were well rooted. They moved into the house that now I live in the day before I was born. And I'm 70.

Many months after the police raids, no charges have been filed, but there's also been no exoneration of you, right?

We’re pretty sure we're clear, but we haven't technically been cleared.

Did they return your cell phones and computers and whatever else they confiscated?

Yeah, they did. Our deadline is Tuesday night, we publish Wednesday morning, and they kept them until Wednesday afternoon of that week. They gave them back to us, but then our attorney said he wanted to have them forensically examined to determine whether anybody had done anything to them, so it was another week of forensic examination after that before we actually got them back.

At the time, you mentioned the shield law [which is meant to protect journalists from disclosing their sources]. Is there any fallout from that being violated?

No, because there's really no penalty for it. We're pretty sure that they violated the terms of their search warrant by seizing our items, because these weren't authorized, only preliminary searches to determine what could be seized. And they just took them all.

So nothing has happened, except the fact that like two months afterward, they finally suspended the police chief, and then he quit two days after that. But other than that, there's been no change, which is partly why one of our reporters quit, because she couldn't deal with the stress of still dealing with the same people and trying to report with a judge and a county attorney and a police chief and a sheriff, all of whom have done bad things to us.

What’s the status of the lawsuits filed in response to the raids?

Deb Gruver, the reporter who left us, filed her suit first, then Phyllis Zorn. Deb contends that her hand was injured when the police chief yanked her phone out of it. And then he went over afterward, according to the body camera [footage], and [said] it really made his day to be able to yank her phone away. But Phyllis Zorn—another of our reporters who suffered a seizure disorder but hadn't had seizures in years, has had several since then and some accompanying short-term memory problems and so on—she has filed a suit. Cheri Bentz, our office manager who was here at the time, has filed a suit.

On April 1, I and the company filed a suit, and the estate of my mother filed a suit. There will be at least one more suit coming after that. This is all federal stuff for First, Fourth Amendment and Privacy Protection Act violations. We also had to file a notice under Kansas tort reform law, giving them 120 days to respond to a whole host of potential state court lawsuits, including wrongful death, that we're going to be bringing.

Do you hold the police responsible for your mother's death?

Absolutely. They had seven cops standing in her house for two-and-a-half hours. It was such overkill, literally. She warned them [about having a fatal heart attack]. They just stood there. Even afterward, the guy who's now the interim police chief wanted to have her arrested for resisting, for interfering with law enforcement, because she was dangerous to them with her walker. You take a 98-year-old person who's lived in a house for 70 years, and you stand there for two-and-a-half hours and rifle through their stuff and don't let them go anywhere near it or see what you're doing, it's going to upset them. And it did upset her.

She would not eat. She would not drink. She would not go to bed that evening. She just kept [saying], “Where are all the good people? How can they do this? How can they stand by and let these jackbooted Hitler's forces come in and do it?”

She finally went to bed at something like 6 or 7 a.m. I let her sleep till a little after noon. And I finally got her up, she went to the bathroom, and I said, “You should probably eat something. You haven't had anything since Thursday night.”

She said, “Well, I'm not sure I want to.”

I said, “Yeah, you need to have something. You want to have me fix it in the kitchen? In the dining room? In your bedroom?”

And she says, “I don't know, I don't feel too—” and died right then.

The coroner who came over, who had actually been her family physician for many years, noted in his death report that the stress from the raid was a serious contributing factor. So it's pretty well documented. I guess they call it broken heart syndrome; that’s very common among older people who feel that their whole life's work has somehow or other been for naught, and she definitely felt that way. They very often just die of sudden cardiac arrest.

This is stating the obvious, but that must be really distressing for you as the son.

The only redeeming thing months later is that I kept telling her at the time, “You know, this is just bullies. It’s just a bunch of bullies. And bullies eventually do one thing too many. They push it too far, and they get their comeuppance at that point.” She kept saying, “Yeah, but I won't be alive to see it.”

But when you're 98—you know, as she knows and everybody knows—it's not that much longer that you have around here. And it's pretty rare for a person who's 98 to be able to go out and have their death mean something to other people, to be a meaningful death, not just fading away into that good night, but to rage at the dying of the light. She got that opportunity, and knowing her as well as I do, I kind of think she would appreciate that. She'd think: Well, I had to go somehow. I might as well go in a way that furthered my life, that was consistent with what I’d done the rest of my life.

When the police were raiding your house, you said, “You're going to be on national news tonight.” Have the fallout and attention from this been what you expected, or did it surprise you?

Well, it always surprises you. I knew that the issue was one that serious journalists would pay attention to, so I knew that there were some serious publications that would talk about it. To be honest with you, part of what made us hit and get so much attention was the video of my mother. That was the human face. That was what people could understand. It wasn't now an issue of what did the law say about this, what does the law say about that? It was, look at that 98-year-old woman. Look at what she's fighting for.

What I didn't think would happen was the public response to it. We were just overwhelmed with the number of people calling us, writing us, sending us food, sending donations, subscribing to the paper. We had tens of thousands of email messages, and not a single message was negative toward us. And they came from everybody, from all sides of the political spectrum, from the libertarians to the communists to the militant Christians to whatever you happen to have—and disproportionately, oddly enough, from people in the law enforcement community. I think the police are tired of being accused of wrongdoing, and there certainly has been a lot of wrongdoing by police, but there are good ones out there. And they thought: Oh, crap, another thing that we're gonna get accused of? And they've been very supporting.

This town is the 122nd largest town in Kansas. We serve the whole county, which is the 35th largest county in Kansas. As of this week, we have the eighth largest paid circulation in the state because of all these people who have bought subscriptions to our paper just to support us. Now will this last? Of course not. Is it everybody? Of course not. Is it enough to make an industry work off of? I think so.

What has the response among journalists and the industry been like?

“What do you need for help?” It's been an entirely supporting. We would have been left hanging in the wind if journalists hadn't come that Friday to start covering our story and pointing this out. When I told the officers, ‘This is going to be all over the news; you're gonna be on the front page of The New York Times,” they [said], “Yeah, sure.” And in fact on body cam footage later on, they said, “Yeah, he said this was gonna get attention, ha ha ha ha ha.” They didn't realize it. But it's been an outpouring and a very welcome one. Like my mother said, “Where are all the good people?” Well, they're coming now. They're coming now.

How is the Marion County Record a different paper now from what it was before last August?

Well, we're down. We were looking to hire a person last August, and we never did get a reporter hired. We lost a reporter. We lost my mother, who was working a day a week. We haven't been able to fill any of those vacancies and not for lack of trying. We just aren't getting any applicants.

There are Gannett newspapers and CherryRoad newspapers surrounding us. We pay more than all of them do. It's partly [people] don't want to live in a little town, partly they don't want to live in this little town. Even though my generation would say, “Oh, I can live in a town where they raided them, and this is gonna be great,” that isn't the way people think anymore. They want to fit in and have plenty of, you know, “me time” and “I've got to have my work-life balance.” We don't have any work-life balance. We have work, and that's life. [laughs] There's no balance to it right now. A lot of people just don't like that idea.

We’ve got enough staff. We can deal with it. We're trying. But we don't think that the paper is as good as we could have it, because we see every week stories that we could, if we had more time, pursue.

But I think we're less likely to take shit anymore. Basically, they attempted to intimidate us, and they had the reverse effect. They strengthened our resolve to find out what's wrong. I think it's made us more insistent that we need to do more in terms of investigative work. We need to do more in terms of work that might be labeled negative and might not make us popular.

In some cases they picked on the exact wrong person because I don't take a salary. I should never say this, but I don't care about money. I get plenty of it from being a retired professor, and I also get a pension from the Milwaukee Journal for the years that I was there. I don't need any money, so I don't take a salary. I will take a bonus at the end of the year if we make one, but I don't take a salary weekly. I don't care about the social nature of it. I don't play golf. I did once; I shot a 72, made it through the third hole. So there isn't a whole lot they can do to me. If they shun me, fine. If they want to boycott our ads, fine.

I came here with a goal in mind that I'd been preaching for many years in the classroom: that we needed to forget all the obsession we had with the silver bullets of technology. “Oh, everything will be fixed with journalism if only we can harness this” or “if only we can live tweet more” or “if only we can” whatever else. Now it's going to be “if we can use AI greatly.” Whatever. We need to stop looking for silver bullets and realize journalism is journalism. And if you improve the journalism, that's the best way to improve your product.

So I came here before the raid with the idea that we were going to do less expected stuff and more unexpected stuff. That's our terminology for it. We don't call it “enterprise” or whatever. “Unexpected” is what people want in their newspaper. It's news. “New” and “news” are the same word for reasons.

We also tried at the same time to do things with advertising so that we weren't just going to sell space anymore; we were going to try to help [advertisers] market their products, design them well, do everything as best as we can and see what happened to the newspaper. Well, before the raid, our circulation was rising; our ad revenue was rising. There aren't many newspapers that that was true of. Our circulation has risen precipitously since then, but we were doing OK before that.

What's the difference in circulation from before to now?

We are up at around 5,500 paid circulation. We were down around 2,000 before.

Often when there's some action against journalists, there's the fear of a chilling effect. Do you sense anywhere there's been a chilling effect, or is it really the opposite?

There might be other places, I don't know. It certainly is not here. Like I said, I lost a reporter who just the stress of working here wasn't for her. Why do you want to get into a business where people might not like you, where people might take action against you?

Most people should—and most people need to—think of this as a cause. This is a calling. We're like priests, rabbis and other clergymen and social workers and good cops, because there are good ones, and a lot of other people who do things not because they're easy, not because they make a convenient job that lets them do whatever they want, but because their community needs it. And that's the people we have to attract.

[The challenge is] how we find them, and then we have to figure out once we find them, how we train them, so that we can get them the experiences they need. That way we have a robust press. Whether it can survive all the various miscellaneous hedge funds that want to come up and snap them up, whether it can survive other things, I don't know. If I were master of the universe, first thing I would do—forget whether we're going to ban TikTok or not, let's just ban all of social media. I think it's destroying American democracy.

You mentioned that you're 70. How long do you plan to keep doing this? And do you have a succession plan in place?

No, and that's much to my discredit. That's one of the things I keep worrying about. The office manager here doesn't think she has the ability to run the paper, but I do, and I am going to try to bring her along, maybe. Find somebody else, maybe. I'm looking for some young people that might be able to come here and might get enchanted with it. I'll basically give the paper away.

But this is not alone in small towns. We have a lawyer in town, the only remaining practicing lawyer in the county, who wants to retire, and he'll give his practice to somebody who will come here. And I would probably do the same thing with the newspaper or put some token cost on it; people appreciate things if it has a value to it. But how long do I plan to continue? As long as I can continue.

Hey, my mother made it to 98. I don't think I will. But I can keep trying.

Former congressman expresses concerns about political climate

By Rod Serfoss
Oklahoma Publisher, June 2024

Lifelong newspaper advocate and former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts quickly grabbed the attention of the crowd at the Oklahoma Press Association annual convention when he talked about being inducted into the National Newspaper Carriers Hall of Fame. “I was in the third or fourth grade and my brother had a paper route throwing the Muskogee Phoenix,” explained Watts. “One summer he went to Wichita, and I took his route. I get elected to Congress and somebody comes up with the idea to ask anybody in Congress who was ever a paper carrier to step up. I said, ‘I didn’t have a route, but I had a route. I was a backup for my brother for three months.’” And so, John Glenn, U.S. senator from Ohio and a famous astronaut, a couple of other people and J. C. Watts were inducted into the National Newspaper Carriers Hall of Fame. “I told my brother I got in the hall of fame as a backup!”

Watts shifted to his concerns about the interesting cultural and political times we live in. “Americans are increasingly mistrusting one another and have uncompromising contempt for political opponents,” said the concerned former congressman. “Congress is increasingly dysfunctional, and the rule of laws is under attack. Extremes on both ends of the political spectrum are questioning democracy itself and as a result, the American people are losing faith in their political system and institutions.

“Polls show that only 4% of respondents believe the political system is working well or extremely well. A significant portion of the people dislike both parties and are looking for alternatives. Most conservatives fear the country is sinking into disorder and some behave as if the country is already lost and reject any compromise with their opponents.

“Unlike the predecessors in the eighties and nineties who believed in stability and preservation, the new right flirts with the revolutionary rhetoric of change in ideas, some of which were once associated with the far left. They even speak of slavery being good for Black people – God help us.”

In 2009, Watts was considering running for governor. After giving a speech in the state, consultants who were visiting with him about running his campaign said, “Great speech, but you have to be more hostile toward the President.” That is when he knew that politics had passed him by.

“We have got to the point that CNN, Fox News and MSNBC tell us how and what we should think,” said Watts. “We live in a country that we’re free to watch whatever news show we want to watch but I would encourage you for every 30 minutes you watch Fox News, CNN or MSNBC that you give Andy Griffith equal time to bring yourself back into balance.

“We no longer look for solutions. We look for blame. “We’ve gone through some difficult times and the reason we survived is because we stood on the truth. We can’t say that January 6 was legitimate political discourse. It was not and that should concern us all.”

Reflections on 42 years in the community newspaper business
By Steve and Cynthia Haynes
   How do you sum up 42 years of your life together, doing a job where your every product was exposed to the scrutiny of not the town, but of people all over the country, and these days all over the world? Cynthia and I feel fortunate to have been able to do something we loved. To live and work in towns we have loved. To have gone places, met people and seen and done things that many do not get to experience. 
   We have loved our jobs, most days anyway. I suppose everyone has those days. Dealing with the public is seldom particularly easy, whether it's a reader, a customer or a public official with a problem. It's never been that hard, either, especially because people here are pretty nice. That's one thing we noticed when we moved to Oberlin in 1993. People would walk across the street to introduce themselves, or maybe that was just Jay Anderson. But northwest Kansas is a peaceable place. Murders tend to happen once or twice a century in any given county. Bar fights are just as rare. Hardly anyone locks their car – or their house.
    I think we can be proud of what we accomplished in our 29 years here. We managed to put our newspapers into the top tier of small-town publications in Kansas, won many awards (not that those are important in and of themselves, but they show what other newspaper editors, in other states, thought of our work). And by our, I mean our entire staff. We received national recognition for what we had accomplished here, again from other, distant newspaper people.
    More than that, when we looked at the papers, we had a sense that we had made them better, had focused them on serving their towns and counties and that readers liked them. We hope, moreover, that we were thought of as fair, as treating everyone, rich or poor, obscure or widely known, the same. People knew if we got a traffic ticket, our names would be in the paper just as theirs would. We expected nothing less from public officials. Most of the time, I think we got it. Public administration in this part of the world is mostly fair and honest; it's done by people who want to do the right thing. That's good.
    Cynthia pointed out that when we signed the papers to sell our newspapers on Thursday, Dec. 2, it was 42 years to the day that we bought our first paper, The Mineral County Miner and South Fork Tines (and no, that's not a typo; that's a pun) in tiny Creede, Colo. We were 32, and our kids ranged from 5 months to 6 years. That was 1980. If you do the math, you'll know that today, those kids are 42, 45 and 48, and their parents are 74.
   It's not that we didn't love our jobs anymore, just that we seemed to be tired much of the time, and we seemed to be working more and traveling less. If we were going to have any retirement together, we realized, we had to get with it. We're not going anywhere, at least not right away. We do want to spend more time at our place in Creede, with our kids and especially with our grandkids in Arkansas. We still have a lot of places we haven't seen. Of all the travel we've done, only one trip has been to Europe. There's a lot of this country we haven't been to, either. I like to tell people there are a lot of people I haven't met, a lot of books I haven't read, a lot of trails I haven't walked and a lot of fish I haven't caught. So, time is fleeting. We're excited to get with it.
    We'll be giving up a lot. Being at the newspaper is like having a ringside seat for the affairs of the town, the state and the world. You get to meet people, and politicians seek you out. We've been fortunate enough to get to know some of the best public servants in the nation, including Congressman, later Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and later Sen. Ken Salazar, then Secretary of the Interior Salazar, and his former boss, Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado come to mind. We met Gov. (and then Sen.) Ben Nelson of McCook, whom we ran into over the weekend. Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska and his wife Sally Ganem. In Kansas, Congressman, later Sen. Jerry Moran, impressed us when he was in the Legislature. Rep. Tracey Mann we met when, barely out of K-State, he ran his first, losing statewide race. In Washington, we met so many interesting people. I got to introduce Sen. Barack Obama, and former Sens. Bob Dole and John Kerry – my,is he tall. With Sen. Dole, we got nearly two hours to talk about the old days in Kansas politics.
    I never imagined myself, growing up, in one of those gilt-trimmed formal reception rooms where you see foreign leaders meet with people, but as president of the National Newspaper Association, I spent time in several with foreign ministers and most notably, the president of Taiwan. Having to make a presentation to him without warning, I blame Allen Beerman for that. Allen is another story, for another day, all by himself. And over all that time and travel, we met so many people, and made so many friends. None better, or more interesting, I have to say, than the ones we have here.
   Then the adventures: I recall hiking up to watch an Army team recover a Pershing missile lost in the wilderness for something like 20 years, and flying one bitterly cold morning with the game warden and a crazed helicopter pilot to count the elk. You had to fly low to chase them out of the trees, you see. Then there was doing runway traction checks with the airport police when it snowed in Kansas City. Cynthia got to wrestle mountain sheep one day – few people can say that – and she got to drive some of the first GM vehicles equipped with experimental antilock brakes on glare ice – just jam on the brake, the guy told her.
    The people in our business we met, the friends we made, including Bill Snead of the Lawrence Journal-World, the Washington Post, one of the great news photographers and one of the nicest men you'd ever meet. Rick Atkinson, now a famous historian, but a star even when we worked together on the staff in Kansas City. And there was the day I got to interview, after what seemed like weeks of negotiation with his wife, Thomas Hart Benton, the Kansas City painter. I had an hour with him in his studio, wrote three pages and wound up with two paragraphs in Newsweek. But what an hour. 
   All that is mostly behind us now, I suspect. What's to come should be just as interesting and just as much fun. My Uncle Will had a pretty good career as an editor in Emporia. He figured out how to build a national brand in a day when magazine writers were as famous as television anchors in the 20th century. We never aspired to such heights, but in our own way, got at least a peek at the summit. I hope we will be remembered as good stewards of your newspaper, and as good people who worked to do the right thing. 

Time for a different business model, and experiments
By Teri Finneman
University of Kansas

   Andrew Jackson was president when the business model still predominantly used by the newspaper industry today was invented. Let that sink in for a minute. I mean, really sink in. Andrew. Jackson. Was. President. And we wonder why the newspaper industry’s finances aren’t well.
   I’m a journalism historian at the University of Kansas and frequently talk about the importance of historical context. So, let’s talk about it. In 1833, Benjamin Day started The New York Sun, the first penny press newspaper. This 23-year-old challenged the prior business model, which charged a steeper 6 cents for a newspaper. He reduced the price to 1 cent and turned the tables so that advertising from the nation’s growing business sector would instead provide the bulk of newspaper revenue.
   I’m quite sure Day himself would be flabbergasted to know the newspaper industry is still using the same cheap subscription/advertising reliant business model nearly 200 years later. It’s why I’m leading a research project looking to change the model for rural weeklies.
The Need to Be Proactive
   The problem is clear and one that researcher Penny Abernathy has tabulated: The nation has 1,800 fewer newspapers than it did almost 20 years ago. Pew’s own research notes there were 30,000 fewer newsroom employees in 2020 than in 2008 –and that’s data before the pandemic’s full effect. Additional research has found over and over again how problematic that is for the civic nature of a community, for the upholding of democracy, for the historical preservation of a community, for the social capital of community ties.
   When a local store closes, odds are high there’s another with similar merchandise within 60 miles. When a local newspaper closes, there is no replacement. At all. And yet, 200 years after the penny press model started, numerous weekly newspapers continue to only charge $1 per issue. Let’s talk about that. $1 an issue. That’s 14 cents a day per reader for that week’s content. FOURTEEN. CENTS. In 200 years, the cost of many a newspaper has gone up only 99 cents despite the fact that journalists are immensely more professionalized and accurate than those in the 1800s – and that virtually no other product around in the 1800s that still exists today has only gone up 99 cents. One can’t buy a bottle of pop, coffee or a candy bar for $1 anymore, yet newsrooms consistently devalue themselves by begging people to pay pennies for their product and showing how cheap they are.
   This narrative must turn around. It is simply no longer logical for journalists in 2022 to be asking readers to only pay 14 cents a day to support local news, and readers need to be told so in those terms. You work way too hard for that and provide way too valuable of a product for that. Furthermore, in this age of misinformation and disinformation, journalists should be stepping up public relations and differentiating themselves by telling the public that, if they pay for information, they can better guarantee that it was professionally done and accurate. Not to mention, it’s hard to know what the future of legal notices may bring.
   Identifying new revenue potential now is critical to avoid even further possible disaster in the future. Launching a New Model
   In the past six months, I’ve partnered with Pat Ferrucci of the University of Colorado-Boulder and Nick Mathews of the University of Minnesota to conduct significant research to guide us in creating a new business model. We’ve received input from about 600 people throughout the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas.
   Here’s what we found: There is a significant disconnect between what publishers say the model should be and what readers say they are willing to support. While publishers were overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the 1800s model of advertising, print subscriptions and legal notices, readers instead had different (and more modern) priorities: events, print subscriptions, e-newsletters and memberships.
   The reader responses really aren’t surprising. In small towns, a common refrain is “There’s nothing to do” and, historically, newspapers have served as a centralized community gathering. Regular consumers sign up for all kinds of memberships nowadays. And readers, even more so since the pandemic, are now used to getting immediate information rather than waiting a week.
   Therefore, in mid-June, we worked with Joey Young and his staff at Harvey County Now in south-central Kansas to launch a business model that emphasizes memberships, e-newsletters and events to test-run how this model could work for other weekly newspapers. Harvey County Now will continue to sell advertising and run other revenue streams but will prioritize this new model called Press Club for the next year. Readers will still be able to purchase a regular subscription for $60 a year. However, they can now also pay an additional $60 to become a member of Press Club. (Still a bargain only asking readers for the equivalent of $2.31 a week but this is a starting point on the road to increasing circulation revenue.)
   Newspapers across the country can do whatever spin and pricing they like to form their own Press Clubs and think about what perks they could offer under a membership platform. It could be as simple as a coffee mug, T-shirt, discount card to local businesses, an annual Press Club luncheon, etc. When creating their Press Club, Harvey County Now first identified a crucial gap in its community: Little to do at night and on the weekends, and young people who struggle socially living in smaller communities. Therefore, its Press Club will function as a social club. Members will have exclusive access to monthly mingles, activity opportunities and group field trips. While this may sound like a lot for a newspaper to take on, Harvey County Now has created a cooperative structure that minimizes its time commitment.
    In addition to selling individual Press Club memberships, the newspaper is also selling corporate sponsorships for about $1,500 per year. The business sponsor receives some individual memberships for employees, publicity from the newspaper and serves as host of a monthly mingle in charge of all food, drinks, etc., for that event. For the field trips, Harvey County Now is reaching out to a local brewery for a tour for Press Club members, as one example.
   In other words, the newspaper is using its connections in the community to create opportunities for Press Club members, with its sponsors taking turns doing most of the on-the-ground-work while the newspaper sells the access and generates the Press Club profit. About 50 people attended the Press Club launch event in mid-June, including at least five people who had just moved to the community this summer, saw the ad and story in the paper/on Facebook and were hoping to meet new friends. The newspaper has secured early corporate sponsors eager to partner and get local residents inside their businesses for a mingle.
   Furthermore, the newspaper is in the process of revamping its e-newsletter and what the future may bring with sponsorships and additional readership there. It’s an experiment that is just starting and that will be tracked in the months to come. A modified version of Press Club will also launch at another rural weekly this fall to see how it fares in a smaller community.
   We’ll be reporting out as the year goes along and keeping track of the successes and challenges of this Press Club experiment. The overall goal is to try something. Because doing nothing is not a viable future for the next generation of journalists.

Kentucky Press Association salutes Congressman Comer for role in Postal Reform Act

FRANKFORT, KY – The Kentucky Press Association is lauding Congressman James Comer, R-Tompkinsville, for his role in the passage of the Postal Service Reform Act that is headed to President Joe Biden for his signature.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the act in February by a 342-92 vote and then HR 3076 was approved by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday by 79-19.

Kentucky Congressmen John Yarmuth, Andy Barr, Brett Guthrie and Hal Rogers joined Comer in support of the measure in the House while Thomas Massie was opposed. In the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell voted in favor. Sen. Rand Paul voted “no.”

During a virtual meeting in March 2021 with publishers from across his Kentucky district, Congressman Comer announced his support, saying he recognized the importance of the postal service for community newspapers. In his district, 42 newspapers are weekly/community newspapers and rely on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver those newspapers to the subscribers. The First District covers 34 of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

2021 KPA President Sharon Burton, who publishes the Adair County Community Voice in Comer’s district, said, “He faced backlash from his own party to get this done and it is a rare bipartisan effort. It is very important for rural communities and has language specifically requested by our industry. He deserves a big thanks.”

HR 3076 would give the U.S. Postal Service relief from a 16-year-old requirement to prefund decades into the future. The mandate, unlike requirements for other federal agencies, beset the Postal Service with more than $58 billion in unpaid obligations. The bill passed by a vote of 79-19 with many rural Republicans voting with Democrats in favor. President Biden is expected to sign the bill.

The legislation also contains the Rural Newspaper Sustainability Act, which would give newspapers using within county mailing rates the ability to send more sample copies to nonsubscribers. Community newspapers use this sampling practice to recruit new readers. Previous limits permitted them to send copies equaling only 10% of their annual mailings. When the bill becomes law, they will be permitted to send up to 50% of their annual mailings to prospective readers. Newspapers pay for the postage to send these copies and generate new business for USPS in doing so, as first-class postage is also purchased to complete new subscribers’ invoicing and payments.

The National Newspaper Association also honored Congressman Comer for his efforts. “This legislation gives community newspapers a new ability to regain subscribers lost by the past few years of slow mail delivery," NNA Chair Brett Wesner, president of Wesner Publications, Cordell, Oklahoma, said. "It also offers USPS a new lease on life by relieving debt to the federal government. Now we look forward to a revision of postage rates by both USPS and the Postal Regulatory Commission, which have attempted to retire some of this debt with dramatically higher postage rates.”

Wesner expressed his thanks to NNA’s Congressional Action Team for its vigorous advocacy and said congratulations were owed to the bill’s principal drafters.

“A long list of believers in universal mail service have shaped this legislation over more than a decade,” Wesner said. “I want to particularly thank Congressman James Comer (R-Kentucky), for his work on the rural newspaper provision and also Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, (D-New York), Congressman Gerald Connolly, (D-Virginia), and Senators Gary Peters, (D-Michigan), Rob Portman, (R-Ohio), and Tom Carper, (D-Delaware).

The PRSA would roll back the prefunding mandate of 2006, shift about 40,000 postal workers onto Medicare parts B and D for their primary health care benefit and require USPS to continue its practice of delivering mail and packages as part of one integrated network, rather than splitting up costs as some package service competitors wanted.

Georgia newspapers say 'news deserts' are exaggerated, giving ammo to local officials who want to weaken public-notice laws

By Dave Williams
Georgia Press Bulletin, December 2020

Since 2016, a website produced at the University of North Carolina has been raising awareness of the threat posed by “news deserts,” the growing number of communities across the country no longer covered by newspapers. Concerns being raised by the Georgia Press Association (GPA) and counterparts in other states about the accuracy of the website’s state-by-state maps showing which counties have newspapers and which don’t are calling into question the project’s credibility. Local publishers say counties they serve are being listed as lacking a newspaper, and when they contact UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media to complain, the fix is slow in coming if it comes at all. They say the result is a map that exaggerates the pervasiveness of news deserts. “[The website] is taken as the Bible, as gospel, that all this data is correct, but it’s not,” said Scott Buffington, co-publisher of MainStreet Newspapers Inc. in Jefferson. “Why make it look worse than it is?” GPA Executive Director Robin Rhodes said she first contacted Penelope Muse Abernathy, the UNC journalism professor who produces the website, in October 2019 to fix errors on the Georgia map. “We contacted her again in September 2020 to correct the inaccuracies she was publishing on her website,” Rhodes said. “As of December, some of the information is still incorrect. All we are asking her to do is make it right.” Buffington said in his part of the state, the Georgia map incorrectly showed no newspapers in either Barrow or Banks counties. It took about a year to get the website corrected, he said. “It dragged on and on,” he said. “We finally got them straightened out, but it was like pulling teeth to do it.” Indeed, Abernathy and her research team have added eight counties with newspapers to the Georgia map that had been listed as news deserts. But of the 20 counties still shaded in red on the Georgia map, meaning they’re considered news deserts, only 10 truly lack a newspaper, according to the press association: Baker, Calhoun, Chattahoochee, Clay, Echols, Glascock, Quitman, Schley, Webster and Wilcox. Most are in rural southwest Georgia. Georgia counties incorrectly listed as news deserts include Dade, Heard, Jenkins, Long, Macon, Taylor, Terrell, Twiggs, Warren and Wilkinson. “In the newspaper industry, three things matter: accuracy, accuracy, accuracy,” said Alan NeSmith, the Georgia Press Association’s board president. “Penny Abernathy’s reporting on newspapers so far has been inaccurate.…It’s very frustrating.” Press associations in other states have similar bones to pick with the UNC website. Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, said she hasn’t been able to get Abernathy to correct the way her state’s map depicts two rural counties that border each other. “The paper there has always been the paper for both counties,” she said. “But they always list one of the counties as a news desert. “I don’t know why she wants to paint a picture that’s worse than it is. All it does is say to the public, ‘Newspapers are going down the tube.’” Sam Fisher, president and CEO of the Illinois Press Association, said Abernathy doesn’t consider some of the newspapers in his state as legitimate because they’re made up primarily of legal notices. As a result, those papers’ home counties show up as news deserts on the Illinois map. Fisher said allowing that to stand threatens Illinois newspapers’ bottom lines by giving local governments a chance to usurp newspapers’ traditional role as legal organs for their counties. “The Illinois Municipal League used the data to say we weren’t as impactful as we once were,” he said. “They want to have the local governments suffice [for public notices].” Responding to Fisher’s complaint, Abernathy added a footnote to the bottom of the website’s Illinois map stating “There is at least one newspaper in each Illinois county,” based on the definition of newspapers in state law, even though the map still shows two counties shaded in red. “That was a compromise and a good compromise,” Fisher said. “I appreciate that.” A footnote at the bottom of the Georgia map states, “A newspaper serves each county in red by publishing legal advertising concerning that area.” Abernathy said the website uses standards set by the Federal Communications Commission to determine whether a publication qualifies as a newspaper. “We have a pretty low barrier,” she said. “We do ask that they have somebody show up to cover county commission meetings. If they meet that minimum standard, we list it as a newspaper.” Abernathy said the slow response to complaints this year is largely the result of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the UNC campus to shut down this semester after just one week and scattered her research team. She stands by the website’s methodology and her purpose in producing the website and publishing two books on saving community journalism. “I keep getting accused of trying to kill newspapers. That’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do,” she said. “The whole reason I started tracking the loss of newspapers is to raise public awareness and get policy makers to realize we’re in real trouble.…The for-profit model that has sustained newspapers for 200 years has collapsed.” But Fisher said Abernathy’s lofty goal is being compromised by inaccuracies in the data that could open the door to potential competitors for ad revenue taking advantage of newspapers. “I understand what she’s trying to accomplish,” he said. “[But] it’s being weaponized against us by people across the country.” 

Dave Williams is bureau chief of the Capitol Beat news service. Capitol Beat is a service provided by the Georgia Press Association. He can be contacted at

How an urban congressman helped save a rural newspaper

By Douglas Burns, Carroll Times Herald, Carroll, Iowa
Iowa Newspaper Association Bulletin, May 20, 2020 

Before our forks settled in the generous heaps of mashed potatoes or cut the tenderloins at a dinner in Jefferson to fete tech’s audacious arrival in this rural Iowa reach, I knew we had a forceful friend in California Congressman Ro Khanna. 

We were gathered in Jefferson to recognize Accenture’s development of a software-development branch in the rural county seat of Greene County. I’ve covered politics for 25 years and as a newspaper owner in Carroll and Jefferson have served on five regional economic-development boards. So I found myself next to the congressman at the December 2018 dinner. 

We got right into it. Here’s the big question of the political hour — and it frames the way this congressman from California’s Silicon Valley sees the lane for his service in Washington, D.C., and growing interaction with rural America. 

Khanna knows many rural Americans, sweeps of folks in the countryside of Iowa, are angry over real and perceived losses to their ways of life. Recent elections, as Khanna is well aware, have seen that discontent manifest in anti-immigrant language or votes and vitriol hurled against political figures tied to the urban elite. 

Should rural Iowans feel this angry, is it earned and real, and if so, where should it be directed? “Well, they should feel angry because the governing elite of this country have let them down,” Khanna said in that 40-minute interview. “We have had a digital revolution that began in the 1990s and accelerated now. You have had concentration of economic success in places like my district, Silicon Valley, or Boston or Austin, and you have had a large part of the country left out. And their talent has been left out.” 

Rural Americans served in wars and farmed and mined coal and built the manufacturing base, and increasingly, there is little, if any, role for them in the new economy, one in which wealth is scooped and segregated to the coasts. 

Ro Khanna’s mission: bring the software revolution to places like Jefferson, Iowa, or Kentucky or West Virginia. And deliver other careers to Knoxville and Carroll, places Khanna now knows well. It’s a matchless remedy to the over-brewed rural-urban divide, one that is diminishing the nation. Khanna is tireless in this endeavor. He peppers us with early-morning texts to check on life and business here and sends emails to college presidents and tech executives and local development leaders to boost tech training and careers in rural towns. 

Just days ago, amid the pandemic, he urged young people, on a video call with Des Moines Area Community College Carroll Campus Provost Joel Lundstrom and others, to pursue a computer-languages course of study that could lead them to the Accenture’s modern branch in Jefferson, with high-paying careers, more so when you factor the low cost of living here in rural Iowa. 

The Carroll Times Herald has chronicled Khanna’s estimable contributions to our economy. From a personal perspective, Khanna and I began to interact as our newspaper, in my family for three generations, with a 90-year history of ownership, faced existential challenges amid the increasing grip of Facebook and Amazon on small-town Iowa’s economy and culture of communication. We still had fight. But we were increasingly despairing. 

I was one of the angry rural people, a Carroll-raised kid who’d spurned city life and come back home 24 years ago from Northwestern University and Washington’s Capitol Hill to help build a small newspaper, to fight for economic development, to join others in tying our rural communities in west-central Iowa in a common, future-minded cause to improve and diversify. Yes, we’d seen many successes, but failure of our family business loomed like my own shadow in the twilight. Ro Khanna saw me, and he saw rural America. And he saw our struggle to join the modern economy. He saw the stakes involved. 

“This is a forward-looking answer to Donald Trump. I mean, Donald Trump’s whole message is ‘I’m going to bring your jobs back. I’m going to bring your pay back. I’m going to bring your dignity back. You’ve been left out.’ . . . Our message has to be that we are going to bring more jobs, more possibilities, more opportunity to communities left out than they’ve ever had before,” Khanna said of his plan on rural careers and growth in a February Vanity Fair magazine story. “No person should be forced to leave their hometown to get a good-paying job. A community’s biggest export shouldn’t be their kids. So we’re going to rebuild and revitalize these communities to bring them the opportunities of the technology revolution. And people get that. They intuitively get that the economy is changing; they intuitively get that just bashing up on China or bashing up on immigrants isn’t going to ultimately provide more economic opportunity for their kids.” 

In that same exhaustively reported Vanity Fair story, the writer, Abigail Tracy, quoted my own assessment of the urgency of Congressman Khanna’s work to bring tech careers to rural America: “I would say the future of the country is riding on this, [not] rural America and urban America preaching back and forth at each other about whether you should use gendered pronouns or how many guns you should be able to own,” Vanity Fair quoted me as saying. “Those are arguments that are going to continue to divide. What we’re doing is literally potentially preventing a civil war, because this wealth inequality just can’t stand and it just won’t stay up. We can’t have only a select number of winners in a select number of places where people are just sort of succeeding by geographic accident like that. That’s just not going to hold the country together. This isn’t a charitable arm of big tech. This makes sense for big tech, too, because there’s a lot of talent here.” 

Through the last two years, Ro Khanna visited Carroll twice, and he connected our newspaper with Silicon Valley innovators. Khanna inspired us to launch a digital marketing company, Mercury Boost, to capture revenue beyond our web and print ads. He put us, and our friends at the neighboring, Denison-based Spanish-language La Prensa, in the room with key people from tech companies — most notably the Facebook Journalism Project. Soon we were in Facebook’s Accelerator program for newspapers — the Carroll Times Herald and La Prensa, small family-owned operations in rural Iowa, sitting aside leaders from the Los Angeles Times, Toronto Globe and Mail, Salt Lake Tribune, and newspapers from Memphis and New Orleans and Tampa and Philadelphia, among others. 

Combined, the Carroll Times Herald and La Prensa received a $75,000 grant to pursue more digital subscriptions and to construct the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, a non-profit organization involving Carroll, Jefferson, Denison, Storm Lake and Harlan. We are well into that development. 

Moreover, Facebook awarded the Times Herald and La Prensa an additional $85,000 in grant money to keep our newspapers alive and churning out vital public-health stories during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s a $160,000 lift from Facebook to La Prensa and The Times Herald, with $35,000 for La Prensa and the remaining funds being used to boost Carroll digital subscriptions and create the non-profit organization that will support multiple western Iowa newspapers. 

“We see The Carroll Times Herald and La Prensa as standard bearers for other community-focused newspapers across America,” said David Grant, Accelerator program manager for the Facebook Journalism Project. “We hope that the Times Herald’s success in the Accelerator can be replicated at small news organizations across the country. There’s a future for high-quality journalism in western Iowa that won’t look like the last 90 years — but this is a team that can build the next 90.” 

We also received immeasurable assistance from our coach in the accelerator, Ryan Tuck, a North Carolina-based consultant and adviser and a lecturer at the University of North Carolina who holds master’s and law degrees and has consulted in a variety of capacities in addition to working with McClatchy’s newsrooms, Bloomberg News and The New York Times. His guidance has been invaluable throughout this process. 

Our newspapers were only in the room with the Facebook opportunity because Congressman Ro Khanna made me believe rural Iowa belonged there, right along with brand-name urban communications giants. He’s bringing this same rural-in-the-rooms-where-it-happens advocacy to other industries, from tech to biomanufacturing. It’s often said in the halls of Capitol Hill that there are Washington friends, and there are friends. Ro Khanna is both to this newspaper. Our newspaper is alive to cover Ro’s fight for rural America, and indeed America itself, and for that, we are both humbled and inspired.

20 years of community journalism

By Cliff Sain
Managing editor, Branson (Mo.) Tri-Lakes News, Jan. 15, 2021
Last month marked my 20th anniversary in the journalism profession. It’s a little hard to believe.

When I first became a reporter here at what was then known at the Branson Daily News, I wasn’t sure if it was a long-term career choice, or a chapter in a bigger journey. I worked here until 2007 and then went to the Springfield News-Leader for six and a half years. I returned in October 2013 and became the managing editor in May 2014.

Cliff Sain
It’s brought me plenty of joy and satisfaction (and, at times, a degree of frustration) to bring community news to the newspaper readers in the Tri-Lakes area.

If there is anything I’ve come to appreciate in my 20 years, it is the importance of a community newspapers. It’s local journalists who continue to let the members of this community know what is going on with their local government, with their schools, with their local businesses, and with their neighbors. Communities need journalists working in their community to hold their elected officials (and others with power) accountable. But we are also here to let you know about the great things your neighbors are accomplishing or doing – awards, donations, presentations, achievements and so on.

In my 20 years, the one thing I’ve never stopped appreciating is the readers. Individuals who read print journalism are a special class. They know what’s going on in the community. They know who their elected officials are. They also care about their community and the direction it’s heading. It is my pleasure to work to bring news and information to the readers.

If you subscribe to this newspaper and read it regularly, I salute you. You are the main reason I do what I do.

In an era when virtually everyone has a phone that gives them instant news updates about national and international news, and at a time when large news agencies like to frighten viewers into binge-watching their never-ending dramatization of events, your community news remains vitally important. In fact, in recent years, I’ve been trying to emphasize how important your local elections really are. I guarantee you that your city and county elected officials have more impact on your day-to-day lives than your state and national elected officials do.

I’m not saying that national news and elections are not important (current events should make it obvious they are quite important). I am saying that decisions about crime prevention, road repairs, fire safety, school performance, housing, charity, vaccination distribution, and much more are all handled at the local level.

Besides, I truly believe that despite what many politicians and major media outlets lead us to believe, most of us agree on the vast majority of national issues the vast majority of the time, but conflict sells news more easily than harmony. That’s not to make light of anything going on in the national news as you’re reading this; it is important to keep track of if from reliable news sources.

I, to the best of my ability, have tried to be a reliable source of news from your community. I take that seriously, and I always try to find ways to do better.

Thank you, readers, for being there for me.

A tribute to a courageous rural journalist: How Tim Crews ignited the fire in a reporter’s belly

By Gerry Shih for the Sacramento Valley Mirror, November 2020

On my first morning at The Sacramento Valley Mirror, Tim Crews gave me my first assignment. Residents found a dead body in a car on Oak Street, in Willows, he said, so go check it out.

I went and did the shoe-leather reporting. I talked to then-Sheriff Larry Jones and interviewed all the neighbors I could before filing a story on the probable suicide. That night, Tim gave me his first bit of advice.

You need diligence, he said, and you need fire in the belly.

It was 2007. I was 20, and not quite sure what I was going to do after pausing college to work a few months at The Valley Mirror. By the time I left, Tim had lit that fire for me.

I knew a few things about Tim before arriving in Willows. I knew he was celebrated in the newspaper business in California and beyond for his commitment to the First Amendment and prodigious use of public records requests to pry documents out of local agencies.

I knew he did a short stint in jail for refusing a court order to reveal his sources in a story that alleged Highway Patrol misconduct. I knew a past intern or two who spoke reverently about his courage, his almost dogmatic commitment to watchdog journalism and government transparency, his stubbornness and defiance toward authority.

I heard he walked around in red suspenders and T-shirts with California Penal Code Section 409.5 printed on it, protecting access by reporters to disaster scenes – every day. I heard he abhorred the idea of putting his stories online and preferred ink on paper and photos shot on film.

When I showed up one March afternoon with all my belongings in a beater sedan, The Valley Mirror turned out to be pretty much like how I imagined. Walk in the door and on the left is a print of Tim’s favorite Norman Rockwell painting showing a tiny newsroom as the heart of small-town Missouri. Journalism awards line the window facing the regional bank.

Larry and Donna write copy, edit and manage sales near the right wall. Tim is on the phone in the back, working sources and receiving tips. His desk is piled up with papers, a six-shot revolver in the drawer in case trouble got out of hand.

Soon, I figured out his several thousand fiercely loyal readers adored him. Others, usually a few elected officials, loathed him. I’d guess nearly everybody in Glenn County, population 28,000, knew the man with the bushy white beard and read his stories, whether they admitted it or not.

Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted, he would repeat as his mantra.

While Tim was best known for his crusading investigations, he insisted we report on the bread and butter of local news, which is what we did. I covered the Glenn County Fair and the Stonyford Rodeo and school board meetings from Orland to Maxwell. The paper and its three full-time staff scraped by on ad money, but he never charged for wedding or death notices.

He insisted I carry a film Nikon FE at all times – this was 2007 – in case there was a car accident or “a jumbo jet crashed in the hills near Elk Creek. Whenever there were reports on the police scanner about a crash, we always rushed out to shoot the scene.

After my first week, Tim handed me a copy of Once Upon a Distant War, an account of American correspondents who challenged the U.S. government narrative of how the Vietnam War was faring. I was renting a mobile home on the edge of an almond orchard and blazed through that book on those cool, dry nights.

By day, I began diving into my work. Tim set me off on a series of investigations into the deficiencies of the public defender system, particularly for the Hispanic community.

Within weeks, I knew this was what I wanted to do. Tim gave me clarity, purpose, focus.

“You have to have fire in your belly,” he said.

People poisoned his dog and left death threats – hence the six-shot.

He took me out into the fields and taught me how to shoot his sawed-off, Sicilian-style shotgun. We ate his barbecued tri-tip and drank whisky and talked about his favorite John le CarrĂ© and Alan Furst novels and journalism and he’d insist he wanted his ashes to be shot out of a cannon when he died like his gonzo kindred spirit, Hunter S. Thompson.

Twice a week, Tim would get up well before dawn to pick up papers from the printing press. I would load them into my beater sedan that wouldn’t start half the time and drive the delivery loop. First past the Blue Gum Motel, then up to Orland, over to Hamilton City, through a detour around Ord Bend.

Driving west back into Willows along Highway 162 with sports talk on the AM radio, I would watch the farmland unspool on my left and right and the hills with the racetrack and Stony Gorge rise up ahead, lit by the morning sun.

We did the bread and butter of community journalism.

But it wasn’t just crime and civil rights. I covered the Maxwell School Board meetings and the Glenn County Fair, matters of interest to the community that Tim and Larry and all the rest were devoted to covering. I covered the Stonyford Rodeo. After a few months, I took film photos of those golden hills near Thunder Hill as keepsakes, and then I packed up and drove south, knowing what I would do with my life.

These days, I’m still a newspaper reporter, working as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for The Washington Post.

But looking back after 14 years, The Valley Mirror was most fun job I ever had.

And the fire in my belly? It’s never burned as bright and as pure as it did then.

Becky Barnes, weekly editor who was ready to cover covid-19, and set a national example when she did, wins Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism
By Al Cross, Sept. 8, 2020
Becky Barnes, editor of The Cynthiana Democrat, is the 2020 winner of the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian. Barnes, who has worked at the weekly for 44 years, distinguished herself most recently by arranging a special edition that was mailed to every household in Harrison County, funded by local government, less than two days after it was announced that the county had Kentucky’s first case of covid-19, in early March.

“Becky’s initiative was a groundbreaking piece of work that set an example for rural weeklies,” said Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which presents the award with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Becky Barnes
“At a time when everyone in her county needed reliable information, not rumors, about a clear and present danger, Becky and the local officials found a way to deliver it,” Cross said. “This example has been followed by other weeklies, and at a time when the pandemic has hurt newspapers’ advertising revenue, it shows how they can tap a new revenue source while rendering essential public service.”

Barnes and her newspaper have continued to focus on the pandemic and its local effects. She and staff writer Lee Kendall streamed live news conferences with the county judge-executive, mayor and public-health director, and thousands watched. She was widely noticed for an April 30 column about masks, which weren’t required at the time but were becoming controversial. It concluded, “I will wear a mask not because I am required to do so, but because it may help. This is all new. We are learning as we go. But if there is a chance it will help – I will wear a mask – for you.”

“Becky Barnes is a great representative of the best in community journalism in Kentucky,” said Tom Eblen, president of the Bluegrass Chapter and a retired columnist and managing editor at the Lexington Herald-Leader. “She has been tireless in her efforts to keep her community informed, while at the same time being a vigilant advocate for open government and the public’s right to know.”

Barnes has repeatedly stood out over a long career, said USA Today photographer Jack Gruber, who nominated her. He noted her support of Boyd’s Station, the arts-and-journalism nonprofit he founded, and a national photography workshop that brought 150 journalists to the county of 18,000 people.

He quoted local Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tomi Clifford: “Becky often finds the light in the darkness whenever a major event has happened. Like in 1997 with the flood, or the coronavirus, she puts everything out there and is super personable, honest and remains positive during the most difficult times to be a journalist.”

Gruber also quoted from Cynthiana Mayor James Smith’s story of Barnes calling out him and the City Commission for appearing to have had an illegal, secret meeting to discuss “a serious issue” before the public meeting. “You would think that would be signs of an adversarial relationship between the mayor and the local press, but that would be the furthest thing from the truth,” Smith said. “Becky has always covered our meetings with fairness and focus on the facts. In fact, when the need is to get information to the public and not just report, Becky is always there to use her position and influence to educate.”
The Cynthiana Democrat is the only place Barnes has ever worked. “When you get it right the first time, there’s no need to keep looking,” she says.

Barnes began working for the newspaper five days after she graduated from Harrison County High School in 1976. A few months later, she married her high school sweetheart, Ernie Barnes. They have two children, Erin Slone and Seth Barnes, and a granddaughter, Olivia Slone.

In 1997 a Licking River flood cut Cynthiana off from much of the county, but Barnes was able to make it into town from her home in the county and took hundreds of flood pictures for a special edition that was printed within hours of the disaster. It included a list of the people at specific shelters, serving families who were divided by the river and had no way of knowing where their loved ones were. The newspaper later published a magazine that told the stories of local heroes and rescues.

So, Barnes was ready when she learned that her county was Kentucky’s “ground zero” for the pandemic. She rode with the mayor and county judge executive to a Frankfort press conference with the governor, and on the way back, told them that the information needed to be in the hands of the county’s residents immediately, not the paper’s Thursday publication day. The county picked up the tab.

“Local journalism isn’t always about the disasters,” Barnes said. “It’s about feeling and knowing the heartbeat of the community. It’s about Christmas parades and Homecoming football games, first tee-ball games and 75th wedding anniversaries. It’s also being prepared for those disasters when they occur.”
The Cynthiana Democrat is one of 47 owned by Landmark Community Newspapers, which is based in Shelbyville, Ky. The company’s executive editor, John Nelson, said, “Becky has been deserving of this level of recognition for a long time. We’re happy for her, proud to count her among our community editors, and pleased that her story — the story about Becky — is being heard.”

Told that she had received the Al Smith Award, Barnes said, “I am so humbled. Every day I come in to work with the same goal: to put out the best newspaper I can for the people of Cynthiana and Harrison County. Being honored by my peers is a bonus.”

The award is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its advisory board and is its chair emeritus.

The award is usually presented at a dinner in the fall, but presentation is being delayed until next year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A leading publisher's prescription for community newspapers: Continuity, cooperation, credibility and commitment
By Peter Wagner, July 2019
     One of our printing customers includes the following observation just above the signature line on all his emails: “To say you don’t need newspapers because you’ve got the internet is like saying you don’t need farmers because you’ve got a grocery store.”
     In almost every community the local paper is the first recorder of news. Little Joe Brown might have hit a home run at last week’s Pee Wee game, but only a few are going to know about it until it is reported in the hometown paper.
     Yes, there is always going to be a digital element to the news reporting from now on. But unless that digital source meets print’s standards of balanced reporting, fact checking and professional editing it will never have the credibility attached to print.
Peter Wagner (Nevada Press Assn. photo)
     So why is the printed paper, the long-acknowledged source for information about everything happening in the community, overshadowed by endless digital websites, Facebook pages and blogs?
     In 2018, the entire U.S. news industry – print and broadcast - made an estimated $5.1 billion from digital advertising. And those dollars were spread out across scores of companies. It was of little help during an age where all newsrooms were cutting jobs and many small-town papers closed their doors forever.
     Meanwhile, according to a report from the News Media Alliance, Google almost matched the industry’s total digital-ad revenue with $4.7 billion simply providing search engine assistance to finding that locally-produced news. That number only represents the income from advertising on the Google website. It does not include the value of personal data Google gathers when users click on news articles.
     While the local paper collects and clearly presents the news, it is Google and not the hometown that’s getting wealthy off the tedious detail work. As it has often been said, people go to the internet to find out details about a story. But most often they earlier had learned about the story in their newspaper.
     We need, as an industry, to believe in ourselves and TELL OUR STORY. No other information source has the reach of our publications. Broadcast, digital and social media are targeted and cannot.
     The local paper provides much needed CONTINUITY. Locally written and edited papers are the most reliable link to the past, as well as the most dependable source of informative details regarding what is happening that day or week. The community newspaper provides CONTINUITY across various community interest groups, as well as from generation to generation.
     The hometown paper also encourages local COOPERATION. As the media connecting with the greatest number of local families, the paper is in a position to educate, encourage and clearly explain “why” something is happening or needs to happen in the community. Through solid news coverage and editorials, the newspaper provides citizens with the reasons to COOPERATE to help make possible changes. Or, why they should not. Today’s electronic media are overloaded with as many differing opinion blog sites, ideas and voices - many of them shortsighted and biased - as there are stars in the sky Local communities need their community newspaper to bring everyone’s ideas together.
     Newspapers also assure CREDIBILITY. A newspaper’s future depends on earning and keeping the respect of local readers, advertisers and community leaders. Newspapers cannot afford to get the facts wrong or to take sides when reporting a story. A newspaper’s reputation depends upon its CREDIBILITY. You will often hear someone saying with a scoff, “It must be true, I saw it on the internet!” But when the same person says “I read it in the paper,” he is sharing the information as a fact.
     And finally, the men and women who own, manage and produce a local newspaper live and raise their families in the town where they are doing business. They are COMMITTED to making their town and region the best possible place to live, work and invest. The paper’s COMMITMENT to building a better community makes the local publication the town’s leading cheerleader for all important events and projects. Hometown newspapers support community with their stories, donated advertising space, time and often their own dollars. Now how can Google match that?
     Peter W. Wagner is founder and publisher of the award winning N’West Iowa REVIEW and 13 additional publications. Wagner can be contacted by emailing or calling his cell at 712-348-3550.

Rural publishers fight tariffs, fearing more expensive newsprint will put some of them out of business; also seek postal reform
Wisconsin newspaper representatives were among those from the community newspaper industry who met with lawmakers in Washington to discuss newsprint tariffs and other issues March 14-15. From left are U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and senior economic policy adviser Brian Conlan; Wisconsin Newspaper Association Executive Director Beth Bennett; Publisher Kris O'Leary of The Tribune-Phonograph in Abbotsford, and Laura Johnson. (Photo by WNA member Andrew Johnson)
By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

WASHINGTON – Rural newspaper publishers from all over the country came to Washington in mid-March to plead their case against new tariffs that will increase the cost of newsprint – still a key cost for newspapers, which depend on print advertising even as they try to increase their digital revenue.

“My fear is for the community newspapers that don’t see this coming. This is a tidal wave that could wipe out a lot of community newspapers,” said Tony Smithson, vice president of printing for Bliss Communications in Janesville, Wis.

As a publisher and printer in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hometown, Smithson is a point man for the newsprint efforts of the National Newspaper Association, which organizes a lobbying blitz by community newspaper publishers every March.

"We are painfully aware that some newspapers will not survive this upheaval," NNA President Susan Rowell, publisher of the Lancaster News in South Carolina, said in a news release.

The publishers are also continuing a years-long fight for reform of the U.S. Postal Service, to head off huge mail-rate increases that could have an even more damaging impact on community papers. “I think the Postal Service is really in danger of having a big explosion anytime now,” chief NNA lobbyist Tonda Rush told the publishers as they headed to Capitol Hill.

The gathering began the day after the Department of Commerce announced preliminary "anti-dumping" duties as high as 22.16 percent on Canadian imports of untreated groundwood paper, such as newsprint. The new tariffs are in addition to a first round announced Jan. 9, ranging from 4.4 to 9.9 percent.

“Newspapers could see an 8 to 10 percent increase in production costs in the short term,” Smithson told the publishers. The News Media Alliance, comprising mainly daily newspapers, has created a lobbying coalition on the issue, but the case to Congress is “focused more on small papers because it’s hard to get sympathy for the larger ones,” Rush said.

The tariffs were issued in response to a petition filed by North Pacific Paper Co., which owns a single mill, in Washington state. It was recently bought by the operator of a New York hedge fund.

Norpac claims Canadian mills are selling paper in the U.S. below cost. However, the two main newsprint producers have mills in both countries, and Smithson said the industry is running at 97 percent capacity because some mills have been idled or converted to other types of paper. Noting that Norpac has the only idle mill, Smithson said, “You can’t claim damage if you’re running at capacity.”

The U.S. International Trade Commission must investigate the case, and is expected to hold hearings in August and make a recommendation to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross by September. “We can’t submit testimony, but members of Congress can,” Rush noted.

Smithson said newspapers' best argument is not about higher prices, because the counter-argument is that the price is too low and would be higher in a free market. He said papers need to represent themselves as fighting a hedge fund that is trying to game the system, hurting community builders and servants of democracy, arguing that “This case could be the touch on the domino that makes that go away.”

Ross has much discretion in the matter, but there is more concern than usual because of the trade-policy environment, Rush said. President Trump recently announced tariffs on steel and aluminum, and the North American Free Trade Agreement is being renegotiated. The newsprint tariffs would be essentially permanent, unless they become part of a new NAFTA, which does not appear likely.

Once a tariff is in place, no politician will want to fight to take it off, for fear of being accused of not protecting American jobs, Smithson said.

The basics of the newsprint tariff issue are relatively simple, but the workings of it are complicated. The tariffs are expected to lead to price increases by U.S. mills, but Smithson said the mills won’t gain because newspapers will use less paper or cheaper paper.

Newspapers have few newsprint producers to choose from. As mills close, geographic availability becomes more limited; the Southwest and Colorado are served by only one mill, Smithson said.

Postal reform still stymied

NNA has been seeking reform of the Postal Service for several years, to head off rate increases that have been pre-approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission if the service runs out of money.

“We’re facing 50 to 65 percent increases if we don’t get reform there,” said Mike Fishman of Tennessee-based Lakeway Publishers and co-chair of NNA’s Government Relations Committee.

The key part of the reform would be requiring 70,000 USPS retirees to move into Medicare, which is now optional for them, but some Republicans oppose expanding the Medicare rolls because of questions about the program’s long-term solvency.

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, a longtime ally of newspapers, trying to get some postal-reform language into an omnibus spending bill that must pass by March 24 to keep the government running, Rush said. Carper is a Democrat, and his party has limited leverage in the Senate.

In the House, NNA lost a champion when Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah resigned his seat, and “No one has stepped forward to really reclaim that leadership” in the House, Rush said.

Ryan Craig and his late uncle Larry Craig win Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians

Ryan and Larry Craig, a nephew and his late uncle, are the winners of the 2017 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians.

As editor and publisher of the Todd County Standard since 2005, Ryan Craig (left) has held local and state officials accountable, sometimes to the financial detriment of his small weekly, and started an investigation that exposed serious flaws in the state’s foster-child program. He is this year’s president of the Kentucky Press Association, and in KPA competitions his paper has been judged the best small weekly in the state 10 of the last 11 years.

Larry Craig (right) edited the Green River Republican at Morgantown for Al Smith (for whom the award is named), then bought it from him but continued his work as a Baptist minister. He blended courage, curiosity, skill and humor to become a distinctive if not unique figure in rural journalism. He was KPA president in 1989. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 1994 and died in 2011.

The Craigs will be honored Oct. 12 at the Embassy Suites in Lexington, at the Al Smith Awards Dinner of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which co-sponsor the award.

The award is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its national advisory board for many years, and is chairman emeritus.

The Craigs are natives of Allegre in northern Todd County, part of the hilly Clifty Region that fringes the Western Kentucky Coalfield. Larry Craig said in a 2009 interview that when he moved to Butler County, in the coalfield, he quickly concluded, “These people are like North Todd . . . You don’t show any hesitancy or weakness.”

Ryan Craig is a graduate of Western Kentucky University, which his uncle attended without earning a degree but which later hired him to teach journalism. Ryan Craig’s degrees are in history and public relations, but he says he took up journalism after his uncle told him that he should give it a try because “You would do a lot more good, and wouldn’t have to worry about having too much money.”

Larry Craig, son of a sharecropper who was also a Baptist pastor, started preaching at 17. But he loved to write, and followed a minister’s advice to pastors who wanted to improve their writing: seek assignments from the local newspaper. He went to see Smith, editor and publisher of The Logan Leader and The News-Democrat, then twin weeklies in Russellville, who assigned him to write a 30th anniversary story about a local military unit that went to World War II. He was soon covering the county school board, which was at odds with Smith; controversies among dark-fired tobacco growers, and the 1977 United Mine Workers strike. With the help of miners at his church, he wrote what Nat Caldwell, legendary energy reporter for The Tennessean, called the best reporting on the strike from coal miners' perspective.

Smith hired Craig to edit the Green River Republican in 1980 and sold it to him in 1982. When it became known that he had been offered a list of people willing to sell their votes, someone shot through a front window of his office. He got his gun and spent the night there, earning him the appellation "pistol-packing preacher-publisher." His watchdog work extended to the general public; he published names he found on trash at illegal dumps, sparking the most negative reaction he ever received. He loved to tweak politicians, and others prone to self-importance, in invocations at KPA conventions and other gatherings. After he became a journalism teacher and told the student newspaper that the Ku Klux Klan was a "putrid cancer on the body of America," a Klan member and sympathizer burned the Warren County church he was pastoring.

Craig said in 2009 that one man told him “He couldn’t see how I could raise hell all week and then preach against hell on Sunday,” but he said both professions prize truth, justice and accountability. He wrote in a 1987 column that some editors “find themselves in the role of an attack dog; others don’t go far enough in exposing wrongdoing, primarily because they don’t want to rock the boat or get anybody upset. That’s lap-dog journalism. I prefer the middle road, one based on common sense and hard-nosed journalism tempered with compassion. A good guard dog is one that is a friend to all while being a protector.”

David Hawpe, former editor of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, who succeeded Craig as KPA president, said when his friend died at 62, of liver failure, that he was “a special person who actually was an intellectual, sophisticated guy hiding in a country preacher's persona." Al Smith called him “one of the most unforgettable editors I ever knew.”

“Larry Craig left a legacy to which Ryan Craig has more than lived up,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and associate professor in the UK School of Journalism and Media, where he teaches community journalism. “Ryan understands that rural newspapers must not only cover their communities, but connect them to the rest of the state, nation and world.”

Ryan Craig bought the Todd County Standard in 2005 after working at daily and weekly newspapers in the area. He transformed the paper into an example of excellent reporting, editing and presentation. When it won its first General Excellence award from KPA, he heard from Uncle Larry, he recalls: “He called me and told me I was putting out a great newspaper,” then said, “Now they know you can do a great job, turn the heat up to boil and see what happens.”

It didn’t take long. Ryan received threats from public officials, including a sheriff who went through the courthouse in cocking his shotgun and saying, “Nobody is arresting me because of the Todd County Standard.” Aggressive reporting on a new jail that became a long-term burden on the county’s budget, and a story about price gouging after Hurricane Katrina, led to businesses pulling their advertising and ousting the newspaper’s racks from their stores.

In 2011, The Standard investigated the murder of a girl in foster care in a home where abuse had been substantiated, and used open-records laws to uncover serious flaws in the Kentucky social-services system. He went to court to have the girl's files made public when state officials tried to cover up her case. The newspaper’s investigation, along with stories in the state’s two largest dailies, helped lead to the resignation of the cabinet secretary, the retirement of the social-services commissioner, legislative hearings and a governor-appointed panel to examine child-abuse deaths and near-deaths, Todd Circuit Clerk Mark Cowherd wrote in his nomination of Craig.

“Ryan’s work as a member of the Fourth Estate has helped to inform and educate not only the citizens of Todd County but also the citizens all across the commonwealth of Kentucky,” he said.

“Ryan Craig is the model of an outstanding community journalist and publisher,” said Tom Eblen, president of the SPJ Bluegrass Chapter and a columnist at the Lexington Herald-Leader. “Ryan wants his community to succeed, but he isn’t afraid to point out problems or speak truth to power. He has made the Todd County Standard a must-read in his region and a force for good.”

The Al Smith Awards Dinner is an annual fund-raiser for the Institute and the SPJ chapter, which conceived the Smith Award. But it is also “a grand gathering of people who believe in journalism as an essential element of our democratic processes and want it to observe high standards; who recognize the importance of rural America to the rest of the country; and who agree with us that rural Kentucky and rural America deserve good journalism just as much as the rest of the state and nation, to help our democracy work,” Cross said.

For information on the awards dinner, contact Al Cross at 859-257-3744 or; or SPJ Bluegrass Chapter Treasurer Patti Cross at 502-223-8525 or Details will appear soon on the Institute website,

Vermont publisher extends essay contest to sell paper, adds crowdfunding to fill gap

By Ross Connelly, Hardwick Gazette, Sept. 21, 2016

The Hardwick Gazette essay contest, begun June 11, needs more entries.

With scores of inspired essays already sent in from people across the country and around the world dedicated to the preservation of real journalism, the contest is extended for a final time today until Oct. 10. A Kickstarter campaign also begins today and runs to Oct. 10. This effort is to bridge the gap in funding to make the contest financially viable.

The Kickstarter campaign is at

People who want to support the effort to find a new owner for the newspaper may contribute between now and Oct. 10. Those who still want to enter the essay contest may do that until Oct. 10. The contest rules are at If the Kickstarter campaign is successful, all entries received by Oct. 10 will be assessed by a panel of judges and a new owner chosen. If the combined contest and Kickstarter campaign do not succeed, all entry fees and donated money will be returned.

In one sense, this contest is too big to fail. Transiting the Gazette to a new owner is asking people to consider the value of independent journalism and to consider that citizenship and democracy start in people’s homes, their neighborhoods, their communities, with elected officials – on the local level.

Local, independent newspapers are the foundation blocks of the country's democracy and are necessary to keep it solidly in place. The crowd funding strategy is already supported by members of the community. At their own volition, a number of readers already submitted “I don’t want to win” essays, including the fee and a note expressing the importance of the Gazette’s survival. A pledge was also made by an anonymous benefactor to make a substantial donation as part of a crowd funding effort.

The readers who already contributed want to see the Gazette endure. They recognize the value of the independent voice — socially, culturally and politically. It’s a sentiment being felt broadly, even internationally.

Connelly initially launched the contest in June hoping to find a new owner for The Hardwick Gazette. Entrants are required to write a 400-word essay explaining why they want to own a rural weekly newspaper and submit that with an entry fee of $175.

At 71, Connelly knows the newspaper needs more energy than he can bring to the tasks. Hoping the contest would generate as many as 700 entries, the contest received worldwide media attention generating scores of excellent entries but still shy of the goal by the initial Aug. 11 deadline, extended to Sept. 20. Perhaps that number will be reached by Oct. 11, but the quality of the essays already received indicates local, independent journalism is important. The essays exhibit the same kind of enthusiasm and commitment to journalism Connelly and his late wife, Susan Jarzyna, brought with them to Hardwick 30 years ago.

If the Kickstarter raises $100,000 by Oct. 10, the panel of judges will evaluate the essays and choose a winner, regardless of the final number of entries received. With the launch of the Kickstarter campaign, Connelly is optimistic he will soon be able to name a contest winner. The new owner will have the responsibility and privilege of continuing the long tradition of delivering news to Hardwick and nine surrounding towns in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Editorial:  An Essay Contest And Crowd Funding

The Hardwick Gazette Essay Contest began June 11. The hope was to generate a minimum of 700 entries with a maximum of 1,889. From them, a panel of local judges would evaluate the essays, "grade" them, and select a new owner of The Hardwick Gazette.

The contest ran from June 11 to Aug. 11. The contest was extended in August for 40 more days, to Sept. 20. The last 100 days were a wild ride. Scores of entries were sent in. The quality of the essays is outstanding, but more entries are needed. The rules of the contest allow 20 more days of submissions, which brings the closing date of the contest to Oct.10.

Will the extra time bring in the minimum number needed to make the contest financially viable? That's an unknown. What is known is there is many an entrant who is an "editor/publisher" in waiting. What is also known is the task at hand is to bridge the gap between the fees sent in by the essayists and what would be received if the minimum number is met — so as not to lose the opportunity each entrant seeks.

That's where crowd funding comes in. People who want to support the contest but don't want to enter can contribute to the Gazette's Kickstarter campaign at between now and Oct. 10. Those who still want to enter the essay contest may do that until Oct. 10. The contest rules are at

One of the lessons already learned from the contest is the Gazette is important to its readers. At their own volition, a number of readers already submitted “I don’t want to win” essays, including the entry fee and a note expressing the importance of the Gazette’s survival. Many other people also offered encouragement, and a statement they want the Gazette to continue publishing each week.

The volume of essays submitted and the statements of support from readers say a lot. There is a lesson there that the naysayers who say newspapers are dying might want to take another look.

Independent, local journalism is important because The Hardwick Gazette and weekly newspapers across the land report local stories not found elsewhere. Weekly newspapers are important because their readers welcome learning about their communities. They are important because they give readers information they need and encourage civic engagement.

In one sense, this contest is too big to fail. Finding a new owner for the Gazette is asking people to consider the value of independent journalism and to consider that citizenship and democracy start in people’s homes, their neighborhoods, their communities, with elected officials – on the local level. Local, independent newspapers are foundation blocks of democracy and are necessary to keep it solidly in place.

Publisher of farm paper and community weekly wins Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian

Sharon Burton, publisher of Kentucky’s statewide agricultural newspaper and a community weekly in her native Adair County, is the winner of the 2016 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian.

Burton will receive the award Sept. 29 in Lexington, at the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which co-sponsor the award.

For more than 27 years, Burton has published The Farmer’s Pride, a newspaper for Kentucky farmers and other agriculture interests. For more than 14 years, she has published the Adair County Community Voice, a weekly paper that has frequently been cited on the Institute’s Rural Blog as an example of journalism that serves the public.

“Sharon is a great example of a local individual who saw a need, and through entrepreneurial hard work, created publications that serve the need of her local community but also of the agricultural community of Kentucky,” wrote Jimmy Henning, associate dean for extension in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and director of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, in his nomination of Burton.

“Before The Farmer’s Pride, farmers had no timely place to go to stay informed on important issues,” Henning wrote. “Sharon is a tireless advocate for responsible storytelling about agriculture and the community. She is considered to be an honest and fair reporter from the continuum of agricultural entities and her publication is the only statewide source of agricultural information in Kentucky.”

Burton was also nominated by Nick Roy, the Adair County extension agent for agriculture, who said “Sharon is recognized for her commitments to the community as both a journalist and community leader. It is individuals like Sharon Burton who make small rural communities thrive.”

Roy said the Community Voice “was quickly recognized as a credible source of information with coverage providing openness and transparency of local government” after its founding as a monthly in 2002. “Its popularity grew and soon became a bi-monthly publication in 2005, and then a weekly newspaper in May 2007. While the Community Voice has grown and made minor changes through its development, its commitment to the betterment of the Adair County community has remained.”

One recent example of Burton’s commitment to public service through good journalism was her coverage of the March referendum in Adair County that legalized the sale of alcoholic beverages, one of the most controversial issues that a rural community can address. The Community Voice covered it thoroughly, offering insightful commentary without taking sides, including a front-page essay by Burton that began with reliving her experience of buying liquor from a bootlegger on her senior prom night and went on to the current experiences of students at the local, Methodist-sponsored Lindsey Wilson College and federal survey data on local drinkers.

Burton wrote that the county has "already said yes to alcohol. But we've said yes in a way where we don’t have to take responsibility. We allow alcohol to be sold in the shadows, treating it like a heroin den; people can get their fix, but we don’t have to look at it.”

The year before, Burton played an unusual – and probably for most journalists, controversial – role in her community by serving on the board of the local hospital, which had been driven into bankruptcy by mismanagement. When the new county judge-executive asked her to serve, she had many reservations because journalists are supposed to cover news, not make it.

But she agreed "because I could not think of anything more important to do as someone who loves this community and the people who made it great," she wrote, adding that she felt she could make sure the board was more transparent than it had been. She recused herself from reporting or editing any hospital stories, and had an outside professional edit them for publication.

“Sharon’s deep commitment to public service drove her to make a decision that most academically trained journalists like her wouldn’t make,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and associate professor in the UK School of Journalism and Media, where he teaches community journalism. “Public service ought to be the primary thing that drives journalists, and there are times when your role as a member of the community can conflict with your role as a journalist. Sharon did an exemplary job of managing those conflicts, which is a key to success in community journalism.”

Burton grew upon a beef-cattle and tobacco farm in southwestern Adair County community of Sparksville. She earned a journalism degree from Western Kentucky University in 1983 and started The Farmer’s Pride in 1989. It and the Community Voice have won many journalism and public-service awards. She is a director of the Kentucky Press Association.

The Al Smith Award is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute, and headed its national advisory board for many years. He remains active as chairman emeritus.

The Al Smith Awards Dinner is an annual fund-raiser for the Institute and the SPJ chapter, which conceived the Smith Award. But it is also “a grand gathering of people who believe in journalism as an essential element of our democratic processes and want it to observe high standards; who recognize the importance of rural America to the rest of the country; and who agree with us that rural Kentucky and rural America deserve good journalism just as much as the rest of the state and nation, to help our democracy work,” Cross said.

For information on the dinner, to be held at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort and Spa, contact Al Cross at 859-257-3744 or; or SPJ Bluegrass Chapter Treasurer Patti Cross at 502-223-8525 or Details will appear soon on the Institute website.

Good journalism matters

By Mary Henkel Judson, Port Aransas (Texas) South Jetty, June 16, 2016

Mary Henkel JudsonMary Henkel JudsonIf you look forward to reading the South Jetty each week, if you count on it for factual news you can trust about the people, places and events that matter to you in Port Aransas, I have a suggestion: Support those the businesses and individuals who place advertising in the South Jetty -- advertising that works for them, and supports good journalism.
Our staff members like to take a paycheck home each week. Our vendors of software, hardware, printing and digital services are rather fond of being paid for their goods and services. The water district doesn’t take kindly to not being paid, nor does our electricity provider. The city and the school district won’t take “no” for an answer when we are presented our bill for taxes owed. We’re not allowed to fill our gas tanks without paying -- unless we want to do some time in the pokey. The grocery store won’t let us out the door without paying.
Thanks to our advertisers, we are able to meet these financial obligations and to employ professionals with degrees or certifications whose combined talents produce this award-winning newspaper. Our staff puts blood, sweat, tears and many hours into their work to make sure our stories reflect the standards of good journalism, from the hottest controversy to meetings of civic organizations; to make sure that your advertising does its job to bring customers to your business and to make sure all this is presented in a way that makes it easy and attractive for readers to consume, whether in print or online.
We all get news from multiple sources, from Facebook to Twitter and the thousands (millions maybe?) of websites that spew all manner of “news.” But when it comes to getting good, reliable journalism, most people turn to newspapers, especially in small towns were the editors and reporters are held closely accountable for their work. Believe me, if we don’t get it right, we hear about it -- and we want to. (It’s kind of nice to hear about it when we get it right, though.)
No newspaper can survive without the support of its advertisers. Subscription costs do not cover the actual cost of mailing and do nothing toward the cost of producing the newspaper. Advertisers, therefore, are responsible for making the South Jetty, and every other newspaper, possible. With more advertising, a newspaper can offer more and better content and can hire and/or retain better qualified reporters, photographers, editors and other staff members to create an improved product.
This isn’t a one-way street. Our advertisers get a good bank for their advertising bucks. The South Jetty reaches the audiences that our advertisers are targeting, so the benefits of advertising with us are plentiful. The added benefit is they are supporting good journalism in the community in which they live and do business.
Good newspapers are essential for communities because they are rallying points around which the entire community can gather and participate. They are available to all, not just those with computers.
If it’s important to you to be kept informed about what our city council and school board are doing that may impact you financially and socially, if it’s important to you to know what is happening in town that might affect your quality of life or well-being, if it’s important to you to know how well your tax dollars are educating our students and maintaining our infrastructure, you need to support the advertisers that make it possible for the South Jetty to report on those things -- and much more.
If you have a business in Port Aransas and you’re not advertising in the South Jetty, we invite you to join our advertisers to reap the rewards that advertising in these pages will bring you, and support the good journalism that the South Jetty offers and that makes a positive difference in our town.
Mary Henkel Judson is editor and co-publisher of the South Jetty. Contact her at, (361) 749-5131 or P.O. Box 1117Port Aransas, TX 78373.
New editor holds up a mirror to his community and asks challenging questions about its future

By Steve Wilson
Executive editor, The Paducah (Ky.) Sun, Nov. 10, 2014

Three months ago, we ran a front-page story headlined, "Paducah gets smaller as regional cities get larger."

The story reported that virtually all of the cities in western Kentucky - from Owensboro and Bowling Green to Henderson, Hopkinsville, Madisonville and Murray - have grown in population over the past 50 years with one exception: Paducah.

The same trend held true in the more recent past. Between 2000 and 2010, all the other cities grew; only Paducah lost residents. The state gained almost 300,000 during the decade - an increase of 7.4 percent.

Contrary to what many people may have thought, Paducah's population loss isn't all about people moving to the county. While Paducah dipped from 26,300 in 2000 to 25,024 in 2010, McCracken County stayed flat at just over 65,500.

The most recent estimates for 2013 show Paducah down by six residents and McCracken County down by 192.

In the weeks since that story was published, I've asked many people in the community how they would account for it and heard a variety of explanations. Most people believe several factors play a role. They include:

- Not enough jobs that pay well enough to support a family.
- The absence of a four-year college.
- A "small-town mentality" that seldom thinks very big and resists looking honestly at the city's weaknesses and addressing them.
- Lack of take-charge civic leadership in both local government and the local business community.
- Inadequate cooperation between city and county government and too few public-private partnerships.
- The departure of many young college graduates who prefer to live in a more urban area, which is part of a national trend.
- The declining size of families, also part of a trend nationally. The average Paducah household decreased from 2.73 in 1990 to 2.09 in 2010.
- The city's location on the northeast edge of the New Madrid Seismic Zone, The risk of seismic events was one of the reasons USEC decided to locate its next-generation centrifuge plant in Ohio rather than Paducah, thus sealing the fate of its uranium enrichment operations here.

A more recent factor is the high cost of electricity. Paducah Power customers now pay the highest rates in the state, presenting a big disincentive for anyone to move here, open a new business or expand an existing one.

The city's declining population is a complex problem. It warrants a major effort to thoroughly analyze the issues and develop a strategy that can reverse the trend.

A project coming in the first half of 2015 looks like a step in the right direction. The Paducah Chamber of Commerce and the Paducah Economic Development agency are planning to orchestrate a comprehensive city-county visioning program.

Chamber President Sandra Wilson said the project will include a facilitator with national experience, community leaders from other cities that have made notable progress in recent years and a wide range of people engaged in different parts of this community.

While this project seems clearly needed, I'm familiar with visioning efforts in other cities that did little more than produce reports that sit on shelves and collect dust. For this one to make a difference, it will have to be not only intelligently developed but also skillfully executed.

A Paducah Chamber-led task force in 1998-99 produced a report called Project XXI: A Vision for Tomorrow. It identified a worthwhile list of 27 goals along with action steps for each one. People I've spoken with who were involved in its creation say the report was short on follow-through and did not have major impact.

One of the more memorable lines in the Project XXI report was a quote from a man who had a way with words, former New York Yankees Manager Casey Stengel: "If you don't know where you're going, you might end up someplace else."

He wasn't talking about Paducah, but he could have been. The city needs a sharper sense of where it's headed and how to get there. It also needs some smart, savvy people to step up and lead.
Otherwise, there's not much reason to think the city's population won't continue to slide along with its economic vitality and quality of life.

Those who have done it promote, explain rural investigative reporting to weekly publishers

SAN ANTONIO, Oct. 4, 2014 – "When you think of investigative journalism, you typically don't think of small towns." That's how Tommy Thomason, director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism, at Texas Christian University, started a challenging panel at the National Newspaper Association's annual convention.

NNA members lined up for a copy of Kathy Cruz's
and Tommy Thomason's book, You Might Want to
Carry a Gun, on small-town investigative reporting.
After listing the reasons behind his statement – lack of time, staff, resources, techniques, training and outside pressures – Thomason said, "You can deal with all of these pressures. . . . You can still do real investigative reporting." Then he introduced panelists who proved his point.

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, noted that large news outlets have largely pulled ot of rural America, so "If you don't do it, nobody's going to." Thomason called that "maybe the most important thing I've heard this morning."

The need for such sales pitches was demonstrated by Marshall Helmberger, publisher of the Timberjay in northern Minnesota. He asked two questions of the crowd: Did they publish newspapers, and did they do investigative reporting? About half as many hands went up in response to the second question.

Helmberger said he got a similar response at a recent Minnesota Press Association meeting, "but the nice thing about it was, the room was packed, so what it told me was there was a lot of interest in small-town investigative reporting."

Then why isn't there more of it? For "a lot of them . . . it's just plain fear," Helmberger said. "It does take a stiff upper lip. . . . We have had boycotts." But he said his paper also has the largest circulation of any weekly in its region, partly because of its investigative work.

"People in our region have learned that having a newspaper that takes its watchdog role seriously, though it can be an irritant at times, is a community asset."

He added later, "You've got problems that could use some attention from your paper. . . . All it takes is one enterprising person to ask the right questions."

The Timberjay has revealed much about the school-building scheme by Johnson Controls Inc., which Helberger said required "the largest tax increase local residents had ever seen."

The Timberjay's story shows the impact that investigative journalism, and the lack of it, can have. Voters in the Timberjay's part of the geographcially bifurcated school district overwhelmingly opposed the bond issue for the plan, but were outvoted by those in the other part, which has no local paper and was persuaded by weekly Johnson Controls newsletters, Helmberger said.

Later, the paper exposed shoddy construction work on the new schools, and fended off the company's threat of lawsuit by telling it that the paper's defense would be truth and that it would be happy to put all its documents in front of a local jury.

"We don't carry libel insurance," Helmberger said. "that's why we always make sure what we're putting in the paper is accurate and fair."

The personal nature of community journalism can help you be certain about what you publish, said Horvit and Samantha Swindler, whose investigation of a Kentucky sheriff when she was editor of The Times Tribune in Corbin, Ky., led to a 15-year prison term for the Whitley County sheriff.

"You should never print something that you wouldn't say to somebody's face," said Swindler, whose work earned her the Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and 
Community Issues for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism.

She offered another principle to follow: Don't be so focused on turning over rocks that you forget the more traditional civic functions of a community newspaper. "When you print the good stuff," she said, "people will listen to you when you say something is wrong."

Jonathan Austin and Samantha Swindler
Another Gish Award winner, Jonathan Austin of the now-defunct Yancey County News in North Carolina (see next story), said the availability of data on the Internet has made it easier for one person in a small town to do investigative reporting. His work showed how the county sheriff was relying on votes from the criminal community.

Swindler's probe began after she heard her sports reporter say that if someone needed a gun they should go to the back room of the sheriff's barber shop. After deciding to pursue the story, Swindler found that she had a reporter who "didn't think this was the kind of story we should be doing," and quit. She had no better luck with a fresh journalism-school graduate, and finally hired a 20-year-old who had a degree in criminal justice and told him, "If you don't do anything else, this is what you're going to do."

The paper made an open-records request that also sought a physical inspection of the evidence room, something that the Kentucky open-records law doesn't mention. "Sometimes you gotta bluff 'em," Swindler said. It paid off.

Two days later, the sheriff staged a burglary of the evidence room and said the records Swindler was seeking were also taken. That got the federal firearms bureau interested, she said: "If he had not responded to our open-records request in this crazy way, the ATF probably wouldn't have gotten involved."

The investigation developed slowly, but one story led to another, partly by generating tips. "We took the chunks as we had them and we printed them," said Swindler, now the editor of the Forest Grove Leader in Oregon.

Kathy Cruz of the Hood County News in Texas said she follows the same approach, which also helps develop support from readers who may be skeptical of initial investigative efforts.

"Readers need us," Cruz said. "They just don't always realize . . . maybe it is good to have a newspaper we can trust, who can watch our backs for us." Her paper, published by former NNA president Jerry Tidwell, has a button on its home page to readers to submit tips for investigations.

Cruz also went after her local sheriff, for temporarily freeing felons, some of whom he had failed to send to state prison. She got him to admit it with a direct approach: a call to his cell phone.

"I said, are you granting weekend furloughs to convicted felons." The sheriff hesitated a moment and said, "Yes."

"Well, how do know they're not molesting kids or cooking meth?" He replied, "I guess I don't." At the next election he got only 19 percent of the vote.

Cruz also exposed mismanagement of a local charity headed by powerful people. "Sometimes all you have to do is not ignore what's put in front of you," she said. "You have to have a strong sense of right and wrong."

She offered this final point to the publishers in the room: "Advertising is the bread and butter of the business, but newspapers should also be in business to make a difference."

Horvit noted that IRE and the Institute give two fellowships a year to rural journalists to attend IRE's Computer-Assisted Reporting Boot Camp. For more information on it, click here.

Swindler speaks to NNA members as Cruz, Helmberger and Austin listen.
Obituary for a crusading newspaper

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

The Yancey County News, born in western North Carolina three years and five months ago, died last week after a life that can only be described as meteoric.

The weekly newspaper never exceeded a regular circulation of 1,000, but punched above its weight from the get-go, reporting in its first edition about a state investigation of vote-fraud allegations. Then it analyzed state investigators' records to report that the county had an unusually high number of absentee ballots, many of which were witnessed by employees of the county sheriff’s department and cast by criminal defendants, some of whose charges were then dropped.

The paper also revealed that the mountain county's chief deputy, the arresting officer in several cases in which the suspects immediately voted and were given leniency, was also pawning county-owned guns for personal gain. He has resigned and pleaded guilty to failing to discharge his duties.

For that and other work, publishers Jonathan and Susan Austin won the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism, the E.W. Scripps Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment, and the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky.

Jonathan and Susan Austin in Burnsville, N.C.
(Photo: Bill Sanders, Asheville Citizen-Times)
"I'm not gonna whine. We had a great run," Jonathan Austin said in an interview. He said the paper closed when Ingles, an Asheville-based grocery chain, stopped running run-of-press ads in weekly newspapers. Ingles' full-page ad was, usually by far, the largest ad in the Yancey County News. The company places inserts in the county's long-established paper, the Yancey Common Times Journal, which boasts a circulation of 7,000.

The Ingles move came in May, after an April that had been the new paper's best ever for revenue, Austin said. "We had a great spring," he said, partly due to political ads from unexpected sources. Still, circulation didn't grow, despite two-for-one special. Asked why, Austin started to say, then demurred and said he didn't want to pop off so soon: "Ask me in six months. . . . I'm accepting of the closing of the newspaper. It's fine."

Austin said he and his wife will remain in Yancey County, where they own a home without a mortgage. "We do have some opportunities that we're pushing on that don't require heavy deadlines,"
such as specialty guides for Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains tourists, focusing on the many artists and craftspeople in the area.

Austin said he considered keeping the paper as an online-only publication to maintain his editorial voice "for about a nanosecond. I just couldn't see how it could be paid for."

He said the paper lost money its first two years but was running "pretty even" when Ingles dropped its ad. "I'll be proud to make more contributions morally and personally," he said, "but I won't drop more money down a sinkhole."

The paper's Facebook page is here. Back issues are available here.

Weekly publishers, mostly rural, ask Congress for help on postal issues, advertising tax

WASHINGTON – Leaders of the weekly newspaper business reported some success as they lobbied Congress on postal and advertising issues on March 13, but they also heard warnings to be vigilant because things could change after this fall's elections.

The big issues are a bill to reform the U.S. Postal Service and a proposed restriction of the deductibility of advertising as an ordinary business expense. The first issue has been bouncing around Congress for years and seems stuck between versions that have passed House and Senate committees but not the floor; the second has arisen as part of a bipartisan tax-reform plan that is going nowhere this year but might next year.

The advocates for rural newspapers were officers, directors and members of the National Newspaper Association, the lobby for about 2,500 community newspapers, including some small dailies but mostly rural weeklies that depend on the Postal Service to deliver their product. "This is a core chore of what NNA does," said Robert Williams of Blackshear, Ga., president of the group.

NNA has been sponsoring lobbying trips to Washington since 1971, but the effort "has never been more critical," Williams told the publishers as they gathered for briefings before heading to Capitol Hill.

The Postal Service is bleeding billions because of the Internet, and that has brought newspapers higher postage rates, poorer delivery service and lost subscribers. Now it wants less control over its rates, expanded ability to make special deals with direct mailers that take advertising from newspapers, and the power to stop Saturday delivery, except packages, on which it makes money.

NNA opposes the bill the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee approved  last month. It would give the service most of what it wants, allowing it to reduce delivery to five days a week when the total volume of mail falls to 140 billion pieces, but not before October 2017. At current rates of decline, volume would fall below the trigger level at about that time or a few months later.

A House postal-reform bill would allow the service to cut back delivery to five days without limitations, but opposition to that is helping keep the bill off the floor, said Art Sackler of the Ford & Huff law and lobbying firm. "Overwhelmingly, [House] sentiment is in favor of maintaining Saturday delivery," he said, and the more time that passes without the bill coming to the floor, the less that House leaders "will want to ask their members to take a tough vote."

Matt Adelman of the Douglas Budget in Wyoming said he helped persuade Rep. Cynthia Lummis to oppose the House bill, but will keep on seeing her and the state's senators, with whom he has met about 30 times.

The bill's prospects in the Senate also appear poor. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio "came around" and opposed the bill in committee, said Keth Rathbun, publisher of The Budget, an Ohio-based weekly for Amish communities, which delivers 97 percent of its circulation by mail. "We're basically the poster child of poor delivery," he said.

The tax proposal would allow businesses to deduct only half of their annual advertising expenses, and require them to amortize the other half over the next 10 years. "It means less money for us to keep," Williams told his fellow publishers. Jim Davidson of The Advertising Coalition said the idea is being driven by 42 multinational corporations that don't want to pay U.S. taxes on their foreign profits and need "something really big" to offset the revenue the federal government would lose.

Davidson said the chief tax counsel for one of the multinationals told him that the corporate executives "don't understand . . . the power of local media, local newspapers, local broadcasters, local magazine publishers, all local media" to fight such proposals. "Your voice is probably more important than any other lobbying voice up there," he said. "If they don't hear from you we're going to lose this fight."

The idea includes an exemption for businesses with annual revenues under $1 million, but Davidson said major community-newspaper advertisers would exceed that, and so would the major corporations that subsidize retailers' advertising of their products.

Several publishers reported that their senators and representatives had told them the idea is going nowhere, but Davidson said tax reform won't die as long as the multinationals are pushing it. "Right after the election . . . I think it's going to take off with a vengeance."

Matt Paxton, publisher of the twice-weekly News-Gazette in Lexington, Va., said he doesn't know if the ad tax will ever get off the ground, but "It scares the hell out of me. . . . If you want a civil society, and think the media have some value, something that affects 80 percent of our revenue should be frightening."

The Washington trips will continue because they are effective and will remain necessary, said Randy Mankin, publisher of small weeklies in Eldorado and Big Lake, Tex.: "If we don't toot our own horn, who's going to?"

Editor of dailies, former editor-publisher of weekly wins Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism

LEXINGTON, Ky. – A leader for openness in government and quality in journalism during his career at weekly and daily newspapers received the 2013 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism Nov. 16.

John Nelson
The honoree is John Nelson, executive editor of Danville-based Advocate Communications, a subsidiary of Schurz Communications of South Bend, Ind., which publishes The Advocate-Messenger of Danville, The Winchester Sun, The Jessamine Journal and The Interior Journal of Stanford.

Before joining the Danville newspaper as an editor, Nelson was editor and co-publisher of Pulaski Week, which was an award-winning weekly paper in Somerset. He began his career at the Citizen Voice and Times in Estill County.

The Al Smith Award is named for the rural newspaper publisher who was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky.” It is presented by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, part of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. Smith is a national SPJ Fellow and co-founder of the Institute, and chairman emeritus of its national advisory board.

Nelson, 61, is a native of Mayfield who grew up in Valley Station and earned a degree from Eastern Kentucky University. As president of the Kentucky Press Association in 2004, he oversaw the state’s first open-records audit and spearheaded a lawsuit to open juvenile courts, and was named KPA’s most valuable member for 2005. He also served as president of the Bluegrass SPJ Chapter.

“John Nelson has been known for decades as a newspaper manager who has always had public service at the top of his mind,” said Institute Director Al Cross. “Few people have carved out the kind of record he has left: part owner and co-editor of a superb weekly, editor of an excellent daily and now executive editor of two dailies and two weeklies. He is an exemplary community journalist.”

KPA Executive Director David Thompson said in his endorsement of Nelson’s nomination, “John has always been about public service through community journalism.”

Nelson joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in April. He has received the Barry Bingham Freedom of Information Award from KPA and The Courier-Journal, and the James Madison Award for Service to the First Amendment from the UK journalism school’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center.

“John Nelson has ‘done it all’ in the newspaper business – country editor, daily editor, exemplary crusader for ethics and transparency in government and business, including journalism, passionately committed to his community, and inspiration to his family and friends,” Al Smith said, recalling Nelson’s Journalism Hall of Fame induction:

“He is one of the few editors who ever made a speech so moving that I wrote for a printed copy. In an era of troubling transition for the news business and vexing conflicts in government, business and education, the strength of this country is in the character of its citizens who do the next right thing in the everyday challenges of life at the grass roots. John Nelson has been an enduring voice for Americans who do honest work, teach their kids to treat others as they want to be treated, respect education, and try to make the world a better place. He is a hero of community journalism."

Smith was the first recipient of the award, which is presented for a career of public service through community journalism in Kentucky, or anywhere by a current or former Kentuckian, with preference given to those outside metropolitan areas.

The 2012 winners were Jennifer P. Brown, opinion editor and former editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, and Max Heath, retired executive editor and vice president of Shelbyville-based Landmark Community Newspapers Inc.

Small-daily editor, retired group executive win Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism

RICHMOND, Ky. -- All that is, can or should be great about community journalism was on display July 20 as two rural newspaper journalists with very different but equally distinctive careers received the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism.

Jennifer P. Brown, opinion editor and former editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, and Max Heath, retired vice president and executive editor of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc. received the award from the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

The award is named for the rural newspaper publisher who is a national SPJ Fellow and co-founder of the Institute, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. Last year Smith was the first recipient of the award, which is presented for a career of public service through community journalism in Kentucky, or anywhere by a current or former Kentuckian, with preference given to those outside metropolitan areas.

Brown, Smith, Heath
(Photo by Janice Birdwhistell, UK)
“We saw two outstanding examples of public service – one an exemplary editor in a single community, the other an executive who made a Kentucky-based newspaper chain a national leader in community journalism,” said Institute Director Al Cross, who served on the SPJ Bluegrass Chapter committee that decided to give two awards.

Brown helped change the culture of the newsroom at the small, independently owned daily, gave it a strong editorial voice, diversified its contributors and made it one of Kentucky's leading fighters for open government.

In her remarks to the awards dinner crowd at Eastern Kentucky University's Center for the Arts, Brown gave a clear picture of the fortitude and high goals often required be a good community journalist.

"Reporting in your hometown means you occasionally wade around in your own history. And it’s messy," she said. "It is sometimes lonely because you have to write unflattering things about people you know —about your own people even. You have to be careful with friendships, and you have to tell the truth. And then you see the subjects of your stories in the toilet paper aisle at Kroger."

She added later, "Often, I learn that we don’t expect enough from people. I mean we don’t expect enough from our own journalists and from the people we cover. Setting the bar high usually works. I hate to see people at smaller papers accepting crumbs. If you don’t do good journalism at small papers —and doing good journalism includes filing open records requests and complaining when the open meetings law is violated —then you are telling people who live in rural areas that their place in life, in the world, is not that important." For her remarks, as part of her column, click here.

Few journalists have had as much positive impact on as many communities as Max Heath. He left a strong legacy of leadership during his years as executive editor of LCNI, recruiting, training and advising editors at the company’s 50-plus papers, most of them weeklies in rural areas and 19 of them in Kentucky. The company, a subsidiary of Landmark Media of Norfolk, Va., is nationally recognized for its support of strong news and editorial efforts.

Heath largely established the editorial principles that have earned LCNI national recognition. He told the crowd that his work on journalism ethics and freedom of information was guided by the values of SPJ, and that Landmark still benefits from the legacy of the late Frank Batten Sr., who "provided a degree of editorial autonomy that allowed us to thrive."

Heath began his career in his hometown of Campbellsville, Ky., where he rose from teenage sports reporter to editor. He was also editor of the Landmark paper in Tell City, Ind. "He is and always will be a country editor," Landmark executive Editor Benjy Hamm told the crowd. Heath said, "Country editor is still the highest title one can hold, for its community impact."

In retirement, Heath has continued his contributions to the health and future of community papers by serving as a consultant to them on increasingly critical postal issues, on which he has been active for almost 30 years. David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association, gave Heath more than 35 letters from newspapers and state press associations thanking him for his work. Heath said, "I really feel like I've helped newspapers achieve their First Amendment rights to be distributed." For his remarks, click here.

Newspaper does its first online-first editorial to focus attention on rush to identify, interview and hire local school superintendent


Special KNE Editorial
Superintendent decision should wait

During two public events today in Hopkinsville, an educator under consideration to run the Christian County school system was unable to articulate what this district could expect from him in terms of leadership and philosophy. That’s unfortunate for both the candidate, Marvin Welch, 50, an assistant superintendent in Madison County, and for the local school board, which could vote tonight on whether they want to hire Welch.

We have to urge the school board to slow down on this decision. If the board is serious about Welch’s candidacy, the members must take more time to answer questions that are left unanswered following his speeches to the Chamber of Commerce and to a community group. In response to specific questions about how he would run local schools, many of Welch’s answers lacked meaningful detail. Many of his answers seemed too vague to explain exactly how he would lead. Some questions, unfortunately, could not be answered. For example, Welch could not say what the graduation rate is in Madison County, although he said his vision for a school system is to ensure that every student graduates“college and career ready.”

The school board should not vote to hire Welch this evening. That decision cannot be made in the absence of a better understanding of how this candidate would lead the district.

The Christian County Board of Education has a tough job on its hands. We respect that. Hiring the next superintendent ranks among the most influential and impactful decisions that will occur locally in this decade. It would be a mistake to hire someone before developing a complete understanding of his or her abilities.

The board should give itself more time on this decision. Christian County Public Schools deserve a top-notch educator to lead the district, its employees and students. It is simply not clear yet if Welch is that person.

Newspaper, radio station help rally tornado-ravaged town

By Ivy Brashear
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

WEST LIBERTY, Ky. – How do you keep publishing your weekly newspaper when a tornado has blown away the office? You find a way, and some new ways, because your community needs it.

The staff of the Licking Valley Courier was out of the office when a tornado roared through West Liberty on March 2, destroying the entire downtown. “Our office was below Main Street behind City Hall,” reporter Miranda Cantrell said. “It’s pretty much destroyed.”

The paper published a day late the week after the storm, but even that wasn’t easy. With no office, stories were written in reporters’ homes, and downtown business people had to be tracked down at new locations.

Cantrell (interviewing school officials, in photo by John Flavell) said no one started covering any stories until three days after the storm. “I felt like I should have been writing about it – but everybody was in sort of a state of shock. Nobody could really believe it, or could really even talk about it.”

First, Cantrell was a community member, helping at a shelter set up close to her home. “Finally, I just decided I was going to start working,” she said. She established a Facebook page for the newspaper, its first online presence, to keep the community updated about business relocations, fundraisers, donations and emergency information.

“I don’t think there was ever any question that the paper was going to go on; we just didn’t yet know how we were going to go about it,” she said.

Local radio station engineer Paul Lyons said he drove through downtown about 10 minutes after the tornado, and it looked like a “war zone.” The next day, he and operations manager Steven Lewis and his friend Nate Lewis talked their way through the police blockade of the city and found their building had sustained only minimal damage.

Most of the equipment was still intact, so they restarted their automated programming computer, which runs music and commercials, and had WQXX and WLKS back on the air within 20 hours of the tornado.

“We got lucky,” Lyons said. “That’s all there is to it.”

Lyons said he’s slept an average of three to four hours a night since the stations got back on the air, and “pulled a couple of all-nighters” trying to keep them on, because of technical difficulties related to the storm. “We’re hanging by a thread, but we’re hanging and that’s all that matters right now,” he said.

The dual radio station is primarily an entertainment outlet, broadcasting country on FM and rock oldies on AM, but after the storm, its duties suddenly included providing news updates to the community because all other forms of communication were cut off.

“There was no cell phone service, no phones, but they still had radios and that’s where a lot of people got their information,” Lyons said. “We felt really good about our ability to help the community.”

In a small town like West Liberty, local news media play an important role in everyday life. Cantrell and Lyons said returning the stations and newspaper to somewhat normal operation was a small way to give the community a sense of normalcy.

When the Licking Valley Courier published its tornado-delayed edition on March 9, local leaders called it a sign that the community would continue.

The Courier is a “big part of the fabric of the local community,” and even though the tornado edition was smaller than usual, it was a “big relief in people’s minds,” and gave confidence to the community, Commercial Bank CEO Hank Allen said. “It didn’t matter what was in it,” Allen said. “It was still alive and still living and breathing, and it gave the community hope that we could recover.”

Allen said the newspaper and local radio were “critical” in the days after the storm. Logistics for businesses were difficult and communication was non-existent, and the bank needed to communicate with its customers, as did many other businesses that regularly advertised in both media.

After four meetings in the two days after the tornado, the bank took “unprecedented step,” he said, running ads on Lexington television stations and regional radio stations and newspapers. He said it had never bought advertising from a non-local station or paper.

“The importance of the local newspaper was really clear then,” he said. “It really sinks in in a big way.” He said the community is blessed to have a local radio station and newspaper that provides a sense of security and stability.

After so much had been destroyed, Cantrell said, the paper is something familiar to the people of Morgan County: “We had a lot of people before we went to press that first time say, ‘It would make us feel a lot better if we still had that part of the community.’ They would probably be really disappointed if we couldn’t get the paper out to them.”

The publisher

It has not been an easy year for Courier owner Earl Kinner, 73. His wife died last summer, and the tornado destroyed his home as he took refuge in the basement. He was forced to live in a Red Cross shelter for a day. But still he felt it was so important to keep publishing that he hand-wrote a story for the tornado edition.

He had no way to contact anyone because landline, cell phone and Internet services were down, so he mostly collected information from television reports, he said. “My thinking was if we get something out, it will bring some sort of normalcy and do some good,” Kinner said. “We can’t quit.”

The Kinner family has owned the 101-year-old Courier for more than 60 years, and he said reporting is “just in your blood, and a matter of pride.” That shows most in times of crisis, of which the paper has seen its fair share. Its office burned to the ground in 1985, but the paper published the next day.

“All I know how to do is get out a little country newspaper,” Kinner said.

Allen said he saw Kinner with pencil and notepad in hand in the shelter just moments after Kinner was pulled from the rubble of his home. Later, in the first shelter established in City Hall, he told him about the mass destruction.

“It was shocking to him to hear about the community and the people he’s known and covered being destroyed,” Allen recalled. He said the Kinner family has always been important to the community, and he has known Earl Kinner since he was a boy, when his aunt was a reporter for the Courier.

The paper’s staff was able to salvage the computer with its subscriber list and all its bound volumes of old papers, which are being stored in the public library. Kinner and his son Greg, whose home was also destroyed, are living with his son’s sister-in-law. Kinner set up the computer in a closet and is working from there.

Kinner said he hopes to locate a mobile office on the destroyed building’s foundation until more permanent plans can be made. That’s when, he said, they can “get back to being a good old country newspaper.”

The next issue, dated March 15, contained a front-page notice to the readers from Kinner, asking for their patience as the paper replaces equipment and resumes normal operation.

“With no central office to work from, staff members and news and production staff isolated in several locations and unable to communicate except sporadically, it will be a small miracle if this paper makes it to press, and almost certainly, it will be late,” he wrote. It was late by one day.

The issue contains coverage of the recovery efforts and more pictures of damaged buildings. Much space is given to obituaries of those killed by the tornado, and there are stories about the Courier “rising from the rubble.”

Kinner said he’s getting too much credit for keeping the paper going, because Cantrell and Adkins are the main reason for the paper continuing the way it has. “I’m proud as a peacock of my staff,” he said.

Cantrell said Kinner told her it’s the Courier’s responsibility to promote the community and the people in it, and said that’s what they’ve always tried to do. “We’re still trying to do it now because it’s more important now that what it ever has been,” she said.

Lyons said the primary job of a local radio station is to serve the community in which it operates. “If the building had been destroyed, we would have still got the station back on” he said, “at least broadcasting information updates as we had them from whatever makeshift arrangements we could have come up with.”

Lyons is confident the station will quickly recover, and Kinner and Cantrell said likewise about the Courier.

“I just can’t wait until the next city council meeting,” Cantrell said. “I never thought I’d ever say that, but I would just be glad that we’re able to have one and that there’s still a place to have one and people to hold it.”

Louisiana editor and weekly win Gish Award for courage, integrity, tenacity in rural journalism

Stanley Nelson and the weekly newspaper he edits, the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La., are the winners of the 2011 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, presents the award in honor of the couple who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years. Tom Gish, who died in 2008, and his wife Pat were the first recipients of the award.

Nelson and the Sentinel showed courage and unusual tenacity in investigating an unsolved murder from the era of conflict over civil rights, and in January 2011 named a living suspect in the 1964 killing of African American businessman Frank Morris. A grand jury was convened and continues to investigate.

A prosecutor on the case, David Oppeman, told James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, “I told Stanley the other day he is the hub in this and everybody else is just a spoke. He did the work that needed to be done.” Click here to read the Times story.

The newspaper showed integrity and courage in the face of reader resistance to its dogged, detailed reporting in more than 150 stories. “The owners of the Concordia Sentinel never hesitated in following the story,” Nelson wrote in the fall edition of Nieman Reports, of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

"While most readers read the stories with interest and outrage over what happened so many years ago, many of the most vocal were those who detested the coverage and who questioned our motives," Nelson told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

“We knew some would be angered to read about the parish's ugly racial past,” he wrote for Nieman Reports. “Some canceled subscriptions. We were threatened. Our office was burglarized. One irate reader called to find out my ultimate goal. ‘To solve a murder,’ I said. ‘You can't do that,’ she snapped. ‘You're just a reporter!’ She hung up. We pressed on.”

Nelson said in the latest edition of Columbia Journalism Review that he was following the example of the late Sam Hanna Sr., the Sentinel’s editor-publisher, who taught him that it was the newspaper’s duty to ask tough questions. When he saw the Morris case on a 2007 FBI list of unsolved civil-rights murders, he knew “It would be morally irresponsible not to learn more, write more, and see who was accountable.”

“Mr. Nelson's four-year effort certainly demonstrates the courage, tenacity and integrity the award was set up to acknowledge,” said Ben Gish, editor of The Mountain Eagle, son of Tom and Pat Gish, and a member of the award selection committee.

Nelson and the Sentinel were nominated by Albert P. Smith Jr., co-founder of the Institute and chair of its national advisory board. A former weekly newspaper editor and publisher in Kentucky and Tennessee, Al Smith recalled his early days as state editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, handling news from the Ferriday area, which he said was “known on both sides of the Mississippi River for a tradition of violence, prostitution, gambling, and corrupt cops and judges.

“Nearly 50 years later, I still shudder when I think what life was like for a threatened black person there, or a reporter who took risks for a story. I offer this nomination with a profound respect for all in journalism, law enforcement, political office and civic activism who have changed the culture and improved the administration of justice in Ferriday and Concordia Parish.”

"We at the Sentinel are certainly humbled by being honored with the Gish Award, which recognizes the role community newspapers across the country play in advocating justice for all," Nelson said. "The award is also a great tribute to the Hannas, one of Louisiana's great newspaper families." The Hannas also publish the Franklin Sun in Winnsboro and the Ouachita Citizen in West Monroe.

The Gish Award is not the first prize for Stanley Nelson. He won the first Courage and Justice Award from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in local reporting, and won a 2011 Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the University of Oregon. The Payne judges cited “the huge social, economic and political pressures on a paper in the South to keep a racially motivated killing in the past. This is as pure a definition of journalistic courage as one could craft in 2011.”

The pressures on a rural, weekly newspaper are usually greater than those on its metropolitan cousins, because such newspapers have small staffs and small revenue bases, and are thus more vulnerable to advertiser and reader boycotts, upstart competition and peer pressure, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. “The Hanna family has set a fine example, and not just for weekly publishers,” he said. “The courage, integrity and tenacity displayed by the Sentinel and Stanley Nelson are examples for everyone in journalism to follow.”

Besides Tom and Pat Gish, other winners of the award have been the Ezzell family, publishers of The Canadian (Tex.) Record, in 2007; former publisher Stanley Dearman and Publisher Jim Prince of The Neshoba Democrat of Philadelphia, Miss., in 2008; and Samantha Swindler, editor-publisher of the weekly Headlight Herald in Tillamook, Oregon, for her work as editor of the daily Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky., and managing editor of the Jacksonville (Tex.) Daily Progress, in 2010. No award was made in 2009. Nominations for the 2012 award are welcome at any time before Sept. 1, 2012.

Click here to read all Concordian Sentinel stories related to the Frank Morris case.
Click here to read the Civil Rights Cold Case Project's summary of the case.
Click here to read The New York Times coverage.
Click here for National Public Radio's Feb. 15, 2011, report.

Oregon editor-publisher wins Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism

Samantha Swindler, the publisher and editor of the weekly Headlight Herald in Tillamook, Oregon, is the winner of the 2010 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, gives the award in honor of the couple who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years. Tom Gish, who died in 2008, and his wife Pat were the first recipients of the award.

Like the Gishes, Samantha Swindler is being recognized largely for her courage, integrity and tenacity in Eastern Kentucky, but also in Texas, where she began her newspaper career less than seven years ago. She has been in Oregon since July 2010.

The award will be presented to Swindler on April 1, at the spring symposium of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association in Albany, Ore.

As managing editor of the daily Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky., circulation 6,000, Swindler spearheaded an investigation of the Whitley County sheriff that helped lead to his defeat for re-election and his subsequent indictment on 18 charges of abuse of public trust and three counts of tampering with physical evidence.

Swindler and her reporter, Adam Sulfridge, received repeated warnings about their safety as they revealed irregularities in how Sheriff Lawrence Hodge accounted for missing guns his officers had seized, problems with his alleged payments to informants, his failure to present cases against anyone arrested for felony drug violations, failure to send seized drugs to the state crime laboratory, and his officers' repeated failure to testify, resulting in dismissal of serious drug charges.

“She did not let anyone scare her off the story or push her around,” said William Ketter, who worked with Swindler as senior vice president/news for Community Newspaper Holdings, which owns the Times-Tribune.

The prosecutor, Commonwealth’s Attorney Allen Trimble, told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues that the paper's "very persistent" reporting "was a very significant influence on me."

Swindler recounts her experience in the latest edition of Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

“There is a great need for good investigative journalism in rural America,” she writes. “Young reporters tend to think they need a byline from The New York Times to make a difference in the world. If they really want to have an impact, get a job with a community paper and start asking the tough questions that no one ever asked before.”

The investigation of the sheriff was the capstone to Swindler’s four years in Corbin, in which she held local officials accountable on a wide front, revealing that the county was improperly using a tourism tax to fund an airport and that city officials spent $20,000 on tickets to a country-music concert for city employees and their friends.

When Swindler was managing editor of the Jacksonville, Tex., Daily Progress, the paper won a Freedom of Information Award from the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors for coverage of city police corruption. The city manager was fired after Swindler, then a reporter, found he was illegally burning condemned houses.

A native of Metairie, La., Swindler is a 2002 graduate in communication from Boston University.

“She makes a wonderful example for the rest of us,” said Ben Gish, editor of The Mountain Eagle, son of the couple for whom the award is named and a member of the award selection committee.

“If in the past decade there's been any other journalist in America, rural or city, who has demonstrated the level of tenacity, courage and integrity Swindler did with that series, then I'd like to meet them,” Gish said. “Unless they were able to walk in her shoes, it would be impossible for a reporter/editor at a large metropolitan daily to understand the danger Swindler faced while letting Whitley County know its top law enforcement officer was a crook.”

Ketter said, “Never has there been a greater need for perceptive, courageous reporting in smaller communities as big city papers reduce their resources and reach across rural America. That’s why it is so important that journalists such as Samantha Swindler stand their ground, however fraught with risks, as the people’s surrogate, holding public officials accountable.”

The Gish Award has a criterion of tenacity “because our craft has had many courageous rural journalists whose achievements have been meteoric, ending in burnout,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. “It’s very difficult to show courage over a long period, as Tom and Pat did. So, I never really anticipated that the award might go to someone who hasn’t turned 30. But in her short career, Samantha Swindler has demonstrated the tenacity, courage and integrity that we had in mind when we created the award.”

Besides Tom and Pat Gish, other winners of the award have been the Ezzell family, publishers of The Canadian (Tex.) Record, in 2007; and former publisher Stanley Dearman and Publisher Jim Prince of The Neshoba Democrat of Philadelphia, Miss., in 2008. No award was presented for 2009. Nominations for the 2011 award are welcome at any time before Sept. 1, 2011.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues was created to help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary. It has academic partners at 28 universities in 18 states. It offers help to rural journalists on its Web site,, on The Rural Blog at, and through seminars, conferences and publications.

In an amazing life, Craig mixed preaching and rural journalism, and never backed down

“Judge me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity. I have also trusted in the Lord; I shall not slide. . . . I have not sat with vain persons; neither will I go in with dissemblers. I have hated the congregation of the evil-doers, and will not sit with the wicked. I will wash mine hands in innocence so will I compass thine altar, O Lord, that I may publish with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works.”  –Psalm 26:1-7

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

MORGANTOWN, Ky. – Larry Craig had integrity, he loved to expose dissemblers and evil-doers, and he published longer as a Baptist preacher, but more famously as a rural newspaper reporter, editor and publisher. (For his obituary click here.)

Early in his eulogy of our friend on Wednesday, Bro. Roger Skipworth read Psalm 26 and praised Larry’s integrity. In that day’s edition of The Butler County Banner, which also carries the name of the Green River Republican, the paper Larry edited throughout the 1980s and owned from 1982 to 1990, integrity was the main theme of Publisher Jeff Jobe’s tribute.

“People of integrity don’t abandon their values and principles under pressure,” Jobe wrote.

Larry stood up to plenty of pressure, and not just in journalism.

Skipworth elicited one of the many rounds of laughter from the overflow crowd at Jones Funeral Chapel when he recalled what Larry said to a parishioner who was giving him trouble: “I’m not worried about you making it to heaven, I’m just afraid you might overshoot.”

“About a month later, he had to move” from that church, Skipworth said.

He also had to move a congregation, when Ku Klux Klan members or sympathizers burned down his church after he called the Klan “a putrid cancer” in an interview with the student newspaper at Western Kentucky University, where he was teaching journalism after selling his paper.

As Skipworth read Larry’s pungent quote, he said he might have to duck. “Of course, they got those two fellows,” he noted, and after someone shot through the front window of his newspaper, Larry kept after the dissemblers and evil-doers. “Larry did not have a fear of man,” he said.

Neither did he fear death, as he struggled for many years with liver failure, and he selected his nine pallbearers, who were an interesting mix: the former county judge-executive and sheriff, a former state trooper, a local businessman, his best friend from high school, a professor and former professor from WKU, and two former parishioners, one of whom provided the mules and wagon that took Larry’s body to its final rest. (Photo by Steve Smith)
The bearers reflected the amazing mix of Larry’s life, which saw him start preaching at 17, then become a legend in Kentucky journalism, president of the state press association and an instructor in a leading journalism program while still saving souls.

Skipworth called Craig “the smartest man I ever knew. . . . You sure didn’t want to get into a battle of wits with him, ‘cause you’d lose every time.”

Still, Larry “never tried to impress anyone, but along life’s way he influenced many people,” said Bro. Curtis McGee, the other eulogist.

McGee struck a chord with me when he said of our friend, “He was easy to take up with.”

I first met Larry when we were working (him part-time, me full-time) for Al Smith, the Russellville-based publisher who sold Larry the Green River Republican after making him editor. We did take up easily, and I think that skill made him both a successful journalist and a successful minister.

After he died Sunday, at 61, I wrote on The Rural Blog ( that he was “a distinctive if not unique figure in rural journalism.” At the funeral, I concluded that he really was unique, an oft-misused word these days, and told his widow Patty so.

As McGee said, “He wasn’t in anyone’s mold, but he was a follower of Christ.” And he was a leader, too, for rural journalists who need the inspiration and courage to take on the dissemblers and evil-doers. May his inspiration live on.

As more weekly newspapers charge for obituaries, many editors and publishers resist

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors posted a query to its membership in December 2010 asking about instituting a fee for publishing previously free obituaries. One editor asked, "Come the first of the year we are going to start charging for obituaries, and I just wanted to check with you for some ideas. One area newspaper has a flat rate charge. Another charges by the character. Ideally, we would charge by the column inch or the line but we have to figure out how our funeral homes could figure those rates. ... Thanks in advance for your advice. " Here are most of the responses, more or less in the order they were received:

The 22 years Guy and I owned The Chronicle here in Angel Fire, N.M., we never charged for obits. Nor did we at our three other weeklies.
We believed, and still do, that the milestones of one’s life — birth, marriage, death — deserve complimentary coverage. We often did extensive obits, on both the “prominent” and not so prominent. Every life has a story. My mom recently passed away and at a time of grief it seemed heartless when one newspaper charged over $350 for a small obit (The Denver Post wanted over $1,000 for that same obit!). Our hometown paper charged $188.
One has to wonder when deaths stopped being news. Is there a trend to charge for other types of news? No wonder the public is angry with newspapers! Anytime you can intersect with readers on a positive basis is the right time.
Working with a family to help get information for an obit can produce lasting goodwill for the paper.
If revenue is tight, sell more ads! Come up with a new special section. But please don’t charge for obits.
Marcia Wood

Our obits continue to be free. Our major competitor, a daily, runs two to three pages of paid obits a day, so we figure we're doing our local readers a service. And as long as we have space, we publish with minimal editing. For significant deaths, we'll run the obit and do a news page story.
Mo Mehlsak, The Forecaster, Portland, Me.,

We do not charge for obits or death notices. They are such a part of the news of our small county, that it seems akin to charging to run sports photos or school news. Until last year, we didn't charge for memorials either, but they got so out of hand that we had to start charging, much as we hate to. Most obits and memorials are for people we knew and loved. It's just a part of the small community experience. We have to help each other as much as we can.
Paula Barnett, Publisher, Woodruff County Monitor, McCrory, Ark.

We do consider obituaries to be news. Last month I had one that explained the deceased woman's grandfather was a bootlegger and the grand kids had to hide under the porch when customers came to call. While under the porch she saw Bonnie and Clyde buying whiskey. Apparently she told the story all her life. That's good stuff.
In another instance, the woman had written her own obit, about 2,500 words and pretty interesting. I couldn't run that much, so I cut it back, but noted in the paper that I had done so and invited anyone interested to stop by the paper and I'd give them a copy of the entire thing. About four people showed up, and the library asked for a copy for its archives.
Obit rules include that the deceased has to have some sort of Leadville connection. Just having friends up here doesn't count.
The obit also can't say or imply that someone went to heaven. I tell people God and I have a deal that he makes that determination, not the Herald Democrat. I haven't gotten an obit yet that says that the deceased went to hell. That would be tempting.
Marcia Martinek, Editor, Herald Democrat, Leadville, CO

We run obits free of charge at the Sounder, with a word count of 300. Anything over 300 gets edited or people can pay for space at standard display-ad rates. Haven't had anyone run one over 300 so far
Derek Kilbourn, Editor,Gabriola Sounder, 250-247-9337

We are attempting to keep our obits FREE for as long as the economy makes it possible to do so as a community service. Our free obits are edited to our format (listing ONLY immediate family names in the survivors list and preceded in death list; bare-bones biographical info such as marriage date, employment, military service, education; no eulogizing or "he was a great family man" stuff or personal remarks, etc.) and family members are aware of that policy. That helps limit length, provides consistency, and established boundaries to use with people.
If a customer wants the "fluff" they will need to take out a paid obituary at our normal column-inch rate ad we'll include mention of the family dog. :-)
Bryan E. Jones, Editor, Versailles Leader-Statesman, 573-378-5441

Here at The Eastern Door in Kahnawake Mohawk territory, we offer announcements, memorials and obits at $5 for a box, $15 for a box of text with a photo and $25 for colour. Some have gone further and purchased larger ads, which are sold at standard ad rates.
I don't believe in giving these types of things for free; our space is valuable and if they want to put something in the paper, whether it's an obit or a birthday, they should pay, whether they are local or not.
What if 15 people wanted to put obits in? Would you run them for weeks and weeks or would you make space in your already tight areas for ads and copy in a single issue? It sets a precedent by giving it for free.
We do give other things for free, however: We run a blood donor clinic, spring cleanup and Halloween house decorating contest, all which we make no profit on and we spend rather earn.
Those are just three of the things we promote. I don't want to sound cynical, but that is a lot for one paper that is barely making any money, to give.
Publishers/editors: Charging for something like an obit is not disrespectful, it is merely a business practice that we should all be doing.
Steve Bonspiel, Editor/Publisher, The Eastern Door

Our obits are formatted at 9 pt., 2-col wide. Each line is $5.40.
If one photo is used, it costs $25. No more than one photo.
If we have to type out an obit, there’s an additional $25. If the funeral home or individual makes a mistake after the obit goes to print, we will reprint the obit at half price. Our mistake: we will rerun at no charge.
We do run a death notice free of charge: name of deceased, age, date of death, day and time of services, and name of funeral home.
Steve Ranson, Lahontan Valley News, Fallon, Nev.

$25 for one column and photo / $20 for one column and no photo / free is one paragraph of details of obits.
Gretchen Daniels, Thompson Courier & Rake Register,

We maybe a little higher, but we charge a flat $100 for obits (up to 350 words - $150 to 450 words), including picture, plus we sell them a thank you ad, if they want, for an additional charge.
It works well and we have plenty of them. It's still cheaper than running a simple death notice in the city daily paper, which is $300-$400 for an inch or two.
Kelly Clemmer, Editor-in-Chief, Star News Inc., Wainwright, Alberta

We wanted to keep things as simple as possible, so we have a flat charge of $45 for the obit and a $5 picture charge. We fax a copy to the funeral home for proofing and bill the funeral home at the end of the month in our regular billing cycle. If an individual brings in an obit, we charge in advance. We offer free obits that include just name and basic info, including service information. We started charging last year and are very happy with our system.
Steve Zender, The Progressor-Times, Carey, Ohio

Here at The Weekly Press, local obituaries are run free of charge. If they are being placed otherwise, it is $7 for 30 words or less, and $.11 for each additional word.
Abby Cameron, Editor, The Weekly Press/ The Laker,

Our obits for both of our newspapers are FREE picture included.
Gazette News, []

Here in sub-arctic Moosomin, Saskatchewan we charge $50 for the first 250 words, and 10 cents per word above that. We charge $15 for a b+w photo and $40 for a color photo.
And on days when it's 35-below we consider taking mitts and toques as payment.
Kevin Weedmark, Editor and Publisher, The World-Spectator,

All five of my community newspapers charge $5 per column inch, including photo and headline. It's easy to calculate for the funeral homes and bookkeeping, and even less than our non-profit rates. Keeping it inexpensive was a goal, and we still allow small free obits (without pic) that include name, age, city of residence and date of service.
David Brown, Publisher, Cherokee Scout, 89 Sycamore St., Murphy, N.C.

We at The Lakeville Journal charge $25 for the first 8 inches, includes a photo. An additional $6 per col. inch for every inch after that.
Janet Manko, Publisher, The Lakeville Journal, Lakeville, Conn.

As to why we charge for obits: It's to make life simpler for us and eliminate issues with bereaved families.
Galena is served by two daily newspapers on the east and west. They began charging for obits and people began preparing longer and longer obits, which included pet names, etc. When we edited those obits, the response was always, "Well ... the Dubuque paper ran my obit exactly the way I wanted it."
And then came the day when a woman called to complain about the obit of her mother being wrong in the paper (some pieced of information that wasn't sent us) and told her that we'd need to charge for running the obit the second time. She became furious, because the funeral home had charged them $300 for running the obit in my newspaper. She was even less happy upon learning that we didn't charge for obits.
We started charging the very next week and haven't looked back. . .
P. Carter Newton, publisher, Galena Gazette, Galena, Ill.

For sure, 'celebrity' types become news items when they die. But death is not news across the board. if Joe Blow dies, it won't make the news section. We live in a community of 8000 and we have 50 deaths a year roughly. it would be impossible to write about each and if you leave one out you are the devil.
It sounds to me like the papers most of you guys are with have a lot more forgiving readers. Ours are politically-charged and take grudges to the grave. We've had two boycotts since we took over 2 and a half years ago, mostly because I'm from another Mohawk reserve and we fired the editor when we took over. Petty, I know. I want to come work for y'all, sounds peachy.
Allow me to re-phrase.
We have allowed larger obits to be printed for free, filling in where content normally would, on occasion, but it is rare.
It's interesting that Marcia mentions "No wonder the public is angry with newspapers!" That sounds like a very general, self-defeating comment that should not be coming from a journalist! I would posit: no wonder newspapers are in trouble, some give too much for free and then the publishers wonder why they have to cut down the page count or close their doors.
Space, like time, is money. We aren't in it for the cash, obviously, but we are also not in business to give away the kitchen sink.
Steve Bonspiel, The Eastern Door

The Consort Enterprise in Alberta still runs obits at no charge, which is becoming an issue here as obituaries are becoming biographies.
Consort Enterprise

We publish three small, weekly papers. We do not charge for a standard obituary which includes basic information without children's spouses' names, grandchildren's names, and "He was a good husband and father." Our paid obits are per column inch with most costing less than $100.
Susan Berg, Editor, Marion County Record, Hillsboro Star-Journal and Peabody Gazette-Bulletin, Marion, Kan.

I haven't read all of the responses, but I salute Marcia Wood for hers.
The advantage community newspapers have is local news.
Many people pick up the newspaper to look at the obits first.
They are news. Marcia is right.
What's next - dean's lists, engagements (oops, too late, at my paper), weddings (again, too late here).
How about a column-inch rate for births based on the baby's weight and height?
Think about the community history that's lost because obits have become ads.
In my newspaper's pages, many people's lives have been boiled down to a name, age, hometown and date of funeral - two or three sentences tops.
(We do a free death notice of a couple of sentences - all obits are paid, after years of free obits and longer paid obits).
Why? Probably because these families don't have the money to capture their loved one's life.
That's a sad delineation and a loss for history.
If your paper insists on money for every obit, you'll actually be preventing the community from knowing anything about certain deaths. It will be creating, in effect, a separate system for people with money and those without.
Finally, ask the genealogists in your area what they think.
Andy Schotz, Hagerstown, Md.

Our policy here at Gateway Publishing for our two weeklies (Sun-Argus & Woodville Leader) changed about a year ago from all free for obit and death notices to a flat fee of $20 (with or without photo b/w).
We do not charge this to our three advertising local funeral homes, but do to all other funeral homes or other submitters. We have never written any obits we leave that to the families and funeral homes.
We do not charge for any death notices.
We post all on our website at no charge.
I have increased the size of the deceased's photo from when I took over the papers six years ago from a 1" x 1" mug shot to a 2 1/8" x 2 3/4". That was much appreciated.
I agree this is community news. I made the decision to start charging "others" because I felt the local funeral homes were carrying the cost the obits for the "others". We have received no complaints about our obits policy.
Paul J. Seeling - Owner, Editor and Publisher, Gateway Publishing (Sun-Argus, Woodville Leader, My Gateway News, ADRC News, Valley Values), Woodville, Wis.

I am also editor of our county historical society, and I can’t tell you how exciting it is to find a detailed obit with lots of family info. Where would we be without them?
Paula Barnett, Publisher, Woodruff County Monitor

About five years ago we switched to a three-tiered system for obituaries here in Medford. Prior to that we ran them all for free, but they had to conform to our style and our policies (no flowery language, in-laws listed by name only when the spouse was still alive, grandchildren listed by number and not name) which led to a lot of headaches and disgruntled customers who would argue they only had 1 grandchild as compared to so and so who had 55 and couldn't we please make an exception just for them. As a result we were getting a lot of people angry because of arbitrary policies tow which we blindly adhered (if you couldn't tell I wasn't a fan of that system.)
We also found out that our local funeral homes were charging customers an "obituary preparation fee" to send us in the notice of death form, which bugged us more than a little bit since we were the ones who wrote up the obituaries and got the grief when the information provided to us by the funeral home was incorrect.
After discussion with the funeral homes, we came up with three options.
The first is the basic obituary is still free, written by our staff and includes a brief biography, picture, survivors etc.
The second option is an "Add-on" obit where they can pay $35 to add things such as the complete list of grandchildren, great grandchildren, pets, special friends, etc. Or if they want additional bio info in it beyond what we would normally include. Overall these conform to our style and do not include flowery language.
The third option is a full-paid obituary which is charged at our standard advertising rate. These are for the people who wish to state how their loved ones were "Taken by the angels to meet their heavenly maker while surrounded by loving family and friends and their dog Fido after a long and courageous battle . . . " Typically it is not so much length of obituary as to the style in which it is written that dictates which option is chosen.
We also switched to a modular design for our obituary page to make it easier for customers to cut out and save the obituaries. The Add on and fully paid obituaries are boxed with a one point border and a small note at the bottom saying they are paid obituaries and have the advertising routing number. There is no distinction in layout between the add-on and full-paid obits.
The three-tiered approach has been tremendously well received in our community and about 60 percent of the obituaries take the add-on route, 25 percent take the free and about 15 percent take the full paid option.
We are also looking at developing a process to make it easier for people to pre-write their obituary as part of preplanning their funeral. Our community holds a senior health and wellness event each fall and we are planning to have a booth at it next fall to talk with senior citizens about their obituaries and explain their options and provide them with a worksheet to collect the pertinent information in advance or think about which picture they would want used for the obituary.
As a side note, we have a standing directive in the news room that prominent citizens such as those who have been recognized by "lifetime achievement" awards from the community or other similar honor get a news obituary written about their death regardless of what the family chooses to do for obituaries. The scope of this story depends on the impact the person had on the community and newsworthiness.
Recently we had one of the founders of Tombstone Pizza (a major employer in Medford) die. She and her husband have been major supporters of the community and its organizations. We gave her death two weeks of front page coverage, an editorial eulogizing her, and full coverage of the funeral with color photos and a complete write-up.
Brian Wilson, News Editor, The Star News, Medford, Wis.

I'm afraid Gary's client wouldn't want to hear what I have to say. If obituaries aren't the most important news stories in the newspaper, surely they rank in the top 5 percent of what weeklies print. Charging for obituaries is a good way to start your newspaper on a downhill slide. The newspaper should be printing every obituary it can get its hands on free to record the life stories of the people in the community and to provide a historical record. Charging for obituaries will cause some people not to submit them. Whether that percentage is 10 percent, 25 percent or 50 percent, I don't know, but even the smallest percentage is too much. People in your community should know who died; it shouldn't depend on whether the family wants to pay to tell the community. The only time we charged for an obituary was when the family insisted on a certain wording rather than letting us write it in news style, such as "Betty went home to be with Jesus." Then all we did was charge the same space rate as all our other ads.
Charles Gay, former weekly publisher, Sheldon, Wash.

We don't charge for obits but they have to be local. That sometimes raises questions about, "How local?" If a second cousin of the village president dies in the Bahamas, we probably wouldn't run it.
David Giffey. Editor, Home News, Spring Green, Wis.

We do not charge for obits, birth announcements, weddings, engagements or anniversaries. Heck, we don't even charge for the thank-you notes that follow, although some people choose to buy ads so they can make their thank-you note prettier.
My goal is that we will never have to charge for these things. We have a seasonal economy and charging would mean a lot of those announcements would never make it in the paper. We also use a very light hand to edit them ‹ especially on obituaries.
They're the very things that connect the community to the newspaper, and they're the very things that tell the history of the community.
Lori Evans, editor and publisher, Homer (Alaska) News

We charge for the "death notice" - details of the death and where the funeral is. It's a flat fee, about £30 for a limited number of words. For the funeral report - biographical details and list of mourners - we don't make a charge and I can't imagine doing so in the near future.
It was very interesting reading all the responses.
We're clearly out of step by NOT charging, but I still agree with Charlie Gay that obituary reports are news, and a popular part of the paper - go into any shop in Congleton on a Friday and one of the first things people turn to is the obits.
We do lose money by not charging but on the other hand, every one at the funeral is going to buy the paper to see their name - some of them might be new readers and could then realise what a fantastic paper we are. People also buy the paper to post out to relatives.
Biographies are also part of our town's record, both for future historians and for friends and acquaintances who might not know, for example, that Bill next door was a Lancaster bomber rear gunner and was awarded a medal for bravery.
I would stress that we DO charge for death notices (ie announcing the funeral) and for "expressions of thanks" after the funeral - the fee for the two is about £60 and about to go up. However, the biog, a photo and a list of mourners is free of charge.
I am however currently having a house ad created to encourage people to send more biographical information - it makes for fascinating reading at times and I'd hate to think we'd limit it by charging.
If I get time I will pick some biographical details and write something for the magazine!
Jeremy Condliffe, Editor, Congleton Chronicle, Cheshire, England, U.K. (ISWNE president)

Here at the Yellow Springs News, we don't charge for obits, considering them a community service. And their lengths vary wildly— we try to print what's submitted, although of course we reserve the right to edit or cut them if necessary. A recent obit, of a long term Antioch College theater faculty member, was about 35 inches long, which we were happy to print, as it was chock full of interesting local history.
I had no clue how unusual it is that (some) community papers don't charge until in recent years my own mother died, and like several other editors who wrote in, I was shocked at the high price of putting anything in her hometown paper, much less something long (I'm afraid the editors of those obit pages were the puzzled recipients of my misplaced rage). I remain proud that we can offer this service and believe it creates remarkable good will in the community, which is, of course, priceless.
Diane Chiddister, Yellow Springs (Ohio) News

I edit three community weeklies, and we do not charge for obituaries.
We take out comments such as "he was loved by his family" but publish pretty much all the factual details the funeral home sends, and a photo if provided. We look at it as news.
Leslie O'Donnell in New Hampshire

The Alcona County Review in northeastern Michigan still considers obituaries news and doesn’t charge to have them published.
They must adhere to our “style” which excludes eulogizing and other personal comments. If someone doesn’t want to follow our guidelines, then they are welcome to pay for an obituary and it is marked as paid advertising. In this case we charge our open adverting rate. This is done very rarely. Our only stipulation in having an obit published is that there be a local tie to the community – even if it is a survivor or the person lived here years ago. Obituaries are important historic records and the newspaper has, we feel, an obligation to publishing them and not limiting that to those that can afford it.
At different times in the last few years we’ve discussed charging for obits, but feel that the good will that is gained from it and the thank you ads that are almost always placed in our newspaper after the funeral (to friends, family, etc. that have shown support) more than makes up for the “lost revenue.” Additionally, we don’t charge for birth announcements, engagement announcements, weddings, and milestone anniversaries – we still consider these news items and important happenings in our community. (If any of these items have personal messages, we edit them out or give the person placing the information the option to leave them in and pay for an ad.)
Cheryl Peterson, editor/publisher, Alcona County Review

We charge for all standard death notices including more wordy messages. The ads are charge per word or line (4 words) and this same rate applies to what might be described as brief notices simply noting the passing and more detailed messages of remembrance and respect, including expanded biographical information. These all run at ‘personal notice’ rates, which carry the highest premium in our classified section.
On the other hand we run ‘Vale’ editorials initiated within our editorial teams or from the community at no charge. These are run somewhat sparingly and most often feature community and social leaders; long serving doctors, sporting legends, political and council or political leaders. Most often this is done with the close support and involvement of the family of the deceased.
The result of this is that we run approximately 7-8 death notices per week in my largest weekly and the same paper runs fewer than a dozen ‘Vales’ in a year.
Matt Jenkins, General Manager, Benalla Ensign, Australia

Are you freakin' kidding me – charging folks for obits seems a VERY slippery road indeed.
First, let me attempt to get everyone on the same page.
There is editorial content, and there are ads.
Funeral announcements and family generated memorials – with the names of the deceased's favourite goldfish – should be booked through the ad department.
But editorial decisions to chronicle a person's life – low or high born alike – should be free. And editorial staff time should not be sold off at $5 per column inch to write them on demand.
Because a paper's lifeblood is credibility.
People read a paper because, hopefully, the editorial staff is choosing the best stories for their readers, not selling out its services to the highest bidder and churning out crap.
A paper serves the reader. It does so by generating compelling stories and feisty commentary. The question should always be, how does this serve my reader? Is it a good story? Is it important to the community?
Should my readers know this stuff?
Now, we all compose clunkers. But they're our clunkers, not dictated by the family of Joe Average – single, cheap and boring – who just forked over a whack of cash so your talented reporter can craft a 1,000-word obit.
What has your reporter missed while writing that obit?
And what are your readers going to think when they flip the page and see your staffer has churned out crud and passed it off as editorial content?
How long will they continue to buy your newspaper? And when they leave, are your advertisers going to stick around?
Newspapers are hurting, but, believe me, prostituting your newsroom isn't going to solve your problems. Not in the long run, anyway.
Richard Mostyn, Editor, Yukon News,

Greetings: The story we write when the mayor dies is news.
The obituary his family wants in the newspaper is paid for and runs at the beginning of our classified section. We deal with the funeral home which buries the cost (ha ha) in its fees. Obits are posted to our website. No complaints.
We don't seem to deal in many death notices unless the death occurs at deadline and the funeral is going to be right after the paper comes out. They are paid as well.

George at

The Hickman County Times tries to run all obituaries for free. We do not succeed.
Our basic obit includes names of immediate family, limited highlights of the deceased's life -- where born, parents, occupation, civic involvements, military affiliation, church -- and service information. Also, we include names of immediate family who have died. Picture is free.
Our hardest problem is on out-of-town obituaries, which often arrive with no apparent local connection. We don't run if we can't explain why we're running it; usually, the person was born here, which is sufficient. I had a 10-year argument with a funeral home director in a nearby town who did not want to give us any more than what he wanted to give us -- and he eventually became incensed that we would call at all to ask any question of any type. It's the only funeral home that would occasionally forget to list the day that the deceased died!
Beyond that . . . we don't run grandchildren's names, the name of the deceased's dog, hobbies, spouses names . . . you get it.
If a family wants more than our basic obit -- which usually runs 4-5 inches and is pretty comprehensive -- they can say what they want for $40.
Brad Martin, Editor, Hickman County Times, Centerville, Tenn.

When we began publishing 17 months ago, it never occurred to me to charge for obituaries. We are a small town and more than half of our population is composed of seniors. Of the 131 members of the local senior center, the average age is 80.
We could use the revenue, but the response to our obituaries is priceless. Literally.
We often run obits from the funeral homes, but at least half the time, I'm asked to come and interview the family and write the obit. I include the usual stats, but I also treat it like any other interview and look for the personal traits and foibles that folks remember and loved about that person. I think writing obits is an important job. In a town this small, I often know the deceased and have sometimes been friends with him or her.
You are crafting the only memory/news/stories that a grandchild or great grandchild might have access to. I take it very seriously and have had at least one man ask his wife to have me write the obit when he died. That's a compliment that means a lot to me.
If the person was well-known in town, we might also follow up with a photo and caption for Celebration of Life. Again, treating it like local news, which it is.
However, if someone wants to purchase a 'memory' ad, we charge our going rate.
I understand the need/urge for revenue, but sometimes I think we forget that not everything should be reduced to cost. Should someone's death not be noticed in the paper because the family couldn't afford to pay for it? Ugh. Leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Just my two cents. I recognize that other don't or can't feel the same way.
Jessica L. Lloyd-Rogers, Coast Lake News, Lakeside, Ore.

If, 40 years ago, when I bought my newspaper, someone had told me I could:
• have someone else provide me, on a regular basis, a mini-feature story on someone in my circulation area or who had a connection to my area ...
• be guaranteed these mini-features would, week after week, be one of the most well-read features in my newspaper ...
• have people call me and thank me for printing the story about their friend and family member exactly as they wanted it ...
• provide a lasting piece of history guaranteed to be clipped and kept, recorded for posterity, and be a part of history books ...
... I would be sad about the cost someone else pays to make these possible, but happy about the fact I do not have to pay for them myself.
Our newspapers generally accept obits only from funeral homes, print obituaries free, do virtually no editing for style, are eager to add photos and have, virtually no complaints, only compliments about this vital part of the service we provide. Yes, we need revenue. Just not that bad. I like the responses given by Marcia Wood and Andrew Schotz and this is my two cents worth. I considered for a brief period charging for obits. All of my funeral homes said they were surprised we did not already charge, encouraged us to do so if we felt the need, but ... then one director made a fateful remark.
"Robert, everyone here wants their obit in your newspaper. But they feel they have to have their obits in the (nearby daily) because it makes the news available quickly. They don't like paying for it there, but feel like they have no choice. Once they have paid for the obit to appear there, if it is going to be another several days before your obit appears, then some people are likely to say: 'Nah, let's don't pay a second time, since we've already paid to put it in (the daily.)"
That's when it dawned on me that he made sense and, ultimately, we would soon no longer be the "newspaper of historic record" that everyone knows will have EVERY obituary. I did not want to risk that and that's when I fully realized how lucky I am to get and print FREE obituaries and don't plan to change.
For those who choose to charge, I respect your position. It's just not my choice.
Robert M. Williams, Jr., Publisher, SouthFire Newspapers Group, Blackshear Ga. (The Alma Times, The Blackshear Times, Charlton County Herald, The Monroe County Reporter, The Telfair Enterprise, Three Rivers Gazette)

Input from a just-sold-out weekly publisher:
1. I agree with the Marcia Wood sentiment. Deaths are news, not revenue opportunity. I second the excellent points of Robert M. Williams, Jr.
2. Running obituaries for "free" is the wrong terminology, approach. Do we run City Council stories for "free?"
3. I always operated by the motto "look for ways to get reader submissions into the paper rather than making up rules to keep them out." Yes, we have a necessary role as news gatekeepers, buy I've had readers respond to the darnedest submitted "news" items that didn't exactly follow the high-minded ambitions learned in J-school.
4. I understand tight finances, but newsprint's cheap. Open up those newsholes as much as possible. Create features to encourage No. 3 above, which one might think of as a prehistoric precursor to Facebook.
5. Here's an idea to satisfy all, even the journalistic purists among us: Make your main obituary wholly fact based, journalistically sound. Add a sidebar that might say: "Here's how family and friends remembered the late Joe Blow:" Maybe several bullet points to follow about his favorite dog, devotion to God, and how he coped with his dyslexia when he got them mixed up, etc.
6. In hindsight, the call on when to take an obituary/death story to Page 1 or other prominence was flawed under my watch. The dead that got the "treatment" were probably made more important than they were, and many who deserved added spotlight didn't get it. Lessons, I guess, are that this is more art than science, or that I never bothered to think out some standards. Or that's it's better to err on the side of giving somebody the bigger spotlight.
7. As many "Arrangements by Crippin Funeral Home" notes as I ran at the end of obituaries, I should have done a much better job insisting that all mortuaries had advertisements weekly on the obituary page. That's where the revenue component here is, as it should be, parlaying strong editorial content into readership that in turns benefits advertisers, funeral homes included.
David Mullings, former owner, Ouray County Plaindealer and The Ridgway Sun, Ouray, Colo.

We treat obituaries as essential news. Because they are not paid advertising, we feel we can write, edit or rewrite as we would any other news story. We want our paper to be the place where people find all the obits, as complete as possible, and well-written. The funeral homes are helpful in sending obits but we rarely use them just as they are.
We may edit for space in a tight week. For example, it is common practice here for families to include a long list of honorary pall bearers; sometimes we cut those. We try to treat everyone equally, so we don't do anything special for "prominent" people. We make use of our local history books for fact checking. We try to maintain a high standard of quality for the photos, although we sometimes run what we are given even if the photo is not good because we think it's important to have some image of the person with their obituary.
I can't imagine that we will ever charge for obits. We do have ads from the local funeral homes on the obit. page and one is also on our website obituary page.
We have started a $5 charge for baby photos (no charge for the announcement). Part of the reason is that we get a lot of babies that are grandchildren of local residents and the baby and parents don't live here. It's time consuming to handle the photo, and grandmas are always glad to pay.
We do very little of the check passing thing. Once in a while someone who got a grant will request that and we oblige but it's not something that happens much in our community.
We bought the paper 30 years ago and established from the beginning that organizations that do fund raising are expected to pay their own way by buying an ad. They do — for pancake breakfasts, bake sales, rummage sales, the high school rodeo, etc. If it is a benefit for someone's medical expenses or a family whose home burned down, we run ads but donate the space. But churches, the fire department, etc. all buy ads. On the news side, we often take pictures at these special events — such as the KC's flipping pancakes for the fundraiser to help the elderly with their winter heating bills, or the winner of the fire department's rifle raffle — but the news coverage is our option and it isn't guaranteed. Although we charge for the ads, we usually do make a donation to the worthy causes and events and we buy almost everything some group is selling — Christmas wreaths from the cheerleaders, calendars from the rodeo club, etc.
But again, we decide which ones. We have tried to have a policy that we don't "donate" to individual private fund raising, such as a student going to play basketball in Australia or entering a teen beauty pageant.
That's how we do things in our little corner of the world.
I should mention that we are a 1400 circulation paper in a town of 400 people located on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. We try to have our policies (such as free obituaries) fit the local culture and economic environment.
Kathy Nelson, Timber Lake Topic

I was nine or 10 years old when my grandfather, Edward Newberg, died. The daily Grand Island (Neb.) Independent published his obituary and photo on page 1. He was no celebrity or public figure -- he was an area farmer who'd lived most of his life in the area. But his death was front-page news to the Independent. As a kid, I was really impressed with the newspaper. I still have the clipping.
When I owned, published and edited a weekly in Montana (the Bigfork Eagle), I refused (at times, even angering family members) to run paid obituaries.
They were news -- often the deaths were the talk of the town. The obits were news, and we re-wrote the pabulum that most of the funeral homes submitted.
We did allow family-written obits (no charge) if they were well written.
We required that a cause of death be included. (If it was a suicide, we wouldn't include that detail in the obit.) Remembering my grandfather, I tried to publish obits as often as I could on page 1.
I think our obit policy was both good journalism and a good business practice.
Marc Wilson

We are now charging. The Express traditionally did not charge but we edited the obituary for according to our style guidelines. When we added the Record (the two share a common obituary page) we had a problem because the Record published obituaries as written with no editing. Record readers were unhappy with our editing so the compromise was to charge 30% of our display ad rate to run the complete obit. We still correct grammar but if they want to list a dog among the survivors, or whatever, we will where we wouldn't have before. We mark them as paid obits and they are well read. We also are charging $7 to include a photo with the obit. That has been surprisingly popular.
We operate in an area with substantial out migration and run a dozen or more obituaries a week and publish about 16 pages a week. Our charge is $1.00 per inch. Average charge less than $20.00 $10 gets a lot of them.
For example, this week we received an obituary for a man who left here 61 years ago. His mother left here more than 50 years ago and no other family, but I remember hearing of the family, enjoyed reading his obituary and I suspect many others did as well. We edited about 50 percent as didn't see that we needed to print a report on all the vacations he had taken though his home town paper did. We listed the names of his children but not his grandchildren though we would run grandchildren if he had lived here more recently.
One of the things we get complaints about is our policy for children's spouses. We publish the children and grandchildren's names but not their spouses. And we are a bit old fashioned about the way we handle married survivors. We still use the following format: Mrs. John Smith (Barbara).
Some think we discriminate by not publishing the husband's name. One critic suggested we should do it as follows: Mr. Barbara Smith (John) to be consistent.
Everybody dies, no one passes on, We don't determine where they went upon death, we remove the church where confirmed or baptized and the name of the minister doing so. We do include memberships, boards etc.
This week we had a customer come in wanting us to run a birthday story and offering to pay the obit rate if we would agree not to edit.
Traditionally we have accepted nothing that we couldn't edit. But the payment offer was tempting. If we accept payment, we marked the story as paid.
Bill Blauvelt, The Superior (Neb.) Express / Jewell County Record, Mankato, Kan.

The Sanpete Messenger charges $22 for a basic obit up to 250 words with one photo. We add $5 for a second photo (some people like to run and younger and older photo). If the obit goes over 250 words, it's 10 cents per additional word.
The reaction we get is that people appreciate the fact that we're so cheap--I put my own father's obit in the two Salt Lake City dailies a few years ago. It cost $800.
Sampete (Utah) Messenger

Personally, I agree with Andy Schotz, Marcia Woods, Charlie Gay, Cheryl Peterson, Lori Evans, Richard Mostyn and others that deaths are news, and that news shouldn't be sold. However, Helen and I sold our last weekly three years ago, and I do understand the financial pressures that have impacted many of you in that time.
Helen and I didn't charge for obituaries at our weeklies in Humansville, Seymour and Vandalia, Mo., though we insisted on editing what the funeral home or family submitted. Once in a while, a family member would complain that we wouldn't run what the family submitted word-for-word and offered to pay for it. I'd try to convince the family to wait until the paper came out, see what we wrote, and then decide whether it still wanted to pay for something different. Only once or twice did that happen.
We also wrote lengthy front-page stories on the deaths of prominent folks.
We've all had the experience of receiving obits from two "sides" of a family when the deceased has been divorced. Each side submits a different list of survivors. In those cases, we went with what the funeral home supplied.
One more story: I lament the return of the word "passes" as a substitute for "dies." John Jones didn't pass (unless he was in his car); he died. A predecessor owner of our Humansville Star-Leader published front-page obits in the 1950s. And, yes, around 1956, he had the misfortune of publishing an obit with a typo in the headline: "Mrs. Brown pisses."
I want to thank everyone for the thoughtful responses to my customer's question. I enjoyed the vigorous discussion, one of the best we've had with the hotline.
Gary Sosniecki, newspaper consultant and former weekly editor and publisher

No comments: