SUSTAINING RURAL JOURNALISM: Columns from Publishers' Auxiliary

Uvalde editor, honored for his work, wishes he had done more before tragedy struck

By Al Cross
Februrary 2024

The town of Uvalde, Texas, pop. 15,000, and its same-named county of 25,000 were very unlucky in May 2022. That’s when an 18-year-old with an assault rifle at an elementary school killed 19 students and two teachers – a toll that probably would have been less had police not botched the response.

Craig Garnett
But Uvalde was also lucky – that it had a newspaper with an editor-publisher, Craig Garnett, who had long been willing to tell hard truths about things that matter, and who kept doing that in the aftermath of the tragedy.

The day after the shooting, the twice-weekly Uvalde Leader-News published a black front page, with “MAY 24, 2022” in reverse type. The next front page had portraits of the 19 children and the start of a story with biographies of each one. Inside was a column from Garnett, addressing the police delay in confronting the shooter.

He said a regional police official "could not answer why it took an hour to end the attack," quoted him as saying police were “measuring," and wrote; "The question is how much measuring is permissible, while children are being murdered. Or perhaps they were already gone. It pains to write these words of criticism about law enforcement, but parents and the community have the right to know. They must be told why police, whom parents at the scene begged to go in and save their children, failed to act. They have to know, to ever begin to heal."

In an editorial a month later, Garnett named names and was blunt: “No mass school shooting in the United States has ended with such glaring failures in both the law enforcement response and school district security. . . . Neither [school] Police Chief Pete Arredondo, acting city chief Mariano Pargas, Uvalde County Sheriff Ruben Nolasco nor any state or federal officer among the 376 responders to the scene was willing to take the helm of what was clearly a rudderless ship cast into a hurricane.” That didn’t sit well with local law enforcers and their supporters, but Garnett’s initial reporting and commentary had already spoiled his good relationship with the school district and police agencies.

Meanwhile, Garnett spent much time “sitting with families who lost children, siblings, friends; interviewing survivors, teachers and students, about their experience,” Leader-News Managing Editor Meghann Garcia said in nominating him for the 2023 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky, which I ran at the time. Garnett wasn’t able to attend our awards banquet in October, but in a recorded video for it, he reflected on his experience – and offered some advice for community editors and publishers:

“What happened in Uvalde was crushing. It continues to be an enormous weight on many of our shoulders, especially the families of victims. And we have endeavored to cover every aspect of that shooting. We still are working for information, accountability from various institutions, particularly our city and our school district and our law enforcement officials. We plan to follow that to its conclusion, whatever time it may take.

“But being successful at that and community journalism, as most publishers know, depends on your people. And I happen to have a group of journalists who are beyond amazing. None of us graduated from elite universities, some of us don’t have college degrees, but after the tragedy on May 24, each one of them brought something extremely important to our coverage. And our grand total [is] five of us, so there wasn’t a lot. It didn’t take long to have our discussions with each other and to plan our day. And it’s true in most of the newsrooms across this country and community journalism. But it brings you together in a way that nothing else can, I don’t suppose, unless it would be a foxhole. We learned from that. And one of the things we’ve taken away from May 24 is that we didn’t do enough before.

“We have a wall full of plaques from the South Texas Press Association, the Texas Press Association, but we didn’t do enough. We didn’t ask enough questions. We didn’t hold people running for elected office to account like we should have. We didn’t question people who wanted to run our institutions closely enough. What motivated them? What experience do they have? What would they do in a crisis? And we certainly didn’t hold our law enforcement to a high enough standard, the people who swore to protect us.

“So, we will work harder in the future to do that, to make sure that we know as much as we can about people who intend to lead our community, especially in the aftermath of a tragedy. We want to know how they’ll react. It’s not entirely possible. There are all kinds of things that pop up that you can’t plan for, but you can get a sense of where people’s souls lie and what their commitment is to your community. And that’s what I would advise to my fellow publishers in small towns. Pay attention. Pay attention to everything, to those people who run institutions, to the kid who’s slipping between the cracks, who might one day become the same school shooter we had. Be invested beyond what you are now, if that’s possible. I know most of you work your hearts out. But if there’s one thing we would like to do better, it would’ve been that.”

Garnett will share more of his experiences and receive the Tom and Pat Gish Award Feb. 29 at the University of Texas during a symposium, “Courage, Tenacity, Integrity and Innovation in Rural Journalism,” sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism, the Texas Center for Community Journalism at Tarleton State University, and the Center for Ethical Leadership in Media in the University of Texas School of Journalism and Media. He will be joined by fellow Texans Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian Record, Randy Keck of The Community News in Aledo, Tara Huff of The Eagle Press in Fritch, John Starkey of Rambler Texas Media and Daniel Walker of the Vernon Daily Record, the Burkburnett Informer Star and the Clay County Leader. For more information about the event, go to The event is free, but registration is required; here’s the link:

The rural journalism business model hasn't failed, but needs updating

By Al Cross
January 2024

It’s become conventional wisdom that the advertising-based business model of newspapers has failed. But that is not true in many small communities, which could become the nuclei of a national enterprise of nonprofit newsrooms that will provide better journalism with sound business practices, including economies of scale.

Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro
So says Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the National Trust For Local News, who as this was written in mid-December was preparing to announce creation of two more state-based nonprofit journalism companies, adding to those it has in Colorado (24 newspapers) and Maine (22), and says “wild success” would be a total of 15 such companies in the next five years.

Shapiro was interviewed on the Nov. 1 edition of the “Local News Matters” podcast of Tim Regan-Porter, executive director of the Colorado Press Association. When he asked her a question that many journalism funders and advocates ask, “Why save a failing business model?” she said the question is based on “high-profile failings of metro newspapers,” which aren’t reflected in the smaller papers the Trust owns or is considering buying.

“We have profitable papers in our portfolio and we come across profitable papers every day!” she exclaimed. “This idea that the business model is forever and always broken just reflects a real lack of curiosity, and I would say empirics, on the part of its adherents.”

That sort of language reflects Shapiro’s background as an academic researcher of journalism, with a Harvard Ph.D. in business studies, but she has developed a deep appreciation of small community newspapers, and she has become one of their most knowledgeable and articulate advocates.

“Because I was not trained as a journalist and didn’t come through that system, I didn’t come to this work with, you know, sort of hierarchy in my mind of metro news above all,” she said. “Plenty of funders also share that orientation, of like, metro news is sort of the highest level of news and the rest of it is sort of service journalism or amateur hour, basically. . . .

“I see it as actually the highest form of local news, because I think it actually reflects what truly local means, and the way that I think everyday people experience what ‘local’ means . . . local as in, ‘I live in this neighborhood’ or ‘I live in this town.’”

Shapiro is trying to make a distinction that badly needs making, at a time when local news is in trouble and a lot of people who want to help it don’t fully understand that “local” depends on how the audience of a news outlet defines its community.

She told Regan-Porter that the fracturing and diversification of business models “based on place and economic inequalities between geographies” – primarily rural and urban – means that “there really is no one-size-fits all,” and “There’s gonna have to be different solution sets for different scales.”

There are many differences among localities, she said, and many rural communities still have many independent retailers who advertise in local papers; but overall, the rural-paper business model must also include subscriptions, events, donations and “anything you can get.”

On a company scale, the Trust’s state-based approach is not fundamentally different from newspaper chains that use economies of scale and shared services, but Shapiro said it wants to preserve newspapers’ local identities, which she said is essential for long-term success.

“These are deeply local institutions, and their value and their long-term success depends on that: the quality of local participation and local engagement,” she said.

That requires a quality product, and the Trust’s chief portfolio officer, Ross McDuffie, said recently that it has “quality local news as the North Star of decision-making,” not “profits or shareholder value.”

Of course, the Trust’s companies must stay in the black, but they have “longer time horizons,” Shapiro said, with the top goal being community impact, not profit.

“The path to impact has to be through disciplined management of the business, because without money you have no mission,” she told Regan-Porter, who then cited the maxim that nonprofit is not a business model, it’s a tax status.

For-profit chains do short-term things that reduce the quality of reader experience, Shapiro said: “We are long-term investors in the quality of the product, and a quality product and an engaged audience are the drivers of long-term success.”

One cornerstone of quality is accountability journalism, but that’s not the main reason people like their local paper, Shapiro said: “Our model focuses on strong communities and social cohesion.”

The Trust says its mission is to conserve, transform and sustain community news organizations, and ultimately build stronger communities by keeping small, traditional sources of local news in local hands.

Shapiro said the Trust is willing to buy papers that would have difficulty surviving on their own but “wouldn’t be replaceable by something else” and can thrive in a nonprofit group. She said the Trust’s goal is “sustainability across a network so that we can serve larger communities and smaller communities.”

Shapiro said the Trust is still figuring out how to integrate the operations of its Maine papers, which it bought in August, and in other states wants to find publishers who can make strong anchors in a scaling-up strategy. “The good news is, we hear from those kind of folks every day,” she said.

The bad news, she said, is that time is short.

“Rural news publishers, in particular independent rural news publishers, are at risk of extinction, either getting bought by political forces or just closing because of really difficult economics in small places,” she said. “I think we are really in a race against time.”

Nonprofit journalism is going rural, led by National Trust for Local News

By Al Cross
November 2023

Nonprofit newspaper journalism, until now largely a feature of urban areas, is going rural – especially if the National Trust for Local News keeps up what it’s doing and plans to do.

“By December, we will be the fifth largest independent newspaper operator in the country,” among those that are not publicly traded or owned by hedge funds, the trust’s chief portfolio officer, Ross McDuffie, told the New England Newspaper and Press Association conference Oct. 19.

The trust recently bought 22 newspapers in Maine, most of them rural weeklies, and two years ago bought 24 papers along Colorado’s Front Range. McDuffie said in an interview that the trust plans to announce acquisitions in Georgia next month. The Knight Foundation recently gave the trust $5 million to create a newsroom in Macon, where McDuffie was publisher of the Macon Telegraph.

The trust says it is exploring opportunities in Kentucky, Montana and New Mexico, and wants to create 10 independent, state-level conservancies serving 475 counties and 20 million people in the next five years, with a goal of having one in every state. It says its fundamental purpose is to “keep local news in local hands.”

­­­ At the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America in July, McDuffie said state-level nonprofits are “the most sustainable path forward for rural newsrooms.”

He told NENPA’s online meeting, “Our vision is to build and operate a federation of nonprofit subsidiaries that can sustain high-quality community journalism in small communities across the nation,” and to see that “established trusted news organizations thrive and remain grounded in the communities they serve.”

The trust gets its money to buy newspapers from donors, ranging from local individuals to major foundations. Those listed on its website include George Soros’ Open Society Foundations; in August the publication Semafor reported that OSF and Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, who is not listed on the trust’s website, “played a central role” in the Maine purchase. The trust denied that OSF committed money for the purchase, and OSF said its grants to the trust “have not included money for specific projects.”

The trust wouldn’t comment on Wyss (who earlier tried to buy Tribune Co.) and said it would tell more about the funders when its Maine advisory board was constituted in September. Asked Oct. 24 when that was going to happen, McDuffie said the board will make that decision and its membership still hasn’t been finalized, but “There is a real desire to have that constituted by the end of the year.”

The trust is still raising startup money in Maine. McDuffie told NENPA that the trust has raised $18.1 million for a two-year, $22 million “transformation” plan that includes unifying three operating businesses and expanding commercial printing, because “We believe in print and its longevity and its ability to serve an audience.”

He said the trust wants to “rejuvenate” its community newspapers, most of which are weeklies; “significantly boost” household penetration; and raise funds from “a very large and curious audience” in Maine. But one of his PowerPoint slides said the goal is to operate “as a sustainable news enterprise that does not require ongoing general support from philanthropy.”

As with for-profit enterprises, bigger is better, McDuffie said: “As we scale rapidly, we are uncovering more opportunities to leverage efficiencies of scale . . . that were only previously available to large media conglomerates or corporations,” such as buying power for paper, employee benefits, digital transformation and attracting talent.

He said the trust has raised $30 million across geographical, ideological, generational and programmatic lines that usually separate philanthropies, and “Funders are having a consistent and palpable reaction to our narrative within the first few minutes of hearing our story.”

Much of the philanthropy for local journalism has gone to startups, mostly online, but they are almost entirely based in urban areas, and McDuffie and others believe philanthropists need to look at funding the purchase of legacy newspapers to prevent the creation of news deserts in rural areas.

“With sufficient capital and expertise, conserving and transforming existing news sources IS an efficient way to strengthen democracy and support that civic and social fabric of small towns and rural communities,” he told NENPA, emphasizing the to-be verb.

“These communities need reinvestment in the newsgathering teams that have spent decades of building trust and credibility,” he continued. “The creation of these state-level conservancies amalgamate legacy ownership into one operating model and unlock efficiencies of scale while keeping quality local news as the North Star of decision-making, as opposed to what’s happening at other larger, conglomerate, corporate media, where profits or shareholder value are typically the nexus of decision-making. It’s a difference of motivation.”

He said the need is greatest in the Southeast, where the trust estimates that 23 million people are at risk of losing their only local news provider. That’s more than half its estimate of 45 million in 1,424 counties – 45 percent of the nation’s counties. The estimates are based on counties with median household income below the national average.

The trust figures that in every state in the Southeast (including both Virginias), more than half of counties are at risk of becoming permanent news deserts. It estimates that is also the case in Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Nevada.

To the NENPA attendees, McDuffie rattled off the impact of news deserts, as established by research: higher taxes and borrowing costs, more government employees, decreased visibility of government decision-making, and more corruption and misuse of public funds.

And there’s a more fundamental threat. “There’s no democracy that can function without a shared understanding of what’s true and what’s not,” McDuffie said, in one of the pithier versions of that warning I have heard.

In an era of misinformation, including disinformation by political interests who want to control narratives to serve their own interests, news consumers will be skeptical of out-of-state outfits that use billionaires’ money to buy their local newspapers. So the trust will need a broad range of in-state funders, and boards that will help insulate the funders from the newsrooms.

McDuffie says its news outlets follow the transparency guidelines of the Institute for Nonprofit News, requiring website publication of donors of $5,000 or more, and the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. He said funders know the trust’s editorial-independence and non-interference polices, and “Our local newsroom staff are the only people who will decide what stories to pursue, the timing of those stories, and their content.”

In a distrustful information environment, the trust’s newsrooms may have to prove that every day. But if they do, the nonprofit option is a promising long-term path for sustaining rural journalism.

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is director emeritus of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism.

A new mission, answering a question: How do rural communities sustain journalism that serves local democracy?

By Al Cross

               The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues has a new mission, to answer the question we posed at our second National Summit on Journalism in Rural America last June: How do rural communities sustain journalism that serves local democracy?

               So, this column, which we started almost 12 years ago as a guide to covering rural issues, using examples from The Rural Blog, has a new name: Sustaining Rural Journalism. It will continue to draw from issue stories on the blog, which increasingly focuses on the practice of rural journalism and how it can adapt to the new media landscape.

               One encouraging trend in rural journalism is the purchase of quality newspapers by relatively small chains or individuals that appear committed to editorial quality. Recent examples include Steve and Cynthia Haynes’ sale of their northwest Kansas papers to the Mullen brothers of Deer Lodge, Mont.; Cherry Road Media’s purchases of several Gannett Co. papers; and Cherry Road’s sale of the Cassville (Mo.) Democrat to Editor Kyle Troutman. The Rural Blog spotlighted them in one of our news-media roundups at Earlier, at, we noted the Wagner family’s purchase of the Carroll Times Herald and the Jefferson Herald in Iowa.

               Another trend in rural newspapers is nonprofit status or purchase by a public benefit corporation, the route taken by the local buyers of two weeklies in Northern California. A PBC allows the owners to make a profit while being obliged to operate in the public interest, and in a responsible and sustainable manner. We took note of it at

               Diversification of your business is another way to sustain your journalism. One of America’s best weeklies, The Pilot of Southern Pines, N.C., has community service as its core mission, Editor John Nagy wrote recently. Publisher David Woronoff has diversified into “a family of five magazines across the state, a full-service marketing agency, a telephone directory, a bookstore and a series of digital entities,” such as newsletters. Read our Rural Blog item at

               Report for America is trying to help rural newsrooms, and its boss, Steven Waldman, has a good understanding of community news media. At the recent Society of Professional Journalists convention, he said local papers are important not just for accountability reporting, but for "the nature of community itself," creating community identity and helping community members know each other. You and I know that, but it’s nice to hear it from a Columbia University graduate who did most of his journalism in Washington.

Waldman, who also heads the Rebuild Local News Coalition, said the future of local news rests on a three-legged stool: changes in public policy, increases in philanthropic support, and improvement of the local news product. He told the audience of student and professional journalists that there has "long been a sense that community journalism is where you cut your teeth" and qualify to move up, but "I've kind of flipped on that . . . Community journalism, given what's going on in our country right now, is almost as important as accountability journalism."

               At the same SPJ session, Cox Newspapers retiree Andy Alexander, who heads a foundation that supports reporting projects in the Rappahannock News of Washington, Va., said many people don't realize what narrow margins rural papers have: "You're being published, so you must be all right; it's very close to the line." Alexander said the locally owned weekly and the foundation have more stories than people to do them, so they are training citizens to be reporters. "There are a lot of people out there who can cover news on the margins," he said.

Our summary of the SPJ session is at

            Newspapers need contributing writers of all kinds, for facts and opinion. I’d like to see more rural papers run pieces by natives who have overcome obstacles and set examples to follow, like this one from an Appalachian scholar who went “from a trailer park in a small town to a two-story house in a subdivision.” The Rural Blog has the whole thing at

               Here are some quick takes on issues and topics featured recently on The Rural Blog:

               The Federal Communications Commission has new broadband maps that will help determine who will share in the big raft of federal money to expand high-speed internet, but the maps still depend on questionable information from telecommunications companies. They can be challenged, but the deadline is Jan. 13.

               See lots of unfamiliar names in that list of new teachers at a school board meeting? Might be a good idea to see how well their backgrounds were checked; many misbehaving teachers move from district to district and state to state undiscovered.

               Is there an effort to ban books in your local libraries? It may have support from outside your community.

               Your rural hospital may choose to avoid closure by becoming a glorified first-aid station.

               Does your community have a federally qualified health center (generally called “community health center”)? Check to see if federal taxpayers paid settlements or judgments in malpractice lawsuits on its behalf, to whom and how much.

               Your local governments will be getting money from a national opioid settlement, but it may not come close to making up for the damage done by the drugs.

               Will any of your local farmers benefit from the 141 “climate smart” grants that the Department of Agriculture has issued?

               Worried that your local electric substations may become targets of attacks? Here’s background information:

               Every weekday, The Rural Blog is updated with four to six stories on rural issues and rural journalism. Read it at

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He directs the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which is seeking a new director as he heads into retirement. For more information, contact him at

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