The Rural Blog honors outstanding community journalism

July 2, 2012

By Al Cross
The Rural Blog

The Rural Blog is mainly about the issues that affect rural and small-town America, but it is also about good rural journalism.
We’ve had several items lately that follow the approach of Warren Buffett, who said after buying Media General’s 63 newspapers, most of them community weeklies, “I believe that newspapers that intensely cover their communities will have a good future.”
Intense coverage is what Jonathan and Susan Austin had in mind last year when they started the Yancey County News in western North Carolina. They soon exposed election fraud, ethics violations, abuse of arrest powers and the theft and illegal sale of county-owned guns. That caused pushback; Jonathan Austin said one merchant stopped selling the paper for fear of losing a county contract.
But the Austins’ efforts have been recognized this year by two national prizes: an Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism, and the E.W. Scripps Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment—all just by themselves, with some delivery help from their son-in-law.
In an interview with The Awl, an online journal, Jonathan Austin quoted E.W. Scripps as saying that it is “the purpose and requirement of newspapers to anger their advertisers by reporting the truth and the facts and damn the outcome.” Austin said, “There has been a war waged on us in this community by the people whose foibles or criminality we have exposed,” but the county also has people who are “hungry for what we’re doing here. … I come out of the school that says, if there is something going on, you try and write about it.”
Our blog item on Austin’s interview is at Our item on the ethics award is at, and one on the Scripps award is at
Another way we honor outstanding community journalism is an award in our home state of Kentucky, the Al Smith Award for public service in community journalism, awarded in cooperation with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. This year we have two winners, one familiar to National Newspaper Association members—Max Heath—and the other a great example of a community editor, Jennifer P. Brown of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville.
Few journalists have had as much positive impact on as many communities as Heath. He left a strong legacy of leadership during his years as executive editor of Landmark Community Newspapers, recruiting, training and advising editors at the company’s 50-plus papers. In retirement, he has continued his contributions to the health and future of community papers by serving as a consultant to them on increasingly critical postal issues.
At the New Era, Jennifer Brown set in motion a culture change that made the staff of the small daily believe that great journalism can be practiced anywhere, anytime, and made it happen. She also helped make the independently owned paper one of Kentucky’s most active fighters for open government. In 2011, when the paper was planning major changes, she volunteered to become opinion editor, and has given the paper a strong editorial voice.
Our story on the Al Smith Award is at; one on Brown’s first online-first editorial, written to keep the school board from making a big mistake, is at
Three other female editors made The Rural Blog recently for their efforts. Tiffany Waddell of The Western Observer in Anson, TX, developed its own ads to promote the value of public-notice ads, and we wrote about it at
The Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, KY, has published court news since it was created 10 years ago. Recently, when the mother of an offender complained that he was no longer engaging in the behavior that landed him in court, and Editor-Publisher Sharon Burton realized that many cases get continued, she started publishing the year each case began. Our item, with her philosophy on court news, is at
A Tennessee editor landed in court when she was charged with DUI, though her blood alcohol was below the legal limit. It was in another county, so the case didn’t appear in her paper’s court news. But Terri Likens put a story about it on the front page of the weekly Roane County News, telling readers, “I can be considered a public figure. Communities have the right to hold public figures to a higher standard, and when some other local public figures—usually elected officials—have fallen into trouble, you have read about it on our front page. As someone whose newspaper has to publish the troubles of others, it is only fair that I have to publish my own, when circumstances warrant it.” Later, she reported that the case was dismissed. Our item on it is at
All these editors seem to agree with Warren Buffett, who told his editors and publishers, “It’s your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town.” Our item on Buffett, written by community-journalism specialist Bill Reader of Ohio University, is at
If you do or see good work that deserves national notice or could help other rural journalists, by appearing on The Rural Blog, please tell us about it by e-mailing me at

Al Cross edited and managed weekly newspapers before spending 26 years at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Since 2004 he has been director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky, with partners at 28 universities in 18 states. See

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