Community papers should cover controversial subjects

February 1, 2013

By Al Cross
Into The Issues

Part of our job at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is to give rural journalists the information and inspiration they need to tackle controversial, uncomfortable issues. Several recent items on The Rural Blog illustrate that.
Poverty is not an issue that gets much sustained attention from most newspapers, though it has become more prevalent in the last five years. But the 2,500-circulation Todd County Standard in southwestern Kentucky has started a yearlong series because it sees the county in “a state of crisis.” The paper has no website, but we’re posting the poverty pages on our site, accessible by links in The Rural Blog. The first one is at
Some papers don’t like to tackle such issues because they don’t want to upset anyone. Such editors and publishers are in the wrong business, but their number appears to be growing, as editorial pages grow timid and less frequent. Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, took them on in an Arkansas Publisher column that we posted on our site and the blog at

National issues
Community newspapers are much less likely to offer information on controversial national issues than they were decades ago, when TV became the dominant news medium. Community editors should remember that their paper is the only one many people get, and they have an obligation to help them be informed voters, not be misled by superficial sound bites and the huge amount of misinformation flying around from partisans and hucksters. The Rural Blog keeps you current on such issues; one recent example was a new, reliable reference book on climate change, at
On another hot-button issue, gun control, we noted ProPublica’s compilation of congressional voting records and campaign contributions at Many papers have done stories about the rush to buy guns and ammunition, but there has been a less-covered rush to get permits to carry concealed deadly weapons; see The News Journal in suburban New York took gun coverage too far by publishing the names and addresses of permit holders, but that shouldn’t make you shy away from checking to see if and why such permits are becoming more popular in your area.
We try to help rural journalists put national issues into a local context, often tapping into Politico, which has sharp reporters and analysts. They got a lot of traffic, and so did we, with their story about former President Bill Clinton warning President Barack Obama’s top financial supporters that the Obama camp shouldn’t dismiss rural folks’ arguments and feelings about guns. Still timely for an editorial or op-ed page, it’s at Another popular piece was Eli Saslow’s story for The Washington Post from Fremont, OH, as an example of the country’s deep political divisions:
Rural economy
The big rural topic on editorial pages recently has been Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s refrain that the failure of a new Farm Bill showed the increasing political irrelevancy of rural America and some interests’ focus on divisive issues that steal attention from efforts to help rural people. We’ve covered that from the start, and the reaction, linking back to earlier items; the latest is at
Did you know Vilsack’s department has a new loan program for young, beginning, minority and family farmers? One or more could make a good feature or business story; check with your local Farm Service Agency office, where farmers apply. Our item is at
For many rural people, the big news is closing or cutbacks of their post office. We keep up with that, partly with the help of an outfit called Save the Post Office. It alerted us to a new, comprehensive list of closed offices and those with reduced hours:
You may have heard your local bankers rightly complain that the Dodd-Frank bill, which was supposed to keep banks from getting us into economic trouble again, has made life hard for small banks that had little or no role in the financial collapse. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently won a rule change that makes it easier for small banks to loan to low- and middle-income people:
The federal government didn’t build and doesn’t maintain many of the nation’s levees, but the Army Corps of Engineers inspects 2,487 of them, and it has found that many are in poor repair:

Health and research
Did you know rural children are the most likely to be obese? And that child obesity is linked to a wide range of immediate health problems, many more than previously thought? Read about it at
Many primary-care health providers will lose millions in Medicaid starting this month if they don’t upgrade their credentials: But part of the fiscal-cliff deal revived a program to help Medicare-dependent hospitals, many of them rural:
The Rural Blog relays research that relates to important issues. Why are smart but poor rural teens less likely than urbanites to apply for nearly free Ivy League educations? Find out at Did you know rural Americans are a bit less likely to read books, even more so when they involve work or school? See And sometimes research confirms what we thought we knew: Spending time immersed in nature can increase creativity and critical thinking; see
You’re welcome to reprint our blog items as news; they always contain credit for the original source, and if you use one, we’d appreciate a credit line. If you do or see good rural journalism, tell us about it so we can put it on The Rural Blog, at © Al Cross 2013

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.

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