The health of your paper is tied to the health of your community

By Al Cross

Community newspapers know where big grocery stores are, because supermarkets are a lifeblood of newspaper advertising. Lose one and you lose pages. The greater loss, of course, is for a community—its retail base, and perhaps its health and wellbeing.

That’s a subject for your news columns, and so are some big national stories that can be localized, as we reported recently on The Rural Blog at irjci.blogspot.com.

Several years ago we began to hear the term “food desert” used to describe a place that lacked a convenient supply of a wide range of foods because it lacked a large grocery with a produce section and the other traditional departments of a supermarket.

Now the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has produced an interactive map that identifies all the food deserts in the 48 contiguous states by census tract, so you can see which communities in your area are food deserts. The map has zoom and transparency features that make it simple to generate localized, easy-to-read maps of your coverage area. We wrote about this on The Rural Blog on May 6, and included a map of the state of Missouri as an example: irjci.blogspot.com/2011/05/excellent-interactive-map-reveals-food.html.

In the same week, we wrote about another good interactive map, in which the Office of Management and Budget shows the thousands of properties across the nation that the federal government is willing to sell. It’s not as good for producing publishable maps, but it could be a prime source for stories in many communities. Our blog item is at irjci.blogspot.com/2011/05/feds-unveil-interactive-map-of-land.html.

Another federal agency provides leads for a local news feature: The Fish and Wildlife Service is publishing short stories about the impact of global warming and climate change on wildlife in every state. Basically, animals are moving north as the country warms up. Our blog item, which noted The Charlotte Observer’s three-part series on the subject, is at irjci.blogspot.com/2011/05/public-is-increasingly-skeptical-of.html.

We quoted the Observer’s Bruce Henderson: “Polls show Americans are increasingly dubious about global warming, even as most climate scientists say they’re ever more sure that it’s real.” What’s debatable is how much a role human activity plays. That debate should not obscure the fact that there are real changes, on the ground, that we can write about.

How about under the ground? If you drink water from a well and your area has had a lot of rain, as much of the Midwest did this spring, it’s a good time to have your water tested because saturated soil can lose all or part of its ability to filter out pollutants, an Ohio State expert noted. Even if your area has dried out, a story about this is a good reminder for rural readers not on “city water.” We reported it on The Rural Blog at irjci.blogspot.com/2011/04/had-lots-of-rain-lately-drink-well.html.

Here’s a way to localize the debate over the national debt and federal budget deficit, even before Congress makes more cuts: Most U.S. counties have a Farm Service Agency office that administers federal farm programs. As the debate over the debt and deficit heated up this spring, workers in the agency’s local offices suggested ways the agency could save money. Employees of other federal agencies in your community probably have similar ideas. We wrote about the FSA employees at irjci.blogspot.com/2011/05/farm-service-agencys-local-office.html.

Sometimes big national stories may not have much local impact, but are just so big that a local reaction story is needed. Many community newspapers abandoned their “local only” policy to mark the killing of Osama bin Laden in the news columns; we saw two that did it in unusual and admirable ways.

The Todd County Standard in Elkton, KY, did no news story or commentary, but filled an inside page with the names of all the victims of the 9/11/01 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, overprinted with a gray image of bin Laden and a quote from President Obama. Columnist Susan Dunlap of The Woodford Sun in Versailles, KY, linked the event to a local one, a racist prank, and said that while one “boogeyman” was killed, another prowled local streets. Our blog item, with an image of the Standard page and a link to the column, is at irjci.blogspot.com/2011/05/rural-journalists-note-death-of-bin.html.

One of our favorite stories recently was by Adam Belz in the Des Moines Register, who reported that near-record crop prices and land values in the Midwest aren’t helping most small towns. We added a few comments in our item at irjci.blogspot.com/2011/05/boom-times-for-farmers-agribusinesses.html.

Occasionally on The Rural Blog we have items that pose more questions than answers, to prompt a search for answers. That was the case with our May 13 item on a report that rural people are five times as likely as urbanites to be treated in emergency rooms for eye injuries: irjci.blogspot.com/2011/05/rural-people-five-times-more-likely.html. We suggested that rural journalists ask why, so maybe next month we will have some answers.

If you have issues, ideas or stories that should be on The Rural Blog, please e-mail me at al.cross@uky.edu.

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 www.RuralJournalism.org.

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