Rural journalism is good journalism

Al Cross

Dec 1, 2022

Chris Evans of The Crittenden Press in Marion, Kentucky, spoke after receiving the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians, which he shared with his wife, Allison Mick-Evans. They own the weekly newspaper in Crittenden County, pop. 9,000.  (Photo by Yung Soo Kim, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media)

At the Institute for Rural Journalism, we stand for several propositions, including these two: Rural people deserve good journalism as much as urban people; and at a time when newspapers must sustain themselves by getting more revenue from their audiences, people aren’t going to pay good money for poor journalism.
So, we think it’s important to exalt examples of good work, and that’s why we present the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism — and partner with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists to give the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians.

When we presented those awards Nov. 3, the recipients’ acceptance speeches inspired us and the rest of the crowd, so this edition of Into the Issues shares part of what they had to say, as published on The Rural Blog.

Ellen Kreth and the Madison County Record of Huntsville, Arkansas, won the Gish Award for holding local school officials accountable for how they mishandled complaints of sexual abuse by older members on younger members of a junior–high basketball team.

“Their first order of business was to cover it up,” Kreth said. “The parents’ first order of business ... was to contact the Madison County Record. They trusted the newspaper; they knew they could trust us to tell the story. Most importantly, they also knew they could trust Shannon” — Shannon Hahn, the paper’s general manager. “She lives in the community and has children in the school, and they knew they could come to her.”

The Record didn’t name any students involved but uncovered open–meetings violations; reported school-board members’ deliberations by piecing together text messages that were sent to the papers out of order; and prompted a lawsuit by a parent alleging violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which ban sex–based discrimination in any school that gets federal funding. The school board admitted liability in that suit, the superintendent and coach were charged with first-degree failure to report, and they resigned. Three of the four board members who sought re-election lost.

“Sometimes democracy works to support journalism, right?” Kreth asked. It was vindication after months of harsh criticism.

“They never attacked the facts that we reported because they knew that they were true, but ... they attacked our role in the community,” Kreth said. “They said we shouldn’t report the allegations, that we were harming the victims, and that we should also be quiet about it. During multiple school board meetings, the board members attacked the paper, saying our job was to promote the school, not report on it. We were to be their public–relations

“And that’s the one area I think about this whole story, in the context of rural journalism, that screams the loudest to me. The most common comment, but also the most surprising, was ‘I can’t believe a local newspaper would cover something like that.’ ... We always believed our role in this story and in our community is telling the facts, telling the story, digging in deep and piecing the facts together. This story was built on trust” among the paper and the parents of the victims.

And through it all, the paper's staff remained part of the community: “We shook hands with everyone who would throw darts at us,” Kreth said. “In the same editions where we ran those Title IX stories, we still had school lunch menus, church news, obituaries, library news, city council coverage; we told people where to get their COVID vaccines, and we also reported on Decoration Day at local cemeteries. That’s what rural journalism is to us: the good, the bad, the ugly and every single thing in between.”

Chris Evans and Allison Mick-Evans of The Crittenden Press won the Smith Award for innovating, reporting, holding local officials accountable and persevering in the face of increasing challenges to their community and their industry for almost 30 years.

Chris Evans gave the audience an analysis, a manifesto and a warning. He said the loss of community newspapers “has left our country ripe for an invasion of mistruth” and said the remaining papers must adapt to the digital age to survive.

“Our power rests on our ability to innovate and persevere. To do that, we are going to have to morph into something a bit different,” he said. “The internet has given us a new, less expensive mode of delivery. Now, I am not proposing that we all stop our presses today, but we have to embrace the future. We cannot be too stubborn or too proud. ... We're reluctant to admit the truth because we have always printed newspapers. ... We just have to convince ourselves and our advertisers to go with us. We do not need to convince our readers. They're already there.

“As the town crier, we've got to have the loudest voice, but right now, we're being muffled by social media. We have to create our own platform, pool our resources and figure out whether it's an app or a network or something else, but our model must change. I don't know that anyone in the newspaper industry has really figured out how to make that move. ... If we don't find a way to change our model ... we're going to die.”

Evans closed his speech by calling for continuing conversations among rural editors and publishers: “I want to know what people are thinking. We are all in this together, and together we can find a way forward.”

There are a lot of smart people in rural journalism, but their conversations are often limited by the isolation that defines rurality. Part of my job is to spark those conversations and keep them going. I invite your help.

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 the extension professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at