Engagement Newspaper management

Great ideas for engaging with your community

In explaining my work, I sometimes say that there are thousands of really good journalists in rural America, but all too often they are the only person in their newsroom that fits that description. They suffer from the isolation of rurality, with fewer opportunities than urbanites to rub shoulders and exchange ideas with their professional peers.

That observation applies to independent rural publishers, too. They may attend state newspaper meetings, but there’s nothing like the National Newspaper Association convention, where editors and publishers from New England, the North Woods, the Great Plains, the Corn Belt, the Deep South, the Intermountain West, the Pacific Coast and other regions exchange ideas. That’s especially important for the approximately one-third of weekly newspapers not owned by groups, which can be sources of ideas (and instruction). Get them together, and the love to help each other.

This was on display at the Great Ideas Exchange at the National Newspaper Association’s annual convention in Milwaukee Oct. 3. There were too many ideas to share in this limited space, but here are some themes and standouts:

Engagement with the audience is a key task these days, and some circulation ideas at the session were good examples. The Lancaster News in South Carolina delivers to funeral homes 10 copies of the paper for distribution to families and friends who want a copy of an obituary. With a sponsor, the copies count as paid circulation.

The paper also gives all its yearly subscribers a page of coupons (usually $5 each) worth a total of $25, and is trying to get to $50, the price of a one-year-subscription, Publisher Susan Rowell said. The promotion has converted a lot of sox-month subscribers, and “You do something for your loyal customers just to keep ‘em,” she said.

Effective engagement means taking every opportunity to build loyalty, and that includes people in the newsroom.

The North Scott Press of Eldridge, Iowa, asks subjects of its stories, “Where do you read the paper?” That indirect approach is better than asking if they subscribe or buy it regularly. If their answer indicates that they don’t, the next question is “Would you like to receive it at home?” and offer a three-month free trial, Publisher Bill Tubbs says. The staffer making the contact gets $3 for a free trial and $7 for a paid subscription.

Many newspapers have made magazines and directories good revenue sources. The Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, produces a Churches of Douglas County magazine every other year, charges $50 for a listing and gives each church 10 copies. Some papers provide membership lists that the paper uses to solicit sponsorships, Publisher Jody Hanson said. “It’s a really good reference guide,” she said, adding that some churches initially declined to participate, but now say “Don’t ever do it without us.”

The Echo Press also hires a Santa Claus for three hours after school, asks parents to bring a food item to donate to the needy, takes photos of Santa with the kids, provides a link to the pictures and prints them in a holiday-greetings section with kids’ letters to Santa.

Hanson also had a good idea for the typical “progress edition” many papers publish in winter when ads are slow: Along with features on businesses, list building permits and related reports from local governments, which are documentary evidence of community development.

Lettie Lister of the Black Hills Pioneer in Spearfish, South Dakota, said she was told

told that “progress sections were dead,” but theirs attracts many non-regular advertisers. It’s not called a progress edition, but “Our Towns,” which sounds like something that people will keep a long time, adding to its ad value.

The Pioneer marked its 140th anniversary by mining its historic archives in the last quarter of the 19th century, starting with reports of the battle at Little Big Horn. The paper did a feature every Saturday, then a compilation without ads but a $10 price tag.

A newspaper’s big anniversaries can be celebrated with a section that also celebrates lesser anniversaries of other businesses, said Peggy Scott of the Leader in Festus, Missouri. It marked its 20th and 25th anniversaries and chose the most compelling stories of other businesses, with no repeats between the two.

Don’t run a bunch of extra photos without considering opportunities for a sponsored page, spread or even a section, said Mary Huber of the Archbold (Ohio) Buckeye. Local schools have many events that lend themselves to this: athletics, theatrical presentations, science fairs and so on.

Local festivals are natural opportunities for special sections, but the Grant County Herald in Minnesota takes up a few notches with a $100 treasure hunt for a hidden “newsbox” with a coin, promoted with a spread of ads with clues to its location. Almost every advertiser participates. The last clue is posted at the Herald office during the festival, and dozens of people line up to get it.

Bill Ostendorf of Creative Circle Media Solutions urged publishers to do a total-market-circulation edition once or twice a year: “Advertising more than pays for it, and it’s a really god promotional thing” for circulation.

I added that my institute encourages newspapers to include a health and wellness section in its TMC editions; our research shows that people need and want health information, and are more likely to subscribe to the newspaper if they know it regularly has such information. Also, most health-care providers have a budget for advertising, and newspapers are leaving a lot of that money on the table.

One of the session’s more interesting ideas came from Dick Seibel of the Silver City (New Mexico) Daily Press and Independent. In New Mexico, each county has a lobbying day during legislative sessions, and his Grant County has long had one of the more ostentatious. The paper does a special section about the county’s attractions and its legislative priorities, printing 3,000 extra copies that are distributed to legislators and other officials and around the capital of Santa Fe. Seibel said the project reinforces the importance of the newspaper to movers and shakers. And that’s what makes this idea worth mentioning. Wish we could have included them all!

community issues

Rethinking how we cover the opioid epidemic

Rural communities have been disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic, but rural newspapers have been disproportionately quiet about it. They seem to cover it as a criminal-justice problem, when it is primarily a health problem. Smart law enforcers and first responders will tell you that, but many if not most rural papers seem reluctant to cover it that way – to dig into the reasons for addiction, the struggles to overcome it, the search for treatment and the stories of success.

Part of this, I know from experience, is the natural reluctance of community journalists to report facts that reflect poorly on their communities. In many places, they probably think there’s already enough bad news.

Another big factor is the stigma that still surrounds people with drug problems. That is more prevalent in rural areas, and it keeps people from seeking help – and clings to those who do, putting them at risk for relapse. The role of stigma was well researched by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, and The Rural Blog reported on it at

The folks at Oak Ridge said local news media can counteract stigma with reporting. To help rural journalists cover substance abuse, behavioral health and recovery, they and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (which publishes The Rural Blog) are planning a one-day workshop in mid-November. Watch for details on it soon.

Meanwhile, start reporting. Get local data. Ask your coroner each month for death certificates, and for advice on what families might be willing to talk about the struggles of addiction that ended in death. Talk to people in the treatment community, and then to people with substance-abuse disorder.

See how the problem developed in your area, by using the pill-distribution database that The Washington Post and the Charleston Gazette-Mail uncovered. Aaron Nelson of The Paintsville (Ky.) Herald did, and gave his readers the names of the stores that sold the most pills. The Rural Blog took note at

The opioid epidemic has had a disproportionate effect on poor areas, but prosperous farm counties are part of it, too. The Farm Bureau and the Cooperative Extension Service are active on this front; we had a blog item about their program in Ohio at

Farmers have been struggling for years with financial instability, loneliness, lack of insurance or access to mental-health care, and the pressure to not quit what may have been a way of life for generations. Now they have to deal with a trade war and unfavorable weather, and are five times more likely to commit suicide than other Americans. The federal government is funneling more money to hep them. Read about it at

Suicide and drugs go hand in hand. In rural areas, jail suicides are increasing, and the trend is linked to drug withdrawal and mental Illness,” says The Crime Report, a publication of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, a good source for cutting-edge information on those topics. Read more at

Suicide is another touchy subject for community journalists, but it’s time to stop being timid about it. Did you know rural residents are more likely than those in large cities to think about, plan or attempt suicide? They are, and The Rural Blog took note at

Here some other topics we’ve had on the blog lately that you can localize:

A U.S. Senate report revealed nearly 400 poor-performing nursing homes whose problems were not made clear by a government website. Local papers picked up on it, and we did at

Many rural hospitals are in trouble, but some have found ways to overcome adversity, survive and thrive. “The secret sauce is always … strong, collaborative leadership,” National Rural Health Association CEO Alan Morgan told U.S. News and World Report. This is just one of many hospital stories on The Rural Blog; read it at

Rural electric cooperatives are overly reliant on coal, the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs and two other nonprofits charged. We contacted the co-ops’ national trade group, which said they are moving to “cleaner energy sources.” What’s your co-op doing? Start reporting with our blog item at

Electronic cigarettes are an epidemic among young people, but many school districts are lax about it. Not in Fairbury, Neb., which requires any student in grades 7-12 to be subject to random nicotine testing if they participate in extracurricular activities. We took note at What is your school district doing about “vaping?” (By the way, it’s not really vapor, as the tobacco companies say; it’s an aerosol, and it has a lot of nasty stuff.)

Community newspapers increasingly charge for obituaries, an unfortunate result of digital media’s erosion of their advertising base. But the news columns of the best papers still include news obits about people who made their mark on the community or region. And sometimes a paper will double down and run a long tribute to a truly unique individual. The Valley News of Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt., did that with the moving, funny and insightful eulogy for a well-known dairy farmer and former state legislator, David Ainsworth. We picked it up at

Valley News Editor John Gregg sent us that story. If you do or see stories that should be on The Rural Blog, email them to me at [email protected].


Rural journalism the future of community journalism

In today’s media world, newspapers must fight local complacency by proving they are relevant — and needed

Does the reportedly mixed reaction to the death of a small weekly newspaper on the Lake of the Woods show we have entered “the golden age of ignorance,” as Minnesota Public Radio blogger Bob Collins declared?

Perhaps, if newspapers can’t convince communities that they are an essential civic asset.

Collins’ declaration came in a follow-up to MPR reporter John Engler’s report on the May 7 demise of the Warroad Pioneer, one of three weeklies in Roseau County, on Minnesota’s northern border. Engler paraphrased New York Times reporter Richard Fausset: “He said he spent a week in Warroad, talking to locals about the paper closing. He admitted that most folks, outside of the Pioneer staff and their husbands, didn’t seem too broken up about it.”

Fausset disputed that, in an interview with me: “I talked to a lot of people who were very worried the newspaper was going to quit. What MPR reported does not accurately reflect what I found in the town. There are a number of people concerned about what happens next.”

Engler did a little of his own reporting on the point. After paraphrasing Fausset, he wrote: “Out on the streets of Warroad, a handful of locals backed up his assessment,” and cited one who “gets his news from Google, ‘just like everybody else.'”

That comment reflects “monumental ignorance,” said Reed Anfinson, former president of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson in central Minnesota. “There is no local civic reporting from Google. Google captures our work and pirates it – if it is available.”

Anfinson also said, “A reporter finding some disgruntled, or disinterested, people and using them to imply definitive assessment of the community’s feelings about the newspaper, I find troubling.”

Publisher Rebecca Colden told me, “There were people coming in throughout the day who said just the opposite.” Interviewed before Fausset was, she said, “I think Richard’s saying they’re just complacent with the value of a newspaper. They like it, but they don’t value it as they should.”

That feeling, Colden said, helped her decide to close. She said she met with many people in the community, looking for ways to rejuvenate the paper, but “The challenge was that there is a complacency within these small communities, that they just feel like the paper will always be there, especially a paper of this age.” The Pioneer lasted more than 120 years.

And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t warned the whole town, in stark fashion. Colden said the Pioneer was the first of many Minnesota papers to run a blank front page in 2017, asking readers to imagine that there was no local paper. She told me that she did the sort of accountability news coverage that readers expect, and “They’re gonna miss all the information they didn’t know they needed.”

Colden said she could have borrowed more money and taken the risk of converting to free, total-market circulation, “but I need to know that there’s really community buy-in to do that, and . . . the community buy-in was really lacking.” She said that showed in school news, a local-paper staple: “Teachers and coaches just throw some things up on social media rather than send it to the paper.”

Engler reported that Fausset was assigned to “tell the story of the prototypical American small town losing its voice.” If so, he seems to have made a good choice; the paper is like many rural weeklies that have closed in the last 15 years: in a small town outside a county seat, with a shrinking advertising base and independent ownership that couldn’t or wouldn’t negotiate a sale or merger.

We don’t know the whole story. Colden said she couldn’t work out a deal with the paper’s former owners, Page1Publications, who have five nearby weeklies, including one in Roseau County. That was after she’d considered going to free distribution, and then tried to compete more directly with the county-seat paper, the Roseau Times-Region, 22 miles away. As often happens, local loyalties trumped other factors, she said: “Because of that community loyalty over there, we were never able to capture that advertising base.”

She said her local ad base has shriveled because Marvin Windows and Doors, the main local employer, has “a new generation of workers” more willing than their predecessors to shop in other towns. “It doesn’t bug them to drive two hours to go to Walmart,” she said, so more than a dozen of Warroad’s approximately 50 storefronts are empty. “We’re really a community in transition.”

But on the other side of Roseau County, in a similar small town, the Greenbush Tribune is thriving, owner and newspaper broker Julie Bergman of Page1Publications told me. Yes, having five papers in a cluster gives them economy of scale, but the Greenbush editor is a local man, Ryan Bergeron, who came back home to take the job. Bergman said he makes sure that the Tribune has content that is relevant to its readers.

“In order to survive, you have to have something in the paper that people want to pick up,” Bergman said. “They’re going to learn something.

Whatever the causes of the Pioneer’s death, it “is more than a one-off loss of a newspaper,” Anfinson told me. “I am hearing from newspaper publishers and executive directors of state newspaper associations that their concerns about the future of small-town weekly newspapers is growing.”

Almost a year ago, Anfinson was featured in a Rural Blog item headlined, “Times get tougher for rural newspapers.” Now it seems even tougher. As the old saying has it, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Newspapers must prove to their communities that they are relevant, and needed. As Bergman said, “There needs to be more education.”

the future of community journalism

Community newspapers must change, adapt in new media era

That was a tough but mostly accurate headline The Associated Press put on the 2,344-word story it published at the start of Sunshine Week last month: “Decline in readers, ads leads hundreds of newspapers to fold.” But as usual, the headline didn’t tell the whole story.

The story had a strong central basis, the research of Penny Abernathy and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina. She reported in October that about 1,400 U.S. cities and towns lost newspapers from 2004 through 2015. Most of those were suburban weeklies, but Abernathy counted more than 500 closures or mergers among rural newspapers. Many of those have been in towns that don’t dominate their counties, especially in areas like the Great Plains that have been losing population.

Just over 1,800 papers were shuttered in those 15 years, and more than 1,700 of them were weeklies. But the object example of the AP’s story was a daily, in south-central Missouri’s Pulaski County, which closed in September.

The example may seem inapt, but is forward-looking, I wrote on The Rural Blog. That’s because the Waynesville Daily Guide was closed by GateHouse Media, one of the private-equity firms that have bought hundreds of American newspapers and have a bottom-line focus. GateHouse is now the nation’s largest newspaper owner, and it seems willing to close money-making papers because they’re not making enough money.

“GateHouse rejects the notion that their motivations are strictly financial,” AP’s David Bauder and David A. Lieb wrote. Near the top of the story, they wrote of the closures, “Blame revenue siphoned by online competition, cost-cutting ownership, a death spiral in quality, sheer disinterest among readers, or reasons peculiar to given locales.”

My fear is that the Waynesville Daily Guide is the canary in the newspaper coal mine – a harbinger of more deaths to come. And I know some weekly newspaper editors and publishers who feel the same way. At least two Kentucky weeklies took the unusual step of running the Waynesville story, as a warning to their readers.

One was Ryan Craig of the Todd County Standard, judged the state’s best small weekly in 12 of the last 13 years. “I ran it in hopes that the Standard’s readers could understand that the issue with newspapers isn’t just an issue with dailies,” he told me. “I firmly feel that small, rural weeklies were safe from the bloodletting larger papers were going through even up to a couple years ago, but the digital age and smartphones, along with the erosion of public notice advertising are really hurting the bottom line and we, as citizens, run the risk of gigantic swaths of rural readers with no local newspaper serving them.”

My friend Ryan says he sees fewer and fewer people “who appreciate the role a good rural paper plays as the watchdog and advocate for a small place that is often forgotten by larger places or in the state capital.”

I have similar concerns. Here’s what I wrote in a companion piece on The Rural Blog, at, the day we excerpted the Waynesville story:

“For a decade now, I have said community journalism is the healthiest part of the traditional news business, primarily because most people will always be interested in news about their locality, and digital media have not invaded the local-news franchise of most rural newspapers.

“But now I wonder. Americans increasingly engage in online, virtual communities, many of which have little or nothing to do with a locality (West Highland White Terrier owners like me and my wife, for example). The flood-the-zone approach of President Trump and the dominance of social media have placed more emphasis on national news, and the shriveling of many local news outlets has only exacerbated that.

“There is less interest in local news, and certainly in local newspapers, most of which still emphasize the print product that provides most of their advertising revenue. That leaves them with a disproportionately older audience that is gradually dying off. And I can see a decline in many rural newspapers that I did not see five years ago.”

The headline on that opinion piece was: As digital challenge increases for journalism, paymasters must adapt, be reliable and relevant, and be true to values – meaning the values of journalism, not just the news business. They are not the same thing. One pays for the other.

Our Rural Blog headline on the news piece, available at, was: AP uses paper GateHouse closed as example of troubles of local journalism, but says ‘This isn’t a hopeless story.’

The AP story included a brief mention of The Pilot in Southern Pines, North Carolina, which thrives on “revenue raised by side businesses — lifestyle magazines, electronic newsletters, telephone directories, a video production company and a bookstore.”

We added that The Pilot’s publisher is David Woronoff, who is going into the North Carolina Media and Journalism Hall of Fame this month. The selection committee “felt he set a new standard for community newspapers and earned well-deserved national recognition for excellence,” member Merrill Rose told The Pilot. The committee is right when it comes to journalism, and they are right when it comes to the news business.

In his roundtable session on “The Entrepreneurial Spirit” at last year’s NNA convention, David talked about his paper’s new products, including The Sway. Named for the movement of southern pines in the wind. It’s an email newsletter and website for people in their 20s, written by one. “We kind of hide our newspaper lineage with The Sway,” he said, adding that most of its readers “probably don’t know we publish it.”

But the revenue from these and other products support The Pilot, helping make it a leader among community newspapers. No, they are not a hopeless story. But they must adapt.

Community Journalism Engagement Future of news

Newspapers need to explain how we work — more letters FROM the editor, not just TO the editor

Newspapers cover almost every imaginable topic, but when it comes to understanding and explaining their own roles in society, many community newspapers fall short.

They keep doing business and journalism pretty much like they always did, with digital media as a sideline because they can’t make much money at it. Their presence on social media is often desultory and uninspired, even though social media have become the dominant form of mass communication.

These newspapers are disengaging from their audiences – or perhaps we should say their former audiences and their potential audiences – at a time when they need to be more engaged than ever. There’s a war on journalism in America, and it’s not just being waged in Washington, D.C.

Today’s media maelstrom has left much of the audience uncertain about what a newspaper is, or what it is supposed to be. Newspapers need to explain that clearly and consistently, through all available forms of media (more on those later).

At a time when Americans are more dubious than ever about sources of information, newspapers remain the primary finders of fact. But for some reason they have been bashful about making that their brand, or even thinking of themselves as having a brand.

What is our brand? At last month’s Ohio News Media Association convention, I said it can be built around three Rs: reliable, relevant information, delivered responsibly. The third R most needs explanation.

When I was first learning journalism and the news business, one newspaper I read regularly ran a standing box on its editorial page. “Daily News Platform” told readers what the paper stood for. It’s been a long time since I saw such a device, but it’s time to bring it back, in a different way.

If I were running a newspaper today, its home page would have a button labeled “How We Work.” It would take readers to a page explaining the paper’s purpose and the ways it tries to achieve it. Shorter versions of it would run in print every day, usually on the editorial page.

“How We Work” would start by explaining the different forms of information media, to help readers understand the different and special roles that newspapers play in our society, and the challenges they face. Here’s the version I offered in Ohio:

This is a newspaper. It reports facts. To do that, we verify information, or we attribute it to someone else. That is called the discipline of verification, and it is the essence of a craft called journalism, which you find in news media.

There are two other types of media: social media, which have no discipline, much less verification; and strategic media, which try to sell you something: goods, services, ideas, politicians, causes, beliefs, etc.

Newspapers once relied on one form of strategic media, advertising, for most of their income. Today, social media get more of the ad money, so newspapers must get more income from the only other reliable place they can get it: their readers, in the form of subscriptions or single-copy sales. As you might guess, we prefer subscribers, so we hope to earn your respect and loyalty.

How do we do that? By being honest and straightforward about our business.

That means we must separate fact from opinion, reserving our own views for the editorial page. Of course, our views have some influence over what news we choose to cover, so if you think we’re not covering what should be covered, or have failed to separate fact from opinion, or make another mistake, we want you to tell us. You can do that privately, or publicly, in the form of a letter to the editor. If you raise an important issue that we think needs wider perspective, we may invite you to join us in a discussion on social media, and perhaps bring that discussion into the newspaper itself.

We want to hear from you. We are in the business of holding others accountable, so we must be accountable to you.

Accountability journalism is necessary if our democratic republic is to function the way the Founding Fathers intended. That’s why they put the First Amendment in the Constitution. It gives us great freedom, but with that freedom comes a great responsibility. If you think we are not living up to that legacy, please tell us.

That’s fewer than 350 words, about the length of a little-longer-than-usual letter to the editor in most papers. We need more letters from the editor, not just statements of general principle, but explanations of how and why we do certain things. If we demand transparency from officials and institutions, we must practice it ourselves. And build our brand at the same time.

One good example came from Brian Hunt, publisher of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, in a column he wrote in May 2017, titled “Community Journalism in the era of fake news.” We excerpted it on The Rural Blog; you can read it at Hunt’s best passage gave examples of the extreme without being judgmental:

“I’ve been challenged on why we include people of color in our newspaper. I’ve heard from readers who question why, when two-thirds of our region voted for Trump, the U-B would ever publish anything remotely critical of his presidency. I learn things in these conversations. Most notably, the people I speak with are not unaccomplished, not unintelligent, not uncaring.  We know these people. You know these people. Fake news and the isolated intolerance that can feed it gets to us all.”

After the column ran, Hunt said the paper got fewer calls, and fewer subscription stops, complaining about bias in the paper. Good journalism is good business, especially when you explain it.


It’s time for a community journalist to win a major ethics award

Has any rural journalist has won one of the major journalism-ethics awards? I don’t think so, and if that’s right, such honor is greatly overdue. It is generally more difficult – and can be a lot more difficult – to do hard-nosed, ethical journalism in rural areas and small towns than in metropolitan areas, partly because of the constant conflict that rural journalists must deal with, between their professional responsibilities and their personal interests: family, friends, business relationships and so on.

That’s what I said on The Rural Blog last month in announcing the Jan. 15 deadline for the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics, given by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. It has the earliest deadline of the annual ethics awards; details are at

In the last few months The Rural Blog has featured work of three great rural editors, all women, who displayed the professionalism, gumption and common sense that it takes to do good, ethical journalism in rural areas.

After she heard rumors of sexual assaults involving a middle-school football team in Edina, Mo., Edina Sentinel Editor Echo Menges was told that seventh- and eighth-grade players had sodomized up to five fifth- and sixth-grade players with metal objects while other students watched. The school superintendent and sheriff wouldn’t confirm details, and the school board wouldn’t let parents talk about it at a meeting, so Menges began talking to children and parents and published a story.

The parents insisted on anonymity. If Menges were asked in court to reveal those sources and refuses, she would face jail time since Missouri doesn’t have a shield law protecting journalists from having to reveal anonymous sources. “This is an important enough story that I would be willing to go to jail for it,” she told Anna Brett of The Missourian. Our Rural Blog item on her work is at

Editor-Publisher Stevie Lowery of The Lebanon (Ky.) Enterprise was instrumental in passing a school-tax increase, did a five-part series on drug use and published stories on a transgender teenager and the county’s first same-sex marriage. For this and more, she won the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian, given each year by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Lowery said in accepting the award that rural journalists have to educate audiences, take stands, be watchdogs and be willing to lose friends. “We write these stories to educate people – to help them understand, to open their eyes, their minds, and their hearts,” she said. “Often times, newspapers have to take a stand . . . In small towns, that can cost the newspaper staff a friend or two. But, at the end of the day, newspapers have a responsibility to be the watchdogs for their communities, for their country.” Our report on her work and her speech is at

A recent winner of the Smith award, Sharon Burton of the Adair County Community Voice, wrote an unusual editorial about National Newspaper Week, saying she had seen no editorials on it that acknowledged journalism that has “problems with bias and misinformation.” But she concluded, “Journalism may not be done perfectly, but this nation would be ill served were journalism not allowed, encouraged, and supported by our citizens.” We noted it on The Rural Blog at

Election shows rural-urban divide: Democrats took control of the U.S. House but Republicans gained seats in the Senate, which is more rurally oriented because each state has two senators. The Rural Blog picked up several good analyses of the results, including from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Hill and Axios, at The WSJ’s Reid Epstein and Janet Hook had an excellent second-day take, saying “The midterm elections brought to a head a decade-long realignment of the U.S.’s major political parties, with Democrats winning contests in and around major cities while Republicans carried rural and small-town America. Just as rural white voters fled the Democratic Party after Mr. Obama took office, educated suburbanites abandoned the GOP after President Trump’s election.” Our blog item, with charts, is at

The election also highlighted the rural-urban economic gap. In October, Bill Bishop and The Daily Yonder produced an interactive map that showed job growth in rural America continues to lag the rest of the nation. You can get to it via

Rural economy: Decisions by and Google to put big facilities in New York and the Washington area showed that “Smaller cities are also pulling in educated workers, but are having trouble competing for the nation’s most prized jobs and biggest projects, while rural areas are falling behind,” The WSJ reported.

We noted that many rural economic developers hoped that the internet would allow people to work from anywhere, and the Journal said experts thought “tech workers would scatter across the country as firms sought cheap office space. Instead, places like Silicon Valley and Seattle proved that clusters of highly skilled workers fueled innovation at a faster pace.” We added that the lack of high-speed broadband in many places has limited the ability of some small towns to capitalize on the internet economy. Our Rural Blog item is at

Despite all that, most rural Americans say they value rural life and are optimistic about the future, according to the ‘Life in Rural America’ survey by NPR, Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. They do economic issues and drugs as the biggest problems facing rural areas. We reported on it at

If you report or see news that should be on The Rural Blog, email me at [email protected].

safer newsrooms

Community newspaper newsrooms are accessible because they represent relationship journalism

Adapted from remarks at “Journalists in the Hot Seat: Staying safe in a hostile political climate,” a panel discussion at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications convention in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 9. (The discussion was telecast on C-SPAN and is available at

Most of us who have worked in rural newsrooms probably gave little thought to safety until the recent mass shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where a man upset with the newspaper’s coverage of his court case walked into the newsroom and shot five people to death.

I once worked in newsrooms much like the Capital Gazette’s, where anyone coming in the door could spot you. In Monticello, Kentucky, where I was running the second paper in a one-paper town, my desk was right next to the front door; I was a 21-year-old from the next town, Albany, and I wanted to meet as many people as I could.

In community journalism, you’ve got to be part of the community or you won’t succeed. Community journalism is relationship journalism; you have a closer and more continuing relationship with your subjects, your sources and your audience. So being accessible is not just a good idea; it’s mandatory.

In Russellville, Kentucky, where I worked for the great weekly publisher Al Smith, he liked to tell how a farmer walked into his office to complain about his editorials for school consolidation, which would raise property taxes. As the farmer talked to him, Al turned to his typewriter and pecked out what the man was saying. He whipped the paper out, handed it to him and said, “You just wrote a letter to the editor. Read it, sign it and we’ll put it in the paper.” He did.

My friend Jock Lauterer at the University of North Carolina, who has also run community papers, did a study that confirmed what he suspected – the smaller the newspaper, the more accessible its staff was to the public. The good thing about being accessible is that it makes you more accountable. And when you’re more accountable, that tends to make you more accurate. Jock calls those the Three As of community journalism. It’s one of the many community-journalism principles that work in all kinds of journalism; you’ve got to be engaged with your audience, for journalistic reasons and, increasingly, for business reasons.

The Capital Gazette shooting, in a town of 40,000, shows how vulnerable journalists can be – not just in newsrooms in small towns, but on the street in big towns. Journalists and their news outlets deal with just about everything and every walk of life, and that makes them targets for people like the Capital Gazette shooter.

In the wake of the shooting, one of the largest owners of community papers, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., asked their papers to have local law enforcement come in and give a training seminar for employees on what to do in such a situation. One police officer told one newsroom in Kentucky, “You’ve got to have it ingrained in your head what’s best for you at all times. Know your doors and exits. You have to know when to run, hide and fight.”

The American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Managing Editors has a list of best newsroom safety practices, from planning to prevention to response to the aftermath. To download it, go to

There are some basics, like situational awareness. If you’re going to an unfamiliar place, take someone with you or have someone meet you there. Or make a friend as soon as you can. My students and I cover a very nice and calm town of 1,800 people, Midway, Kentucky, and my policy is that I always accompany every student on his or her first visit to Midway. I want to introduce them around, and I want them to feel comfortable – and start introducing themselves.

Journalism educators should reassure students about the work of journalism. Take a lesson from Leonard Pitts, the Miami Herald columnist who accepted an award from AEJMC’s Critical and Cultural Studies Division. He wore his L.A. Lakers hat and talked about how the Lakers and the news media are hated, and then made his point: “Nobody hates you unless you’re having an impact.”

He reminded us what journalists do: “You upset the status quo, you cause things to change . . . Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world if you’re in the business of news.” Later, he said, “Our mission statement requires us to find the truth and tell it. But we operate in a nation where increasingly, lies not just tolerated, but embraced. And ask yourself, why shouldn’t such people hate us? If lies are your meat, if lies are your business, then people whose business is truth are by definition your natural enemies.”

And what do we tell them about President Trump? That he’s a politician running a daily campaign to win the news cycle, and he thinks he has to keep saying “fake news.” And we need to say anyone who uses that term as a habit is saying the news is fake, and that is a falsehood. Then we also need to remind them that these circumstances make it all the more important that what we report is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

investigative reporting

Even if your paper is small, don’t hesitate to take on important projects

PORTLAND, Oregon – Small, rural newspapers can win open-records battles with state agencies and beat larger news outlets at covering big stories in their communities, says a journalist who spent most of his career at a metropolitan daily but has returned to the business of publishing a rural weekly.

Les Zaitz, publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon, made those and other points Thursday as he spoke to the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in Portland and accepted the 2018 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Zaitz talked about how the Enterprise pursued the story of a former state hospital patient’s involvement in two murders and an assault in Malheur County shortly after his release. The newspaper discovered that the defendant had been released after convincing state officials he had faked mental illness for 20 years to avoid prison, and after mental-health experts warned he was a danger. The state Psychiatric Security Review Board sued Zaitz and the Enterprise to avoid complying with an order to turn over exhibits that the board had considered before authorizing the man’s release. Zaitz started a GoFundMe effort to pay legal fees, but then Gov. Kate Brown took the rare step of interceding in the case, ordering the lawsuit dropped and the records produced.

He said lessons from the episode include: “Even if you’re small, don’t back down from a fight like this. . . . Success in a fight like this depends a great deal on your institutional credibility; they knew that once I sank my teeth into their ankles I wouldn’t let go, because of their experience in prior instances” when he was a reporter at The Oregonian in Portland.

Probably the most important lesson, Zaitz said, is to “bring your community along as the fight heats up. Let them know that we’re not doing it for journalistic prizes. … tell the reader, we’re doing this for you’ this is information you deserve.” He said the news media have done “a terrible job as a profession of bringing our community along and explaining the profession,” but people are still thanking him for taking on the state.

“This fight, and the success and the propose of it, to me, was in the pursuit of the finest ideals of the profession, the pursuit of truth and justice,” he said. “We have to always never, never relent in the face of opposition from government. If we don’t stand up to the government, who will?”

Zaitz said the board’s new executive director is moving to again restrict access to such records, so “I don’t know what kind of brawl I’ve got ahead.”

He also didn’t know what he was in for when armed militants seized the office of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on a Christmas-week Saturday, when it was unoccupied, to protest the convictions of two ranchers for arson on federal land. (President Trump pardoned them this week.)

“I was on a glide path toward retirement at The Oregonian and the last thing I needed was another major assignment,” Zaitz said, but he lived in the area and was the natural point man.

The standoff lasted 41 days, and Zaitz led the coverage of it, but he said the experience has lessons for smaller newspapers like Harney County’s weekly Burns Times-Herald, the paper closest to the refuge, which “decided to stay our of the coverage for the most part” though Burns was “overwhelmed” by the influx of militia types, news media and law enforcement.
“Your access is one of your primary advantages” in covering a big story, Zaitz said. You’re known in your local communities; you are presumably trusted. … Even in the face of a major news event, where you are being swamped by out-of-towners, that is an asset you cannot overlook.”

To stay on top of the story, you must report it when news happens, Zaitz said: “You have to own the audience … online, driving information out. … We reacted to rumors; we would go online and knock those rumors down. … It just makes you indispensable to your audience.”

Think ahead, he advised: “Plan for a major news event. . . . It will pay huge dividends.” Ask questions such as, “What’s your battery supply? Where do you get water for your reporters in the field when the water is contaminated?”

Turning such challenges into opportunities is essential for local news media, Zaitz told the weekly editors, meeting at Lewis & Clark College: “In the current environment, what we do has become so important that our societies are turning to local news as, frankly, the only news that they can trust. That’s a major, major issue in this day and age. … they know you, they know your organizations, so you need to help build that trust, and build on that trust, to give … some refuge from the storm of fake news. People are feeling whiplashed, they are feeling misled.”

Zaitz said his experience as publisher of the Enterprise, where circulation has doubled to 1,500 since his family bought it in 2015 to keep it from closing, has affirmed his core belief “that readers wanted nothing more than solid, local information” about how their tax dollars are being used. He said he told a reporter not to spend three hours at a school-board meeting, but spend that much time finding out why the local high school’s graduation rate is declining.

“I don’t care if you’re small, you can still be good, and you can still be effective,” he said. “We can make a difference and turn this around if we all collectively step up our game.”

community issues Localizing the news

Stories to localize: mental illness and drug addiction

The stigma that still surround mental illness and drug addiction, especially in rural areas, are major obstacles to addressing those issues. Rural news media can play an important role in reducing stigma and helping individuals and communities face up to their problems and deal with them.

The Paducah Sun saw that opportunity when a 13-year-old eighth grader with a long list of mental-health issues told nearly 100 attendees at the West Kentucky Health and Wellness Summit about her condition and its stigma.

Julia Burkhart has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but “When she walks down the hall, you wouldn’t know her from any other student,” David B. Snow reported for the Sun: “There are no identifying marks or signs on her to indicate she has mental illness. The problem is the signs placed on her by other people.

“At the meeting in Paducah, Julia said her problems began with bullying in kindergarten, which became so bad in fifth grade, with social-media attacks and rumors that something was “wrong” with her, that she started cutting herself. She changed schools and got better, but recently relapsed into eating disorders and taking pills “to escape,” she said. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and went back into the outpatient program at the beginning of this school year, Snow reports.

“I graduated in February from outpatient, and I’ve been continuing to better myself,” Julia told the crowd. “And here I am now, speaking about my problems. I take pride in my recovery every day, and I am proud to have gone through this. It’s made me realize what’s really important.” And she spoke because she wanted to; her mother was originally invited to share the family’s story.

Snow wrote that Julia’s experience is common among people with mental illness. Dr. Laurie Ballew, a psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health at Lourdes Hospital, told him, “People have this negative thought process about mental health, not realizing that our brain is the organ that controls our body.”

Snow’s story is a remarkable example of how news media can reduce or eliminate the stigma that surround issues of behavioral health. We excerpted it on The Rural Blog at

Rural resentment reverberates

A resentment of coastal elites is a key to the support that President Trump still enjoys in parts of the country that abandoned their usual Democratic allegiances for him in 2016. That’s a thread that runs through three recent in-depth reports: one by a Democratic pollster, one by The Washington Post’s chief political reporter, and the other by a conservative journalist who was one of the leaders in defining the who and why of Trump voters before the election. We boiled them down on The Rural Blog at

The reports came from pollster Stan Greenberg, on voters in suburban Macomb County, Michigan; the Post’s Dan Balz, who reported from rural counties along and near the upper Mississippi River; and Salena Zito, who with Republican operative Brad Todd wrote The Great Revolt, a new book based on “10 counties they studied across the five states that tipped the election to Trump, as the Post’s James Hohman describes it in the paper’s “Daily 202.”

Here’s what Michael Martin of Erie, Pa., told the book authors: “Live in a small or medium-sized town, and you would think we were dragging the country down. We aren’t a country just made up of large metropolitan areas. Our politics and our culture up until now has dictated that we are less than in the scale of importance and value.” That is reflected in much of the national news media, based mainly on the East Coast, and resentment of media portrayals is a big part of the attitudes of rural voters, who gave at least 62 percent of their votes to Trump, a record.

Zito and Todd note “a polarization between those who live in dense cosmopolitan communities with higher-than-average education levels and those who live in rural, exurban and industrial locales that, as a rule, have . . . lower-than-average education levels and less transience.” Four of the 10 counties where they did interviews are rural; evangelical voters are represented largely by rural Howard County, Iowa, where Obama got 62 and 59 percent of the vote and Trump got 58.

Greenberg has long studied “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County, which went for Barack Obama twice and then for Trump. “Trump voters complain that there is no respect for President Trump or for people like them who voted for him,” Greenberg wrote in a memo with Nancy Zdunkewicz of Democracy Corps. “A healthy diet of Fox News is feeding the white working-class men fending off the challenges of Trump’s opponents,” they write. “They continue to appreciate how he speaks his mind.”

Balz’s report, in a special section of the Post, was illustrated by a map that also showed how reliably Republican the rural vote has become. Balz interviewed some of the same people for more than a year, tracking how attitudes about Trump shifted gradually.”

You can read Balz’s piece or our Rural Blog item for details. I mention these stories because anyone can do them; it’s just a matter of going out and talking to people. The more you talk with, the better your questions will be, and the better your stories will be. If you so such stories, or report or see news that should be on The Rural Blog, email me at [email protected].

Resources for reporting

Engaging with readers by covering the news that matters to them

One of the wisest comments I ever heard from a newspaper editor was from my friend John Nelson, editorial director of Landmark Community Newspapers. It went something like this: “We need to give readers what they want, but we must also give them what they need – and make them want what they need.”

John was talking with my community journalism class about covering issues, which are too often reduced or limited to “boring government stuff.” Newspapers cover countless meetings of public agencies, but their coverage of those agencies often ends at the meeting.

My students and I cover the old railroad town of Midway, Kentucky, and I teach them that meetings of the City Council are merely a window on a passing train – you get a glimpse of what’s going on, but unless you board the train and start asking questions, you don’t really know what’s going on.

When you start asking questions, and learn how a government action or inaction may affect citizens’ lives, you get information that makes readers want what they need to fulfill their citizenship. They see why they should care about what’s going on at the meetings, and outside the meetings.

Making readers want what they need is all the more important for news media at a time when citizens are getting unverified information from social media, which unlike journalism has no discipline of verification, and misleading information from strategic media – advertising, public relations and political entertainment that too many people mistake for journalism.

I’m seeing more community editors and publishers explain journalism to their readers, and we like to feature such articles on The Rural Blog. The latest one was Publisher Rob Galloway of the Tahoe Daily Tribune in California, who explained the basics, such as the difference in fact and opinion and the need for savvy, responsible news consumers. Read our blog item at

As we explain how journalism is supposed to work and serve citizens with what we think they need, we should also ask them what they want when it comes to covering the issues in their community. That’s the goal of 42 Ohio newsrooms in a community engagement project, Your Voice Ohio. Journalists and citizens found that they both are frustrated by the glut of opioid-overdose stories and are trying to provide information needed to deal with the problem.

The project has held eight community conversations, each lasting about two hours and attracting 100 to 120 people. Participants broke into groups of five or six, with a reporter at each table, and share what the opioid epidemic looks like to them, what they see as the cause, and what steps they could take to fight it. Project coordinators research topics that come from those discussions, and reach out to people who are less likely to attend events but still have something to say. Our blog item on the program is at

Another form of reader outreach is explaining how a story was reported or how the newspaper is produced. Few people have ever been in a pressroom, so Charles Myrick, editor of The Mountain Advocate in Barbourville, Kentucky, did a two-minute video of the newspaper’s printing  – “insider footage” that draws an audience. The YouTube video ends with an important message: “To produce just one issue of the Mountain Advocate requires employment of dozens of skilled workers in every aspect. It truly takes a team effort! We want to thank our readers and advertisers for continuing to make our jobs possible, and for believing in democracy and freedom of the press.” See

The Rural Blog is mainly about issues, but we also deal with the issues news media face in paying for coverage of issues. As newspapers try to get more revenue from the audience, they need to know what makes people subscribe. The American Press Institute issued a very good research report on that and we summarized it at

Health issues

One of the most important issue areas for community newspapers is health. Especially in states that didn’t expand Medicaid, dozens of rural hospitals are at a high risk of financial distress. Our latest blog item on that, at, has a map with numbers by state. An earlier item, at, looked at the possibility that hospitals’ troubles – and Medicaid work requirements now allowed by the Trump administration – might prompt more states to expand the program.

If your rural hospital gets a surprisingly strong bid to buy it, look close; it might be a scam. Jim Alexrod of CBS reported that rural hospitals “have become gold mines for enterprising health-care executives looking to quietly make a quick buck” by exploiting a reimbursement advantage to net big money from insurance companies, and we excerpted the story at

The closure of rural hospitals or their maternity units has led to worse health outcomes for mothers and babies, a national study proved, and we reported it at

Wondering how Obamacare enrollment stands in your area? At we have links to an interactive map and a spreadsheet with county data.

Fewer young people are smoking cigarettes, but more are smoking electronic cigarettes, some of which look like big flash drives. We reported on it at

Research has found that the active ingredient of the popular herbicide Roundup has been linked to shorter pregnancies, and thus to “lifelong adverse consequences,” researchers reported. See

More maps

A county-level interactive map shows employment trends in 2017, at

Another county-based map accompanied our item reporting that America’s rural population rose in 2017, after declining for six years. See

If you do or see news that should be on The Rural Blog, email me at [email protected].