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Telling the Stories That Need to Be Told

by Robin Roenker

The Coalfield Progress newspaperAl Cross learned an important lesson at baseball games when he was 11 years old. He thought it was about keeping score, but it turned out to be about journalism. As official scorer for the Little League in his hometown of Albany, Kentucky, he had to determine whether to score a batted ball as a hit or an error. “Because an official scorer makes both batter and fielder happy when he scores a hit and makes them both mad when he scores an error, I learned how to defend unpopular choices, which turned out to be good preparation for journalism.”

This experience served him well in his 26-year career at the Louisville Courier-Journal, 15 of it as the chief political writer. Now, through UK’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, he hopes to share this message with other reporters throughout the country struggling to write stories of meaning to rural audiences: Call them like you see them. Report on the stories that matter, and report them accurately and well—no matter how controversial or complex the issues may be.

Creation of the institute was partly driven, Cross says, by the widespread buyout by large newspaper chains of rural daily and weekly papers in the 1980s and 1990s. “Many of them cut staffs and lost their focus on local issues. Stories on issues central to the sustainability of rural communities—on education, the environment, economic development, and healthcare—were simply going untold.” So in August 2004, this institute was launched at UK as a way to reenergize and re-empower rural journalists to tell the stories that needed telling.

Cross, the director and only full-time employee, is a man who clearly loves his job, even if he has discovered that he’s his own toughest boss.

“I give myself too much to do,” he admits, sighing and leaning back in a chair in his office, which is an interesting mix of Kentucky scenes and political journalism. A picture of a tobacco field hangs on the wall alongside the first issue of the Wayne County Outlook, dated from 1904. Newspapers have taken up residence everywhere, and the bookcases are stacked with biographies of political icons like Eugene McCarthy and Richard Nixon. And there, helping to prop up Nixon, is Politics for Dummies.

Photo of Al Cross and Chas HartmanIn his office at the UK College of Communications and Information Studies, Al Cross works with Chas Hartman, a second-year master’s student in journalism. They meet daily to edit The Rural Blog, an online source sheet for covering stories shaping rural America.

But back to Cross’s maniacal schedule. “I see all these things that people would like me to do, and I want to do them, because I think they need doing.” These “things” range from sponsoring statewide and regional journalism and policy conferences on thorny topics such as the environmental and economic impacts of coal to inadequacies in education and healthcare—issues that have long challenged rural America, and Appalachia in particular—to launching the The Rural Blog, an online source sheet for covering stories shaping rural America, and conducting research on content and ownership of rural papers.

And while Cross feels that shedding journalistic light on the issues facing rural America is of key importance, he doesn’t want the institute to take sides. “We are advocates for the debate and for the examination of issues,” he says.

Moving Out of the Sandbox
The idea for the institute began in late 2000, when Rudy Abramson, who had covered stories on Appalachia as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and who is editor of the newly released Encyclopedia of Appalachia, and Kentuckian Al Smith, longtime newspaper editor and host of Kentucky Educational Television’s political show Comment on Kentucky, shared their mutual concern about what they saw as the declining quality of rural newspapers.

They agreed something needed to be done to combat the ill effects of what Smith calls “the Wal-Marting of Main Street in America”—the loss of small-town ownership of local news media, banks and retail establishments to large conglomerates.

With UK President Lee Todd’s approval and support, Smith worked to incorporate the solution he and Abramson—and by this time, Cross and others—had envisioned: a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional center, which, according to Cross, is unique in the country. “Nobody else has a center to address the problems of rural America through journalism,” he says.

Having secured $250,000 in initial funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, $50,000 more from the Ford Foundation, and pledges of “academic collaboration” from six or seven universities in Appalachia or states that border Kentucky, the institute was open for business. But Cross makes it clear that he isn’t running a writing institute. Its focus is not on the finer points of spinning out strong journalistic copy; its mission is to share the ideas and policies behind the stories that need to be covered. “Of course, there will always be some element of craft in what we do. But the priority is to encourage and help journalists who write about issues facing rural America.”

And while the center, because of its location at UK, may always retain a particular interest in rural Appalachian issues, one of Cross’s main goals is growing its focus to encompass rurality more generally. Already, that is happening, thanks in large part to the institute’s online Rural Blog, which is now regular reading for hundreds of journalists who cover rural issues.

Jennifer Brown, a reporter with the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, found the blog to be instrumental in helping localize her story about the tobacco buyout program last year. “Thanks to the blog, I was able to find a source of buyout recipients in my Kentucky coverage area, information I hadn’t been able to access elsewhere,” she says.

Photo of Al Cross (foreground)and Chas HartmanBut her story is not unique. Cross hears praises for the blog—which encompasses story ideas and story sources for almost any issue facing rural communities today, from mining safety to methamphetamine addiction—daily. “I probably wouldn’t have done the story otherwise,” writes one contributor. “It wasn’t even on my radar screen.” And the accolades come from somewhat unexpected places, states like Oregon, Delaware and Colorado that have small rural populations.

But rurality exists in every state in the nation, explains Cross. “Fifty-five million Americans live in rural communities,” he says, “and very few of those today are farmers.”

Cross knows that taking on rural issues faced by the entire country will be daunting, but he breaks it down in terms that seem manageable, even fun. “Here’s the way we look at it geographically. Central Appalachia was the sandbox. We had to learn how to crawl around in the sandbox before we could start walking around in the yard. So, if Central Appalachia is the sandbox, then Kentucky and the greater Appalachian region are the yard. And the rest of the country is the street.”

A Way to Rub Shoulders
Abramson says one simple fact has already helped the rural institute to be successful: it is located within a university. Both he and Smith emphasize the role that colleges and universities can play in advancing the academic and social welfare of the rural communities surrounding them. And both hope that the center can help rural journalists serve as ready conduits of information between communities and their local colleges.

“In turn, a lot of these smaller colleges need to better learn how to make use of the media to share the work that they’re doing,” says Abramson, who serves as chair of the institute’s national advisory board. “It’s all about forming partnerships and strengthening collaborations. And the institute is one way to do that.”

The Morrow County Sentinel newspaper

Cross is currently working to raise $750,000 in funding, which could then be doubled both through private donations and a matching fund from the state for a total endowment of $3 million. The money would be used to expand its outreach and teaching capacity, cover the long-term operating costs of the institute, and to hire additional staff. And Cross would eventually like to establish web-based training modules available to journalists throughout the country. “Three million is really the minimum we need to make this a truly national program that does what needs to be done,” says Cross.

Again, he’s talking about things that need to be done. But he pauses to admit, with a satisfied smile, that the center is already making important headway into some of them.

“The defining characteristic of rurality is isolation. And I know from personal experience that there are thousands of good rural journalists in America. Or those that could be good. They don’t get a chance to rub shoulders or share ideas with people like themselves. And that’s what the institute is here to do.”

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