‘Journalism practices the discipline of verification’,UK rural journalism chief on community newspap
For decades, Al Cross was perhaps the preeminent political journalist in the state of Kentucky. He still writes a column every other week or so for his former employer, the Louisville Courier-Journal, but most of his time these days is spent teaching students as head of the University of Kentucky’s Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Cross oversees the Midway Messenger blog his students write (with a bit of help from him), is at most Midway City Council meetings, and is considered a national expert on community newspapers like The Woodford Sun.
He began his career in journalism writing youth baseball stories for The Clinton County News and got his first paycheck for radio work when he was 13. “I just tell people I grew up in community newspapers and radio,” he said during an Oct. 15 interview with the Sun. He was also a weekly newspaper editor and manager for newspapers in Monticello and Leitchfield before he got the big city job in 1978.
What’s the state of community journalism these days, and what’s going to happen in the future?
You really asked two questions in one – what’s the state of community journalism, and what’s the state of the news business. It’s always important to distinguish journalism from the news business, which pays for journalism, which can be done without the news business…
Somebody can go out and do journalism for free… I resist anybody who ever says something like, “the journalism industry.” Well, don’t give me that crap. It’s not an industry.
If you look at the (Oct. 16) post on the rural blog (http://irjci.blogspot.com/), you see a bad indicator. It’s a story about how the main organization of community newspapers in this country had a big membership drop this year, and a big financial loss as a result. They attributed that to the (newsprint) tariff issue, that everybody was cutting expenses and the first expense to go is membership in some national organization that you may not think is doing you much good. Well, it did good – it got the tariffs beat…
Look at the Trump Administration – it’s anti-newspapers, and the National Newspaper Association mobilized the small newspapers of this country to go to talk to their members of Congress and the Commerce Department and say, “Look, this is an existential threat to us. You’re incurring a 20 to 30 percent price increase in our second-largest cost of business…”
(The article) talks about how there’ve been about 1,300 largely small newspapers close in the last 15 years. These tend to be newspapers in non-county seat towns… My general rule has been if a community is doing well, its’ community newspaper is probably doing OK. (Others) are suffering from digital erosion – people spending more time with digital media and social media than the printed newspaper, but they still average about a 40 percent household penetration, which is better than any other medium, really… They continue to be the healthiest part of the traditional news business.
What can a good community newspaper bring to the community?
It brings information of all types, from commercial information that people need about local businesses to information that serves democracy – information about local issues into which people need to have some input. A good community newspaper helps set the public agenda for the community; makes it face up to its issues. I teach my students that a good newspaper does three things: It informs; it convenes – it has a public forum, an editorial page where people can contribute letters and longer pieces; and it leads. It doesn’t have to have an editorial every edition or even most editions, but when it sees something that needs some insight, some leadership, from the newspaper, it does that. Most editorial voices of Kentucky newspapers are not traditional editorials, which (the Sun) has, not in my memory, had. It’s been a column from the editor or publisher, and you all are now back in the category of having a regular editorial voice – your column, which I’m glad to see has a picture with it now.
I finally found one that doesn’t turn people’s stomachs, so… What do you tell your kids and what kinds of questions do they ask you about the future of newspapers? Are there some who say, ‘Nobody reads these things anymore,’ and if so, what do you tell them?
The readership in newspapers in the United States is just as great as it ever was. The problem is they’re not getting paid for the access to that. Stories get shared on social media and people read stuff for free… Newspapers don’t get paid in the same way for producing their journalism that they used to. If you have a national platform like USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post, then, you can make a lot of money in the digital space… It’s really difficult for a newspaper the size of Lexington and Louisville have, to say nothing of Versailles, to make money in the digital space… Newspaper markets in this country are largely defined by county lines.
So what do you see happening in the future for us – the community newspapers?
Well, I think they’re going to be around for a long time. I think one advantage to community papers… is the print edition. In some respects, a weekly newspaper is more like a magazine. It lays around the house for a week, or almost a week. People don’t feel like they have to read the whole thing at once… And advertisers appreciate that, too. The audience for community newspapers is a little older than average, so it’s more likely to stick to print, but I think we’ll see print editions of community newspapers in this country for at least another 15 to 20 years, and probably longer… I think you’ll find daily newspapers like Lexington and Louisville dropping some print days. A number of dailies around the country have already done that… It’s an erosion, it’s not a collapse.
It seems to me that journalists in general are under attack in an unprecedented way. I have people who don’t even know me and have never read my work say, ‘Oh, you guys are all unfair to this particular party.’ When someone challenges your integrity or seems to believe that because you’re a journalist, you lean in one direction… what do you tell them?
Generally, I would say that most newspapers in this country are conservative. If you take a list of all the newspapers in this country, and who publishes them – and I know a lot of these people – I don’t have much doubt they’re right of center… Just because the most prominent newspapers in this country have liberal editorial pages doesn’t mean that most newspapers in this country are liberal. That’s just silly. People need to stop and consider the difference between the newspapers that the president and conservative critics attack and the newspapers that are published in their hometowns. They’re not the same things.
What else would you like to say?
I think it’s important for people to understand what journalism is. Journalism has done a bad job of defending its brand. Journalism is being undermined by social media because people no longer know what to trust. They see something on social media, and they say, ‘Well,
I’m not really sure about that.’ People are inclined to believe what they want to believe, and they get all this information from an unverified source. Journalism practices the discipline of verification. That is the essential difference between the news media and social media. There is no verification on social media, except what you want to apply to it. In the news media, there is a discipline of verification.
Now, some in the news media do a bad job of separating fact from opinion. I think they’ve really fallen down on that score in some cases.
But the news media are about getting the facts and delivering them to the people so they can use them to make informed judgments about their role in democracy.
Do you want to say anything about the Woodford Sun?
Well, I’ve always considered the Woodford Sun to be a great servant to the people of Woodford County. May it ever prosper.