Archive for the ‘newspapers’ Category

‘Spotlight’ exposes state of newspaper journalism

First published March 12, 2016

I watched only a few minutes of the Academy Awards this year because I’m not obsessed with celebrities, and I find most movies a waste of time.

Like many newspaper reporters, though, I was thrilled the next morning to read that “Spotlight” had won Best Picture.

The film is about The Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation of sexual abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the church’s failure to do anything about it.

It’s a true story that shows reporters and editors at their best — questioning their own shortcomings and holding their work to high standards while coping with the tremendous pressures of the job.

It also spotlights the importance of investigative journalism and the threat it faces in an industry that’s shrinking at an alarming rate.

As actor Brian d’Arcy James, who played reporter Matt Carroll, put it, “You can’t have a free society without a free press.”

There are other sources of news, and some television programs do excellent work. But as Walter Cronkite admitted years ago, most of the work is done by newspapers, and television repeats it. That’s also true of online sites that “aggregate” news from print and broadcast sources.

The weekend of the Oscars, I went out and bought “Spotlight” on DVD. One thing I like about discs are the “bonuses” — short pieces about how the movies are made and the real stories behind the storylines.

With “Spotlight,” there are interviews with director Tom McCarthy and actors on why they did the film and the state of investigative journalism today.

Actor John Slattery, who plays Ben Bradlee Jr., the Globe’s former deputy managing editor and son of the legendary editor of The Washington Post (journalism tends to run in families), noted that The Boston Globe’s news staff today is half of what it was in 2001 when its I-team exposed the church.

He added that the “transformation from news to news as entertainment is disconcerting.”

Newsroom reductions result from several factors, including the loss of print advertising to digital competitors, more media competition for people’s time, and owners’ insistence on profits comparable to what they had when newspapers were filled with classifieds and full-page car dealership and supermarket ads.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, newsroom staffs have been reduced by 40 percent since 2003. That’s two out of every five reporters. And that means many “beats” are getting short shrift.

It’s happening in community newspapers as well. Recently I ran into a young reporter (the son of a reporter) who had just become editor of the weekly I edited for 10 years. I had four full-time staffers and a roster of talented freelancers, and I needed all of them. Now it’s just him and the sports writer.

Is it any wonder most young reporters get burned out by the time they’re 30 and go into public relations or some other career? At the small daily where I cut my teeth, we had a top-notch young staff. One is now a nurse, another a librarian, and another, a Marine reservist, returned to active duty. One who still works in a newsroom does assembly line editing for something like 20 newspapers a night.

Last Wednesday, I visited the Kentucky Capitol for the first time since my stint as an Associated Press reporter and saw some of my old colleagues. On a typical day, six or eight reporters from three papers and the AP handle all of the state government news for the state’s other newspapers and broadcasters.

An older statehouse reporter told me the young man who got his start working for me at a small daily, and whom I watched grow into the fine government reporter for a metro daily had gone over to the other side and was now a government spokesman. I can’t fault him for that. I recently considered doing the same thing myself, but I bowed out because I love what I do. So did he, but he has a family. Most reporters I know couldn’t get by on what they earn if their spouses didn’t work.

According to CareerCast.com, out of 200 occupations in the U.S. in 2015, the worst — based on pay, stress level and job outlook — was that of newspaper reporter. It ranked below corrections officer, soldier and taxi driver.

Many of us who are reporters, however, couldn’t be as satisfied doing anything else. It’s interesting, often exciting, and sometimes it allows you to make a real difference in people’s lives. After a while, it gets into your blood. But it shouldn’t bleed you dry.

What a community newspaper should be

Oct. 3, 2014

What is journalism for?

That’s a simple but essential question we’ve been grappling with in our weekly newsroom meetings as we’ve worked to craft a mission statement for The Kentucky Standard and PLG-TV.

As a reporter and former editor, it’s something I’ve given some thought to over time, and these are some of the conclusions I’ve reached.

• The first purpose of journalism is to tell the truth without fear or favor so that people have the information they need for democratic government.

This is a principle I’ve held to my entire career and one well-defined by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel in their primer, “The Elements of Journalism,” which I recommend to everyone, not just journalists.

The phrase “without fear or favor” is a motto of The New York Times, which is still the gold standard of American journalism.

There’s a good reason “the press” is given special mention and protection in the Bill of Rights, and it’s that it has a special responsibility.

Democracy cannot exist without freedom of information, and we should honor that by making reporting on government our highest priority, even if it isn’t what sells the most papers in this cynical and apathetic age.

Selling papers isn’t what this profession is primarily about; it’s about public service.

• A newspaper is a sacred trust. Any paper worth its name must put the public interest and integrity before profit or politics. If it doesn’t, it will fail and it will deserve to fail.

If our sources in government think we care more about controversy for the sake of page views than about the important work they do day in and day out, they will lose trust in us, and so will our more intelligent and thoughtful readers. And they are the ones who are our most loyal customers and the people who lead our communities — usually quietly and without necessarily being out front.

• Journalism is, to use Kovach and Rosentiel’s phrase, a “discipline of verification.” Even in the Internet age, with its fierce competition for information, it is more important to get the story right than to get it first or fast.

Credibility is our stock in trade. Without it, we have nothing.

• Besides being accurate, we must be fair. There is no such thing as an objective person — each of us carries his own baggage — but journalists must be aware of their biases and be careful not to let them influence how we cover the news.

Reporters should be mindful of keeping our opinions off the front page. But even on the editorial page, where we are expected to offer our opinions, we should strive to be fair and independent — especially independent of politics, advertising and financial influence.

• Information technology is changing at warp speed, and newspapers must become multimedia companies that deliver information quickly on many platforms. In doing so, however, they must not sacrifice accuracy, fairness, good writing and editing, and compelling images and design.

Our business model should be based on the knowledge that there are enough intelligent and discerning people out there who are willing to pay for trustworthiness and quality.

• We must always remember that our newspaper belongs not to us, but to our community. It must be a forum for respectful community dialogue involving our readers. And we must never fail to treat those readers, our customers, our sources and the people we report on with consideration and respect.

I’ve been involved in community journalism in one way or another for almost 30 years, and I’m aware that not everyone in the business shares my judgments on these matters, but many do. I offer them here as mine and mine alone.

Two years of telling stories in my new Kentucky home

Saturday, July 19, 2014 at 12:50 pm

On an unusually cool July morning, the sweet scent of whiskey mash hangs heavy in the air over Bardstown. I used to think the aroma was from a former bakery downtown, until the proprietor told me what it was.

Today it smells like home.

It was two years ago this week that I moved here from Winchester and started working for The Kentucky Standard as a reporter, photographer, copy editor and columnist.

That summer wasn’t mild like this one. Temperatures topped 100 degrees, and I looked forward to swimming at night at the Bardstown Parkview Motel, which was my residence for the first month. The vintage motor inn is in a leafy neighborhood that includes My Old Kentucky Home State Park.

These days I live in an efficiency behind the newspaper office and above one of the downtown businesses. It’s close quarters, but a good location. I can walk to the office, restaurants, the bank and the Episcopal Church.

I suppose if I were here for 20 years instead of two, I would still be a “brought in,” because Bardstown is traditional that way, and family ties in this old town are important. But it’s also a progressive small city in many ways, and one that exudes hospitality.

In my 30 years as a community newspaperman in Kentucky, I’ve felt welcome almost everywhere I’ve lived, but I’ve never felt more appreciated than during my time here. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t tell me they liked something I wrote, or that they read my Sunday column every week, or that they’re pleased I’m here and hope I’ll stay. For an introverted and sometimes insecure writer, that kind of affirmation means everything.

This has been a pleasant place to live and work, and I’ve done some of my best and most interesting work here (interesting to me, and I hope, to our readers). That was especially true of that first splendid summer and fall.

My first front-page story was a “special report” on the uninsured in Nelson County, in which I interviewed Jan Tronzo and Linda Simms. I now serve with them on the board of Nelson County’s free community clinic.

That summer I met some of the Sons of Bardstown, members of the local National Guard artillery unit who survived a horrific battle during the Vietnam War that claimed the lives of several of their brothers in arms.

Although I’m not Catholic, I was fascinated by the history of the Kentucky Holy Land and enjoyed writing about the Abbey of Gethsemani, the mission work of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the 220th anniversary of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Fairfield.

I’m also not a bourbon connoisseur, but I was intrigued by the bourbon lore of Bardstown and its environs, and enjoyed my first Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

I also had fun at my first Buttermilk Days, though I’ve never had a taste for wild game, and I’ve always preferred dry red wine to the sweet, heady homemade stuff offered there.

Inevitably, there have also been tragic stories that I would rather not have had to write about, most notably the murder or Bardstown Police Officer Jason Ellis. But even in that case, it was inspiring to see an entire community honor a fallen hero and show solidarity with his family, fellow officers and one another. It shows how strong are the ties that bind us.

That kind of kinship is part of what attracted me and keeps me here.

Policing: ‘It’s not just a job, it’s a life’

Saturday, May 24, 2014

It was one year ago today on a Saturday morning that I got the call from my editor, Forrest Berkshire, telling me something terrible had happened.

I was awake but still in bed. Earlier, I had heard sirens, but that isn’t unusual where I live, near the intersection of two of Bardstown’s busiest streets and a short distance from the fire station. When the phone rang, though, I had an uneasy feeling.

A police officer had been killed on the Bluegrass Parkway, Forrest said. My first thought was that it was a car crash, but it was a shooting. Probably the result of an altercation between the officer and a disgruntled misfit, I assumed.

I had been through that scenario twice before. Once was when Irvine Police Chief Bob Walker was killed by a lowlife who had bragged to friends that he had shot Bob before and would kill him next time. The second time was 15 years later when two sheriff’s deputies I knew in Jessamine County, Billy Ray Walls and Chuck Morgan, were gunned down by an ornery old river rat who was known to be dangerous. A third deputy, Sammy Brown, killed the assailant, but not before being critically wounded himself.

This time, it was different.

At a press conference that morning, I learned that Jason Scott Ellis — a Bardstown police officer with an exemplary record, a former pro baseball player and a 33-year-old husband and father — had been executed. Someone who knew where he would be and at what time ambushed him with a shotgun from the top of a bluff overlooking an exit ramp when Ellis got out of his car to clear some brush from the pavement that had been placed there to waylay him, and make him an easy target.

Ellis was off-duty at the time he was killed, having just finished his shift around 2 a.m. But a police officer is never really off the job, as Eric Johnson of Supporting Heroes made clear when he spoke May 13 at a local memorial for Ellis, at the same time Ellis was being honored along with 285 other fallen officers in the nation’s capital.

“The danger does not stop at the end of a law enforcement officer’s shift,” Johnson said. “It’s not a job, it’s a life. When officers take the oath of office, they do so knowing this, as well as the risks, and their families know it as well. They know the dangers, and they know by simply putting on a badge, they become a target, yet they do not waiver.”

It takes a special kind of person to be a good police officer. It takes someone who is brave and cares enough about those he has sworn to serve and protect that he’s willing to lay down his life for them, if necessary.

Unlike Bob, Billy and Chuck, I didn’t know Jason Ellis. But I know his kind.

When I slid off an icy road one evening in 2003, an off-duty Nicholasville detective risked his security to assist me.

When I was threatened by an informant in a murder trial, I was made aware that the police had my back.

I’ll always be grateful to them for what they do — even when they’re not on the job.

A year after the murder of Jason Ellis, police aren’t any closer to finding his killer. But they won’t give up until they do. Anyone who has information that could help them has a moral responsibility to come forward with it.

In the meantime, what each of us can do is what Jason’s widow, Amy Ellis, asked of us in a statement read at his memorial: Continue to remember her and her family as they try to put their shattered lives together, and “continue to pray for healing and justice.”

Remember, too, his fellow police officers who face risks most of us can only imagine. And say a prayer for them too as they watch over us day and night.

In defense of the ‘mainstream media’

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Journalists are not objective.

Since the rise of talk radio 20 years ago, critics of what they’ve derisively labeled the “mainstream media” have challenged those of us in it — reporters and editors for newspapers, public radio and the old television network newscasts —to admit it, and so I’ll oblige them.

Reporters aren’t objective because we’re people, and people aren’t objective. Each of us has prejudices and experiences that color how we see the world around us, the same as any teacher, farmer or factory worker has. We all bring our own baggage.

Those of us trained in the craft of reporting and editing the news, however, are taught to be aware of our predispositions and take care that we are not blinded by our opaque views. We also strive — to use the motto of Fox News — to be “fair and balanced.” But that doesn’t mean we give equal weight to truth and travesty.

If CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow had given equal time to the Nazis on the eve of World War II, his listeners would have thought him unfair — and probably unbalanced.

Similarly, no thinking person would have considered David Halberstam of The New York Times a credible witness if he had treated the Ku Klux Klan with the same consideration as the Freedom Riders during the civil rights struggle 50 years ago.

It’s the method of journalism that is objective, not the messengers. As with the scientific method, you look at the evidence and where it leads, then try to solve the puzzle; you don’t try to find scraps of evidence to piece together into a collage that reflects your preconceived notions.

That’s the difference between the mainstream media (which I prefer to call the real news media) and the alternative media of talk radio blather, cut-and-paste blogs and propaganda sites such as Alex Jones’ InfoWars or Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo.

Tom Rosentiel and Bill Kovach, in their superb primer, “The Elements of Journalism,” make the argument that the idea of journalistic objectivity has changed and is now misunderstood. Originally, it didn’t mean reporters were free of bias. “Quite the contrary … .Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information — a transparent approach to evidence — precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work,” they wrote.

Essential to journalism, they said, is a “discipline of verification” that includes the following principles:

• Never add anything that was not there.

• Never deceive the audience.

• Be transparent about your methods and motives.

• Rely on your own original reporting.

Again, these are concepts that separate the conventional news media from most alternative media. Talk show hosts deceive their audiences by distorting facts, taking quotes out of context and making stuff up. They usually won’t come right out and say that they have partisan motives, and they usually don’t rely on their own reporting. They get their information from us grunts in the trenches — newspaper reporters, wire service statehouse correspondents and network television videographers. Then they use that information without attribution, put their own contrarian twist on it, and turn around and bite the hands that feed them by telling audiences that they can’t trust the mainstream media.

Well, I’ve got news for you. These days, the mainstream media are about the only news sources you can trust.

———

A reporter who exemplifies that spirit of verification and independence is Roger Alford, the state Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Frankfort, who was my supervisor during my brief stint as a part-time legislative reporter in 2012.

Roger is a conservative with libertarian leanings, but you wouldn’t know it unless you know him well, because it doesn’t show in his work. He always treated lawmakers, candidates and others with fairness and respect, but he was dogged in getting the story and getting it right. It was good to have him as a mentor, however briefly.

One thing some don’t know about Roger is that he is also a Baptist preacher. At the end of the year, he retired from journalism after 30 years in the profession and accepted a job with the Kentucky Baptist Convention in Louisville as its communications director. It seems to me a perfect blending of his two vocations. I wish him well in his new endeavor.

 

Remembering an old-school newspaperman

Saturday, January 18, 2014

William S. Blakeman, one of the last of a special breed of newspapermen, was someone I had known most of my life.

My first memory of him was when he led my grade school class on a tour of The Winchester Sun’s printing plant and offices in the 1960s. I remember being fascinated by the Associated Press tape with holes punched in it that told stories from around the globe.

As a teenager, I was an avid reader of the Sun and an aspiring reporter, and I almost always read Bill’s columns.

When I graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a journalism degree in 1983, I hoped my first job would be with my hometown daily, but it would be 30 years later before Bill offered me a job. I turned him down because I was comfortable where I was. But when my company bought the Sun two years later, I was named managing editor, and Bill stayed on as a part-time editorial writer and copy editor.

We worked together for a few months, and he was helpful in showing me the ropes and making sure I didn’t hang myself. He and I had different ideas about the direction of the newspaper and different directives we were charged with executing, but I liked and respected him and benefited from his experience.

Bill had been editor of the Sun for more than 40 years before I returned home to manage the paper’s newsroom.

After he retired, I found a faded newspaper clipping in the closet of my office, which had been his. It was a poem called “The Indispensable Man.” He kept it there to remind himself to be humble, but I’m glad he left it for me, because I needed the reminder more than he did.

There may be no “indispensable man,” but Bill came close. For four decades, he was the conscience of Clark County, and he was actively involved in the community as a deacon for his church, a founding board member of the Bluegrass Heritage Museum, and a member of the Winchester Kiwanis Club.

He sponsored me as a Kiwanian, and we volunteered together at pancake breakfasts and other fundraisers.

I came to know Bill by working with him at the Sun and through the club. He was a stickler for details and consistency, and led by example. He taught that “just good enough” just isn’t good enough, and that you treat people fairly by treating them the same. He had more nervous energy than any septuagenarian I’ve ever known. Even when he was fighting the cancer that would take his life, he almost never missed a club meeting, but it was sad to see him haggard when he had been so full of life.

Bill was especially kind to me. When I lost my job through downsizing, he told me, “I’m sorry,” and I knew he meant it. He followed with interest my job search and was pleased when I landed a plum assignment with the AP covering the 2012 state legislative session and four months later, when I landed a job with The Kentucky Standard.

Bill and I were working the phones together at a Kiwanis auction that terrible night in March 2012 when I got a call from my AP editor in Louisville telling me West Liberty had been demolished by a tornado, and I needed to get there quickly. As I was leaving, Bill warned me to “be careful.” I wonder how many times he said that to reporters.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned that Bill had passed away. On Wednesday, I attended his funeral and was happy the preacher had us laughing about his wry humor. He would have liked that.

Bill Blakeman was a good, Christian man, and I would like to think I’m a better man for having known him.

Enough said.

‘Mainstream media’ the most trustworthy

Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 10:34 am

Journalists are not objective.

Since the rise of talk radio 20 years ago, critics of what they’ve derisively labeled the “mainstream media” have challenged those of us in it — reporters and editors for newspapers, public radio and the old television network newscasts —to admit it, and so I’ll oblige them.

Reporters aren’t objective because we’re people, and people aren’t objective. Each of us has prejudices and experiences that color how we see the world around us, the same as any teacher, farmer or factory worker has. We all bring our own baggage.

Those of us trained in the craft of reporting and editing the news, however, are taught to be aware of our predispositions and take care that we are not blinded by our opaque views. We also strive — to use the motto of Fox News — to be “fair and balanced.” But that doesn’t mean we give equal weight to truth and travesty.

If CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow had given equal time to the Nazis on the eve of World War II, his listeners would have thought him unfair — and probably unbalanced.

Similarly, no thinking person would have considered David Halberstam of The New York Times a credible witness if he had treated the Ku Klux Klan with the same consideration as the Freedom Riders during the civil rights struggle 50 years ago.

It’s the method of journalism that is objective, not the messengers. As with the scientific method, you look at the evidence and where it leads, then try to solve the puzzle; you don’t try to find scraps of evidence to piece together into a collage that reflects your preconceived notions.

That’s the difference between the mainstream media (which I prefer to call the real news media) and the alternative media of talk radio blather, cut-and-paste blogs and propaganda sites such as Alex Jones’ InfoWars or Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo.

Tom Rosentiel and Bill Kovach, in their superb primer, “The Elements of Journalism,” make the argument that the idea of journalistic objectivity has changed and is now misunderstood. Originally, it didn’t mean reporters were free of bias. “Quite the contrary … .Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information — a transparent approach to evidence — precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work,” they wrote.

Essential to journalism, they said, is a “discipline of verification” that includes the following principles:

• Never add anything that was not there.

• Never deceive the audience.

• Be transparent about your methods and motives.

• Rely on your own original reporting.

Again, these are concepts that separate the conventional news media from most alternative media. Talk show hosts deceive their audiences by distorting facts, taking quotes out of context and making stuff up. They usually won’t come right out and say that they have partisan motives, and they usually don’t rely on their own reporting. They get their information from us grunts in the trenches — newspaper reporters, wire service statehouse correspondents and network television videographers. Then they use that information without attribution, put their own contrarian twist on it, and turn around and bite the hands that feed them by telling audiences that they can’t trust the mainstream media.

Well, I’ve got news for you. These days, the mainstream media are about the only news sources you can trust.

———

A reporter who exemplifies that spirit of verification and independence is Roger Alford, the state Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Frankfort, who was my supervisor during my brief stint as a part-time legislative reporter in 2012.

Roger is a conservative with libertarian leanings, but you wouldn’t know it unless you know him well, because it doesn’t show in his work. He always treated lawmakers, candidates and others with fairness and respect, but he was dogged in getting the story and getting it right. It was good to have him as a mentor, however briefly.

One thing some don’t know about Roger is that he is also a Baptist preacher. At the end of the year, he retired from journalism after 30 years in the profession and accepted a job with the Kentucky Baptist Convention in Louisville as its communications director. It seems to me a perfect blending of his two vocations. I wish him well in his new endeavor.

Odds stacked against those who can’t afford medical insurance

On my first day as a reporter at The Kentucky  Standard, I was given a suggestion about what one editor thought might be a news brief about a benefit for a Bardstown woman who needed help paying her medical bills. When I learned, however, that Bonnie Varnell, 59, had cancer and had been turned down by insurance companies because of a pre-existing condition unrelated to her illness, I knew it was a bigger story.

Ed and Bonnie Varnell. Photo by Randy Patrick, The Kentucky Standard

I had been looking for an example that would tie in with the debate over health insurance reform, and I had found it.

The story has gotten more attention than anything else I’ve done for the Standard in the short time I’ve been here. Recently, it was picked up by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, which is led by former Courier-Journal political reporter Al Cross.

Here’s the short version of what was posted on the IRJC’s The Rural Blog. By clicking on the link, you can read the story I wrote. It was published on July 31. (Link: The Rural Blog)

One story of health insurance and health reform, doable in any American community

Here’s a story for every news outlet in the United States, no matter how small or large: Randall Patrick of The Kentucky Standard in Bardstown shows how the federal health-care reform law is having an effect at the individual level by telling the story of Bonnie Varnell, right, a local resident who was uninsured and is more than $65,000 in debt due to her fight against cancer.

For 18 years, Varnell worked at a daycare that didn’t offer health insurance. She wasn’t able to buy individual coverage because she had pre-exisiting conditions as a result of surgeries. She is only 59, so does not qualify for Medicare, and she didn’t qualify for the federal law known as COBRA, which “allows workers to keep their company group health insurance benefits for up to 18 months after leaving their jobs, as long as they pay the entire premium,” Patrick explains.

As a result, the bills kept mounting, despite hospitals giving the Varnells reduced rates through charity care. “I’ve been trying to pay something on every one,” Varnell’s husband Ed said of the bills he receives and has to delay paying in full. “It’s really frustrating. We had never been late a day in our lives.”

Now, Varnell has health insurance through a program created under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. “It costs her $315 a month and covers most of her costs after the deductible is met, but the law stipulates that a person with a pre-existing condition must be uninsured for at least six months before she or he can be eligible,” Patrick explains.

Varnell’s fear now is the program will be taken away if the Affordable Care Act is repealed after the November election. Patrick gives opponents of the law their say. (Read more)

Varnell is among the estimated 15 percent of people in her county who didn’t have health insurance in 2009, the last year for which estimates are available. For the Census Bureau website with estimates for every county, go here.

Telling people’s stories in my new Kentucky home

By RANDY PATRICK

Charles Kuralt, the CBS newsman who is better remembered for portraying life in small towns than for his war reporting in Vietnam, described community journalism as “relentlessly local.”

I’d go further and say it’s relevantly personal.

 

Bardstown was recently named The Most Beautiful Small Town in America by Rand McNally and USA Today.

If you want to be good at it, you’ve got to be engaged.

That goes against what they taught us in “j-school.” We were told reporters must be disinterested observers, and we must always be “objective.”

The problem is that there has never been an objective human. It isn’t the way we’re wired.

What’s objective is the method of journalism. Like scientists, we look at the evidence and see where it leads. We don’t bend the facts to fit preconceived notions. We are aware of the baggage we bring with us and are careful about how our biases color the way we see things.

We mustn’t forget that fairness, accuracy and honesty are essential to our credibility and our craft. Without it, we have nothing.

Trust is our stock in trade.

Community journalists, therefore, should be independent — within reason. People should know that our reporting isn’t tainted by business interests or political agendas. But they should also feel that we’re among their own. We should be engaged citizens in the communities we cover.

 

Charles Kuralt

The rules are slightly different for community newspapers than for metro media. When I was covering the legislature for The Associated Press in Frankfort earlier this year, I would never have accepted a meal or a favor from a lawmaker. But in the 10 years I was the editor of a rural weekly in Nicholasville, I would never have insulted a grandmother by turning down a plate of brownies. It’s a matter of common sense. She wasn’t just my source. She was my neighbor.

I’ve been doing community journalism in little country towns in Kentucky for 30 years, and I’ll probably keep doing it until I get good at it.

A year ago this month, I lost my job as editor of the daily paper in my hometown, where I thought I would work until I retired. But it didn’t turn out that way. Like thousands of other journalists in a media landscape that’s changing at breakneck speed, I didn’t adapt quickly enough.

Fortunately, Jamie Sizemore, publisher of The Kentucky Standard, offered me a good deal: She would give me a temporary job as a reporter, and give me the technical training I needed. In return, the paper could benefit from my experience as a reporter and editor.

Eventually, I want to live closer to my family. For the time being, though, I intend to make Bardstown my home. I could do worse than being a reporter in the Most Beautiful Small Town in America.

So far, I’m enjoying myself. I’ve gotten to cover a Purple Heart medal ceremony for a Vietnam veteran, interview candidates for district judge, take pictures of children returning to school on the first day of classes, cover a Fun on the Farm day camp for 4-H kids, write about how national health issues affect local people and learn something about digital photo editing, pagination and posting stories and pictures to the web.

As my friend, former editor Don White, put it: It sure beats working for a living.

Actually, it’s hard work, but it’s gratifying to know it makes a difference in people’s lives.

I hope she won’t mind if I share this, but after I’d been here a few days, I got a letter from a woman who wanted to thank me for an article about her mother because I “took the time to tell her story” and raise awareness “for others like her.”

Telling people’s stories, raising awareness and getting paid to do it. That’s what community journalism is about. Can there be any better way for a writer to make a living?

Good work if you can get it: On being a freelance writer

Nearly 40 years ago, when I was a seventh-grader at Conkwright Junior High School in Winchester, Ky., my English teacher, Mrs. Singer, had our class do a career study, and I chose “freelance writer” as my future occupation.

My classmates didn’t know what that meant, so I had to explain that it was a writer who isn’t an employee of a newspaper or magazine, but who sells his work.

John Boy Walton, played by Richard Thomas in the 1970s TV series "The Waltons," is reflective of the early life of the story's originator, novelist Earl Hamner Jr.

Like John Boy Walton on the 1970s TV series, I wanted to write what I wanted to write.

When I started freelancing late last year, it wasn’t because I had chosen it as a career, but it was one of the few options available to a jobless journalist in the most depressed economy our nation has seen since John Boy was scribbling stories on school notepads in the 1930s.

Last October, I ran into an old acquaintance, historian Thomas Parrish, at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort, and he asked what I was doing. I said I was doing a bit of freelancing, but added: “It’s a tough way to make a living.”

“Well,” he said, “you have to have a good idea.”

I felt stupid. I had just told one of Kentucky’s best-known authors — a man in his senior years who had made his living for decades as a self-employed writer — that it wasn’t a good life.

It certainly isn’t easy, as even the most talented and prolific writers will tell you. But even if you’re not as talented as Tom Parrish — or Charles Bracelen Flood or Silas House — it can be rewarding work if you don’t mind the rejection letters and sporadic paychecks.

This year, I worked part-time for almost four months covering the state legislature for The Associated Press, but I’ve continued writing articles for various publications.

Tom Martin, editor of Business Lexington, gave me my first assignment, an interview with Cindy Banks, executive editor of the Winchester-Clark County Chamber of Commerce.

When I applied for a reporter’s job at the Georgetown News-Graphic, the publisher, Mike Scogin, said he had decided to leave the position open for a while, but he could use me for some freelance work. That led to a week in Versailles working on stories for the News-Graphic’s Woodford Life magazine, a publication of the chamber of commerce. The two stories were about the women who own and operate most of the businesses in downtown Versailles, and a new initiative at Woodford County High School involving the use of school-provided iPads for all of the seniors.

My most recent article for publication was one I wrote for the Lexington Herald-Leader about the Clark Regional Foundation for the Promotion of Health and its plans for the old Clark Regional Medical Center after the hospital’s relocation to its new, facility on U.S. 60.

The story I spent the most time on, and which led to my current job covering state government, was one I did for Laura Cullen Glasscock, owner and editor of The Kentucky Gazette, a twice-monthly journal that covers state government, politics and public affairs. Now that my work with AP has ended, she wants me to write for the Gazette on a regular basis — at least one article per issue and a regular column on politics and public affairs.

The Gazette, named for the commonwealth’s first newspaper, had been publishing my political columns when I was the managing editor of The Winchester Sun until last August. When I lost that position, I asked Laura if she had something I could do. For the next few weeks, I worked on an in-depth article about how the trend toward more fuel-efficient vehicles would affect Kentucky’s road fund, which relies on the fuel tax for most of its revenue, and what alternatives the state might consider for those cars and trucks that don’t use diesel or gasoline as their fuel source.

Those articles are all here on Newer World, and I’ve included links to the original websites of the publications:

–– How will Kentucky fund its roads in a greener future? (The Kentucky Gazette, September 2011)

–– Winchester’s new chamber director gets off to a fast start (Business Lexington, Dec. 22, 2011)

–– Education in touch with technology at Woodford High (Georgtown News-Graphic, February 2012)

–– In Versailles, women mean business (Georgetown News-Graphic, February 2012)

–– Fate of old Winchester hospital complex has not been determined (Lexington Herald-Leader, March 26, 2012)

While I’m looking for full-time work as an editor or reporter, or a communications director for a nonprofit group, I intend to continue to do as much freelancing as I can. It will reduce the amount the government pays me in unemployment benefits, and, I hope, hone my skills.

Maybe I’ll even come up with a good idea, as Tom suggested, that will enable me to earn a living as a writer for hire.

 

 

 

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