April 28, 2007

Summit on Rural Journalism

Last weekend (April 19-21) Al Cross and his team at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues held an amazing summit of journalists (newspaper, radio, and online), journalism educators and researchers, rural sociologists, and rural policy advocates. It was mostly held at the Shaker Village, a restored Shaker farm village that is now a heritage cultural center.

Among some of the highlights:

-- A panel of three top news execs from community-journalism companies (Landmark, CNHI, and Morris) who all discussed how they encourage and support good journalism in small newsrooms (it did my heart good to hear Frank Denton of Morris suggest that good journalism should be considered ROI).

-- Several discussions about how community news outlets can create successful (and profitable!) online products, with excellent examples.

-- A presentation by Al Cross of the IRJCI's recent newsroom training survey (you should read the survey, but here are two nuggets of interest for us teachers: rural editors want journalists to know a lot more about agriculture and about education).

-- A fascinating panel on rural sociology and rural policy that suggests "rural America" may include many more people than the Census Bureau claims (Census says 43 million Americans are rural, but more sophisticated measures says that number cold be closer to 90 million). There also are indicators that we are seeing a large urban-to-rural migration on the magnitude of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 70s. That might help explain why some rural newspapers are experiencing stunningly rapid gains in circulation.

-- Several discussions on newspaper ownership models that go beyond "indpendent family" and "Wall Street corporate." In Tupelo, Miss., the newspaper is owned by a community foundation; CNHI has a single investor -- the retirement system of the state of Alabama; and in Anniston, Ala. (as most of us already know), the Star has been turned into a "teaching newspaper" (our good friend Chris Waddle, director of the COM-J program at Alabama and the Anniston Star, told us about the progress of their first cohort of graduate students to go through the program).

-- A panel of independent publisher/editors talked about the challenges of remaining independent in tough, high-pressure times.

-- And the Tom and Pat Gish Award for "courage, tenacity, and integrity" in rural journalism, which this year went to the Ezzell family, publishers of the Canadian Record, a hard-hitting, deep-digging, against-the-grain weekly in the Texas panhandle. After hearing about that family's bravery and good humor in the face of open hostility, keynote speaker John Seigenthaler suggested that editors at the "big papers" have it pretty easy.

The interesting mix of people, rural setting, and excellent planning by Al and his crew made the summit the single best conference I have ever attended, bar none. To see what you may have missed, jump to the IRJCI Web site (http://www.ruraljournalism.org/) and poke around -- it contains transcripts of speeches, summaries of programs, and links to several videos of key sessions.

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