This independent report was produced at the request of the Kentucky Press Association, which encouraged its members to offer examples of coverage to assist the author’s research.
In December, as the first coronavirus vaccines were being approved, the Commonwealth of Kentucky bought advertising in most Kentucky newspapers to get Kentuckians ready for the vaccination process. The $281,184 expense was a modest one, among billions of dollars in federal relief money that came to the state, but it was a timely boon for the newspapers. They were suffering from the double whammy of social-media competition followed by a pandemic that eroded even more of their ad revenue.
That ad order was also a recognition: that newspapers are still a good way to reach a large number of people with a broadly important message. And it could also be seen as a reward: for the newspapers’ performance in the pandemic. In perhaps the most challenging year for newspapers in their history, the community papers of Kentucky came through for Kentuckians. They published special editions devoted to the pandemic. They told the stories of people affected and anguished by it. They published tributes to front-line local heroes. They served as trusted sources of information about a subject that became scientifically confusing and politically contentious. They helped readers separate fact from fiction, and they held public officials accountable.
This report is based on responses to a request for comments and documentation from KPA members, a random examination of Kentucky newspapers at the University of Kentucky library, and continuing research of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
While the pandemic put newspapers under duress, it also brought pleasure and pride in good work.
“The thing we have done that I am most proud of is for four weeks through part of April and May we ran two color pages a week honoring the essential workers in our county,” said Dana Brantley, editor of the Ohio County Times-News. “We asked people to submit photos (free of charge) of an essential worker they would like to honor. It was our way of honoring and thanking those whose work was/is so important to us during the time of a worldwide pandemic.”
But there has also been pain, and loss. One of the saddest stories about the pandemic must be the one written in early December by Dave Taylor of the Hancock Clarion in Hawesville. It began, “This was not the story I was supposed to be writing.” Rather than a story about how he and office manager Tomi Mathew “had both battled Covid-19 and won, each on our own stubborn ways, and each with such disparate symptoms,” it was a story about her death, at 63.
“Tomi’s sudden death was a shock to us all here at the Clarion,” Publisher Donn Wimmer said in an email. “This has been tough on all of us. . . . I had some real good candidates for her job but we all decided we all could pitch in and do what Tomi did until the pandemic was contained and then consider hiring someone. Our business is holding up financially because we have produced two special sections in the last few months. That has helped. We received the first PPP and were hoping to get the PPP again but it looks like we will not qualify this time. I gathered my staff together to get them to go along with my new plan. I said lots of newspapers are downsizing but we are not! We are going to upsize and produce the best weekly newspaper in the area.”
Donn Wimmer, one of Kentucky’s longest-serving publishers of the Hancock Clarion, exemplifies the people who own and run Kentucky’s newspapers.
They’re immersed in their communities, and their mission in life is to serve them. That has become more difficult than ever, because of technology and (temporarily) biology, but they persevere.
As Alison Mick-Evans said, “It’s an honor.” Dave Taylor’s observations, his story about Tomi Mathew and other examples of Kentucky newspapers’ performance during the pandemic follow.
Pandemic performance makes public realize local newspapers are the best sources of information
By Dave Taylor
I was unaware at first that Tomi had tested positive for COVID-19 because I myself was quite sick with it, and by the time she texted to check on me and to tell me she had it too, she was also very sick.
But she wasn’t old, she wasn’t feeble, so I just knew she’d be OK in a couple of days and we’d share stories, and a little bond, because of our encounters with coronavirus.
When she died, it cast a pall over the office and left silence where there had been her loud “good mornin’” and confusion over where we order new printer toner and where we keep the new red pens.
She was the foundation for much of the operation of the office and with her gone we were left swaying in shifting winds.
In recent years we journalists have found ourselves competing not against other forms of news media but against posts on sites like Facebook by members of the public. This has hurt our status as the place to go to for information, but I believe that our actions during COVID-19 and otherwise have refocused the public’s perception that we are still the place to go for reliable, accurate information.
Beginning in March the Clarion offered free subscriptions to anyone who wanted one, in an effort to remove the barrier between the public and information.
We also removed the pay wall on our website for all stories related to COVID-19, and we continue those practices today.
When businesses hurt, newspapers hurt, so when coronavirus restrictions shuttered some businesses and fears over being in public sent other businesses’ customers to online retailers, our ad revenues suffered too.
But while our revenues have swooned, our reputation as an information source has improved. The public saw that posts on someone’s social media page were often wrong or exaggerated, but stories in our paper could be trusted.
Social media isn’t vetted; newspapers are. We have stated and established standards for ethics and accuracy. That, I believe, will be the saving grace of true journalism.
To view the full, unedited report go to http://irjci.blogspot.com/p/rural-journalism-in-pandemic.html.