By Al Cross
Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the extension professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at IRJCI.blogspot.com, Kentucky Health News at KyHealthNews.org and the Midway Messenger at MidwayMessenger.org.
Editorials are falling from favor at many American newspapers, for various reasons, including a desire not to upset and chase away readers, especially when it comes to our increasingly tribal and polarized politics.
Unfortunately, many rural newspapers don’t publish editorials, or even a column by the editor or publisher, which is the most common form of editorial voice in community papers.
But one journalism group, the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, was founded to encourage and advance editorial leadership in newspapers, and the only awards it gives are related to editorials.
Each year ISWNE has its Golden Quill contest, with the best editorial getting the award of that name, and 12 others honored as the Golden Dozen. The presentation of the awards is always inspiring testimony to the importance of editorial leadership, and this year’s Golden Quill winner was a sterling example.
Melissa Hale-Spencer of The Altamont Enterprise in New York won for her editorial that was central to a campaign that ensured fairness for an incapacitated subscriber and preservation of historic structures on the subscriber’s farm at a local scenic spot.
Hale-Spencer discovered that a court-appointed lawyer was going to sell the property to a developer. “We believe the price is not right and the assets are being ignored in the name of haste,” she wrote, raising other questions about the procedure that seemed to favor the developer. The editorial stirred interest in preserving the property and prompted the judge in the case to appoint an attorney to look out for the subscriber’s interests, and to pick another buyer, who not only paid more money but agreed to a conservation easement that preserved the centuries-old house and barn.
“I feel incredibly lucky to have a newspaper that brought people in our community together to solve a problem,” Hale-Spencer said at the online awards presentation.
Noting that two of the Golden Dozen winners wrote about the pandemic, Hale-Spencer said, “The pandemic has made clear that accurate information can be a matter of life and death.” She told the editors, “I urge you to stay strong, to believe in the worth of your work.”
One winning pandemic editorial was by Mark Ridolfi of The North Scott Press in Eldridge, Iowa. He warned Sept. 2 that inconsistent anti-virus measures by Scott County and the state were putting residents at risk. To those who wanted to let the virus “take its own course” and develop herd immunity, he asked, “Who is it OK to infect?”
Fines Massey, editor of the Laclede County Record in Lebanon, Mo., wrote Oct. 17 that virus cases were “skyrocketing” because residents weren’t wearing masks and keeping their distance. “We have to stop shrugging this away,” he wrote. “We have to take this more seriously before it becomes seriously too late.”
Massey said at the awards presentation that local attitudes are “much worse” now, and his publisher “asked if we were beating a dead horse,” but Massey said, “If we even sway one person, it’s important that we continue.”
He kept it up in the July 15 edition, with a commentary that noted a surge in cases and said “It is well past time for this community to get its collective head out of the sand and take a look around at what’s going on.” At this writing, a week later, Laclede County was still part of the biggest regional hotspot.
I haven’t seen many editorials about the pandemic in rural community newspapers lately, and I think it’s time for more – and some news stories featuring local health professionals. Rural Americans are among the most hesitant, or even resistant, to vaccination, and they are probably more likely to heed advice from trusted local experts than from public officials or national figures.
The pandemic is so politicized and personal, an editorial is unlikely to convince many vaccine skeptics to get a shot, so the better targets are family and friends who are more likely to be persuasive. Polling shows that many unvaccinated people say they need to know more about the vaccines, and there’s plenty of authoritative information online to answer all the frequently asked questions about them.
The Rural Blog and Kentucky Health News have published a comprehensive question-and-answer story that is being updated as new information become available, so feel free to borrow from it.
For more impact, work up a sample-copy edition that will reach everyone in your home county with authoritative information about the virus and the vaccines. You might even be able to get local and/or state governments to help pay for it, as Becky Barnes of The Cynthiana (Ky.) Democrat did when her county had the state’s first Covid-19 case.
And just how hesitant or resistant are your readers? Two new interactive tools reveal those numbers. One uses data gathered by polling done through Facebook; the other shows the relative interest in vaccination shown by online searches.
The Facebook-gathered data are in interactive maps from the University of Washington, showing what counties (and even what Zip codes) are most hesitant to get a shot. The maps reflect answers to this question: “If a vaccine to prevent Covid-19 were offered to you today, would you choose to get vaccinated?” The answers are “Definitely,” “Probably,” “Probably not” and “Definitely not.” People giving one of the last three answers are considered vaccine-hesitant.
The maps don’t break down the data by individual answers, but they are interactive, and can be switched to show the percentage of people saying “Probably” and “Probably not.” That allows simple subtraction to produce the “Definitely not” figure for each area.
Another tool, called Google Covid-19 Vaccination Search Insights, uses aggregated, anonymized data from Google searches about vaccination. The weekly data are available by region and by county. The trends reflect relative interest, broken down three ways: overall interest, vaccination intent, and safety and side effects.
If you need help covering the pandemic or anything else, just email me at email@example.com.