The Write Stuff/ No Free Lunch

Belleville Telescope Editorial – Deb Hadachek

I sit writing this morning sipping a cup of coffee (which I bought at the grocery store), in a warm office (because I pay my propane bill), using electricity and internet (both services I am grateful are delivered for a fee to my rural home).

Then a headline catches my eye: “New Gallup/Knight Study: Local News Should Be Available to All, Yet Americans Divided on How to Pay for It.”

The first paragraph reads: Most Americans – 86 percent – think people should have access to local news – even if they don’t pay for it, a new Gallup/ Knight study has found.

Whoa, back up the buggy. There’s no such thing as a free lunch–or a free cup of coffee.

I frequently visit with people who love their newspapers–and who want “real” newspapers with “real” pages to turn while they drink a cup of coffee. They are disgruntled because newspapers today contain fewer pages. Dailies have less local news and more canned “advertorials” and features.

People are shocked when they discover newspapers charge for obituaries and thank you notes and church turkey dinners. They complain about the cost of subscriptions and grumble when a photographer isn’t available to cover events seven days a week.

Why can’t you do that–for free?

Many Monday mornings I pack my phone (for which I pay a monthly fee) and my laptop (which I bought) and fill my travel mug with coffee (I buy a lot of coffee). I hop in my vehicle (which I paid for, and buy insurance and tags), and drive to town (fuel: $2.39 a gallon this week) and listen to the Republic County Commission meeting agenda for a couple of hours (I pay quite a bit in property taxes).

Every week there are interesting discussions that affect local citizens. Which roads do we need to fix, and what’s their level of priority? Solid waste fees are going up (I get one of those bills every year). What’s the status of the proposed wind farm in eastern Republic County? How can we administer enough flu shots to keep our citizens safe and healthy

Somebody, somewhere in Republic County cares about all those topics. They are important to us.

I love what I do, I love our readers, I love the newspaper business.

But I can’t work for free. The people I buy stuff from wouldn’t like that.

The simple act of getting that information from my laptop into the hands of our readers requires several local staff members (who are paid), rolls of newsprint and barrels of ink (which are expensive), equipment, technology, fuel, postage and more labor along the food chain to run the press, sort the mail and deliver the paper.

None of those people work for free, either.

Since October 1, The Telescope has delivered 104 pages of local news to its readers. That equals 13,104 inches of stories, photographs, school events, advertisements, and legal notices of interest to Republic County, Kansas.

It is not an all-encompassing record of what’s going on. People are really enamored with “free” these days.

Sometimes we don’t know about things because no one bothered to tell us. Some businesses and organizations value their products and services and events enough to charge their customers for them–but only want to rely on “free” advertising to get the word out.

The majority of our readers still pick up almost 3,000 copies of our print edition every week. I’ve been surprised by that, since on-line delivery is cheaper, faster and generates less waste–both for us and our customers.

Yes, there are plenty of “free” social media sources of news out there. Those are limited to your circle of friends, what time of day it is, and peppered with an unending supply of cute cat videos, inspirational quotes, and questionable jokes.

On the national and state level, I caution people to look closely at who is writing and distributing the information they read.

Someone is likely paying big bucks to influence your opinion on how to vote or what to buy. There really is no such thing as a free lunch–or a free cup of coffee.

12/21/2018 –

Al Cross on the importance of rural journalism

By Al Cross
Has any rural journalist has won one of the major journalism-ethics awards? I don’t think so, and if that’s right, such honor is greatly overdue. It is generally more difficult – and can be a lot more difficult – to do hard-nosed, ethical journalism in rural areas and small towns than in metropolitan areas, partly because of the constant conflict that rural journalists must deal with, between their professional responsibilities and their personal interests: family, friends, business relationships and so on.
That’s what I said on The Rural Blog last month in announcing the Jan. 15 deadline for the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics, given by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. It has the earliest deadline of the annual ethics awards; details are at
In the last few months The Rural Blog has featured work of three great rural editors, all women, who displayed the professionalism, gumption and common sense that it takes to do good, ethical journalism in rural areas.
After she heard rumors of sexual assaults involving a middle-school football team in Edina, Mo., Edina Sentinel Editor Echo Menges was told that seventh- and eighth-grade players had sodomized up to five fifth- and sixth-grade players with metal objects while other students watched. The school superintendent and sheriff wouldn’t confirm details, and the school board wouldn’t let parents talk about it at a meeting, so Menges began talking to children and parents and published a story.
The parents insisted on anonymity. If Menges were asked in court to reveal those sources and refuses, she would face jail time since Missouri doesn’t have a shield law protecting journalists from having to reveal anonymous sources. “This is an important enough story that I would be willing to go to jail for it,” she told Anna Brett of The Missourian. Our Rural Blog item on her work is at
Editor-Publisher Stevie Lowery of The Lebanon (Ky.) Enterprise was instrumental in passing a school-tax increase, did a five-part series on drug use and published stories on a transgender teenager and the county’s first same-sex marriage. For this and more, she won the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian, given each year by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Lowery said in accepting the award that rural journalists have to educate audiences, take stands, be watchdogs and be willing to lose friends. “We write these stories to educate people – to help them understand, to open their eyes, their minds, and their hearts,” she said. “Often times, newspapers have to take a stand . . . In small towns, that can cost the newspaper staff a friend or two. But, at the end of the day, newspapers have a responsibility to be the watchdogs for their communities, for their country.” Our report on her work and her speech is at
A recent winner of the Smith award, Sharon Burton of the Adair County Community Voice, wrote an unusual editorial about National Newspaper Week, saying she had seen no editorials on it that acknowledged journalism that has “problems with bias and misinformation.” But she concluded, “Journalism may not be done perfectly, but this nation would be ill served were journalism not allowed, encouraged, and supported by our citizens.” We noted it on The Rural Blog at
Election shows rural-urban divide: Democrats took control of the U.S. House but Republicans gained seats in the Senate, which is more rurally oriented because each state has two senators. The Rural Blog picked up several good analyses of the results, including from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Hill and Axios, at The WSJ’s Reid Epstein and Janet Hook had an excellent second-day take, saying “The midterm elections brought to a head a decade-long realignment of the U.S.’s major political parties, with Democrats winning contests in and around major cities while Republicans carried rural and small-town America. Just as rural white voters fled the Democratic Party after Mr. Obama took office, educated suburbanites abandoned the GOP after President Trump’s election.” Our blog item, with charts, is at
The election also highlighted the rural-urban economic gap. In October, Bill Bishop and The Daily Yonder produced an interactive map that showed job growth in rural America continues to lag the rest of the nation. You can get to it via
Rural economy: Decisions by and Google to put big facilities in New York and the Washington area showed that “Smaller cities are also pulling in educated workers, but are having trouble competing for the nation’s most prized jobs and biggest projects, while rural areas are falling behind,” The WSJ reported.
We noted that many rural economic developers hoped that the internet would allow people to work from anywhere, and the Journal said experts thought “tech workers would scatter across the country as firms sought cheap office space. Instead, places like Silicon Valley and Seattle proved that clusters of highly skilled workers fueled innovation at a faster pace.” We added that the lack of high-speed broadband in many places has limited the ability of some small towns to capitalize on the internet economy. Our Rural Blog item is at
Despite all that, most rural Americans say they value rural life and are optimistic about the future, according to the ‘Life in Rural America’ survey by NPR, Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. They do economic issues and drugs as the biggest problems facing rural areas. We reported on it at
If you report or see news that should be on The Rural Blog, email me at
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 a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at