By Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
This job can get to be a bit overwhelming at times. Trying to balance the needs of the newspaper, with the needs of a sick baby, and a property that threatens to overgrow us all with weeds, brambles, and vines if we don’t keep up, can be a challenge.
But it isn’t any different than what other working families often face. And I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else anyway. I always wanted to be a writer, and I’ve been lucky to say that for most of my adult life I’ve earned my living with my words.
I don’t always get to write about the fun and cool things, like entertainment features and UFO reports. (Carl Kolchak gave young me a very skewed idea of what a reporter’s life was like.) But I enjoy what I do, and I think it’s important.
Just how important it is was driven home during an event on rural journalism I attended a couple weekends back. While much of it was purely academic, or didn’t apply to our specific area and needs, one of the important things I realized was just how close Carter County came to being considered what they term a “news desert.”
But even that label showed just how removed the academics, and their data, are from the reality of life inside the communities they are studying.
For instance, Carter County used to have a “green” rating because it had two newspapers – the Grayson Journal- Enquirer and the Olive Hill Times – at the time of the last study numbers in 2019.
Under the current system we would be rated in yellow because we have one printed newspaper, which you are now holding in your hands.
However, none of that takes into consideration actual coverage. Those previous two newspapers shared the exact same content. Meanwhile our current newspaper, though generally thinner than those old papers due to sparse advertising, often has more and better local news coverage.
I can say this with confidence because I wrote for those other papers too, and I no longer have a corporate overseer telling me I can’t use my hours to cover certain events or meetings.
Sure, sometimes some of those meetings have to slide as a matter of scheduling, just because we don’t have the same time resources. But that was no different under corporate ownership.
For the most part, I’m happy with the level of coverage we’re able to provide – at least for local government.
Compared to other communities that also rank in the “yellow” zone because they have a single newspaper in the county, we’re overflowing with actual news.
Many of those newspapers don’t actually have reporters on staff to cover fiscal court, city council, or ambulance boards. Instead these papers, often owned by newspapers in neighboring communities or one of those out-of-state corporate owners, run submitted content and press releases.
They make some money off the KRS rules regarding advertising in the local paper of record. They make some off advertising and other paid content. And they don’t put in a lot of the work of going to meetings, building relationships, and watching the big picture of a story develop over the course of months or even years.
In those communities, beyond the rumor mill and social media, no one has any way of knowing if they might have gotten the wrong ballot, and no one is there to follow up with the county clerk and fiscal court if they do. They have no way of knowing if the mayor is showing up to council meetings, or if city councilors or county magistrates are doing the job the were elected to do.
They have no one, other than the citizens themselves making the time to attend a meeting around their work and family schedules.
These types of papers honestly don’t leave the people in the communities they cover any more informed than those living in “red zone” counties with no print newspaper. And that’s a problem – for the communities and for the state.
I’m not saying we’re a perfect newspaper, or that there isn’t more we could cover. We most definitely are not, and there most definitely is. But I’m saying that I am proud of what Nicole and I have accomplished. (With the help of folks like Keith Kappes and Rebecca Konopka and all our local contributors.)
I’m also saying that I wasn’t content to leave this one to outsiders with no vested interest in our communities. As I pointed out in this week’s editorial, I believe for Appalachia to have a viable future, we can’t rely on anyone but ourselves.
The academics may downgrade our county from green to yellow on their news desert map once the data catches up to reality again. But we were almost red, and I’m glad we could do our part to make sure that didn’t happen.
As County Clerk Mike Johnston pointed out during fiscal court on Monday, clear and fair elections are the cornerstone of democracy. And without news media, you wouldn’t know when that election process was breaking down.
It’s not only our right to know what is going on in our government, it’s our duty as informed voters. It’s important, and it’s the reason our founding fathers saw the rights of free speech and media to be important enough to enshrine in their very first amendment to the constitution.
We’re proud that we’ve been able to provide that information to you for the past two years. And we look forward to providing it for many more.
Jeremy D. Wells can be reached at email@example.com