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Editor's Notebook: To Appalachia and back

Opinion

Editor's Notebook: To Appalachia and back

I spent last week in Kentucky for the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. I was there to accept the society's annual Golden Quill award for editorial writing, and to deliver a few remarks about myself and The Forecaster.

But I came home with much more.

Although I've been a member of ISWNE since shortly after joining The Forecaster six years ago, I'd never attended the annual meeting. This one, based at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond and organized by EKU's Communication Department and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, left me feeling sorry I've missed the others.

It was enlightening, entertaining and invigorating to spend time with about 80 editors and publishers from across the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, Australia and Zambia. Our area codes and circulation numbers may be different, but we face common challenges. Workshops on the impact of the Internet on weekly publishing and journalism ethics, the use of video on the Web and competition from online-only news providers provoked thoughtful discussions and provided plenty of food for thought.

Small-group critique sessions produced suggestions for improving our quality of writing and newspaper design. Participants wrestled with the pros and cons of publishing not only anonymous comments from website readers, but anonymous letters in print.

We traveled north to the Bluegrass region around Lexington and toured Woodford Reserve, one of the premier bourbon distilleries. We visited the old and new state Capitol buildings in Frankfort, where we met with the governor's press secretary and a local statehouse reporter. And we dined on pulled pork and barbecued chicken, and talked about the economics of thoroughbred racing and casino gambling, with former Gov. Brereton Jones at his 3,000-plus-acre horse farm, Airdrie Stud.

But we also traveled nearly three hours southeast to Letcher County, where the coal-veined hills and hollows of Appalachia replace the limestone-laced, nutrient-rich rolling meadows that feed the thoroughbreds of the Bluegrass.

For people in places like Hazard, where we toured a surface (a.k.a. strip) mine, coal mining has been a blessing and a curse. The jobs pay well, but 30 years ago, the industry employed about 36,000 in eastern Kentucky; today, thanks to mechanization, fewer than 15,000 find jobs. People who own the mountaintops make money by leasing the land to mining conglomerates; many other residents still live in squalor. Besides feeding the demand from coal-fired power plants, the industry claims it does Kentucky good by creating "level land" for homes and businesses. But only about 2 percent of reclaimed surface mines have ever become housing developments, recreation areas or airports; most remain grassy, unused plateaus, out of synch with the native landscape.

In Whitesburg, near the Virginia border, we visited the Appalachian Film Workshop, or Appalshop, where documentary filmmakers tell the region's story with respect for its residents, their culture and heritage, but without pulling punches. Make an effort to see "Stranger with a Camera" or "Sludge," two of the films we viewed. If you're not moved, you're not breathing.

We also visited the offices of The Mountain Eagle weekly newspaper. When I was in journalism school more than 30 years ago, the Eagle was on the short list of "places you want to work," thanks to its relentless pursuit of truth and honesty in a county where both were in short supply. Pat and Tom Gish, refugees from big-city journalism, bought the Eagle in 1957. They changed its slogan from "a friendly non-partisan newspaper" to "It screams."

And scream it did – about political and economic corruption, strip mining, education, poverty and coal-mine safety. So loudly that in the 1970s the family was threatened, the newspaper was firebombed and 17-year-old Ben Gish was accused of starting the blaze. An investigation eventually established that a Whitesburg police officer was responsible.

The Mountain Eagle, meanwhile, never missed a week of publication – although Ben Gish missed several days of college classes at UK to help his parents put out the paper. The Eagle's slogan became "It still screams."

Today, less than two years after his father's death at 82 and with his mother suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Ben Gish carries on the family business and the Eagle's tradition of relentless, meaningful community journalism. He sets an example for every other newspaper editor – weekly and daily.

I was honored to accept my award for editorial writing on the same evening that ISWNE presented Ben Gish (and his parents) with the 35th annual Gene Cervi Award, named for a Colorado editor who exemplified the conviction that "good journalism begets good government."

It was an inspiring conclusion to an inspiring week.

Appalachian moonscape

Appalachian moonscape
Photo: Mo Mehlsak / The Forecaster
The International Coal Group surface mine in Hazard, Ky.

Eagle editor

Eagle editor
Photo: Mo Mehlsak / The Forecaster
Al Cross, left, of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, joins Ben Gish, editor of The Mountain Eagle, in a discussion with members of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors at the newspaper office in Whitesburg, Ky., on Thursday, June 24.

Weeklies and the Web

Weeklies and the Web
Photo: Courtesy Lindsay Huffman / EKU
Mo Mehlsak, left, editor of The Forecaster, and Tim Waltner, publisher of the Freeman Courier in Freeman, S.D., join other members of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in a seminar on Internet news at the organization's annual conference last week at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky.

Remarks of Mo Mehlsak, editor, The Forecaster, Falmouth, Maine, delivered Saturday, June 26, on winning the 2010 Golden Quill award for editorial writing from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors

Thank you Jim and Chad, thank you to our conference hosts from UK and EKU, to Al, Liz, Deb, Lindsay and LuAnn, and congratulations, too, to all the Golden Dozen Award winners.

If bits and pieces of what I’ve prepared sound familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard similar comments throughout the past few days and at previous conferences. As I’ve learned this week, whether you call it Ice-Wine or Is-Whinny, ISWNE is really all about one thing: community.

I had my first taste of community journalism from a summer job while I was in college. It gave me a solid introduction to the most fundamental kind of newspapering. The editor was married to the publisher, who sold all the ads, I was one of two reporters, everyone did paste-up and the rotary telephone and an IBM Selectric were our most technologically advanced tools.

I covered everything, from town council meetings to stories about native sons home on leave from the military. It was newspapering at its most basic, and when that summer was over, I never imagined I'd ever again work at a weekly newspaper, at the bottom of the newspaper food chain.

Flash forward 30 years. I'd worked for a trade mag covering the auto industry, a 200,000-circulation major metro daily, a 60,000 mid-size daily and a 15,000 six-day paper.

And I was ready to get out of the business altogether six years ago when the new, out-of-state owners of that small daily started demolishing the foundation on which I'd built my career.

When the publisher tells you with a straight face that your reporters must write advertorial copy or you lose one of them so he can add a job in advertising -- that's when it's time to go. So I did.

The same morning I left that paper for the last time I opened my local, free weekly, and found a help-wanted ad for a managing editor. A month later I was back at work, at the weekly. Or as we say at The Forecaster, the daily weekly.

We publish four different editions, with deadlines three days a week, covering three cities and 11 towns in southern Maine, including the state’s largest city, Portland. We compete with four other weeklies and two dailies, plus three TV news outfits and a handful of websites and content aggregators. We have a news staff of 6.5 reporters, a sports editor and me. Our largest competitor sells nearly as many papers a day as we distribute every week. But there isn't a week that goes by when the daily doesn’t follow The Forecaster on something.

That's because we understand our mission. For 25 years The Forecaster has been doing local news and commentary, and high school sports. And when we're done with that, we do more local news and commentary and high school sports. We don’t have wire services or syndicated copy; we do have motivated reporters who cover every town council meeting, and every school board meeting. And everyone, including the president and the publisher, is committed to the mission.

It's very old-school, but it's not all old-school.

Besides those four weekly print editions, we have a website where we post most stories at least a day before they're in print. All of us, myself included, are on Twitter. We're on Facebook. We send daily and weekly e-mail alerts. Our reporters do a weekly Q&A on one of the local TV newscasts. We've embraced the 24/7 news cycle and social media.

Because of the "daily weekly" nature of The Forecaster, and because of our commitment to not only competing with but also beating the dailies, the transition to a weekly wasn't that hard for me. And it was eased when I discovered ISWNE.

One of the things I appreciate most about the society is the Hot Line e-mail list. I posed a question last year that received dozens of responses: whether The Forecaster should use a sitting town councilor as a regular columnist. The overwhelming majority of you – including my new friend Tim Waltner – said no. We did it anyway, but the feedback encouraged us to even more carefully consider what we were doing and what the implications could be.

By the way, the column was so well received that when we put it on hiatus this spring because the councilor became a candidate for re-election, our daily competitor in Portland hired him away – without regard for his candidacy.

I look forward to each month's newsletter, with its examples of editorial excellence, problem solving, advice and encouragement – particularly the frequent reminders that no group is better positioned to be a watchdog on local government than we are.

And these days, with daily newspapers struggling to survive because they have forgotten how to do local news, and because their reliance on wire services and news that's available everywhere on the Web makes them increasingly less vital, our readers are depending on us more than ever to be that watchdog.

Mark Twain once put it this way:

"We are told that our newspapers are irreverent, coarse, vulgar and ribald. I hope that this irreverence will last forever, that we shall always show irreverence for royalties and titled creatures born into privilege, and all that class which take their title from anything but merit."

Chad asked me to prepare remarks that would only take about five minutes to deliver, and I think I’m pushing that. So again, thank you for the Golden Quill, thanks for welcoming me to what I hope will not be my last conference, and thanks for creating a community that proves there’s more fun, opportunity, reward and freedom to do good in community journalism – at the bottom of the newspaper food chain – than there is at the top.