Editor of The McLean County News
Previously, Editor of The Ohio County Times-News
I really try to be as accessible to the community as possible. Given that we have a smaller staff, I am frequently out and about and interacting with my readership on a personal level. I really want the public to understand that it is their community newspaper, and I want the newspaper to reflect how they really live.
By Heidi Legg
Late last year, I began a conversation with Sam Ford who is leading various initiatives of the Future of Work in Kentucky with the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and the University of Southern California Annenberg School’s Civic Paths team. I began to toss the idea around with Ford, who is from Bowling Green, Kentucky, about whether it would make sense to do a collaboration between our hyperlocal coverage in Cambridge with outlets in Kentucky post the 2018 election. Ford has been a great advocate for local news and the imperative that national media pay attention to local news, including the middle of the country. He then introduced me to Seth Dukes, then Editor of The Ohio County Times-News in western Kentucky. Dukes and I began to email back and forth on how he was growing and building his local newspaper, comparing notes on attempts to tell stories that would have national appeal here onTheEditorial.com and there in Kentucky. We were both really busy and so we started with a list of questions. Dukes is better with deadlines, churning out a print newspaper every week, and he reliably sent me his responses below. I still owe him mine. If you like this interview, send me some responses you think Cambridge could share with Ohio County.
I sent Dukes broad stroke questions to try to understand his community and to learn by starting with what Dukes found newsworthy. I was also curious about revenue models and his responses left me confused. How could this local newspaper in Ohio County, with both a digital and print product, stay afloat when an experiment of paywalls, event tickets, and requests for donations or funding in one of the most-flush communities in America wasn't working for TheEditorial or larger local newspapers? Then as I dug deeper asking him more precise questions about advertisers and owners, when he declared… Many people in Ohio County don’t yet have high-speed internet. Suddenly, it was like time travel back to a paradigm that made sense for news. People read and advertisers pay the publisher directly for access to them.
What does this mean to have limited high speed Internet? It means their local newspaper is still the heart of the community. It is run by locals, writers and journalists like Seth, who sit in on town planning meetings, talk to their neighbors and write all they see and hear as the medium for the locals around them. The Ohio County Times-News is the leading source, outside of a chattering neighbor or talk radio, to discover what’s going on and what matters to the community.
His newsroom has yet to be usurped by ad dollars going to platforms with readers caught up in a social media stream. There are no bloggers, pundits, Facebook, or Twitter celebrities and trolls from other cities or nations creating a deluge of content that leads to a sea of despair. Instead, there is Seth taking photos, writing down what he hears and printing it each week for the people in his community. As a result, it removes his community from the snowball effect of the national and international breaking news cycle, disinformation and a deluge of content.. It puts hyperlocal at the forefront and, and as he says, “It gives the community a chance to be involved. It is more their paper than ours.”
This means local advertisers and public government notices pay for space alongside his stories. As society loses trust in the news, with no thanks to some of those in power, it’s worth thinking about, even for those of us who love the promise of technology.
What have we lost with this surge of interconnectivity, with global showmanship, and how do we reclaim what once mattered most in our daily news diet? How do we bring it back to home, while still staying broad-minded and globally aware using the power of interconnectivity to progress?
Wanting to talk more about the vitality of local news in our democracy, Dukes and I set up a call and I was able to capture more. In a time of extreme polarization, editorially it may help us to look outside of Cambridge for a week and ask, “What’s life like in your place?”
How many reporters do you have on staff?
We only have a couple. We used to have a writer for every community. We have almost 600 miles of county roads between communities as our communities are spread out. We have two writers from smaller communities who write summary columns. Ohio County is Kentucky's fifth largest county, in area, with 596 square miles with a population of 23,481.
What happens with no one sitting in on city meetings? It is very scary. Having a reporter there keeps the checks and balances. In my town, I know the local officials and if they cancel a meeting, they let me know.
Describe the Ohio County News. We are a community newspaper here in Ohio County that publishes once each week. Typically, our issues are between 20 and 24 pages. I handle the writing, covering everything from local artists to local meetings.
What are you trying to change with your local paper? I really try to be as accessible to the community as possible. Given that we have a smaller staff, I am frequently out and about and interacting with my readership on a personal level. I always try to encourage them to come to me if they need anything at all if they have an idea for a story or really any issue they think needs to be brought to my attention. I really want the public to understand that it is their community newspaper, and I want the newspaper to reflect how they really live.
How did you begin what you are doing? I studied professional writing/rhetoric and literature at Western Kentucky University. When I graduated in December 2015, I started a job as a reporter for the local paper in my hometown, Muhlenberg County. After about three months of working there, a position as editor at our sister paper became available, and management decided to promote me to the position. I started here in the summer of 2016.
Since accepting this position and being exposed to photography, I've discovered it to be a true passion of mine. If I'm not writing or reading, it's pretty likely that I'm taking pictures; I wouldn't have it any other way. Since I've been at the publication, my main enjoyment and positive feedback have come from writing about local artists. I have met some of the most interesting people in my life thanks to this career, and it really is an honor to be able to tell their story.
What is your community most concerned about? My community is mostly concerned about things that impact them locally and directly. The community loves seeing coverage of events that they’ve worked hard to put together, so we have a big emphasis on that. Additionally, Ohio County is one of the largest counties in Kentucky as far as actual area is concerned. Traveling from one town to another can be impractical for many, so it’s important that our publication give them a lifeline to other areas of the community. This not only includes the coverage of events but also the coverage of meetings, both city, and county.
Do you see yourself as the “Watch Dog?” It is definitely aim to ensure the people are represented fairly and that all the decisions that should be available to the public, are available to them. It helps them when it comes to voting on ballots to know who is involved and what they are doing.
Who owns this newspaper and do they own other news outlets? The Leader News is the sister paper to the Ohio County Times-News owned by The Andy Anderson Corporation and Andy Anderson is the publisher. The Leader News is based in Central City and we print the Ohio Times from there.
[The McLean News is owned by the family-owned Paxton Media Group of Paducah, Kentucky, is a privately held media company with holdings that include newspapers and a TV station, WPSD-TV in Paducah. David M. Paxton is president and CEO.]
What is happening there that is changing the way people live and work? Many people here are affected by the changing coal industry. The area is beginning to offer career alternatives, such as computer coding classes, that can help individuals that may have had their career impacted by the changing coal industry.
If you were going to name industries with the most potential for your community, what are they? The tourism industry in Ohio County is growing quite rapidly. This is the home of Bill Monroe, and a new museum, in his hometown of Rosine, has opened this spring. Beaver Dam has also constructed an amphitheater, which continues to grow in popularity and has featured acts such as The Oak Ridge Boys, Charlie Daniels, and Martina McBride. We also have access to a large industrial park that can be utilized, so manufacturing possibilities also exist.
What are you missing? Opportunities for work that can replace the pay and consistency of the coal industry. Currently, our citizens and community are exploring other options to help fill that void, but the void certainly still exists as of right now.
Much of America is pretty negative on coal. How do people in Ohio County feel about that? Most people have someone in their family from the coal industry. People are just looking for other options. It will take time, it’s a way of life.
Do you feel a shift in thinking or resignation that coal is soon to be replaced? I don’t think people are completely sold that coal is going away, but they are beginning to look at new opportunities. There are solar initiatives in Kentucky and that is something that will come in time. People are seeking opportunity. They are very proud of their coal heritage.
What do you have in abundance? While it’s not a direct economic advantage, our community is very giving. All of the fundraisers and charities here excel because people give all that they can. Anytime there is an opportunity to help, a large percentage of our community steps up to make a difference.
What stories do you try to write for your newspaper? My focus is always on things that relate directly to the community. Very rarely do I publish state news unless it interacts with Ohio County in some way, and I almost never publish national news. Having a narrower scope allows me to focus on the issues the community cares about the most. Our readership also gives great positive feedback on feature stories, so I’m always searching for interesting members of the community or interesting community projects that I can expose to other members of the community.
What role can journalism play in a community and who relies on it? I think that journalism, in this particular community and others, can play the role of both informing and entertaining. By mixing hard news with event coverage and feature stories, we are able to provide the community with both credible information and entertaining information about their community and its inhabitants. Those members of the community for which travel is impossible, or impractical, often rely on us as their lifeline to the rest of the county’s happenings. Given the distance between towns here, I would estimate that there are a significant number of individuals in that situation.
How do you fund the paper? We fund the paper through both subscriptions and advertising. I really don’t think we have worry about running out of money. A lot of people in this area don’t have access to the Internet. There are a lot of areas with hills and valleys or quite isolated, so even if they do get Internet service it is sub-par. When you don’t have good internet or cell phone reception, there are centers like on attached to fire department where you can go get a connection. This newspaper is their only option.
What can big places learn from smaller communities? They can look at them and see how reliant they are on one another and when someone needs help, people really go out of their way to help those in need.
Are you drawn to those stories? Today there are so many negative news stories that I try to find the positive stories that are a teaching tool.
Where do you go to unwind? I like to drive around back roads, or down roads, I’ve never driven around. Ohio County is the 6th or 7th largest county in geographic size in Kentucky and I like to photograph the area.
Favorite restaurant? My Sweet Sister Coffee Shop and Frozen Yogurt Shop. They have an espresso machine.
The McLean County News, a weekly paper serving McLean County, is run by the Messenger-Inquirer, the primary daily newspaper serving Daviess, Hancock, McLean, Muhlenberg and Ohio counties in western Kentucky.
The newspaper has a long tradition of excellence in community journalism, having served the community since 1875. The Messenger-Inquirer has consistently been recognized as one of the top papers in Kentucky, winning first place in the Kentucky Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest in 1996 and 2000 and taking second place five times this decade. In all, the M-I news staff has taken home more than 80 state awards since 2004 while competing against the state’s largest newspapers.
In 1989, the Messenger-Inquirer was chosen by the University of Missouri School of Journalism as one of the nation’s top five small dailies. That same year, the American Society of Newspaper editors named the M-I one of the nation’s 14 best small dailies.