Murray State’s WKMS-FM wins Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism

The journalists at WKMS-FM at Murray State University are the winners of the 2021 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians.

“We usually think of ‘community’ as one county, town or neighborhood, but there are geographic communities, and there are communities of interest. West Kentucky is a geographic community of interest, and WKMS has the only newsroom that covers the whole region and its interests,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky (and publisher of The Rural Blog). “It does it well.”

The institute presents the award with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Chapter President Tom Eblen, a former Lexington Herald-Leader managing editor and columnist, said “WKMS has a history of reporting important stories in its region accurately, thoroughly and without fear or favor. It is a model for courageous public-service journalism, especially at a time when citizens are looking more to public radio to fill voids left by shrinking commercial media outlets.”

WKMS Coverage area.

The station was nominated by Constance Alexander of Murray, a columnist and playwright who is on the Institute’s advisory board. She wrote, “With a consistent record of reporting on important events and community issues — and editorial leadership that dares to address controversial subjects and hold power accountable — WKMS serves the informational, cultural and community needs of the region, exemplifying the values represented by the Al Smith Award.”

The station is being honored for years of work and maintaining its high quality despite getting less money from the university. It has covered its paymasters forthrightly, reporting in 2013 that a quorum of the Board of Regents discussed official business, including an extension of the president’s contract and the station’s funding, at a social gathering the night before its official meeting.

In 2018, the station revealed that a Murray High School teacher’s predatory sexual behavior had been under investigation by the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board for five years, with no public disclosure. After two suspensions, the teacher resigned.

In 2020, WKMS reported that the Marshall County judge-executive had refused to sign a grant application for more school resource officers after a deadly school shooting, while giving two employees raises totaling nearly $30,000, the amount the county would have had to contribute for the grant if awarded.

In daily and enterprise reporting on the pandemic, WKMS has been “a beacon of information, companionship and understanding in a time when we needed it most,” Alexander wrote. But the station also continued its accountability journalism. Assistant News Director Liam Niemeyer won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for a story about a Paducah school official who appeared in blackface for Halloween. Rather than make the school official the main focus, Niemeyer framed his story within the context of the larger experience of the Black community in Paducah, giving a richer view of the city’s racial history, and a deeper understanding of why use of blackface by a trusted public official was so hurtful. The story launched an occasional series, “Black Lives in Red States,” that is continuing at Ohio Valley ReSource, a consortium of public radio stations in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

Chad Lampe

WKMS Station Manager Chad Lampe who moved up from news director in 2015, said, “I am so incredibly proud of our newsroom and our station staff as a whole. We take an ‘audience first’ approach to all of our work and this is why we remain committed to telling stories that matter. I am particularly proud of our Murray State student journalists who we bring into our newsroom, train and mentor to produce professional news right alongside the work of our staff.”

The station is an affiliate of National Public Radio. “WKMS is unique in our region as our only full-service provider of public media news,” noted Berry Craig, retired history professor at Paducah Community College. “The closest NPR affiliates to Murray are at Southern Illinois Universityin Carbondale – almost 114 miles north – and Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, nearly 119 miles east.”

WKMS punches above its weight by partnering with other news outlets in the region, which was once served by the Louisville Courier Journal and occasionally by papers in Tennessee and Indiana.

“WKMS has met the challenge, and then some, to report more deeply on stories about local governments, race relations, education, the environment, culture and the coronavirus pandemic,” said Hoptown Chronicle Editor-Publisher Jennifer P. Brown of Hopkinsville, a WKMS partner and a previous Smith Award winner.

The award is named for the late Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force to create the Institute, headed its advisory board and was its chair emeritus until his death in March at 94.

Smith was the first winner of the award. This is the first time it has gone to broadcasters or a news outlet at a university.

The award will be presented at the Al Smith Awards Dinner in Lexington Oct. 28. The dinner was not held in 2020, due to the pandemic, so 2020 winner Becky Barnes, editor of The Cynthiana Democrat, will receive her award at the dinner, too. Winners of the Institute’s national Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism will also be recognized at the event.

Previous winners of the Smith Award, with their affiliations at the time, are:

2011: Al Smith

2012: Jennifer P. Brown, Kentucky New Era; and Max Heath, Landmark Community Newspapers

2013: John Nelson, Danville Advocate-Messenger

2014: Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery, The Daily Yonder

2015: Carl West, The (Frankfort) State Journal

2016: Sharon Burton, Adair County Community Voice and The Farmer’s Pride

2017: Ryan Craig, Todd County Standard, and the late Larry Craig, Green River Republican

2018: Stevie Lowery, The Lebanon Enterprise

2019: David Thompson, Kentucky Press Association

2020: Becky Barnes, The Cynthiana Democrat

Bill to weaken Kentucky’s Open Records Act needs more scrutiny

The board of directors of the SPJ Bluegrass Professional Chapter issued this statement today regarding House Bill 312:

A bill moving quickly through the Kentucky General Assembly would weaken the state Open Records Act, and Kentuckians need to know more about it, the board of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Bluegrass Chapter said today.

House Bill 312 would make leaders of the legislature the sole judges of what legislative records could be released; give public officials five days instead of three to respond to a records request; keep non-Kentuckians from using the open-records law; and impose other restrictions.

The House of Representatives passed the bill Friday, the day after its text was revealed. The Senate could pass it as early as Wednesday.

“This bill would reduce government transparency, and legislators are rushing it into law in a non-transparent way,” Bluegrass Chapter President Tom Eblen said. “If legislators have legitimate issues with the Open Records Act, they should be willing to debate them in public. Many taxpayers don’t think we need more government secrecy.”

The Kentucky Press Association, the lobby for the state’s newspapers, did not oppose the bill, saying it was “the culmination of nearly two years’ worth of good-faith negotiations” and compromises by KPA, legislative leaders and the Kentucky League of Cities.

KPA General Counsel Jon Fleischaker, who largely wrote the Open Records law in 1976, told SPJ that the negotiations eliminated proposals that would have kept preliminary and economic-development records secret, and would have allowed individual legislators to decide whether to release records relating to themselves. KPA said its agreement not to oppose the bill prevented changes that would have “devastated the public’s right to know critical information about the state.

SPJ leaders said they appreciated KPA’s decades of leadership on open-government issues, and they understood the difficult situation the association faced. But they pointed out that the Open Records and Open Meetings acts were written to make government more accountable to citizens. While journalists use these laws to keep the public informed, most open-records requests are made by members of the public, not reporters.

“A deal between lobbying groups doesn’t have to be the last word when it comes to public access to government records,” said Bluegrass Chapter Secretary Al Cross, a former national SPJ president who directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues as a University of Kentucky professor. “News organizations face difficult times and are less willing or able to fight these battles nowadays, so we want to remind Kentuckians that they also have roles to play, as citizens and voters.”

The Kentucky Open Government Coalition, a citizens group that wasn’t involved in the negotiations, opposes the bill.

Apply for $1,000 journalism scholarship

Mike Farrell

The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is now taking applications for its annual scholarship, named in memory of journalist and journalism educator Mike Farrell. The chapter will award at least one $1,000 scholarship to a college journalism student from Kentucky or attending a Kentucky institution. For more information, and to apply online, click here.

 

 

‘Covering the Pandemic’ program set for Oct. 22

Society of Professional Journalists’ Bluegrass Chapter to hold online panel discussion; registration required he world’s biggest story in 75 years is also a local story for everyone: the coronavirus pandemic. It has posed special challenges for news organizations at a time when they were already challenged: the politicization of public health, pushback from audiences, confusing data, and pandemic fatigue – among audiences and journalists.
To help journalists with this story, the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will hold an online panel discussion, “Covering the Pandemic,” at 7 p.m. ET Thursday, Oct. 22.
The panelists will be:
• Alex Acquisto, health reporter, Lexington Herald-Leader
• Jennifer P. Brown of Hopkinsville, who recovered from Covid-19 and wrote about it in her online newspaper, Hoptown Chronicle
• Ben Sheroan, editor, The News-Enterprise of Elizabethtown, who can speak to the pushback newspapers receive from their coverage of the pandemic
• Brian Neal, news director at Lexington’s WLEX-TV, who will address the fatigue factor experienced by journalists
• Susan Dunlap, executive director of the Office of Public Affairs of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, who will speak to the communications challenges of government agencies
The discussion will be moderated by Melissa Patrick, reporter for Kentucky Health News.
There is no charge to attend the program, which will be held via Zoom, but registration to receive the Zoom link is required. To register, send an email to john.nelson24@gmail.com.
The Society of Professional Journalists has stood for improving and protecting journalism since 1909. For more information, see www.spj.org.

SPJ objects to Frankfort move against government transparency

The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists objects to any ordinance, resolution or policy that restricts members of a public agency from commenting about discussions that the public agency holds in closed sessions.

We make this statement in response to the plan of the Frankfort city commission to add to its ethics ordinance language “that would prohibit commissioners from disclosing the contents of closed sessions,” according to The State Journal.

The Kentucky Open Meetings Act allows public agencies to meet in private for several legitimate reasons. Those exceptions can be abused, so public-agency members should be free to speak about such meetings without fear of official retribution. In the absence of journalists and others who act as watchdogs on government activities, public-agency members are the only available watchdogs, on themselves. They should not be muzzled. If they abuse their right of free speech, they are subject to political retribution by their fellow members and the voters.

Such whistleblowers should not be subject to official retribution, which appears to be the plan in Frankfort. The proposal there arose after one city commissioner told The State Journal what happened in a closed session immediately before the city manager was fired in open session (without any real discussion of the move) and another commissioner said the mayor had three votes going into the meeting to accomplish the firing.

The State Journal has filed a complaint with the attorney general, alleging that two commissioners and the mayor (a majority of the commission) violated the “rolling quorum” provision of the law, “which prohibits elected leaders from hashing out public policy in individual conversations rather than in full view of taxpayers,” as the newspaper accurately describes it in an editorial.

The State Journal also says, “While we agree that such disclosures should be rare, latitude must be left for an elected official to blow the whistle on illegal or improper behavior behind closed doors. An airtight ban almost certainly would violate an elected official’s First Amendment rights, if not a state law that protects whistleblowers.”

We agree, and ask the Frankfort city commission to forget this ill-advised notion – which would surely cost taxpayers for the defense of a lawsuit the city is likely to lose – and pay attention to the open-meetings law.

Tom Eblen, president
Al Cross, secretary

Approved by the chapter board, Oct. 11, 2020. 

The Cynthiana Democrat’s Becky Barnes wins Al Smith Award

Becky Barnes, editor of The Cynthiana Democrat, is the 2020 winner of the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian.

Barnes, who has worked at the weekly for 44 years, distinguished herself most recently by arranging a special edition that was mailed to every household in Harrison County, funded by local government, less than two days after it was announced that the county had Kentucky’s first case of covid-19, in early March.

“Becky’s initiative was a groundbreaking piece of work that set an example for rural weeklies,” said Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which presents the award with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“At a time when everyone in her county needed reliable information, not rumors, about a clear and present danger, Becky and the local officials found a way to deliver it,” Cross said. “This example has been followed by other weeklies, and at a time when the pandemic has hurt newspapers’ advertising revenue, it shows how they can tap a new revenue source while rendering essential public service.”

Barnes and her newspaper have continued to focus on the pandemic and its local effects. She and staff writer Lee Kendall streamed live news conferences with the county judge-executive, mayor and public-health director, and thousands watched. She was widely noticed for an April 30 column about masks, which weren’t required at the time but were becoming controversial. It concluded, “I will wear a mask not because I am required to do so, but because it may help. This is all new. We are learning as we go. But if there is a chance it will help – I will wear a mask – for you.”

“Becky Barnes is a great representative of the best in community journalism in Kentucky,” said Tom Eblen, president of the Bluegrass Chapter and a retired columnist and managing editor at the Lexington Herald-Leader. “She has been tireless in her efforts to keep her community informed, while at the same time being a vigilant advocate for open government and the public’s right to know.”

Barnes has repeatedly stood out over a long career, said USA Today photographer Jack Gruber, who nominated her. He noted her support of Boyd’s Station, the arts-and-journalism nonprofit he founded, and a national photography workshop that brought 150 journalists to the county of 18,000 people.

He quoted local Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tomi Clifford: “Becky often finds the light in the darkness whenever a major event has happened. Like in 1997 with the flood, or the coronavirus, she puts everything out there and is super personable, honest and remains positive during the most difficult times to be a journalist.”

Gruber also quoted from Cynthiana Mayor James Smith’s story of Barnes calling out him and the City Commission for appearing to have had an illegal, secret meeting to discuss “a serious issue” before the public meeting. “You would think that would be signs of an adversarial relationship between the mayor and the local press, but that would be the furthest thing from the truth,” Smith said. “Becky has always covered our meetings with fairness and focus on the facts. In fact, when the need is to get information to the public and not just report, Becky is always there to use her position and influence to educate.”

The Cynthiana Democrat is the only place Barnes has ever worked. “When you get it right the first time, there’s no need to keep looking,” she says.

Barnes began working for the newspaper five days after she graduated from Harrison County High School in 1976. A few months later, she married her high school sweetheart, Ernie Barnes. They have two children, Erin Slone and Seth Barnes, and a granddaughter, Olivia Slone.

In 1997 a Licking River flood cut Cynthiana off from much of the county, but Barnes was able to make it into town from her home in the county and took hundreds of flood pictures for a special edition that was printed within hours of the disaster. It included a list of the people at specific shelters, serving families who were divided by the river and had no way of knowing where their loved ones were. The newspaper later published a magazine that told the stories of local heroes and rescues.

So, Barnes was ready when she learned that her county was Kentucky’s “ground zero” for the pandemic. She rode with the mayor and county judge executive to a Frankfort press conference with the governor, and on the way back, told them that the information needed to be in the hands of the county’s residents immediately, not the paper’s Thursday publication day. The county picked up the tab.

“Local journalism isn’t always about the disasters,” Barnes said. “It’s about feeling and knowing the heartbeat of the community. It’s about Christmas parades and Homecoming football games, first tee-ball games and 75th wedding anniversaries. It’s also being prepared for those disasters when they occur.”

The Cynthiana Democrat is one of 47 owned by Landmark Community Newspapers, which is based in Shelbyville, Ky. The company’s executive editor, John Nelson, said, “Becky has been deserving of this level of recognition for a long time. We’re happy for her, proud to count her among our community editors, and pleased that her story — the story about Becky — is being heard.”

Told that she had received the Al Smith Award, Barnes said, “I am so humbled. Every day I come in to work with the same goal: to put out the best newspaper I can for the people of Cynthiana and Harrison County. Being honored by my peers is a bonus.”

The award is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its advisory board and is its chair emeritus.

The award is usually presented at a dinner in the fall, but presentation is being delayed until next year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Apply now for $1,000 scholarship

Mike Farrell

The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is now taking applications for its annual scholarship, named this year in memory of journalist and journalism educator Mike Farrell. The chapter will award at least one $1,000 scholarship to a college journalism student from Kentucky or attending a Kentucky institution. For more information, and to apply online, click here.

 

 

Susan Straub wins this year’s Jennifer Schaaf Award

Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton, left, joins Tom Eblen, Bluegrass Chapter President, in congratulating Susan Straub on receiving the Schaaf Award at Berry Hill mansion in Frankfort on Dec. 6. Photo by Patti Cross

Susan Straub, director of communications for Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton, has been honored with the 2019 Jennifer Schaaf Memorial Award.

Straub, who has served as communications director or press secretary for four Lexington mayors, was presented the government communicators award by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.  Tom Eblen, chapter president and a retired Lexington Herald-Leader columnist and managing editor, made the presentation Dec. 6 in collaboration with the Kentucky Association of Government Communicators.

“This is a special honor,” Straub said. “It’s named for someone I knew and respected, and it comes from people I know and respect. I have been fortunate to work for mayors who believe in transparency and in the importance of keeping the public informed on the decisions their government is making. And our state has been fortunate to have an outstanding and professional press corps.”

Eblen praised Straub’s commitment to the public’s right to be informed about the activities of government.

“Susan personifies the traits of a good public information professional,” he said. “She responds quickly and accurately to reporters’ questions, gets them the information they seek and always balances the demands of journalists and her bosses in an ethical manner. At a time when many citizens express little trust in both politicians and journalists, these traits have never been more important.”

Gorton, who attended the ceremony, praised Straub for her service to Kentucky’s second-largest city. Straub previously worked for mayors Pam Miller, Jim Newberry and Jim Gray.

“I am so proud of Susan for receiving this great honor,” Gorton said. “To be chosen by her peers for this award shows that her commitment to public service and open communication is revered. During the time she served four mayors, she has been indispensable to the daily communication between government and Lexington’s residents.”

Straub began her career as a newspaper reporter and editor before entering government communications. She was named a distinguished alum of the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Media in 2018.

The Jennifer Schaaf Memorial Award is presented annually to honor excellence in government communications. Schaaf, who died in 1999, was a respected government communicator who held several positions in Kentucky state government and served as president of both KAGC and as director of the National Association of Government Communicators.