The owners of a weekly newspaper in West Kentucky, who have persevered for almost 30 years in the face of increasing challenges to the industry – and to them and their community – are the winners of the 2022 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians.
Chris Evans and Allison Mick-Evans own The Crittenden Press in Marion, a town of 3,000 and the seat of Crittenden County, pop. 9,000. It is one of Kentucky’s smaller newspaper markets, and is losing population, but the Press shows that a paper doesn’t have to be big to be good, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Media. (The Institute publishes The Rural Blog.)
“The Crittenden Press has long been a standout newspaper in West Kentucky, from the days when Allison’s family, the Micks, owned it,” Cross said. “It has always punched above its weight and set an example for others to follow.”
The Institute presents the Smith Award with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Chapter President Tom Martin said, “The Press is the embodiment of a vital community newspaper.”
That has been especially evident in the last few months, as the City of Marion has endured a water shortage. The Crittenden Press has been a lifeline of information for citizens, digging into the reasons for the crisis, broadcasting City Council meetings, doing live interviews with emergency responders and giving news updates in real time.
The paper was an early adopter of online journalism, as evidenced by its URL, the-press.com; during a major ice storm in 2009, Editor-Publisher Chris Evans ran it on generator power and published a special news flyer with updates on electricity status and aid stations. The paper’s innovations are cited in a Publishers’ Auxiliary column by Chip Hutcheson, a retired publisher in the area.
During the pandemic, Evans found discrepancies in data from the district health department and coordinated with it to correct the numbers, and the Press was one of 14 Kentucky papers to publish a special vaccination section sent to all households in the county, in cooperation with the Institute, the Kentucky Press Association and UK’s Cooperative Extension Service.
A 2006 episode is an example of Evans’s investigative reporting. He revealed misuse of more than $200,000 by the local economic development director, who was indicted and forced to repay most of it.
When a drug bust prompted false, online rumors of shootings and murder, Evans countered them with online postings that carried credibility because they were not anonymous, and because people respect him and his newspaper. “Our task is to be in a position to provide credible information in whatever form people want it in,” he said in 2011. “You’ve got to embrace technology, understand where your audience is at, and get there—and the credibility you have will draw people back to you.”
Chris Evans “is everything to this paper, and the paper is everything to him,” Allison wrote. “He insists that content in The Crittenden Press be hyperlocal. No canned news, no state filler. It’s time-consuming, but it’s important to him.” Away from the paper, he has served nearly 30 years on the local park board, where he “essentially serves as the volunteer maintenance man: and orchestrated a major lighting renovation of the park with city, county and school partners to complete the project,” she wrote. “He has also served in various leadership capacities in his church.”
Cited as a community-journalism exemplar in Harvard University’s Nieman Reports in 2011, Chris described his journalism philosophy simply: “We are here to serve people. Then he quoted Bryant Williams, the Tennessee publisher for whom he had worked: “The only higher calling is the ministry.”
At a time when most newspapers are owned by chains that are struggling to meet profit goals and still provide public service, Chris and Allison have continued their local, independent ownership, even as they have had to reduce staff due to declining revenue, a burden for almost all local newspapers.
“We have never had any desire to sell, but I have to admit that with Chris’s retirement not too many years away, we’ve been talking about an exit plan,” said Allison, who is the paper’s advertising manager. “Sadly, seeing the decline of papers in our region that have sold to large conglomerates makes us uneasy. It’s like a parent thinking they, and only they, can adequately take care of their child.”
The sustainability of rural journalism, and the maintenance of local, independent newspaper ownership, are newly adopted goals of the Institute for Rural Journalism, which was founded in the UK College of Communication and Information 20 years ago.
The Smith Award is named for the late Albert P. Smith Jr., who was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its advisory board and was its chair emeritus until his death in March 2021 at the age of 94. He 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 first winner of the award.
The award will be presented at the Al Smith Awards Dinner Nov. 3 at the Embassy Suites Lexington on Newtown Pike, near Interstate 64/75. Winners of the Institute’s national Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, to be announced soon, will also be recognized at the event.
Previous winners of the Smith Award, and 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
2021: WKMS News, Murray State University