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.