Rural blog can help you develop stories for your paper

For 6½ years The Rural Blog, a daily digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, has helped rural reporters and editors with story ideas, sources and approaches, especially on broad issues that have a local impact but few if any local sources.

Now the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is bringing that service to a column in Pub Aux, and this is the first one.  Each column will cite Rural Blog items and add some background, observations and suggestions.

The blog also follows the community newspaper business and rural journalism, and our first topic this month is Topix, the social networking website that, as one our Feb. 14 headlines put it, “both reveals and creates problems for small towns.”

Posts on the site have been blamed for a multiple murder-suicide that wiped out a family in Austin, IN, in January. That made Topix news in nearby Louisville, and Grace Schneider of The Courier-Journal took a close look at the company in a story that was the basis for our blog item. Its chief executive officer told her, “We are the WikiLeaks for small-town America in a lot of cases.”

Yes, anonymous posts can hold officials and institutions accountable, especially in places where news media lack the resources or gumption to do that job. But that virtue seems overwhelmed by the rants, gossip, libel, falsehoods and cyber-bullying on the Topix sites I’ve seen. And a social-media expert told Schneider that Topix can be particularly troublesome for small towns because it’s easier to pierce the posters’ anonymity.

Is Topix news in your town? Soon after the site became popular a few years ago, a weekly newspaper editor in Tennessee called me to ask whether she should do a story about it because of the lies and libel it was spreading about people in her county. We discussed the pros and cons, including: A story would impose at least some degree of accountability on the anonymous posters, and remind readers that the standards of newspapers exceed those of social-media sites. But it would doubtless direct more traffic to the site, broadening the libel.

I didn’t give the editor advice one way or the other, because she knew her community and I did not. In some places, a story about Topix might do some good; in others, it might backfire. Certainly, if such a site is implicated in a news event, it bears the sort of look The Courier-Journal gave it. Our item on the paper’s story is at

Post office closings: One of the biggest rural stories right now is the Postal Service’s plan to close 2,000 offices, to be selected this month. A good starting point for a local story on this is the list of revenues and expenses for each office, which Mary Garrigan of the Rapid City Journal used for a story we cited in this Feb. 4 item: Our first item on the issue is at (Jan. 25)

Government budgets: They are big and complex, so budgets can be daunting to cover, but in every state or federal budget there are implications for your community. That is especially true of the federal budget, with both parties proposing cuts. And most states can’t run deficits, so they’ve been cutting for two years or more. Talk to people at agencies’ local offices to get a handle on how cuts have affected or might affect your community. Because they’re likely to oppose the cuts, balance that view with opinion of a legislator or other political figure who favors them. Here’s our item on House Republicans’ budget plan: (Feb. 10)

Death investigations: Budget cuts may have affected the ability of your state and community to properly investigate deaths, and the system for that important function is “deeply dysfunctional,” according to a joint investigative effort by PBS’s “Frontline,” National Public Radio and ProPublica, the nonprofit, investigative news organization. We suspect rural areas have more than their share of this problem. Our item is at (Feb. 2)

Local debt: Tight budgets may not be the only financial issue facing your community. Many have made questionable deals to finance local projects, and states are increasing their oversight, reports Stateline, an excellent source for stories on issues: (Jan. 27)

Extension offices: Your county may soon have fewer extension agents. Universities that run the Cooperative Extension Service have made cuts in many states, and more are expected: (Feb. 2)

Science education: Do your schools have science fairs? They are dwindling, perhaps because of the recent emphasis on math and reading scores, The New York Times reported in a story we put on the blog at (Feb. 8)

Weekly fingers suspect in old murder: We salute the Concordia (LA) Sentinel and reporter Stanley Nelson, who gathered evidence that a local man was responsible for the murder of a well-liked black businessman in 1964. The Times thought his effort was worth a story, which brought it to our attention: (Jan. 13)

Obituaries: Should weeklies charge for obituaries, and if so, how and under what circumstances? The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors had an exhaustive e-mail discussion on the topic, and we reported it in full: (Jan. 4)

R.I.P.: Finally, we direct your attention to coverage of our friend Larry Craig, a great rural journalist who died in January. He was a pistol-packing preacher-publisher who blended curiosity, courage, skill and humor to become a distinctive if not unique figure in rural journalism: (Jan. 16)

© Al Cross 2011

Al Cross edited and managed weekly newspapers before spending 26 years at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Since 2004 he has been director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky, with partners at 28 universities in 18 states. See