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Midway Messenger

Midway Messenger

If a good newspaper is "a nation talking to itself,” as playwright Arthur Miller observed, then the citizens of Midway, Kentucky, are enjoying a community conversation, thanks to Professor Al Cross and his Community Journalism students who cover Midway City Hall and the city's mayor, Grayson Vandegrift (right). Cross, a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His Midway Messenger newspaper project is just one way he serves as an "extension agent" for community journalism.
Please click here to read about the Midway Messenger.
 
 
MIDWAY MESSENGER
Students do a public service and get
firsthand lessons in community journalism
 
Podcasts, yes.
 
Immersive journalism, yes.
 
Newspapers, of course.
 
The School of Journalism and Media is preparing students with new technologies for the 21st century and something that dates back to 17th century America. The connection lies in journalism's role to advance democracy.
 
America's first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick, dated 1690, was produced on newsprint just like the Midway Messenger, one of the newest members to join Kentucky's storied history of community newspapers. It’s published mainly online. 
 
The Messenger, the brainchild of Professor Al Cross, allows journalism students to get firsthand experience as community newspaper journalists as they cover a vibrant community (population 1,811) in Woodford County "midway" between Lexington and Frankfort, the state's capital.
 
"The Messenger has three purposes,” said Cross, a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame and the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. “It gives students real-world experience, it serves a community and we hope it is an example of best practices for the industry.”
 
The institute was created in 2004 to help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities through strong reporting and commentary, Cross said. The first issue of the Messenger started in 2008 and published its first print edition, due to popular demand, in 2014.
 
“We cover Midway in pretty much the same way any professional newsroom would,” Cross said. “When the last mayor wouldn’t give us the proposed city budget, we won a legal fight that set a precedent in the state. When the president of Midway College (now University) resigned, student reporter Cass Herrington revealed why, giving an unprecedented look into the private institution’s finances.”
 
The majority of U.S. newspapers are in small markets, but most of the news and information about the industry focuses on newspapers with large circulations.
 
Of the 7,071 newspapers regularly published in the United States (daily and weekly), 6,851 have circulations smaller than 50,000, according to a 2017 study of Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
 
The print edition of the Midway Messenger, published approximately once a semester with funding from local donors, had a circulation of 1,000. It is delivered free to many locations in the town. The Messenger has a website (MidwayMessenger.org) with stories of lasting interest and a blog (http://midwayky.blogspot.com/) that carries all the student work. 
 
As small newspapers fold and large newspapers shrink, one of the greatest threats to democracy is the lack of accountability for government actions and taxpayer dollars. That's why Cross builds in regular coverage of Midway City Council meetings into his curriculum for JOU 485, Community Journalism, a course he has taught for 16 years, and JOU 499, Online Community News, taught in most spring semesters. Seven students are enrolled now. 
 
“The first reporting assignment in each course is covering a council meeting and writing a story  on deadline,” Cross said. “From there we branch out to various types of coverage, depending on events and students’ interests. One student covered the Kentucky Derby two years ago because a main contender was owned by a couple who have a farm at Midway.”
 
A key word search on the labeling of stories reveals the Messenger's priorities for coverage: city budget (192), business (241), government (243), community events (315), city council (470).
 
Publick Occurrences was only four pages, but its back page was left blank for citizens to add their own news and information to circulate in the community. In addition to the students' coverage of Midway, Mayor Grayson Vandegrift and State Rep. Joe Graviss along with other public officials and local residents publish occasional reports in the Messenger.
 
According to the Tow Center study of small newspapers, "video reporting is already mainstream at local newspapers (85 percent of respondents told us their paper did this), as is organizational usage of Facebook and Twitter. Less popular is podcasting (used by 25 percent of respondents’ newspapers) and emerging tools like chat apps, or augmented and virtual reality." Cross says the Messenger is “platform-agnostic” and carries video, audio and multimedia reports. 
 
Cross was promoted to full professor in the Extension Title series last year, and that makes him the only “extension agent” for community journalists in Kentucky, and perhaps the nation. He travels widely, speaking to community journalists around the country, and he has even addressed journalists in China and Africa. 
 
Cross and his part-time assistant, Heather Chapman, serve rural journalists all over the nation through The Rural Blog, a daily digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, at http://irjci.blogspot.com/
 
With a grant from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, he also publishes Kentucky Health News, which newspapers around the state use to improve their coverage of health care and health, which are important issues in the state. 
 
Cross’s career has been mainly in newspapers, first in rural weeklies and then for the Louisville Courier Journal, so he gets special pleasure in editing and publishing the Midway Messenger. 
 
“We are serving a community, an industry and students, all at the same time,” he said. “There’s no other newspaper in the country just like it.”