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From AJR,   December 2012/January 2013  issue

A Big-City Approach to Rural Journalism   

North Carolina’s Yancey County News gets accolades for its hard-hitting reporting. Mon., December 10, 2012.


By Hannah Porter
AJR editorial assistant Hannah Porter (hporter@ajr.umd.edu) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.      

Jonathan Austin has been bringing what he calls "the attitude of well-financed urban reporting" to Main Street via the Yancey County News since he launched the North Carolina weekly in January 2011. That approach won him, his wife, Susan, and the paper this year's Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.

Austin, 51, grew up about 35 miles from Yancey County in Asheville, North Carolina, a city, he points out, that Rolling Stone Magazine once called the U.S.' new "freak capital." His father had lived in Yancey County since 1971 in a stone and timber house that Austin inherited in 2010, and for many years Austin felt that the community could benefit from more hard-hitting journalism.

There was and continues to be another paper in Yancey County, the Yancey Common Times Journal. Its motto reads, "Your Community-Minded Newspaper" and, as Austin describes it, "they were not a boat rocker." He felt many serious issues in Yancey County were being left unreported, such as alleged absentee ballot voter fraud during the 2010 general election. The stories Austin wrote in the Yancey County News about voting irregularities gained the paper national attention. The paper also wrote about a sheriff's deputy pawning county-owned guns for personal profit.

(When asked to respond to Austin's comment, Jody Higgins, editor and publisher of the Yancey Common Times Journal, said that her paper has reported on voter fraud in the past, but that unlike Austin's paper it did not pursue independent investigations. She says the Yancey Common Times Journal covers community news as well as government and crime. "We report on the same things he does," Higgins says.)

In the paper's brief existence, the Austins have already won what Jonathan Austin calls a "trifecta of awards." The paper was honored with the 2011 E.W. Scripps Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment and the 2012 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the University of Oregon School of Journalism.

"We have 1,200 to 1,300 hundred readers, so to win the same award that the New York Times did last year and to compete with Bloomberg News and beat them [for the Scripps Award] is big," Austin says.

One of the Gish Award judges, First Amendment Center Executive Director Gene Policinski, wrote that Austin's paper was "the first news organization in many years, if ever, to challenge those in power, and at risk to its circulation, survival and even concerns about the personal safety of its small staff."

Roy L. Moore, dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro and a member of the steering committee of the Institute of Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which hosts the Gish Award, came across the work of the Austins while at his vacation home in Asheville. He read a story in the Asheville Citizen-Times about the Yancey County News exposing absentee ballot fraud in the 2010 general election, and his interest was piqued. One day, when Moore and his wife were driving, he saw the Yancey County News nameplate on a building and walked in to say hello. After about an hour and a half of conversation, he decided he wanted to nominate the couple and the paper for the Gish Award.

Moore was impressed by the courage the Austins demonstrated by starting a new paper in an area that already had one. He saw their excitement about their work. "From my perspective, one of the reasons the award was created was to recognize top notch journalism being practiced by rural media," Moore says. "This is the type of work Tom and Pat Gish, who I had known, would have done." The Gishes were acclaimed for running the highly regarded Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

While hard-hitting reporting has attracted attention for the Yancey County News, much of the Austins' work is not so glamorous. "Rural journalists do everything," Austin says. "I am the publisher, editor and owner. If I don't do it or my wife doesn't do it, it won't get done." Austin covers topics affecting his neighbors, from county government and high school sports to arts and crafts. "It's like I have a salad bar that is 47 miles long," he says.

Austin tries to provide readers of his Burnsville-based paper with well-rounded news about topics relevant to the county, which has a population of 17,000. Among its features: columns on nutrition and hunting. "It's not the same type of nutrition column you might think of in a city like L.A.; part of the population hurts to put food on the table or farms their own food." The first nutrition column, he adds, "was about using venison in the diet. I don't know of other papers that talk like that about deer."

For the column on hunting, a topic of great interest in Yancey County, Austin recruited a bow-hunting instructor who got a degree in journalism 25 years ago.

"As a journalist, it is exciting because you know your neighbors are reading what you're doing," Austin says. "There's gratification in sharing with them information that they otherwise wouldn't know."

Local attitudes toward the paper vary. Some businessmen won't advertise in the paper or sell it because they don't like its coverage of the sheriff, Austin says, but others are enthusiastic in their support.

"I try to report in an unbiased and honest way," Austin says. "And people like good photography and seeing their kids and grandkids in the paper."

In addition to its paid print circulation of 1,300 and free distribution of 600, the paper is available free via PDF online, posted several days after the print edition comes out each Thursday.

Austin jokes that the paper has a staff of two-and-a-half people. He's responsible for reporting, page layout and design, editing and some advertising sales, while Susan runs the office, takes care of bookkeeping and also sells ads. They both shoot photos and distribute the paper. A part-time employee sells ads and does marketing.

Each Thursday, either Jonathan or Susan drives about an hour to the press, and then newspapers are delivered to retailers. On Thursday evenings, Jonathan and Susan sit together folding papers for delivery while watching television. "For 13 cents a paper, the post office delivers them. We used to drive them to everyone's homes. It could take 12 to 14 hours. That was righteous."

Prior to starting the Yancey County News, Austin worked for small dailies and spent five years as copy editor and senior producer at CNN.com. But after 30 years as a journalist, Austin enjoys being his own boss, "I'm not averse to starting the day late," he says. "It's a wonderful luxury." He also has the luxury of being able to work from home surrounded by his six dogs or bring the dogs to the office.

On most days, four of the couple's dogs are on the scene. "Many people stop by just to see the Jack Russell puppy. It's a fun office; we never know who will walk in. It is the classic sense of a family-run newspaper."