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Adair County publisher Sharon Burton captures 2016 Al Smith Public Service Award

Sharon Burton, publisher of Kentucky’s statewide agricultural newspaper and a community weekly in her native Adair County, is the winner of the 2016 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian.

Burton will receive the award Sept. 29 in Lexington, at the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which co-sponsor the award.

For more than 27 years, Burton has published The Farmer’s Pride, a newspaper for Kentucky farmers and other agriculture interests. For more than 14 years, she has published the Adair County Community Voice, a weekly paper that has frequently been cited on the Institute’s Rural Blog as an example of journalism that serves the public.

Sharon Burton (Photo Provided)

Sharon Burton (Photo Provided)

“Sharon is a great example of a local individual who saw a need, and through entrepreneurial hard work, created publications that serve the need of her local community but also of the agricultural community of Kentucky,” wrote Jimmy Henning, associate dean for extension in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and director of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, in his nomination of Burton.

“Before The Farmer’s Pride, farmers had no timely place to go to stay informed on important issues,” Henning wrote. “Sharon is a tireless advocate for responsible storytelling about agriculture and the community. She is considered to be an honest and fair reporter from the continuum of agricultural entities and her publication is the only statewide source of agricultural information in Kentucky.”

Burton was also nominated by Nick Roy, the Adair County extension agent for agriculture, who said “Sharon is recognized for her commitments to the community as both a journalist and community leader. It is individuals like Sharon Burton who make small rural communities thrive.”

Roy said the Community Voice “was quickly recognized as a credible source of information with coverage providing openness and transparency of local government” after its founding as a monthly in 2002. “Its popularity grew and soon became a bi-monthly publication in 2005, and then a weekly newspaper in May 2007. While the Community Voice has grown and made minor changes through its development, its commitment to the betterment of the Adair County community has remained.”

One recent example of Burton’s commitment to public service through good journalism was her coverage of the March referendum in Adair County that legalized the sale of alcoholic beverages, one of the most controversial issues that a rural community can address. The Community Voice covered it thoroughly, offering insightful commentary without taking sides, including a front-page essay by Burton that began with reliving her experience of buying liquor from a bootlegger on her senior prom night and went on to the current experiences of students at the local, Methodist-sponsored Lindsey Wilson College and federal survey data on local drinkers.

Burton wrote that the county has “already said yes to alcohol. But we’ve said yes in a way where we don’t have to take responsibility. We allow alcohol to be sold in the shadows, treating it like a heroin den; people can get their fix, but we don’t have to look at it.”

The year before, Burton played an unusual – and probably for most journalists, controversial – role in her community by serving on the board of the local hospital, which had been driven into bankruptcy by mismanagement. When the new county judge-executive asked her to serve, she had many reservations because journalists are supposed to cover news, not make it. But she agreed “because I could not think of anything more important to do as someone who loves this community and the people who made it great,” she wrote, adding that she felt she could make sure the board was more transparent than it had been. She recused herself from reporting or editing any hospital stories, and had an outside professional edit them for publication.

“Sharon’s deep commitment to public service drove her to make a decision that most academically trained journalists like her wouldn’t make,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and associate professor in the UK School of Journalism and Media, where he teaches community journalism. “Public service ought to be the primary thing that drives journalists, and there are times when your role as a member of the community can conflict with your role as a journalist. Sharon did an exemplary job of managing those conflicts, which is a key to success in community journalism.”

Burton grew upon a beef-cattle and tobacco farm in southwestern Adair County community of Sparksville. She earned a journalism degree from Western Kentucky University in 1983 and started The Farmer’s Pride in 1989. It and the Community Voice have won many journalism and public-service awards. She is a director of the Kentucky Press Association.

The Al Smith 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, and headed its national advisory board for many years. He remains active as chairman emeritus.

The Al Smith Awards Dinner is an annual fund-raiser for the Institute and the SPJ chapter, which conceived the Smith Award. But it is also “a grand gathering of people who believe in journalism as an essential element of our democratic processes and want it to observe high standards; who recognize the importance of rural America to the rest of the country; and who agree with us that rural Kentucky and rural America deserve good journalism just as much as the rest of the state and nation, to help our democracy work,” Cross said.

For information on the dinner, to be held at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort and Spa, contact Al Cross at 859-257-3744 or al.cross@uky.edu; or SPJ Bluegrass Chapter Treasurer Patti Cross at 502-223-8525 or patticross@bellsouth.net. Details will appear soon on the Institute website, www.RuralJournalism.org.

From Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism Communications

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