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Rural Blog: Loss of environment beat at Ky’s largest newspaper another example of rural reporting decline

Rural areas around the nation get much less attention from metropolitan newspapers these days because the papers’ staffs have shriveled and their focus is largely on their metro area. One example of that is the demise of the environmental beat at the Louisville Courier Journal, Charles Bethea reports for The New Yorker magazine.

James Bruggers, environmental reporter at the CJ since 1999, left in 2018 to write for InsideClimate News, and wasn’t replaced. His reporting not only brought attention to questionable environmental practices in rural Kentucky, especially its eastern coalfield, but helped change them, Bethea writes. And that goes beyond the environment, to issues of safety and health in underground coal mines.

“The C-J’s absence on the coal beat has showed lately,” Bethea was told by Al Cross, former CJ political writer who left in 2004 to run the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. One example Cross cited was the work of Howard Berkes of NPR on the resurgence of lung disease among coal miners in Eastern Kentucky, where the CJ closed its Hazard news bureau in 2005. These are “some of the poorest places in America, with a long history of being exploited by coal companies who exported their wealth,” said another former CJ reporter, who spoke anonymously. “They are still, and will always be, dealing with the environmental aftermath of mining, and there are fewer local reporters there paying attention.”

Tom FitzGerald, director of nonprofit environmental advocacy group the Kentucky Resources Council, told Bethea the attrition of environmental reporters means the public is missing out on important local coverage in the state, such as the study of the health impacts of large-scale surface mining that the Trump administration cancelled and “massive contamination” issues with a former uranium-enrichment facility in Paducah, where the CJ news bureau also closed in 2005.

Bruggers still lives in Louisville and reports on issues that affect Kentucky, but doesn’t have the same impact, said Judy Petersen, the former executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance: “When you get a story above the fold in a major newspaper like the Courier Journal, it typically has a big result. It gets picked up by other media outlets; governors notice it; ORSANCO commissioners notice it. People start asking questions. People turn out for public hearings.”

Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader “is the closest thing Kentucky has to an environment beat reporter,” Bethea reports. “The 34-year newsroom veteran covers southern and eastern parts of the state, and though he’s written about environmental issues related to coal, oil and gas extraction, he says he only spends about 10 percent of his time writing those,” from Somerset, just outside the eastern coalfield.

Lack of rural reporting is a downward spiral. When readers from “way out in the state” called with a concern, Bruggers told Bethea, “We had the bandwidth to look into those. Then the staff got smaller and smaller, the bandwidth shrinks, and, eventually, the people stop calling, because you can’t help them. You didn’t help them the last time.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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