A State With Empty Bureaus
It’s fitting that Dori Hjalmarson’s story Sunday was about the decline in population in Breathitt County, Kentucky, as people abandon that coalfield county in search of work elsewhere because Dori is leaving, too.
Eastern Kentucky once had five major press news bureaus, but they’ve been closing as the business of newspapering has declined. The state’s largest newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, closed its bureau in Hazard years ago. The Associated Press followed, closing its bureau in Pikeville.
At one time the Lexington Herald-Leader had three reporters living in Eastern Kentucky. Dori Hjalmarson was the last. She leaves her Pikeville office Friday and nobody is taking her place.
At one time, every county in Kentucky had daily delivery of the Courier-Journal and the paper had reporters in both Hazard, in the far east, and Paducah, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
It was hard to advance in management at the C-J unless you passed through the bureaus. That was the way you learned about the state — the whole state. Then — before the collapse of the newspaper business — the Courier-Journal saw itself as Kentucky’s newspaper.
The C-J and, later, the Herald-Leader sent their best reporters to rural Kentucky. David Hawpe worked out of the Hazard bureau, and became editor of the Courier-Journal. Frank Langfitt began at the Herald-Leader’s Hazard bureau and is now a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio.
Rural bureau reporters in Kentucky were journalistic cops-on-the-beat in their territories. If a person (or a community) were a victim of injustice, the bureau reporter would get a call.
Bureau reporters also supported reporters at local weeklies. I remember working at the weekly Mountain Eagle newspaper in Whitesburg, Kentucky, when we were having a hard time getting some public documents out of the county judge. David Hawpe was in town and the Eagle editor, Tom Gish, asked the Courier-Journal reporter if he could help.
David put on his blue suit and starched white shirt and marched down to the judge’s office. He returned to the Eagle office that morning, smiling, with the documents we’d been seeking.
Bureau reporters were gunslinging paladins of the powerless.
The reporters covering Eastern Kentucky were able to change the nation from their little offices. The Kennedy and Johnson anti-poverty program began when the White House read about conditions in the Kentucky coalfields in stories that first appeared in regional newspapers. Later, Johnson announced his War on Poverty in Eastern Kentucky and Bobby Kennedy toured Hazard early in his ill-fated 1968 run for the presidency.
The United Mine Workers union was reborn in Harlan County during a strike that produced national news and an Academy Award winning film, Harlan County, U.S.A. The effort to end coal strip mining began in Eastern Kentucky two generations ago and this story was covered first and best by reporters at the local papers and the bureaus.
Finally, the reports coming out of the bureaus made Kentucky a state. People in Louisville and Lexington knew about the coalfields because that was the news on the front page of the paper. Stories about black lung, strip mining and the War on Poverty weren’t about some foreign country. They were about Kentucky, our state. That’s the way the bureaus helped us think.
The Louisville and Lexington papers will still do these stories because they are good journals. It won’t be the same, however.
To understand a place, you have to live there.
With the bureaus closed, the distance between the cities and the rest of the state will widen. The growing economic inequality between rural and urban in Kentucky will be matched by a social and political distance.
Dori Hjalmarson’s last big story for the Herald-Leader was about Emily Tackett, the valedictorian of Breathitt County High School. The county has lost 14.7 percent of its population in the last decade, the largest decline in the state. Dori went to Jackson, the county seat, to talk to a bright young Kentuckian about her region and her future.
Emily told Dori that she wants to stay in Breathitt County but doesn’t see many opportunities. Tackett explained what place meant in her life. Dori reported:
(Tackett) recently won an art contest with a charcoal portrait of her grandmother's reunion with her brother after World War II. The drawing, honored by the Congressional Art Competition, will hang in the U.S. Capitol to represent Rep. Hal Rogers' district.
Tackett said she chose her grandmother, Mary Hazel Tharp, because she wanted a subject that was "real" with meaning and feeling.
"She was my favorite person," Tackett said.
Her grandparents were preachers who started a Pentecostal church in Haddox that Tackett grew up in and wants someday to share with her own family.
"That's what I've been raised in. That's my home."
To know Emily Tackett is to understand Eastern Kentucky.
Dori Hjalmarson says she is moving to San Francisco to attend graduate school.
Bill Bishop is co-editor of the Daily Yonder. He is a former reporter for The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and a former columnist for The Lexington Herald-Leader.