Sustaining Rural Journalism

Guide to aggressive reporting? Start with the basics.

Published Feb. 2024

Al Cross
By Al Cross

The town of Uvalde, Texas, pop. 15,000, and its same-named county of 25,000 were very unlucky in May 2022. That’s when an 18-year-old with an assault rifle at an elementary school killed 19 students and two teachers – a toll that probably would have been less had police not botched the response.

But Uvalde was also lucky – that it had a newspaper with an editor-publisher, Craig Garnett, who had long been willing to tell hard truths about things that matter, and who kept doing that in the aftermath of the tragedy.

The day after the shooting, the twice-weekly Leader-News published a black front page, with “MAY 24, 2022” in reverse type. The next front page had portraits of the 19 children and the start of a story with biographies of each one. Inside was a column from Garnett, addressing the police delay in confronting the shooter.

He said a regional police official “could not answer why it took an hour to end the attack,” quoted him as saying police were “measuring,” and wrote; “The question is how much measuring is permissible, while children are being murdered. Or perhaps they were already gone. It pains to write these words of criticism about law enforcement, but parents and the community have the right to know. They must be told why police, whom parents at the scene begged to go in and save their children, failed to act. They have to know, to ever begin to heal.”

In an editorial a month later, Garnett named names and was blunt: “No mass school shooting in the United States has ended with such glaring failures in both the law enforcement response and school district security. . . . Neither [school] Police Chief Pete Arredondo, acting city chief Mariano Pargas, Uvalde County Sheriff Ruben Nolasco nor any state or federal officer among the 376 responders to the scene was willing to take the helm of what was clearly a rudderless ship cast into a hurricane.” That didn’t sit well with local law enforcers and their supporters, but Garnett’s initial reporting and commentary had already spoiled his good relationship with the school district and police agencies.

Meanwhile, Garnett spent much time “sitting with families who lost children, siblings, friends; interviewing survivors, teachers and students, about their experience,” Leader-News Managing Editor Meghann Garcia said in nominating him for the 2023 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky, which I ran at the time. Garnett wasn’t able to attend our awards banquet in October, but in a recorded video for it, he reflected on his experience – and offered some advice for community editors and publishers:

“What happened in Uvalde was crushing. It continues to be an enormous weight on many of our shoulders, especially the families of victims. And we have endeavored to cover every aspect of that shooting. We still are working for information, accountability from various institutions, particularly our city and our school district and our law enforcement officials. We plan to follow that to its conclusion, whatever time it may take.

“But being successful at that and community journalism, as most publishers know, depends on your people. And I happen to have a group of journalists who are beyond amazing. None of us graduated from elite universities, some of us don’t have college degrees, but after the tragedy on May 24, each one of them brought something extremely important to our coverage. And our grand total [is] five of us, so there wasn’t a lot. It didn’t take long to have our discussions with each other and to plan our day. And it’s true in most of the newsrooms across this country and community journalism. But it brings you together in a way that nothing else can, I don’t suppose, unless it would be a foxhole. We learned from that. And one of the things we’ve taken away from May 24 is that we didn’t do enough before.

“We have a wall full of plaques from the South Texas Press Association, the Texas Press Association, but we didn’t do enough. We didn’t ask enough questions. We didn’t hold people running for elected office to account like we should have. We didn’t question people who wanted to run our institutions closely enough. What motivated them? What experience do they have? What would they do in a crisis? And we certainly didn’t hold our law enforcement to a high enough standard, the people who swore to protect us.

“So, we will work harder in the future to do that, to make sure that we know as much as we can about people who intend to lead our community, especially in the aftermath of a tragedy. We want to know how they’ll react. It’s not entirely possible. There are all kinds of things that pop up that you can’t plan for, but you can get a sense of where people’s souls lie and what their commitment is to your community. And that’s what I would advise to my fellow publishers in small towns. Pay attention. Pay attention to everything, to those people who run institutions, to the kid who’s slipping between the cracks, who might one day become the same school shooter we had. Be invested beyond what you are now, if that’s possible. I know most of you work your hearts out. But if there’s one thing we would like to do better, it would’ve been that.”

Garnett will share more of his experiences and receive the Tom and Pat Gish Award Feb. 29 at the University of Texas during a symposium, “Courage, Tenacity, Integrity and Innovation in Rural Journalism,” sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism, the Texas Center for Community Journalism at Tarleton State University, and the Center for Ethical Leadership in Media in the University of Texas School of Journalism and Media. He will be joined by fellow Texans Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian Record, Randy Keck of The Community News in Aledo, Tara Huff of The Eagle Press in Fritch, John Starkey of Rambler Texas Media and Daniel Walker of the Vernon Daily Record, the Burkburnett Informer Star and the Clay County Leader. For more information about the event, go to https://tccjtsu.com/community-journalists-will-talk-courage-tenacity-innovation-and-integrity-at-ut-austin-feb-29/. The event is free, but registration is required; here’s the link: http://tinyurl.com/4fpvwcwu.

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is director emeritus of the Institute for Rural Journalism and a professor at the University of Kentucky.