Al Cross honored with Al Smith Polaris Award

Congratulations to Al Cross on being honored ith the Al Smith Polaris Award for his long record of distinguished service to community journalism and for his role in establishing the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues  at the University of Kentucky.

Al was the last person who served as both editor-in-chief of the College Heights Herald (1972-73) and as advertising manager (1974, so not at the same time).

Your WKU family applauds your work for journalism, Al!

Here’s David Thompson’s story on the award from On Second Thought, the weekly newsletter of the Kentucky Press Association:
Martha Helen Smith, widow of Al Smith, poses with Al Cross after he received the Al Smith Polaris Award Thursday night. The presentation was part of the Al Smith Award dinner held at the Embassy Suites in Lexington. Al has retired as director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues after serving in that role since 2004.

When Al Smith and Rudy Abramson dreamed up the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, they envisioned an effort to help rural newspapers in Appalachia address the region’s difficult issues. The former co-chairs of the Appalachian Regional Commission, according to the Institute’s five-year report in 2009, recognized the “lack of vigor” and the limited resources those newspapers had compared to their metropolitan-based counterparts owned by big media companies.

They looked to institutions of higher learning, where ideas and sources live, and in particular to the University of Kentucky. Then to financial resources, including the ARC, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Knight and Ford foundations. And eventually, they turned to one man. Al Cross.

You all know the rest. Since 2004, Cross has shaped and molded the Institute, finding ways to help rural journalists set the public agenda on issues like education, the environment, health care and economic development. He has accomplished this with a multi-faceted approach that included recognition of great work through the Gish Award and the Al Smith Award; by creating content, especially with respect to health care, and sharing it at no cost with media outlets across the country and abroad; by conducting seminars and summits; by championing open government; by offering guidance to small newspapers facing a digital onslaught; and by just being available for advice.

When Al’s pending retirement was recently announced, the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists soon received several nominations suggesting that his name appear on and Al Smith Award. We needed no convincing, only a scheme to keep it from him until tonight. Still, sharing a few words from the efforts to convince us seems appropriate. A recurring theme emerged: that Al is a kind of North Star for the field of rural editors.

In his nominating letter, KPA Executive Director David Thompson admitted having some reservations about Al at first, “because so much of his career was spent with a large metro daily.” But he also remembered Al’s days with Al Smith at the Russellville weekly and was ecstatic that they came through in this approach. “He knew how to talk with them, work with them, help them and was always open to their reasons for how their newspapers operated,” he wrote.

Becky Barnes, the now retired editor of The Cynthiana Democrat saw Al’s lengthy background as a political columnist as a plus. “Anyone who has ever worked in a small market knows that just about everything in small towns revolves around some sort of politics,” she wrote.

And Sharon Burton, publisher of Farmland Publications, Inc., in Adair County, recalled frequent conversations with her journalism “Extension agent,” a job description Al often used for himself. “I have laughed about that many times because I have covered agriculture for years and know the value of all that ‘free expertise’ our farmers get …,” she wrote. “I took him seriously and I make use of his expertise on a regular basis.” Burton also referenced connections she has made “across the country and beyond,” thanks to Al Cross.

We should note that all three of these nominations come from former recipients of the Al Smith Award. Because of the great work they collectively admire, and our appreciation of that great effort, we are honored to present this “Special” Al Smith Polaris Award tonight to Al Cross.