Grayson County Public Health Director Joshua Embry
(Photo by Matt Lasley, Grayson County News-Gazette)
By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

LEITCHFIELD, Ky. – Local health departments usually operate in the background, or under the radar of local news organizations, unless a health issue arises. But their work is important, so they deserve more regular attention, and both weekly newspapers in a west-central Kentucky county did that when it got a new public health director.

Some residents may have been startled when they read a headline in the Grayson County News-Gazette saying that Joshua Embry was going to "address human trafficking." He told reporter Matt Lasley, "Based on our clinic services, we know for a fact it is happening in our community. . . It's definitely happening in small, rural towns."

"According to Embry, human trafficking is not solely related to sex, it also includes human labor, and can be drug-related as well," Lasley reports. "In many instances, people are brought into the country and forced to provide unpaid labor to work off a debt to the person who brought them here."

Also, "Underage children can be victims of human trafficking without ever leaving their homes, by being deceived into sharing explicit images of themselves with people online. These images are then widespread, which falls under the umbrella of human trafficking, health department officials say."

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and Embry "is beginning an awareness campaign aimed at educating the community on the issue and how to address it and report it," Lasley writes.

The front-page story in the county's other weekly, The Record, briefly mentioned human trafficking and was more general, reminding readers of the health department's wide range of services and responsibilities, which include "grief counseling services for families who've lost a child."

"People hear 'health department' and they automatically think STD tests" for sexually transmitted diseases, Embry told The Record's Rebecca Morris. "I want to be able to educate the community on all the programs we have. A lot of people just don't understand the great resource the health department is."

Embry, 32, began work last month after almost seven years at Breckinridge Health, which operates Breckinridge Memorial Hospital in nearby Hardinsburg. After a brief teaching career, he started as an emergency-room clerk and ended as coordinator of compliance, emergency preparedness and safety. He told Morris that health care is a "field you definitely have to be called to."

One could say that about the weekly newspaper business, too. I was editor of the News-Gazette (and general manager of a predecessor, The Leitchfield Gazette) before the Louisville Courier Journal hired me away in 1978. One of my successors as editor, Jenny Searcy, started The Record a few years later.

Grayson may be the only county in the U.S. with weekly newspapers operated by competing chains, which usually don't buy papers with less than $1 million in annual revenue, and certainly not in competitive markets. But Landmark Community Newspapers of Shelbyville bought The Record to give advertisers in its Elizabethtown daily, The News-Enterprise, an opportunity to buy combination ads. It ran a circulation campaign, managed by Searcy, that won it the local circulation lead and thus the public-notice ads. The News-Gazette went through several owners and is now owned by Paxton Media Group of Paducah, which bought in a 2017 package deal with two other nearby papers and moved it from twice-weekly to weekly publication. The county of 27,000 also has an AM-FM radio station with an active news department, WMTL-WKHG in Leitchfield, a town of about 7,000.