Becky Barnes, editor of The Cynthiana Democrat, is the 2020 winner of the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian. Barnes, who has worked at the weekly for 44 years, distinguished herself most recently by arranging a special edition that was mailed to every household in Harrison County, funded by local government, less than two days after it was announced that the county had Kentucky’s first case of covid-19, in early March.
“Becky’s initiative was a groundbreaking piece of work that set an example for rural weeklies,” said Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which presents the award with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (and publishes The Rural Blog).
“At a time when everyone in her county needed reliable information, not rumors, about a clear and present danger, Becky and the local officials found a way to deliver it,” Cross said. “This example has been followed by other weeklies, and at a time when the pandemic has hurt newspapers’ advertising revenue, it shows how they can tap a new revenue source while rendering essential public service.”
Barnes and her newspaper have continued to focus on the pandemic and its local effects. She and staff writer Lee Kendall streamed live news conferences with the county judge-executive, mayor and public-health director, and thousands watched. She was widely noticed for an April 30 column about masks, which weren’t required at the time but were becoming controversial. It concluded, “I will wear a mask not because I am required to do so, but because it may help. This is all new. We are learning as we go. But if there is a chance it will help – I will wear a mask – for you.”
Barnes has repeatedly stood out over a long career, said USA Today photographer Jack Gruber, who nominated her. He noted her support of Boyd’s Station, the arts-and-journalism nonprofit he founded, and a national photography workshop that brought 150 journalists to the county of 18,000 people. He quoted local Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tomi Clifford: "Becky often finds the light in the darkness whenever a major event has happened. Like in 1997 with the flood, or the coronavirus, she puts everything out there and is super personable, honest and remains positive during the most difficult times to be a journalist."
The Cynthiana Democrat is one of 47 owned by Landmark Community Newspapers, which is based in Shelbyville, Ky. The company’s executive editor, John Nelson, said, "Becky has been deserving of this level of recognition for a long time. We’re happy for her, proud to count her among our community editors, and pleased that her story — the story about Becky — is being heard."
Told that she had received the Al Smith Award, Barnes said, “I am so humbled. Every day I come in to work with the same goal: to put out the best newspaper I can for the people of Cynthiana and Harrison County. Being honored by my peers is a bonus."
The award is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its advisory board and is its chair emeritus.
The award is usually presented at a dinner in the fall, but presentation is being delayed until next year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Read more about Barnes' win and past Al Smith Award winners here.