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This article originally appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal 5/30/76
It has been shortened and edited from its original form

Hometown Correspondents

In danger: Familiar but fading symbols of community journalism
by Al Allen
Mallie Baker, who covers the Big Creek community for The Hazard Herald-Voice, has the country touch. To the survivors of a woman who just died, she can offer words of consolation like this: "…Just think of your dear mother as someone who's work here on earth is done, her troubles and sorrows has passed. She has entered through that Heavenly door to be with Gods children at last." She can then turn to a discussion of her own health: "I sure was on the Big Creek sick list last week. I visit Dr. Coolie Combs every other day and he did a fine job on my throat… I will try to have the regular news in next Thursdays paper, I hope as I am still seeing my doctor every other day. Hope to get better soon."

Nobody has ever taken a census of country correspondents – or stringers -- in Kentucky or southern Indiana. A good guess, though, might be 800. Though it's a guess, it's a conservative one. There are some 140 weekly newspapers in Kentucky. If each of them had five stringers - a modest estimate - the total would come to 700. Southern Indiana weeklies, plus the small daily newspapers that use correspondents, surely would add another 100.

Not so very long ago the Mallie Bakers of journalism wrote the bulk of what was printed in weekly and some small daily newspapers: who visited whom in Punkin Corner; laments over the passing of a pillar of the community; last Sunday's sermon topic; the plans for the Willing Workers sewing circle's chicken supper. In many community papers they are doing the same thing, but not as often with Mrs. Baker's command of the language. But in many others the stringers are beginning to fade or have fallen silent altogether, victims of a growing sophistication – or what passes for sophistication – in modern life. 

John D. Adams, 1976, Jeff, KY Seventy-two-year-old John D. Adams and his wife Ethel, get together every Sunday afternoon in their brick home on a hillside in Jeff, a few miles outside of Hazard. There for the rest of the afternoon, they write for The Herald-Voice of Hazard a column called "Jeff Notes." While Mrs. Adams strings together news items ("Mrs. Jack Barnett is somewhat improved from her spell of sickness." … "Edd J. Combs is not only the tall fisherman of the hills, but he grows giant sweet potatoes as well." … "Glenda Singleton and sons have been visiting Glenda's mother, Flossie Cornett of Jeff.") Mr. Adams puts on his "Mr. Gad" suit.

"Mr. Gad" is the alter ego of John D. Adams, the reason why "Jeff Notes" is read far beyond the confines of the tiny town of 700 or so souls. Adams, a man given to leisurely reflection, talks to Mr. Gad in the third person, as an entity apart from himself. "He is my adviser, my invisible adviser. Mr. Gad is sort of uneducated, I picked him up two or three years ago, and I turn to him when I run across something and I need his advice." Translated, that means that whenever John D. Adams – one of the riches men in Perry County, a former poor boy, former assistant county superintendent of schools, involved in all sorts if community projects and behind-the-scenes angel to any number of improvised Perry County students – wants to say something with a bit to it, Mr. Gad gives it a voice:

"Mr. Gad believes in the women having all the freedom they wish to have as long as they use common sense, maintain the home unit which is essential to maintain our way of living … Mr. Gad told Mrs. Gad that she could hoe in the garden, mix concrete, dig ditches, operated machinery, climb telephone poles and even grow her a mustache if she so desired."  

Correspondents aren't flourishing; indeed, many editors think the breed is dying out.

"I'm afraid they're a thing of the past," says George Wilson, formerly executive director of the Kentucky Press Association and who use to run Breckinridge County Herald News. "Every year more and more papers are getting away from them."

Why? There are the obvious reasons: Most stringers are elderly; when they die or move away to live with the grandchildren, or just become to feeble to continue, they are often difficult to replace.

But there are, as well, more subtle reasons. Wilson notes: "Better transportation, for instance. The things in a small town may not be as important as before, and the people turn to the bigger cities like Louisville. When that happens, their interests become more widespread and the pull of hometown gossip lessens."

Bruce Temple, editor of the Brown County News in Nashville, Ind., is more blunt: "I've found that people aren't much interested in seeing the same old names over and over again. Lifestyle has changed, even in the little crossroads communities. Once it was important to know who your neighbors had in for Sunday dinner, but not anymore. Now you just have to turn on the TV, and there's a whole world of events…" Temple has all but eliminated country correspondents from the News.

The feeling isn't unanimous, editors being editors, and many think the stringer will always be indispensable. Says Al Smith, editor and publisher of several Western Kentucky newspapers: "the backbone of the county-seat rural papers is the county correspondent. There is a fantastic loyalty of people to their hometown newspaper. People who have gone to Toledo or Chicago or Detroit-city keep buying the papers because they like to read the hometown news. I have to think that means the hometown correspondent.  

Roscoe Davis And then there is Roscoe Davis. Davis, like John Adams, writes for the Herald-Voice in Hazard. From his Davis Brothers Kenyon Auto Store (despite its name, it's a hardware emporium), the 68-year-old sportsman holds court for a procession of visitors and tipsters and friends and even "guys who bring their kids into the store, like I'm a tourist attraction, and say: 'There he is.'" Out of this comes his weekly "colyum" of news, gags, and philosophy in what he calls, tongue-in-cheek, "the good old Angelo-Saxon" which does intentional and sometimes hilarious violence to the language. The paper is careful, nowadays, to run it just as he submits it, having made the mistake a couple of years ago of trying to clean up the spelling, grammar and syntax of touching off, instead, a revolt of reader.

"Leck Begley has crossed over the Mountain of no return, he was the father-in-law of Mark & Luke Walters… I hope he will find a good fishing hole up there," Davis may write.

"Mayor Bill Morton fetched me in two nice Blue fish from the Ocean, you see Bill has been to see the big waters along with Betty and guess the rest of his clan. I would say these fish or the Mackrel family, regardless of what family they belong to, they will soon belong in this peckerwood's belly, thats as close to the blue bloods as you can get.

"I read with interest about the park service going to install a solar system in their houses, what ever that is. …I never need any heat or light to find a two holer when needed. I guess times sure is changing. Use to be all I needed was a good smeller and I wasnt woried about anything but if the catalogue hadnt got down to the slick pages yet. Bless my honorary hide what next?"

Davis is a long way from being the rube he comes off as in his column. When you corner him, he can be downright serious, not to say eloquent, about his craft:

Roscoe's Round-up "What is important is the confidence of the public. John Adams and I like to help people. Our people have been promised and promised everything, up to and beyond the moon, and they have come up disappointed. I'd like to restore their confidence, their trust, in man. I think they know, or they sense, that whatever I write – and what John writes – will be good, that I won't do anything except it will be beneficial."

But Davis is 68. Adams is 72. Mrs. Baker and most of the rest are getting along.

Oscar Combs, editor of The Tri-City News in Cumberland and who formally worked with Davis and Adams in Hazard, expressed almost a verbal obituary of the stringer craft. Said he:

"It's sad. Nobody is replacing the correspondent like Roscoe. Now with educated and trained journalists and educated readership, to some extent, people are more demanding of a better brand of journalism.

"But what tends to be missing, increasingly, is the warmth and humor and sometimes sadness of columns like Roscoe's. That's important. But it's dying."