Commentary: Gone too soon; so much left to finish

By Ryan Quinn, Published:

I’m sorry I’ve left The State Journal now.

If you’re reading this, I’m settling into my new home in West Virginia, where I’ll be reporting for The Charleston Gazette. Too many reporters have recently left too quickly, and I now count myself, leaving after a year and a half, as part of the problem.

I want this paper you’re reading — the paper that gave me my first full-time job — to be strong. I want it to be relentlessly accurate and critical. I want it to have an incessant commitment to objectivity that is nonetheless underscored by a necessary subjectivity: that it’s the least privileged of society that journalism should work hardest for, and that an almost entirely unfettered reporting of the truth is necessary to keep leaders honest.

A local newspaper has another requirement: defining what local is. If The State Journal is complacent, Frankfort will be just some place state workers go for pay stubs; a metonym for the Capitol, never mind all those buildings around it.

The Internet strengthens journalism as a whole, but it could kill local media that don’t adapt and strive. The truth is that no matter where someone lives, he or she likely devotes limited time to reading.

Is a person’s sense of being a Frankfortian strong enough — in an age of neglected downtowns and sprawling suburbs, of strengthened online communities and empty brick-and-mortar community centers — to make them take time to read about a local issue, to tear them away from the latest disclosure of National Security Agency overreaches from a major media source?

The State Journal may be the only locally focused newspaper in Franklin County, but it has to define what local is, show how what it covers impacts people here and make sure the reporting is interesting and insightful enough for people to read it.

There are many stories that still deserve to be written, and during my short time here, I didn’t write them. More stories will emerge. A new person will have to learn all the history — people and issues tend to stick around here — and hit the ground running faster than I because an uncharacteristically big county primary approaches in May.

‘A holy land’

I remember it was tough to arrive here shortly before the City Commission elections. I was more than eight hours away from my hometown of Charleston, S.C. I knew it was a tourist town when I lived there, but I learned that Kentuckians consider it something of a mecca — a holy land where virtuous state employees head to retire.

There was a recurring dissonance: People welcomed me to Frankfort, told me it was a good place, asked me where I’m from, and then said, in more words or less,  “Why the hell are you here?”

Sports and Spectrum Editor Phil Case has asked me at least once a week when I’m going to come to my wits, head back to Charleston — where winter is only an excuse for lower beach house rentals — and open a Piggly Wiggly where he’ll hand out sweet tea and fried chicken.

I covered my first story — a City Commission meeting — Sept. 10, 2012, the day after I arrived in Frankfort following a two-day trip from my internship in Florida to Charleston for my grandmother’s 90th birthday.

I almost fell asleep at the meeting, but I managed to churn out a story about developers being interested in the former lumberyard site in South Frankfort. They talked about that still-vacant site at the last commission meeting I covered Monday, with the news that the most interested developer had chosen to build elsewhere.

I arrived during the waning days of Sellus Wilder’s time on the commission. The meetings were long and acrimonious as Wilder continued what he said was a campaign to increase officials’ accountability and the city’s transparency. The Betty Burriss incident, which emerged during my first month, raised legitimate questions but also became a political crap storm. This was my introduction.

Enjoyed my time

But I’ve enjoyed my time here: from lying on the Old Capitol lawn during summer concerts to countless nights sipping things other than coffee at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café, the heart of downtown Frankfort. So it hurts to see many of the same issues persist, and to think I could have helped solve them if I’d stuck around longer or just worked harder while I was here.

These issues go beyond the media’s day-to-day reports and often even the investigative stories about government incompetence and societal dysfunction. These stories but hint at these larger, seemingly immutable problems.

Take the decade-long decline at Kentucky State University, its 6-year graduation rate now around 13 percent, the lowest in the state and among the lowest of all Historically Black Colleges and Universities. As the occasional KSU controversies blip and fade, where are the sustained calls to change this?

But aside from helping students, a KSU revitalization could turn Frankfort into a truly vibrant college town — so even on a purely selfish level residents should be showing up at Board of Regents meetings and calling the governor’s office to demand reform.

Such problems may seem so entrenched as to be unsolvable, but as I saw during the hours upon hours of meetings on the ultimately successful local Fairness Ordinance, a motivated group of people can do what was previously thought undoable through relentlessness.

A group can declare what was once regular revolting — no, you can’t discriminate against people based on sexual orientation — and make change. Voting is only one aspect of citizen engagement; showing up for meetings may have far more impact because it allows one to put his or her leaders on the spot and demand specific action. It makes representative democracy more direct.

Local newspapers should also be relentless through both their editorials and through an unwavering commitment to factual, fair but constantly critical reporting. Readers, let us know that. I never picked up a large paycheck here, but I nevertheless felt guilty looking at the stub whenever I felt I didn’t do enough to hold leaders accountable. The State Journal should understand that demanding accountability is both its business model and moral purpose. You should demand accountability of this paper, and it will demand it of your officials.

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