Kentucky journalist Al Smith helped start multiple state and national organizations, steered to safety a federal agency that Ronald Reagan targeted for elimination, and produced and hosted one of the longest-running public TV programs on government affairs in America.
But, according to his memoir, Wordsmith, none of his many jobs was more important than being editor of a small-town weekly newspaper in rural southern Kentucky.
Smith, a revered figure in Kentucky journalism and civic life, died March 19 at the age of 94 (Complete obituary).
To explore Smith’s importance to Kentucky and journalism, the Daily Yonder assembled a panel of people who knew Smith in his many roles as editor, raconteur, state and federal administrator, mentor, and friend.
The panelists included the following:
- Julie Ardery, author and founding co-editor of the Daily Yonder;
- Bill Bishop, founding co-editor of the Daily Yonder and former daily and weekly newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist;
- Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder;
- John David Dyche, attorney and public affairs columnist;
- Jamie Lucke, former editorial page editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader;
- Renee Shaw, public affairs producer at KET, Kentucky’s public television network; and
- Tim Marema, editor of the Daily Yonder (moderator).
Smith got his start – or more accurately, his re-start – in journalism at the Russellville, Kentucky, News-Democrat, a county-seat weekly on the Tennessee border in 1958. The lessons he learned there about the obligations and power of the press informed the rest of his life.
He created a media company that owned multiple newspapers. He started “Comment on Kentucky,” an early example of public affairs programming on what was then called “educational TV.” He served as federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission under Presidents Carter and Reagan. He helped create the Kentucky Oral History Commission and chaired the state’s public arts agency on two occasions. His concern about the future of community journalism led him to help create the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
Smith arrived in Russellville after drinking himself out of two jobs at daily papers in New Orleans. What he thought was a brief detour in rural Kentucky turned into a career. Over the years he found sobriety, a wife and family, and more than enough stories to fill the pages of the News-Democrat. After learning first-hand how small-town journalism could create stronger, healthier communities, Smith gave up plans to return to big-city news operations.
He learned that he need never apologize for being “just” a small-town journalist. “There was no bigger job than the one I had,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir.