Business Q&A: Max Heath

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Veteran journalist says storytelling still the key to success.

Max Heath, retired vice president and executive editor of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., based in Shelbyville, is one of two rural journalists named this week to receive the second annual Al Smith Award from the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Smith is a national SPJ Fellow and co-founder of the Institute, which is based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. Jennifer P. Brown, opinion editor and former editor of the Kentucky New Erain Hopkinsville, also will be honored.
“Presented with the nominations of Jennifer Brown and Max Heath, we saw two outstanding examples of public service – one an exemplary editor in a single community, the other an executive who made a Kentucky-based newspaper chain a national leader in community journalism,” said Institute Director Al Cross, who served on the SPJ Bluegrass Chapter committee that decided to give two awards this year.

"The nominees share strong convictions about the importance of local journalism, no matter how small the communities,” Al Smith said. “We honor them for professionalism in reporting, commentary, and management that meets or exceeds the standards of the largest media organizations.  Integrity, talent and energy distinguish their commitment."

Heath, 66, is a native of Campbellsville and graduated from Campbellsville University but resides now in Shelbyville. He currently in his retirement is a postal consultant to LCNI, the National Newspaper Association and the Kentucky Press Association. He and his wife, Ruth Ann (owner of Heath Alpacas), have a son, Jason, who is a software engineer. He took a few minutes to answer some questions about the award and his career.

THE SENTINEL-NEWS:How does it feel to be the second person to win the Al Smith Award, after Al Smith himself? That seems to add a bit of luster.
MAX HEATH: It's always an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence with Al Smith, a legend in many fields.
S-N:Did you know Al Smith personally?

HEATH:I've known him for 35 years or so. Just wish he'd sold his newspaper group to LCNI instead of Park years ago. He loves to talk shop, and I've spent many hours chatting with him at KPA and other venues, including being on his KET show a few times.
S-N:The award exemplifies such characteristics as “integrity, talent and energy.” How have you focused your talent and energy in order to maintain integrity?

HEATH:  Having worked under a publisher who set the example of some things one shouldn't do prior to joining LCNI, it helped me write the LCNI Conflict of Interest policy for editors and  publishers. Then joining SPJ while in Indiana "in exile" for nearly 5 years exposed me to the highest in journalism ethics thinking, and I carried that into my involvement with SPJ in Louisville and LCNI duties. But SPJ was a major influence. While  the energy part gets harder with age, my work with numerous U.S. Postal Service personnel at all levels to build working relationships made it essential that I try to be an "honest broker" in helping LCNI and other newspapers with problems, including telling newspapers when they were wrong.

S-N:You’ve been doing this for a long time. What has been the biggest change you’ve seen in community journalism?

HEATH: I left field work just before pagination started, so that was a major change I missed from the old wax page makeup that I had loved. Then, of course, the Internet revolution that expanded news platforms exponentially was the biggest. But at our core, we still need good writers and storytellers. I still believe strongly in photo coverage of breaking news, including fires, accidents, crime, etc. for Web and print.
S-N:What do you feel is your most significant contribution to community journalism?

HEATH:If I've had any, it came from my efforts to hire good reporters and editors for LCNI newspapers, and try to nurture them along the way. I was also fortunate to have the support of management that allowed LCNI to get active in FOI battles, including open meetings, open records and open courts, and worked with Kim Greene and Jon Fleischaker in this regard, and helped introduce an FOI hotline service for KPA members using their law practice.
S-N:You are known within the industry as the authority on postal codes that dictate in many ways how community newspapers circulate. Do you see a time when papers such as The Sentinel-Newshave to be delivered rather than mailed?

HEATH:That depends a lot on how the current financial situation of the Postal Service, exacerbated by the recession that has harmed most businesses since 2009, plays out. NNA, that I represent, has worked hard and successfully on behalf of low, in-county postage prices, and they are still relatively attractive and are limited by a price cap NNA helped get passed in the 2006 postal reform law in Congress. Counties with significant rural areas, including Shelby, are still very costly to serve via motor routes due to high price of gas. USPS passes every house six days a week, regardless.
S-N:What would you – or do you – tell someone who today is getting into community journalism about your expectations for the future?

HEATH:Be prepared to be a multimedia person who can write, shoot still or video photography  and be able to interchange with readers in multiple ways. But most of all, they must bring good writing and people skills to the job.
S-N:Just this week a chain of fairly large daily newspapers implemented a plan to reduce the frequency of publication to three times a week – in an odd way putting them on par with community papers. Do you think this reinforces the community newspaper formula?

HEATH:Bill Diederich, a former executive who oversaw LCNI from Norfolk, predicted metro dailies would go to tri-weeklies 25 to 30 years ago. What a prophet he was. The profit model is suffering more than reader demand, but both create problems in larger markets.
S-N:The computer obviously has been the biggest impact on newspapers in the past four decades? What do you think will be the biggest in the next four?

HEATH:I'm not smart enough to predict, having been mired in "legacy systems" for so long, so I'll leave that to other soothsayers.