Before beginning work in state government eight years ago, I was a journalist. I loved my work. I loved talking to strangers, asking questions other people never get to ask, having one-on-one interactions with interesting people. I loved condensing and sharing the knowledge I gained from those interviews and presenting it to a larger audience via the newspaper format. I’ll not lie: I miss it.
It was all of those things I miss that led me to conduct interviews with each of the nine recipients of the 2013 Governor’s Awards in the Arts. It’s a project I’ll carry with me for a while.
It was an especially exciting prospect to interview a man who has spent his professional life as an interviewer himself. Tom Eblen, current columnist and former managing editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, is this year’s Media Award recipient. It was great fun sitting down with Tom and learning about his career and lifelong interest in the arts.
Tom is originally from Lexington and is a graduate of Western Kentucky University. His journalism career took him to the Associated Press in Tennessee and then to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where he was a reporter and editor. Eventually, he came back to Lexington to work for the Herald-Leader as managing editor for 10 years before settling into the position he holds now as a columnist. I hope you enjoy reading what he had to say when he was on the other side of the interview equation.
How would you describe the kind of work you do in relation to the arts?
The columns I write tend to be about local and state issues. They tell good stories about interesting people. The kinds of things I like to look at are what is interesting, what makes Kentucky unique. But also, what does Kentucky need to be doing to position itself well for the future? We have such a rich history in this state. How do we leverage that to become a more successful state? And a big part of that has been arts coverage. Part of it is just because it’s something I’m interested in and have always been interested in. I’ve always had a lot of friends who were artists and writers and I liked their work. I think the arts in Kentucky are so important, because what they really are, are expressions of creativity. It’s really central to the thinking process, and to success, to be able to look at the creative process. The arts are such a great expression of that. You see it all over Kentucky.
When did you first become interested in arts as subject matter?
I’ve always been interested in the arts. My first cousin is an artist and his father was a well-known artist. I kind of grew up around it. I always liked to draw and liked art. I always had an interest in the arts and as a journalist I’ve always been interested in writing. In this job I try to write about what I think is interesting and what other people will think is interesting.
When you talk with someone, when you want to write a story, do you have specifics in mind or do you just want to learn about them?
I just want to know what their story is. As most people know a columnist is a storyteller. Having been a reporter for a dozen years, then an editor for 20-something years, I know what’s going to make an interesting story. Also, a lot of my best column ideas come from readers. Generally what I have done with artists is, if their work really intrigues me I figure their story will too. Most artists are really interesting people. A lot of them have very interesting stories about how they became artists and the thoughts behind their work. People who are driven to create art are driven by something. And that something is usually very interesting or they have a good story behind it.
How often are you thinking about your readers when you are writing?
I’m always thinking when I’m writing, what’s going to interest the reader? What’s going to grab them in and make them read all of the way to the end? The easiest thing for a reader to do is to stop reading. How can I answer the questions that will come to their mind when they’re reading and look for the things they’ll want to know about?
Why is it important for a newspaper to include the arts in their coverage?
Well I think one of the things newspapers are supposed to be is a reflection of their community and community life. In most vibrant communities, the arts are a really important part of it. It’s where a lot of segments of a community come together because of a common interest. My wife does a lot of volunteer work for the UK Opera Theatre and through that we’ve met a lot of people from all professions.
Do newspapers play a role in arts advocacy?
Editorials and columnists, I think they do. Newspapers are always careful about advocacy but I think generally they do. Part of that is explaining to people, especially in tight budget times when there are a lot of life and death issues going on, things like the arts are still important for quality of life. They’re an important part of what a rich community in this state is all about.
What makes Kentucky artists special, different, unique – part of our culture and heritage?
Kentucky has always been a place in transition. In the early days we were the frontier, and then we were the west, and then we were a border state. Then, in many ways, things were going on all around us and we were our own little island. Now as the economy is changing we’re kind of in the middle of the country. It’s always been a society in transition, a society in mobility. It’s also been a society that people have always been very proud of where they come from. Plus, we have a lot of very distinct regions and those regions produce a lot of different kinds of art.
I think the bottom line is it comes down to a sense of place. I don’t know many Kentucky artists or writers who don’t have a sense of place at the core of their work. You look at almost all Kentucky writers, and artists are the same way, the colors and the inspiration they get from the state really makes a difference in their art.
Emily B. Moses, communications director