Les Zaitz, publisher of Oregon’s weekly Malheur Enterprise, wins Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity, integrity in rural journalism
A longtime practitioner of accountability journalism, now making his weekly newspaper a model for investigative and enterprise reporting at the local level, is the winner of the 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
Leslie "Les" Zaitz is editor and publisher the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon. His family bought the paper, which has a circulation of less than 2,000, to keep it from closing in 2015. In 2016, he became publisher after retiring from The Oregonian, where he had been the senior investigative reporter and winner of many awards, including finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2014 for a 2013 series about Mexican drug cartels in the U.S.
In 2017, the Enterprise pursued the story of a former state hospital patient’s involvement in two murders and an assault in Malheur County shortly after his release. The newspaper discovered that the defendant had been released after convincing state officials he had faked mental illness for 20 years to avoid prison, and after mental-health experts warned he was a danger. The state Psychiatric Security Review Board sued Zaitz and the Enterprise to avoid complying with an order to turn over exhibits that the board had considered before authorizing the man’s release. Zaitz started a GoFundMe effort to pay legal fees, but then Gov. Kate Brown took the rare step of interceding in the case, ordering the lawsuit dropped and the records produced. Brown later named Zaitz one of three news-media representatives on the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council, which makes recommendations concerning the state public-records advocate.
The Enterprise’s efforts won Zaitz and his reporters, John Braese and Pat Caldwell, the 2018 Freedom of Information Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. They beat out entries from much larger news outlets, including The Oregonian. The judges wrote that the series was a "classic David-meets-Goliath triumph," and showed "You don’t need a large staff and deep resources to move the needle on open records."
"That’s one reason Les Zaitz and the Enterprise are such a good choice for the Gish Award," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. "Doing good journalism in rural areas often requires more courage, tenacity and integrity than in cities, but the same state and federal laws apply, and Les knows how to use them for the public good." The Institute publishes The Rural Blog.
The Enterprise is not Zaitz’s first foray into rural journalism. From 1987 to 2000, he was owner and publisher of the weekly Keizertimes in Keizer, Oregon. His family still owns the paper, which consistently wins journalism awards, and much of his investigative reporting has been in rural Oregon. He is a five-time solo winner of the Bruce Baer Award, Oregon’s top award for investigative reporting. In 2016, the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association gave him its highest honor for career achievement, an award not given since 2010.
"Rural journalism is so critical to the American fiber, and even more so today when people are so hungry for a trusted news source," Zaitz said. "Small news outlets don't have to be bad news outlets, and I'm hoping our work in rural Oregon can in some modest way inspire others to redouble their efforts to provide quality journalism. That quality is not only a professional imperative, but a business one as well."
The Tom and Pat Gish Award is named for the late couple who published The Mountain Eagle at Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years and became nationally known for their battles with coal operators and politicians, and the firebombing of their office by a Whitesburg policeman. Their son, Eagle Editor-Publisher Ben Gish, is on the award selection committee.
“Given the tenacity, courage and integrity Les Zaitz has shown during his career, it would be hard to find a more deserving winner of the award named in honor of my parents,” Gish said. “I find it more than just a little interesting that his father and my father ran statehouse bureaus for United Press [International].”
Past winners of the award have been the Gishes; the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Texas) Record; publisher Jim Prince and former publisher Stan Dearman of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler, columnist for The Oregonian, for her work in rural Kentucky and Texas; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin for their newspaper work in Yancey County, N.C.; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in western Kentucky; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in Española, N.M.; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.; and the Cullen family of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa.
Cross will present the 2018 Gish Award to Zaitz at the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in Portland on July 11. Nominations for the 2019 Gish Award may be emailed at any time to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ryan Craig and late uncle Larry Craig win Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians, presented by Institute and Bluegrass SPJ
Ryan and Larry Craig, a nephew and his late uncle, are the winners of the 2017 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians.
As editor and publisher of the Todd County Standard since 2005, Ryan Craig (left) has held local and state officials accountable, sometimes to the financial detriment of his small weekly, and started an investigation that exposed serious flaws in the state’s foster-child program. He is this year’s president of the Kentucky Press Association, and in KPA competitions his paper has been judged the best small weekly in the state 10 of the last 11 years.
Larry Craig (right) edited the Green River Republican at Morgantown for Al Smith (for whom the award is named), then bought it from him but continued his work as a Baptist minister. He blended courage, curiosity, skill and humor to become a distinctive if not unique figure in rural journalism. He was KPA president in 1989. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 1994 and died in 2011.
The Craigs were honored Oct. 12 at the Embassy Suites in Lexington, at the Al Smith Awards Dinner of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which co-sponsor the award. For a video of the tribute to Larry Craig, click here. For a video of the presentation to Ryan Craig, and his remarks, click here.
"I see Ryan as the best of the best among America's community newspapers. his former colleague at the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, Jennifer P. Brown, told the crowd. "Ryan is proof that excellent journalism can and should be practiced in rural America." Brown said such eamples need to be helpd up "especially now, when Americans at every corner seem to find more and more reasons to be at odds. Peopke like Ryan build up a community by illuminating what works, what doesn't and what matters." Bluegrass SPJ President Tom Eblen of the Lexington Herald-Leader said the Craigs are examples "of why the Institute for Rural Journalism is really important in this country."
The award is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its national advisory board for many years, and is chairman emeritus.
The Craigs are natives of Allegre in northern Todd County, part of the hilly Clifty Region that fringes the Western Kentucky Coalfield. Larry Craig said in a 2009 interview that when he moved to Butler County, in the coalfield, he quickly concluded, “These people are like North Todd . . . You don’t show any hesitancy or weakness.”
Ryan Craig is a graduate of Western Kentucky University, which his uncle attended without earning a degree but which later hired him to teach journalism. Ryan Craig’s degrees are in history and public relations, but he says he took up journalism after his uncle told him that he should give it a try because “You would do a lot more good, and wouldn’t have to worry about having too much money.”
Larry Craig, son of a sharecropper who was also a Baptist pastor, started preaching at 17. But he loved to write, and followed a minister’s advice to pastors who wanted to improve their writing: seek assignments from the local newspaper. He went to see Smith, editor and publisher of The Logan Leader and The News-Democrat, then twin weeklies in Russellville, who assigned him to write a 30th anniversary story about a local military unit that went to World War II. He was soon covering the county school board, which was at odds with Smith; controversies among dark-fired tobacco growers, and the 1977 United Mine Workers strike. With the help of miners at his church, he wrote what Nat Caldwell, legendary energy reporter for The Tennessean, called the best reporting on the strike from coal miners' perspective.
Smith hired Craig to edit the Green River Republican in 1980 and sold it to him in 1982. When it became known that he had been offered a list of people willing to sell their votes, someone shot through a front window of his office. He got his gun and spent the night there, earning him the appellation "pistol-packing preacher-publisher." His watchdog work extended to the general public; he published names he found on trash at illegal dumps, sparking the most negative reaction he ever received. He loved to tweak politicians, and others prone to self-importance, in invocations at KPA conventions and other gatherings. After he became a journalism teacher and told the student newspaper that the Ku Klux Klan was a "putrid cancer on the body of America," a Klan member and sympathizer burned the Warren County church he was pastoring.
Craig said in 2009 that one man told him “He couldn’t see how I could raise hell all week and then preach against hell on Sunday,” but he said both professions prize truth, justice and accountability. He wrote in a 1987 column that some editors “find themselves in the role of an attack dog; others don’t go far enough in exposing wrongdoing, primarily because they don’t want to rock the boat or get anybody upset. That’s lap-dog journalism. I prefer the middle road, one based on common sense and hard-nosed journalism tempered with compassion. A good guard dog is one that is a friend to all while being a protector.”
David Hawpe, former editor of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, who succeeded Craig as KPA president, said when his friend died at 62, of liver failure, that he was “a special person who actually was an intellectual, sophisticated guy hiding in a country preacher's persona." Al Smith called him “one of the most unforgettable editors I ever knew.”
“Larry Craig left a legacy to which Ryan Craig has more than lived up,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and associate professor in the UK School of Journalism and Media, where he teaches community journalism. “Ryan understands that rural newspapers must not only cover their communities, but connect them to the rest of the state, nation and world.”
Ryan Craig bought the Todd County Standard in 2005 after working at daily and weekly newspapers in the area. He transformed the paper into an example of excellent reporting, editing and presentation. When it won its first General Excellence award from KPA, he heard from Uncle Larry, he recalls: “He called me and told me I was putting out a great newspaper,” then said, “Now they know you can do a great job, turn the heat up to boil and see what happens.”
It didn’t take long. Ryan received threats from public officials, including a sheriff who went through the courthouse in cocking his shotgun and saying, “Nobody is arresting me because of the Todd County Standard.” Aggressive reporting on a new jail that became a long-term burden on the county’s budget, and a story about price gouging after Hurricane Katrina, led to businesses pulling their advertising and ousting the newspaper’s racks from their stores.
In 2011, The Standard investigated the murder of a girl in foster care in a home where abuse had been substantiated, and used open-records laws to uncover serious flaws in the Kentucky social-services system. He went to court to have the girl's files made public when state officials tried to cover up her case. The newspaper’s investigation, along with stories in the state’s two largest dailies, helped lead to the resignation of the cabinet secretary, the retirement of the social-services commissioner, legislative hearings and a governor-appointed panel to examine child-abuse deaths and near-deaths, Todd Circuit Clerk Mark Cowherd wrote in his nomination of Craig.
“Ryan’s work as a member of the Fourth Estate has helped to inform and educate not only the citizens of Todd County but also the citizens all across the commonwealth of Kentucky,” he said.
“Ryan Craig is the model of an outstanding community journalist and publisher,” said Tom Eblen, president of the SPJ Bluegrass Chapter and a columnist at the Lexington Herald-Leader. “Ryan wants his community to succeed, but he isn’t afraid to point out problems or speak truth to power. He has made the Todd County Standard a must-read in his region and a force for good.”