Stevie Lowery of Lebanon Enterprise wins Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian
Rural journalists have to educate, take stands, be watchdogs and be willing to lose friends. So said Stevie Lowery on Oct. 18, as she accepted the 2018 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians, by the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
"Often times, newspapers have to take a stand on their opinion pages and state the obvious – something many people are afraid to do for one reason or another," Lowery told more than 150 people at the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner in Lexington. "In small towns, that can cost the newspaper staff a friend or two. But, at the end of the day, newspapers have a responsibility to be the watchdogs for their communities, for their country. It’s not always the most popular thing to do, but it needs to be done nonetheless."
Lowery, editor and publisher of The Lebanon Enterprise, was nominated for the award by its namesake, Albert P. Smith Jr., who was federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission and published newspapers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its advisory board and is chair emeritus.
Smith nominated Lowery after learning of her successful campaign to pass a supplemental property tax for improvements in Marion County Public Schools. That was one of many efforts she has made to serve the public since joining the Enterprise, owned by Landmark Community Newspapers, as a reporter in 2002.
In 2016, Lowery did several stories on the school-tax issue in a sample-copy edition sent to everyone in the county, with a main headline asking, “Are Marion County children worth a nickel?” She supported the cause with editorials and kept up an active conversation about it on the paper's Facebook page. The next year, though her news staff had been reduced to herself, Lowery did a five-part series about drug abuse in the county. It won awards for best series and writing from Landmark.
Institute Director Al Cross said the newspaper’s handling of the school-tax issue was a model for community journalists who see a need and want to take a stand. “Many rural editors are reluctant to take sides on controversial issues, but when they see a wrong that needs righting, they should take a stand, while being careful to give the other side its due in stories and on the opinion pages. The Enterprise did that.”
The two series were examples of Lowery’s willingness to tackle controversial subjects, such as the first same-sex couples to be married and adopt children in the county. “I’ve never been afraid to report on what some people consider ‘taboo,’ subjects, especially in a small community,” she says. “I’ve also not been afraid to open up about personal struggles that myself or my family have been through in hopes that my story might help someone else.” For the last edition with the drug series, she wrote a moving column about her late father’s addiction to alcohol.
"The newspaper helps people open their minds," she said of her readers. "I think it’s what I love the most about my job. At my small community newspaper, I have written stories about the first gay couple to legally adopt in our community, the first gay couple to legally marry in our county, and this year reporter Emily LaForme wrote about an amazingly brave transgender teenager – a story that will undoubtedly win awards. But, it’s not about the awards. That’s not why we do what we do. . . . We write these stories to educate people – to help them understand, to open their eyes, their minds, and their hearts."
Lowery is the daughter of Susan Spicer Lowery, a cooking columnist for the Enterprise since 1979, and the late Steve Lowery, who was an award-winning editor and manager of Landmark papers in Lebanon, which he left in 1987, and Bardstown. She is a graduate of Murray State University. She has been a civic activist in her native county. She shaved her head to raise money for children’s cancer research; she organized and still leads Marion County Girls on the Run, which helps 8- to 13-year-old girls train for a running event, build self-esteem, learn assertiveness, respond to peer pressure and bullies, surround themselves with positive influences and complete a community-service project, with the goal of preventing at-risk activities as they grow up.
Les Zaitz wins 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 2018 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.
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 presented 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.