Cullen family of Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa win Institute's 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism
A northwest Iowa family that has demonstrated courage, tenacity and integrity in the face of competition and powerful, entrenched local interests is the winner of the 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
The Cullen family publishes the Storm Lake Times, a twice-weekly newspaper that has focused attention on water-pollution issues in Iowa, often to the dislike of agribusiness interests that are sources of much of the pollution.
“We’ve lost some friends, we’ve lost subscriptions; for a while, lost some ads,” said Art Cullen, editor and co-owner of the paper started by his brother John (at left in photo) more than 27 years ago. This year Art Cullen (at right in photo) won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, for a series of columns about pollution in the Raccoon River, which supplies water for Iowa’s capital and largest city, Des Moines. He and his son Tom (center of photo) also wrote many news stories about the issue.
Following their reporting, the Des Moines Water Works sued the drainage districts of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties for failing to stop the pollution. The Times forced the release of public records that showed major agribusiness interests were paying for the suit’s defense. Courts ruled the districts couldn’t be sued, but the suit and the Pulitzer Prize focused more attention on the issue. Art Cullen says “The terms of the debate are changing,” and the amount of farmland in cover crops that prevent pollution has doubled in the past year.
Cullen’s Pulitzer-winning columns had punch. He wrote in March 2016, "Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America. It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes. It has caused us to spend millions upon millions trying to clean up Storm Lake, the victim of more than a century of explosive soil erosion."
The Pulitzer committee said the editorials were “fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests.” Much of that reporting was done by Tom Cullen. Art’s wife, Dolores, also reports and takes photographs for the paper, and John’s wife, Mary, writes a recipe column. The family dog, Mabel, is there, too.
The Times began reporting and editorializing about pollution from farms about a year after it was established in June 1990, first looking at concentrated hog-farming operations. It has brought to light other environmental concerns, such as the need to dredge Storm Lake, and issues surrounding the livestock-processing plants that have brought many immigrants to Buena Vista County, in the heart of socially and politically conservative northwest Iowa.
In one of his most recent Editorial Notebooks, Art Cullen wrote, “Many of my ignorant friends conflate people of color with their having lost control of their own destiny; they don’t realize they never had control of it. It’s harder to hate the Chicago Board of Trade than it is a Mexican who doesn’t like American football or can’t speak English. They voted for Barack Obama to take on the Board of Trade and Wall Street. He didn’t,” so they voted for Donald Trump.
“That column is a sterling example of a rural editor speaking hard truths to power and to the people he serves,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute, based at the University of Kentucky. “The Storm Lake Times has long been known to those of us who follow rural journalism as a great example to emulate, and Art Cullen’s Pulitzer Prize merely confirmed that. We hope this award to the Cullen family will show that they have had high ideals and standards for a very long time.”
Cross noted that the paper is a commercial success, with a circulation of 3,000, more than the 1,700 reported by the thrice-weekly Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune, owned by Rust Communications of Cape Girardeau, Mo. “Unlike most weeklies, the Times gets most of its revenue from circulation, with a relatively high $60 annual subscription price,” Cross said. “That is testimony of community support for quality journalism, providing another example to follow.”
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.
“It is encouraging to know that small, family-owned-and-operated community newspapers like the Storm Lake Times and Editor Art Cullen are still here and doing their jobs in very difficult circumstances with the same courage and tenacity exhibited by my parents,” Ben Gish said.
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.; and Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.
Cross will present the 2017 Gish Award to the Cullen family at the annual convention of the Iowa Newspaper Association in Des Moines on Feb. 2. Nominations for the 2018 Gish Award are being accepted at 122 Grehan Journalism Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042 or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ryan Craig and his 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.”