Kentuckians win top awards for rural journalism

JulieBillA couple who created a new sense of community in rural America with an online news site, and a crusading weekly editor who set an example that drew national attention, are the winners of this year’s top awards from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

The awards are the Al Smith Award for public service in community journalism by a Kentuckian, which is co-sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists Bluegrass Chapter, and the Tom and Pat Gish Award for the courage, tenacity and integrity that are so often needed to do good rural journalism.

The Smith Award goes to Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery, husband and wife of La Grange, Texas, and natives of Louisville.  For several years recently they were co-editors of the Daily Yonder, the online news site of the Center for Rural Strategies, which Institute Director Al Cross says has “created a much greater sense of community among rural people in a diverse, changing rural America."

WillsThe Gish Award goes posthumously to Landon Wills, who was publisher of the McLean County News in Calhoun, Ky., from 1946 to 1972, and editor for almost all that time. He was the subject of a national television documentary in 1963 after advocating for civil rights and community development, and against religious prejudice and political mendacity.

Giving the awards to three Kentucky natives is “especially fitting” in a year when the Institute is celebrating its 10th anniversary and the University is celebrating 100 years of journalism at UK, said Dr. Beth Barnes, director of the UK School of Journalism and Telecommunications. Also this year, the school’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The awards will be presented at an Anniversary and Awards Dinner at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort in Lexington Thursday, Nov. 13. Invitations for the event will be mailed soon. Here are details about the award winners and the Institute:

The Tom and Pat Gish Award, to the late Landon Wills

GishesFor more than 50 years, Tom and Pat Gish, right, published The Mountain Eagle at Whitesburg, Ky., and became nationally known for their battles with coal operators and corrupt politicians, and the firebombing of their newspaper office by a Whitesburg policeman. Tom Gish, who died in 2008, and Pat Gish, who died this year, were the first recipients of the award.

This year’s winner, the late Landon Wills, was a native of Henry County and a World War II veteran who bought the nearly defunct McLean County News in 1946. He hit the ground running, helping start ultimately successful campaigns to build a hospital, attract factories and get a navigation and flood-control dam on the Green River; taking strong issue with the "neo-isolationist" views of a highly respected jurist who had returned to the county of his birth to make a speech; and endorsing the civil-rights plank in the 1948 Democratic Party platform in the face of plenty of “Dixiecrats” in Western Kentucky. From the start, he was a watchdog on taxes and schools; on his front page, he ran a notice about the county schools’ annual financial statement and editorials pointed out that the Kentucky law requiring property to be assessed at fair cash value was routinely violated, cheating the state's school systems; 17 years later, the state's highest court agreed.

Wills’s news columns were almost exclusively local, but he believed the editorial page was open to any subject, and he often opined on state and national issues. His endorsement of John F. Kennedy for president in 1960 riled readers who were Democrats but didn’t want a Catholic president, and prompted concern for, and opposition to, him in some local churches.

In the ABC-TV documentary, “Vanishing Breed,” which gave Wills credit for the hospital and two factories, some citizens said he made them mad, one example being front-page play for a police raid on a Livermore brothel, but they said he was good for the community.  “He probes old sores and he makes new ones,” one said. “Some of us would like to beat the hell out of him, frankly. And yet again, we can’t help but think he deserves a pat on the back. Frankly with all my disagreement with Landon, I think he’s an excellent newspaper editor.”

One of his six sons, Clyde Wills, recalled recently that the paper produced “few financial rewards.  The conservative people in rural McLean County had very different opinions than my father.  While there was never a general business boycott, there were businesses that did not advertise because of the liberal editorials.” Ilene Wills taught school to supplement her husband’s income.

“It is no stretch to say that Landon was ahead of his time,” wrote Frankfort lawyer and Calhoun native William Ayer, one of the nominators for the award. “He engaged in journalism the way it was meant to be. . . . He never took a position on any local issue until he had thought the issue through, discussed it with his wife and staff at the paper and, ultimately, questioned his own position.” But one thing that “never seemed to enter the equation,” Ayer wrote, was whether a position would cost the paper money.

Landon Wills went to work for a War on Poverty program and turned over editorship of the paper to Clyde Wills in 1968. It was sold in the early 1970s to Walt Dear, then of Henderson, who also nominated him, calling him “the miracle man of weekly newspapering in Kentucky.”

The Al Smith Award, to Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery

Smith The award is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., right, who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and 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 for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, headed its national advisory board for many years, and remains on the board as chairman emeritus.

Bill Bishop, a member of the advisory board, and his wife Julie Ardery “have devoted their careers to producing quality community journalism that has improved the civic discourse in Kentucky and far beyond,” wrote board member Dee Davis of Whitesburg, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, in his nomination of them for the Smith award. The center publishes the Daily Yonder, the rural news site that the couple co-edited from 2005 to 2012.

Bishop worked for the Gishes at The Mountain Eagle while Ardery edited Jim Garland’s Welcome the Traveler Home, a University Press of Kentucky memoir of the wars between coal miners and operators in Bell and Harlan counties in the 1930s. They bought a 100-year-old weekly newspaper, the Bastrop County Times in Smithville, Texas, with proceeds from the sale of a newsletter Bishop had created about strip-mine regulation under the 1977 federal law.  Davis wrote, “The two made the paper so lively, innovative and popular that the competing paper eventually bought them out,” and they were the subjects of a feature story in Washington Journalism Review.

Bishop joined the Lexington Herald-Leader as an editorial writer and columnist, focusing on economic and community development issues; meanwhile, Ardery earned a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Kentucky and wrote a book that explored the emergence of the contemporary folk-art economy in the state through the life of Edgar Tolson, a woodcarver from Wolfe County, Kentucky.

They returned to Texas, where Bishop worked for the Austin American-Statesman and wrote The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, a book about voluntary political segregation that was favorably reviewed in major publications from The Economist to The New York Times and has earned frequent compliments from former president Bill Clinton.

Bishop and Ardery designed and ran the Daily Yonder, which explores and explains the relevance of rural America and helps create a stronger community of rural interests at a time when rural America’s population is steadily declining. They assembled a stable of writers, helped create polling of rural voters, and changed the national conversation about rural issues by pointing out such disparities as rural America’s disproportionate share of military casualties. They continue to contribute to the site from their home in La Grange, Texas, where they are preparing a book proposal that follows up on The Big Sort and attend the polka dances that fill halls and church grounds in Central Texas.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

The 10-year-old Institute was piloted in 2002-04 with grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, after organizational work by Al Smith and the late Rudy Abramson, a longtime Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. It gained a permanent home at the University of Kentucky in 2004 with grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, and the hiring of Al Cross as director.

CrossCross, who had been the longtime political writer for The Courier-Journal and still writes columns for the Louisville newspaper, is now a tenured associate professor in the Extension Title series, reflecting his self-styled role as “extension agent for rural journalists.”

The institute’s mission is to help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities with strong reporting and commentary, especially on broad issues that have a local impact but few good local sources. It conducts workshops and research, offers consultations and publishes The Rural Blog, a daily digest of events, trends, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, at irjci.blogspot.com, and Kentucky Health News at kyhealthnews.blogspot.com with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. Its website is www.RuralJournalism.org. The institute’s national advisory board chair isLois Mateus, a former Brown-Forman Corp. executive who is a regular contributor to The Harrodsburg Herald in her Kentucky hometown.

The Anniversary and Awards Dinner of the Institute, at which the Tom and Pat Gish and Al Smith awards will be presented, is also being held to boost the Institute’s endowment and guarantee its ability to continue to and expand its work. For information, call the Institute at 859-257-3744.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu