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North Carolina family with seven decades of courage, integrity and tenacity honored with 2021 Tom and Pat Gish Award

A family that has demonstrated courage, integrity and tenacity at its twice-weekly newspaper in North Carolina over three generations is the winner of the 2021 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky.

The Thompson-High family has owned The News Reporter in Whiteville since 1938. In 1953, it and The Tabor City Tribune, also in Columbus County, were the first weekly papers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, for a successful fight against the Ku Klux Klan.

Since then, The News Reporter has continued to show courage, integrity and tenacity by holding accountable local public officials – especially those in the criminal-justice system – despite significant financial adversity, reader and advertiser boycotts, personal attacks and threats against family members’ lives; and taking smaller profits to better serve its readers, but always looking ahead.

“The News Reporter also provides an example of how a community newspaper can adapt to the digital age, still perform first-class public service and even extend its reach beyond its home county,” said Al Cross, director of the rural-journalism institute and extension professor of journalism at the UK School of Journalism and Media.

The News Reporter’s print circulation is 6,000; its website, nrcolumbus.com, gets 80,000 unique visitors a month. The paper has secured philanthropic funding to launch the nonprofit Border Belt Reporting Center, which will provide analytical and investigative reporting to residents in three neighboring counties served by understaffed local papers.

“The Thompson-High family represents the very best of community journalism. It is a courageous family of journalistic crusaders, entrepreneurs and evangelists,” wrote nominators Penny Muse Abernathy, who recently left the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for Northwestern University, and Ferrel Guillory, who is still at Chapel Hill. Abernathy has used The News Reporter as an object example in her groundbreaking research on community newspapers.

“In an era when the owners of many community newspapers have sold out to big chains or closed their doors when faced with adversity, members of each generation pursued strong public service journalism, even as they adjusted business strategy and mission to provide residents in their region with the critical local news that feeds our democracy at the grassroots level,” Abernathy wrote. “The longstanding advocacy of the Thompson-High family is a testimonial to the difference a small, courageous independent newspaper can make in the history and fortunes of the community and the region where it is located.”


UPDATE, Aug. 2: The Highs have sold the paper to its editor since 2018, Justin Smith.  

The News Reporter’s publisher is Les High, who succeeded his father, Jim High, who succeeded his father-in-law, Leslie Thompson. In the early 1950s, before the civil-rights movement gained much traction, Thompson defied advertiser and reader boycotts – as well as personal attacks and threats on his life – to wage, with Editor Willard Cole, a two-year struggle against the Klan, which had infiltrated local police and fire departments. News stories and front-page editorials documented and excoriated Klan beatings, floggings and drive-by shootings, ultimately leading to the arrest of more than 300 reputed Klansmen and the conviction of 62, including the Fair Bluff police chief. The News Reporter and The Tabor City Tribune received the Pulitzer for Public Service in 1953.

Jim High wanted to be a veterinarian, but became publisher when his father-in-law died suddenly in 1959. He followed his lead, aggressively covering the criminal-justice system, and received national notice for filing suit to overturn a gag order, a device that courts around the nation were using to close sensitive trials to the public. The News Reporter won the case – and almost all the others it has pursued.

Les High has continued his father’s approach, taking on officials who hide public records, cover up problems or abide corruption, though legal action is costly and risky and the paper’s profit margins have dropped into the low single digits. He recently put together a coalition of two local TV stations and another newspaper to sue the county sheriff for withholding incident reports in retaliation for stories and editorials in The News Reporter that exposed conflicts of interest and bullying by the sheriff’s department. High, Editor Justin Smith and their reporters endured social-media attacks, profane harangues and veiled physical threats, reminiscent of those Leslie Thompson got when he took on the Klan. This campaign led to subscriber cancellations and boycotts, further depressing an already fragile bottom line. To help cover the cost of the suit, The News Reporter got a loan of $5,000 from the trade group America’s Newspapers, which the paper repaid when a judge awarded reimbursement of $30,000 in legal fees as a punitive measure.

That impressed Ben Gish, publisher of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., whose parents’ names grace the Gish Award. “As impressive as the entirety of their nomination is, they get extra points from me for making sure they repaid the $5,000 loan,” wrote Gish, a member of the award selection committee. “That occurring at the same time the papers owned by the large corporations reap all the benefits of the Report for America-type programs speaks volumes to me.”

Threats to The News Reporter’s bottom line are nothing new. In the late 1950s, Jim High “discovered the paper was on the financial brink” and took a gamble, Abernathy wrote. “He built a new plant and purchased one of the first offset presses in the state. To reverse the slide in circulation and advertising, he committed to ‘providing better coverage than a community of this size might expect’ by adding reporting staff.”

Les High faced a similar challenge in the Great Recession, “when profit margins fell from around 20 percent to the very low single digits, as print advertising from local businesses collapsed,” Abernathy and Guillory wrote. “Instead of hunkering down and laying off staff – or selling out to a large chain – Les chose to invest in digital transformation.” He persuaded his sister Stuart to return to Whiteville, and she not only improved the paper’s digital presence, but started holding community events. In recent years, Les’s wife Becky and daughter Margaret have joined the effort.

“In 2018, when the paper posted an unprofitable year, the family nevertheless doubled down on its digital investments – creating a metered paywall, redesigning the website, introducing a mobile app, and initiating a 24/7 news cycle to post stories and videos on the newspaper’s website as soon as possible after an event occurred,” Abernathy and Guillory wrote. “The paper currently hosts a weekly video news report, two email newsletters, several major community events a year and an in-house digital advertising agency that serves local businesses. Despite slim or nonexistent profit margins, Les has also invested in the newsroom,” which has seven journalists. “In 2020, even as the lawsuit against the sheriff weighed on the bottom line, The News Reporter added a reporter to cover the pandemic and the 2020 elections.”

Les High is “an example for other publishers who may lack the courage and conviction to invest for the long term,” Edward Van Horn, retired executive director of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, told Abernathy.

He is also one of a dwindling number of independent newspaper owners, but rather than draw a defensive line around Columbus County, he is expanding to Scotland, Robeson and Bladen counties with his nonprofit Border Belt Project and its online publication, Border Belt Independent. Along with Columbus, “These counties along the South Carolina border are among the poorest in the state, and a majority of residents are members of racial or ethnic communities, including the largest population of Native Americans east of the Mississippi,” Abernathy and Guillory wrote. “All three adjacent counties are currently being served by understaffed local newspapers, owned by a private equity firm. Collaborating with reporters at these newspapers, the center will cover topics – such as the environment, health, education, public safety, economic development and local governance – that will affect the quality of life of current and future generations of residents.” It will provide its reporting at no charge to the other papers. “We’re not competitors,” High says. “We’re partners.”

“I can't think of a better model for an independent, family newspaper,” said Jennifer P. Brown, who is co-chair of the rural-journalism institute’s advisory board. “The Thompson-High family's commitment to serving the community is so hopeful, and shows what is possible.” Brown, who was editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville when it was family-owned, publishes the digital Hoptown Chronicle.

The Tom and Pat Gish Award is named for the couple who published The Mountain Eagle for more than 50 years and repeatedly demonstrated courage, tenacity and integrity through advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office by a local policeman who state police believe was paid by coal companies.

The Gishes, who died in 2008 and 2014, respectively, were the first winners of the award, in 2005. The other winners, in chronological order, have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Texas) Record; Stanley Dearman (former publisher, now deceased) and Jim Prince (publisher), The Neshoba Democrat, Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler of Portland, Oregon, for her work at the Jacksonville (Texas) Daily Progress and the Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky.; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin, publishers of the now-defunct Yancey County News in Burnsville, N.C.; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Calhoun, Ky.; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in Española, N.M.; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times; Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon; in 2019, Ken Ward Jr., then of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and now of Mountain State Spotlight; his mentor, the late Paul J. Nyden of the Charleston Gazette; and Howard Berkes of NPR; and in 2020, the late Tim Crews, who was editor-publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows, Calif.

Les High will receive the Gish Award Oct. 28 at the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort on Newtown Pike in Lexington, Ky. The dinner was not held last year, so Tim Crews’s widow, Donna Settle, will receive his award as well. The keynote speaker will be Chuck Todd of NBC News.

The dinner also honors recipients of the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians, which the institute presents with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional JournalistsThe 2020 winner is Becky Barnes, editor of The Cynthiana Democrat, who set a national example by sending an extra of her paper to every address in the county when it had the state’s first Covid-19 case. The 2021 winner is WKMS, the public-radio station at Murray State University in far Western Kentucky, for being “a model for courageous public-service journalism, especially at a time when citizens are looking more to public radio to fill voids left by shrinking commercial media outlets,” Bluegrass Chapter President Tom Eblen said.

Tim Crews, fighter for open government, wins 2020 Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism

Tim Crews, a rural editor-publisher who fought for open government in California and went to jail to protect his sources, is the winner of the 2020 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog). The award recognizes rural journalists who demonstrate outstanding courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.

Crews died at 77 on Nov. 12 after a long illness and nearly 30 years as publisher and editor of the twice-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows, a town of 6,000 and the seat of Glenn County, pop. 28,000. He was known for relentless open-records requests and for spending five days in jail in 2000 for refusing to reveal sources for a story he published about theft of weapons by a former California Highway Patrol officer. That won him the Francis Frost Wood Award for courage in journalism from Hofstra University, the Bill Farr Freedom of Information Award from the California First Amendment Association and the California Society of Newspaper Editors, and the Shield of Courage Award from the California First Amendment Coalition, which had given him its First Amendment Beacon Award in 1996.

Crews told the Poynter Institute in 2017 that his twice-weekly paper averaged more than 20 records requests a year, sometimes going to court fight for access. In 2013, a judge said his suit to force a school district toturn over 3,000 withheld emails from the superintendent was frivolous, and ordered him to pay $56,595 in attorneys' fees and costs when his income was 20,000 a year. An appeals court reversed the ruling, and that helped Crews earn the California News Publishers Association Freedom of Information Award. When he received the California Press Foundation’s Newspaper Executive of the Year Award in 2009, the Mirror was called "California's most courageous newspaper." In 2011, the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave him its Norwin S. Yoffe Award for lifetime achievement in freedom of information.

As Crews fought battles for open government, he was known as "an old-time community journalist who stood up for regular people and published obituaries for free," The Associated Press reported after his death. "He dashed about the town of Willows, population 6,000, in red suspenders and with a bushy white beard, covering crime and politics but also community events."

"Tim Crews exemplified the best in rural journalism: broad community service that includes holding local officials and institutions accountable," said Al Cross, director of the institute and extension professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky. "We wish Tim had received the Gish Award while he was still with us, but we are still pleased to recognize his service." Presentation of this year's award has been delayed by the pandemic and will be announced later.

The award is named for Tom and Pat Gish, who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years and repeatedly demonstrated courage, tenacity and integrity through advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office by a local policeman who state police believe was paid by coal companies.

The Gishes, who died in 2008 and 2014, respectively, were the first winners of the award, in 2005. The other winners, in chronological order, have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Texas) Record; Stanley Dearman (former publisher, now deceased) and Jim Prince (publisher), The Neshoba Democrat, Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler of Portland, Oregon, for her work at the Jacksonville (Texas) Daily Progress and the daily Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky.; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin, publishers of the now-defunct Yancey County News in Burnsville, N.C.; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Calhoun, Ky.; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in Española, N.M.; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake (Iowa) TimesLes Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon; and last year, Ken Ward Jr., then of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and now of Mountain State Spotlight; his mentor, the late Paul J. Nyden of the Charleston Gazette; and Howard Berkes, recently retired from NPR.

"Tim Crews fits nicely in this pantheon of courageous rural journalists," Cross said. "And he brings to the list one of the more varied backgrounds."

Crews was born and raised in western Washington, and served in the Marines and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. He had started in journalism in high school, and returned to it, working at papers in Washington, Colorado, Texas, California and Rome, and free-lanced from Crete. Between newspaper jobs, he was a steel-plant worker, had his own logging company in Washington, taught journalism at Evergreen State College, and worked for The Boeing Co. in Seattle. He started the Mirror after a dispute with an employer, and over the years attracted several promising interns from The Stanford Daily at Stanford University in Palo Alto.

One was Gerry Shih, now interim Beijing Bureau chief for The Washington Post. In a tribute to Crews, he wrote, "Within weeks, I knew this was what I wanted to do. Tim gave me clarity, purpose, focus. 'You have to have fire in your belly,' he said. People poisoned his dog and left death threats – hence the six-shot" in the drawer of his desk at the back of the Mirror office.

An intern who came back for a full-time job, Aimee Miles, wrote that Crews was "fiercely principled, and was willing to see those principles through to the end, even at the expense of his personal relationships. Once, after publicly condemning an elected official whom he had previously endorsed, Tim proclaimed, memorably, 'The truth is more important than friendship. It’s more important than everything.' He really believed that, and lived by it, although it sometimes meant making difficult choices. That unwavering integrity rattled some people, who read it as a ruthless willingness to betray. Many people have a threshold at which they are willing to part ways with their professed principles, the point at which fidelity imperils their personal interests. But Tim couldn’t be compromised, and nothing would dissuade him from holding public officials accountable for their actions, whether he liked them personally or not."

Miles also wrote, "One quality of his stands out in my memory. In addition to integrity and tenacity, Tim had more genuine empathy than anyone I know. I think that is what gave him the prodigious energy to do what he did for nearly 30 years. He had the rare gift of really seeing people, and was inquisitive about their lives to an extent that far surpassed his interests as an investigative journalist. He leant an ear to those who were struggling with one problem or another; people whom most others would have written off without a moment’s hesitation. I think many in the community sensed that quality as well, and that is why so many confided in him. He listened to people intently, recognized their humanity, and treated them with dignity. He truly cared for his community. That kind of profound empathy, above all, is what separates a competent journalist from an eminent one, and it’s what I remember Tim for more than anything else."

Public radio station at Ky. university wins 2021 Al Smith Award for public service via community journalism; first broadcasters to get it

Station's signal blankets and helps define West Kentucky.

The journalists at WKMS-FM at Murray State University are the winners of the 2021 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians.

“We usually think of ‘community’ as one county, town or neighborhood, but there are geographic communities, and there are communities of interest. West Kentucky is a geographic community of interest, and WKMS has the only newsroom that covers the whole region and its interests,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky (and publisher of The Rural Blog). “It does it well.”

The institute presents the award with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Chapter President Tom Eblen, a former Lexington Herald-Leader managing editor and columnist, said “WKMS has a history of reporting important stories in its region accurately, thoroughly and without fear or favor. It is a model for courageous public-service journalism, especially at a time when citizens are looking more to public radio to fill voids left by shrinking commercial media outlets.”

The station was nominated by Constance Alexander of Murray, a columnist and playwright who is on the Institute’s advisory board. She wrote, “With a consistent record of reporting on important events and community issues -- and editorial leadership that dares to address controversial subjects and hold power accountable -- WKMS serves the informational, cultural and community needs of the region, exemplifying the values represented by the Al Smith Award.”

The station is being honored for years of work and maintaining its high quality despite getting less money from the university. It has covered its paymasters forthrightly, reporting in 2013 that a quorum of the Board of Regents discussed official business, including an extension of the president’s contract and the station’s funding, at a social gathering the night before its official meeting.

In 2018, the station revealed that a Murray High School teacher’s predatory sexual behavior had been under investigation by the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board for five years, with no public disclosure. After two suspensions, the teacher resigned.

In 2020, WKMS reported that the Marshall County judge-executive had refused to sign a grant application for more school resource officers after a deadly school shooting, while giving two employees raises totaling nearly $30,000, the amount the county would have had to contribute for the grant if awarded.

In daily and enterprise reporting on the pandemic, WKMS has been “a beacon of information, companionship and understanding in a time when we needed it most,” Alexander wrote. But the station also continued its accountability journalism. Assistant News Director Liam Niemeyer won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for a story about a Paducah school official who appeared in blackface for Halloween. Rather than make the school official the main focus, Niemeyer framed his story within the context of the larger experience of the Black community in Paducah, giving a richer view of the city’s racial history, and a deeper understanding of why use of blackface by a trusted public official was so hurtful. The story launched an occasional series, “Black Lives in Red States,” that is continuing at Ohio Valley ReSource, a consortium of public radio stations in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

WKMS Station Manager Chad Lampe, who moved up from news director in 2015, said, "I am so incredibly proud of our newsroom and our station staff as a whole. We take an ‘audience first’ approach to all of our work and this is why we remain committed to telling stories that matter. I am particularly proud of our Murray State student journalists who we bring into our newsroom, train and mentor to produce professional news right alongside the work of our staff."

The station is an affiliate of National Public Radio. “WKMS is unique in our region as our only full-service provider of public media news,” noted Berry Craig, retired history professor at Paducah Community College. “The closest NPR affiliates to Murray are at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale – almost 114 miles north – and Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, nearly 119 miles east.”

WKMS punches above its weight by partnering with other news outlets in the region, which was once served by the Louisville Courier Journal and occasionally by papers in Tennessee and Indiana.

“WKMS has met the challenge, and then some, to report more deeply on stories about local governments, race relations, education, the environment, culture and the coronavirus pandemic,” said Hoptown Chronicle Editor-Publisher Jennifer P. Brown of Hopkinsville, a WKMS partner and a previous Smith Award winner.

The award is named for the late Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in Western Kentucky and Middle 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 to create the Institute, headed its advisory board and was its chair emeritus until his death in March at 94.

Smith was the first winner of the award. This is the first time it has gone to broadcasters or a news outlet at a university.

The award will be presented at the Al Smith Awards Dinner in Lexington Oct. 28. The dinner was not held in 2020, due to the pandemic, so 2020 winner Becky Barnes, editor of The Cynthiana Democrat, will receive her award at the dinner, too. Winners of the Institute’s national Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism will also be recognized at the event. Previous winners of the Smith Award, with their affiliations at the time, are:
2011: Al Smith
2012: Jennifer P. Brown, Kentucky New Era; and Max Heath, Landmark Community Newspapers
2013: John Nelson, Danville Advocate-Messenger
2014: Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery, The Daily Yonder
2015: Carl West, The (Frankfort) State Journal
2016: Sharon Burton, Adair County Community Voice and The Farmer’s Pride
2017: Ryan Craig, Todd County Standard, and the late Larry Craig, Green River Republican
2018: Stevie Lowery, The Lebanon Enterprise
2019: David Thompson, Kentucky Press Association
2020: Becky Barnes, The Cynthiana Democrat

Ky. weekly editor Becky Barnes, who set nationwide example in covering pandemic, wins 2020 Al Smith Award

Becky Barnes, editor of The Cynthiana Democrat, is the 2020 winner of the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian. Barnes, who has worked at the weekly for 44 years, distinguished herself most recently by arranging a special edition that was mailed to every household in Harrison County, funded by local government, less than two days after it was announced that the county had Kentucky’s first case of covid-19, in early March.

“Becky’s initiative was a groundbreaking piece of work that set an example for rural weeklies,” said Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which presents the award with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (and publishes The Rural Blog).

“At a time when everyone in her county needed reliable information, not rumors, about a clear and present danger, Becky and the local officials found a way to deliver it,” Cross said. “This example has been followed by other weeklies, and at a time when the pandemic has hurt newspapers’ advertising revenue, it shows how they can tap a new revenue source while rendering essential public service.”

Barnes and her newspaper have continued to focus on the pandemic and its local effects. She and staff writer Lee Kendall streamed live news conferences with the county judge-executive, mayor and public-health director, and thousands watched. She was widely noticed for an April 30 column about masks, which weren’t required at the time but were becoming controversial. It concluded, “I will wear a mask not because I am required to do so, but because it may help. This is all new. We are learning as we go. But if there is a chance it will help – I will wear a mask – for you.”

Barnes has repeatedly stood out over a long career, said USA Today photographer Jack Gruber, who nominated her. He noted her support of Boyd’s Station, the arts-and-journalism nonprofit he founded, and a national photography workshop that brought 150 journalists to the county of 18,000 people. He quoted local Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tomi Clifford: "Becky often finds the light in the darkness whenever a major event has happened. Like in 1997 with the flood, or the coronavirus, she puts everything out there and is super personable, honest and remains positive during the most difficult times to be a journalist."

The Cynthiana Democrat is one of 47 owned by Landmark Community Newspapers, which is based in Shelbyville, Ky. The company’s executive editor, John Nelson, said, "Becky has been deserving of this level of recognition for a long time. We’re happy for her, proud to count her among our community editors, and pleased that her story — the story about Becky — is being heard."

Told that she had received the Al Smith Award, Barnes said, “I am so humbled. Every day I come in to work with the same goal: to put out the best newspaper I can for the people of Cynthiana and Harrison County. Being honored by my peers is a bonus."

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 advisory board and is its chair emeritus.

The award is usually presented at a dinner in the fall, but presentation is being delayed until next year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Read more about Barnes' win and past Al Smith Award winners here.

Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery, a workshop for journalists, explores a difficult topic

"His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person." –Linda Loman, speaking of husband Willy, title character in "Death of A Salesman" by Arthur Miller

Many human beings are suffering terrible things in America today, and not enough attention is paid to them. They are the victims of substance-use disorder, or addiction. Too many of their fellow human beings – their neighbors, even their relatives – don't want to pay attention. "Not my problem," they say. Even when someone dies of an overdose, some say "Better off dead." 

Quotes like that were gathered by Jennifer Reynolds and Kristin Mattson of Oak Ridge Associated Universities for their study that showed how the stigma attached to drug use is a big obstacle to addressing the problem in Appalachian communities. It's also an obstacle to news coverage of the issue, so we brought journalists in the region to Ashland, Ky., in November 2019 for a workshop, "Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery." 

The presenters include several award winners who have been leaders in covering these topics in Appalachia and adjoining areas: Beth Macy, award-winning author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America, just released in paperback; Terry DeMio and Cara Owsley, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists from The Cincinnati Enquirer; DeMio has been the newspaper’s opioid beat reporter for five years, and Owsley as photo director also worked on the Pulitzer-winning series, "Seven Days of Heroin;" Eric Eyre, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the Charleston Gazette-Mail, who revealed opioid distribution patterns in West Virginia; Sharon Burton, editor publisher of the Adair County (Ky.) Community Voice, a national leader in substance-abuse coverage by small newspapers; Deborah Yetter, health reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal; Bishop Nash, a reporter for The Herald Dispatch in Huntington, W.Va. which has been called the epicenter of the opioid epidemic;   and Dr. Lyn O'Connell, associate director of the Division of Addiction Sciences at Marshall University in Huntington.

 For a report on the workshop, click here

North Carolina family with seven decades of courage, integrity and tenacity honored with Tom and Pat Gish Award

Leslie Thompson, Jim High and Les High

A family that has demonstrated courage, integrity and tenacity at its twice-weekly newspaper in North Carolina over three generations is the winner of the 2021 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

 The Thompson-High family has owned The News Reporter in Whiteville since 1938. In 1953, it and The Tabor City Tribune, also in Columbus County, were the first weekly newspapers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, for a successful fight against the Ku Klux Klan. Since then, The News Reporter has continued to show courage, integrity and tenacity by holding accountable local public officials, especially those in the criminal justice system, despite significant financial adversity, reader and advertiser boycotts, personal attacks and threats against family members’ lives; and taking smaller profits in order to better serve its readers. 

“The News Reporter also provides an example of how a community newspaper can adapt to the digital age, still perform first-class public service and even extend its reach beyond its home county,” said Al Cross, director of the rural-journalism institute and extension professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky. 

The News Reporter’s print circulation is 6,000; its website, nrcolumbus.com, gets 80,000 unique visitors a month. It has secured philanthropic funding to launch the nonprofit Border Belt Reporting Center, which will provide analytical and investigative reporting to residents in three neighboring counties served by understaffed local papers. 

“The Thompson-High family represents the very best of community journalism. It is a courageous family of journalistic crusaders, entrepreneurs and evangelists,” wrote nominator Penny Muse Abernathy, who recently left the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for Northwestern University. She has used The News Reporter as an object example in her groundbreaking research on community newspapers. 

“In an era when the owners of many community newspapers have sold out to big chains or closed their doors when faced with adversity, members of each generation pursued strong public service journalism, even as they adjusted business strategy and mission to provide residents in their region with the critical local news that feeds our democracy at the grassroots level,” Abernathy wrote. “The longstanding advocacy of Thompson-High family is a testimonial to the difference a small, courageous independent newspaper can make in the history and fortunes of the community and the region where it is located.” 

The News Reporter’s publisher is Les High, who succeeded his father, Jim High, who succeeded his father-in-law, Leslie Thompson. In the early 1950s, before the civil-rights movement gained much traction, Thompson defied advertiser and reader boycotts – as well as personal attacks and threats on his life – to wage, with Editor Willard Cole, a two-year struggle against the Klan, which had infiltrated local police departments. News stories and front-page editorials documented and excoriated Klan beatings, floggings and drive-by shootings, ultimately leading to the arrest of more than 300 reputed Klansmen and the conviction of 62, including the Fair Bluff police chief. The News Reporter and The Tabor City Tribune, also in Columbus County, received the Pulitzer for Public Service in 1953. 

Jim High wanted to be a veterinarian, but became publisher when his father-in-law died suddenly in 1959. He aggressively covered the criminal justice system, and received national notice for filing suit to overturn a gag order, a device that courts around the country were using to close sensitive trials to the public. The News Reporter won the case – and almost all the others it has pursued. 

Les High has continued his father’s approach, taking on officials who hide public records, cover up problems or abide corruption, though legal action is costly and risky and the paper’s profit margins have dropped into the low single digits. He recently put together a coalition of two local TV stations and another newspaper to sue the county sheriff for withholding incident reports in response to stories and editorials in The News Reporter that exposed conflicts of interest and bullying by the sheriff’s department. High, his editor Justin Smith and reporters endured social-media attacks, profane harangues and veiled physical threats, reminiscent of those Leslie Thompson got when he took on the Klan. This campaign led to subscriber cancellations, depressing an already fragile bottom line. To help cover the cost of the suit, The News Reporter got a loan of $5,000 from the trade group America’s Newspapers, which the paper repaid when a judge awarded reimbursement of $30,000 in legal fees as a punitive measure. 

That impressed Ben Gish, publisher of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., whose parents’ names grace the Gish Award. “As impressive as the entirety of their nomination is, they get extra points from me for making sure they repaid the $5,000 loan,” Gish wrote. “That occurring at the same time the papers owned by the large corporations reap all the benefits of the Report for America-type programs speaks volumes to me.” 

Threats to The News Reporter’s bottom line are nothing new. In the late 1950s, Jim High “discovered the paper was on the financial brink” and took a gamble, Abernathy wrote. “He built a new plant and purchased one of the first offset presses in the state. To reverse the slide in circulation and advertising, he committed to ‘providing better coverage than a community of this size might expect’ by adding reporting staff.” 

Les High faced a similar challenge in the Great Recession, “when profit margins fell from around 20 percent to the very low single digits, as print advertising from local businesses collapsed,” Abernathy wrote. “Instead of hunkering down and laying off staff – or selling out to a large chain – Les chose to invest in digital transformation.” He persuaded his sister Stuart to return to Whiteville, and she not only improved the paper’s digital presence, but started holding community events. In recent years, Les’s wife Becky and daughter Margaret have joined the effort. 

“In 2018, when the paper posted an unprofitable year, the family nevertheless doubled down on its digital investments – creating a metered paywall, redesigning the website, introducing a mobile app, and initiating a 24/7 news cycle to post stories and videos on the newspaper’s website as soon as possible after an event occurred,” Abernathy wrote. “The paper currently hosts a weekly video news report, two email newsletters, several major community events a year and an in-house digital advertising agency that serves local businesses. Despite slim or nonexistent profit margins, Les has also invested in the newsroom, which has seven journalists. In 2020, even as the lawsuit against the sheriff weighed on the bottom line, The News Reporter added a reporter to cover the pandemic and the 2020 elections.” 

Les High is “an example for other publishers who may lack the courage and conviction to invest for the long term,” Edward Van Horn, retired executive director of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, told Abernathy. He is also one of a dwindling number of independent newspaper owners, but rather than draw a defensive line around Columbus County, he is expanding to Scotland, Robeson and Bladen counties with his nonprofit Border Belt Project and online publication, Border Belt Independent (borderbelt.org). Along with Columbus, “These counties along the South Carolina border are among the poorest in the state, and a majority of residents are members of racial or ethnic communities, including the largest population of Native Americans east of the Mississippi,” Abernathy wrote. “All three adjacent counties are currently being served by under-staffed local newspapers. Collaborating with reporters at these newspapers, the center will cover topics – such as the environment, health, education, public safety, economic development and local governance – that will affect the quality of life of current and future generations of residents.” It will provide its reporting at no charge to the other papers. “We’re not competitors,” High says. “We’re partners.” 

“I can't think of a better model for an independent, family newspaper,” said Jennifer P. Brown, who is co-chair of the rural-journalism institute’s advisory board. “The Thompson-High family's commitment to serving the community is so hopeful, and shows what is possible.” Brown, who was editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville when it was family-owned, publishes the digital Hoptown Chronicle. 

The Tom and Pat Gish Award is named for the couple who published The Mountain Eagle for more than 50 years and repeatedly demonstrated courage, tenacity and integrity through advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office by a local policeman who state police believe was paid by coal companies. The Gishes, who died in 2008 and 2014, respectively, were the first winners of the award, in 2005. The other winners, in chronological order, have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Texas) Record; Stanley Dearman (former publisher, now deceased) and Jim Prince (publisher), The Neshoba Democrat, Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler of Portland, Oregon, for her work at the Jacksonville (Texas) Daily Progress and the daily Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky.; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin, publishers of the now-defunct Yancey County News in Burnsville, N.C.; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Calhoun, Ky.; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in Española, N.M.; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times; Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon; Ken Ward Jr., then of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and now of Mountain State Spotlight; his mentor, the late Paul J. Nyden of the Charleston Gazette; and Howard Berkes of NPR; and the late Tim Crews, who was editor-publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows, Calif. The Gish Award will be presented Oct. 28 at the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort on Newtown Pike in Lexington, Ky. The dinner was not held last year, so Tim Crews’s widow, Donna Settle, will receive his award as well. The keynote speaker will be Chuck Todd of NBC News

 The dinner also honors recipients of the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians, which the institute presents with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The 2020 winner is Becky Barnes, editor of The Cynthiana Democrat, who set a national example by sending an extra of her paper to every address in the county when it had the state’s first Covid-19 case. The 2021 winner is WKMS, the public-radio station at Murray State University in far Western Kentucky, for being “a model for courageous public-service journalism, especially at a time when citizens are looking more to public radio to fill voids left by shrinking commercial media outlets,” Bluegrass Chapter President Tom Eblen said. Details about the dinner will be available soon.

  

Cullens of Storm Lake Times in Iowa earn Gish Award

Cullen Gish



A northwest Iowa family that has demonstrated courage, tenacity and integrity in the face of competition and powerful, entrenched local interests received the 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the Iowa Newspaper Association convention in Des Moines on Feb. 2, 2018.
The Cullens publish 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. In 2017 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 reveald records showing agribusiness interests were paying for the suit’s defense. Courts ruled the districts couldn’t be sued, but the suit and the Pulitzer focused more attention on the issue. Art Cullen says the amount of farmland in cover crops that prevent pollution doubled.
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 Times began reporting and editorializing about pollution from farms about a year after it was established in June 1990. It has brought to light other environmental concerns, such as the need to dredge Storm Lake, and issues involving the livestock-processing plants that have brought many immigrants to Buena Vista County, in the heart of conservative northwest Iowa.
Art Cullen wrote in a column, “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,” Institute Director Al Cross said. “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 shows they have had high ideals and standards for a very long time.”

China seminar group

Institute hosts Sino-U.S. Community Media Seminar; director leads delegation to return symposium in China

Community newspaper people from China and the United States found common ground, despite great differences in their environments, at the Second Sino-U.S. Community Media Seminar hosted by the Institute Jan. 8-9, 2015. The program revealed that Chinese community papers share with their U.S. counterparts the desire to tell stories of local people in the face of dramatic economic challenges. For a report on the seminar, click here.

Institute Director Al Cross was the keynote speaker for the third seminar, held in Shanghai in September 2017. Here he shakes hands with Zhou Chen, editor of the 50 community editions of the Xinmin Evening News, the largest newspaper in Shanghai. as Nicole Carroll, editor of The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, now editor of USA Today, looks on.

Dennis Lyons, editor of The Daily Item in Sunbury, Pa., joined Carroll and Cross in making panel presentations on their work. The audience included 200 Chinese journalists, community correspondents and business partners.

The symposium at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law included meetings at the Wujiang Daily, west of Shanghai. The Evening News co-sponsored the 2015 seminar with the University of Kentucky Confucius Institute.

The 2015 seminar attracted 25 U.S. newspaper executives and academics, and brought from China 10 newspaper executives and journalists, six local-government officials and a Shanghai University professor, You You. She was a visiting scholar with the Institite in 2012-13, when the first seminar was held in Shanghai, and led arrangements for the second one.

JayYouDr. You discussed her research on rural China at the first Global Mountain Regions Conference, held by the UK Appalachian Center, and focused her research on Clay County, Kentucky, and the community of Oneida. At left, Here, she confers with Jay Nolan of Nolan Newspapers, publisher of The Manchester Enterprise, about a survey that the company mailed to a random sample of Enterprise readers and all residents of Oneida to assist with her research.

The Enterprise also benefited from the work of Mary Austin, a student in Institute Director Al Cross's Community Journalism course. She wrote a front-page lead story for the Enterprise about a local political forum which the paper's editor moderated, and did a story for newspapers in the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield about a more favorable attitude toward the coal industry in the region because of changing conditions in the industry, the economy and politics.

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The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is supported by the University of Kentucky and donors who support our mission. To make a tax-deductible donation to the endowment, via a secure Web site, click here and select "Colleges of Schools," then "Commnication and Information" and then the "Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Endowed Fund."

 

Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
School of Journalism and Media, College of Communication and Information
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Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168
Al Cross, director and professor al.cross@uky.edu Twitter@ruralj