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 al.cross@uky.edu.

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 is the winner of the 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. The Cullen family received the award at the Iowa Newspaper Association convention in Des Moines on Feb. 2.
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 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 "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.”

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 od 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.


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 the Institute from the pull-down list of funds; to make a tax-deductible gift to our operating account, choose "Other" and type in "IRJCI operating."


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Media, College of Communication & Information
343 S. Martin Luther King Blvd., #206, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0012
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168
Al Cross, director and professoral.cross@uky.edu Twitter@ruralj