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Ryan Craig and his late uncle Larry Craig win Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians

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 will be 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.

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.”

The Al Smith Awards Dinner is an annual fund-raiser for the Institute and the SPJ chapter, which conceived the Smith Award. But it is also “a grand gathering of people who believe in journalism as an essential element of our democratic processes and want it to observe high standards; who recognize the importance of rural America to the rest of the country; and who agree with us that rural Kentucky and rural America deserve good journalism just as much as the rest of the state and nation, to help our democracy work,” Cross said.

For information on the awards dinner, contact Al Cross at 859-257-3744 or al.cross@uky.edu; or SPJ Bluegrass Chapter Treasurer Patti Cross at 502-223-8525 or patticross@bellsouth.net.

Missouri editor wins 2016 Gish Award for courage in rural journalism

Ivan Foley, a Missouri editor and publisher who has pushed accountability journalism and open government in the face of competition, intimidation and retribution, is the winner of the 2016 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

At The Platte County Landmark in Platte City, just north of Kansas City, Foley has made a career of holding accountable public officials and those who would hold public office. “He is the best advocate for the Missouri Sunshine Law of any journalist I know,” both to the public and government officials who often need “re-educating,” wrote Bill Hankins, who was a writer and photographer for the Landmark for 13 years, in nominating Foley.

“Because he always holds officials’ feet to the fire, especially when it comes to spending tax dollars, Ivan often runs counter to the local pet projects of the powers that be,” wrote Hankins, a member of the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame. “He often makes people mad … just by holding those projects up to the light to see if they sparkle or not. Some examples are when contracts had the taint of sweetheart deals, or when the school board decided to spend $500,000 for artificial turf for the football field.”

Many Landmark stories have reported violations of open-government laws, and Foley’s editorial column endorses candidates in local elections, a rarity for weekly newspapers. “Although conservative by nature and politics, Ivan is red-and-blue color-blind when it comes to critiquing the performances of local politicians,” Hankins wrote.

Foley received the award at the 150th convention of the Missouri Press Association in Branson Oct. 1, 2016.

Zhou Chen, editor of the community editions of the Xinmin Evening News in Shanghai, shakes hands with Institute Director Al Cross as Nicole Carroll, editor of The Arizona Republic, watches. Dennis Lyons, editor of the Sunbury (Pa.) Daily Item, was the other American editor at the symposium.

Institute director goes to China for Community Media Symposium

Institute Director Al Cross led a delegation of American newspaper editors to China in September 2017 to meet with their counterparts to discuss community journalism, a rising element of the trade in both countries.

Cross recruited Nicole Carroll, editor of The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, and Dennis Lyons, editor of The Daily Item in Sunbury, Pa., to accompany him to the Third Sino-U.S. Community Media Symposium in Shanghai and nearby Wujiang, which included 200 Chinese journalists, community correspondents and business partners.

The symposium at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law was sponsored by the Xinmin Evening News, the largest newspaper in Shanghai, which has 50 community editions, and included a meeting at the Wujiang Daily. UK’s institute and the Evening News co-sponsored the second symposium at UK in 2015; the first was held in Shanghai in 2013.

“Many people in the United States might think there is not much for our countries to talk about when it comes to journalism, because we have such different political systems,” Cross said in the symposium’s keynote address. “Those differences are great, but they cannot obscure some fundamental human concerns: the people’s need for information that is relevant to their daily lives, their need to feel that they are part of a community, with shared interests, not just shared geography; and, of course, the need for newspapers to stay relevant and viable as sources of information by developing closer connections with their communities.”

Tracing the evolution of community journalism in the U.S., Cross said it remains the healthiest part of the traditional news business, because there will always be a demand for local news. “We want to know what is happening in our area, in our neighborhood, and on our street,” he said. “It’s human nature, one that developed even before we developed language.”

Dr. You You of Shanghai University, who helped facilitate the last two symposia and was a visiting scholar at the Institute in 2012-13, said afterward, “Although they are in different political systems and development tracks, community media in both countries are facing similarly fundamental challenges. They should deepen their engagement in communities to build reader loyalty.”

Cross said Carroll and Lyons are two excellent examples of newspapers that have developed stronger connections with their communities to better serve their readers. Carroll edits the largest community news outlet in Gannett Co.’s USA Today Network, the nation’s largest journalism organization. She said its community-engagement efforts include live storytelling nights, which began in Arizona.

She said the events generate sponsorship revenue and are “a great way to build audience and trust in our products, and in our journalists.” Citing the USAT Network’s recent gains in audience, Carroll said, “We’d like to be the primary and best news source for people, and this strategy feels right. We’re just scratching the surface of where we can go from here. I have great optimism going forward.”

 

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Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information 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