Saturday, July 21, 2007

Sigma Delta Chi Awards have rural connections, including cartoonist -- and publisher who sees provocative editorial page as circulation booster

There were several winners with rural connections at last night's Sigma Delta Chi awards banquet at the National Press Club in Washington, but none so rural as Mike Lester of the Rome News-Tribune in Georgia, circulation 18,500, who won the for editorial cartooning in 2006. Few papers with circulation under 20,000 have editorial cartoonists, a point noted by the judges, who said, "We applaud the Rome News-Tribune, a small newspaper, for having a full-time editorial cartoonist on staff."

Publisher Burgett Mooney III said in an interview that he wanted a cartoonist because he sees a "provocative" editorial page as a way to build and maintain circulation. "It gives us a place to really drive people to the newspaper," he said. Lester has been cartooning for the paper for five years. He was living in Rome and doing cartoons for an online news service until the dot-com bubble burst, then Mooney recruited him.

Lester tackles local, state, national and international topics, but said in an interview that he tries to make two of five cartoons a week have some local connection, often through a setting that is not identified but that local will recognize as a locale in the town of 35,000. Lester is generally conservative, but has an independent streak. The newspaper "tends to be what is considered conservative on economic matters and liberal on social issues," said the editorial-page editor, Pierre-Rene Noth.

The News-Tribune is part of News Publishing Co., which also publishes seven weeklies in northwest Georgia and Cherokee County, Alabama. The Sigma Delta Chi Awards were established in 1932 by the organization now known as the Society of Professional Journalists. The current program began in 1939, when Sigma Delta Chi presented its first Distinguished Service Awards. When Sigma Delta Chi changed its name to SPJ in the 1980s, the original name was retained for the awards and SPJ's foundation. Its board includes Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Several awards were handed out last night for coverage of rural issues by urban media. Marx Arax of the Los Angeles Times won in the magazine-writing category for a series of stories on a California raisin picker. Todd Melby and Duane Richard of Chicago Public Radio won in radio documentary for "Flatlined: How Illinois Shortchanges Rural Students." Two awards were given for coverage of the Sago Mine disaster: to NBC Nightly News, for breaking news coverage on TV, and Mine Safety and Health News, for public service in newsletter journalism. For a complete list of this year's and past winners, click here.

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