Sunday, July 15, 2018

Retired Vt. editor wins ISWNE's Cervi Award for being a watchdog, a public servant and an exemplary journalist

Ross Connelly (Associated Press photo by Toby Talbot)
Ross Connelly may be most widely known as the editor-publisher who tried to sell his weekly newspaper through an essay contest. But he had a great career as a leader in rural journalism, and now he is the winner of the Eugene Cervi Award from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, presented Saturday night at the ISWNE conference in Portland, Oregon.

The award is named for a crusading Colorado editor who died in 1970. It honors editors who consistently act with the conviction that good journalism begets good government, have a career of outstanding public service through community journalism, hold to the highest standards of the craft with Cervi's deep reverence for the English language, and consistently and aggressively report on and interpret government at the grassroots level.

Connelly owned The Hardwick Gazette in northern Vermont from 1986 to 2017. He founded the Vermont Coalition for Open Government and was president of the Vermont Press Association and the New England Press Association. "Vermont went from what many considered the worst public record access to one of the best" thanks in part to Connelly, wrote Jack Authulet, the 1998 Cervi winner and former Society of Professional Journalists Sunshine Chair for Massachusetts. He was among the nominators.

"He brought big thinking to his small-town market in remote and rural Vermont," wrote nominator Link McKie, publication manager of the New England press group. "He also brought courage to take editorial positions he deemed important and proper for the public welfare, even when they were not popular. He took the time, despite his intensive long hours leading his newspaper, to join fights on behalf of the First Amendment, locally and beyond."

Connelly's "influence locally, statewide, and regionally cannot be overstated," wrote Johnson State College journalism professor Tyrone Shaw, a nominator and former weekly editor. "Simply put, Ross is the exemplar of the ideal journalist, combining the unwavering advocacy of the watchdog, with a deep, compassionate understanding of the communities he served." Connelly helped create the college’s Community Journalism Project, which deploys students to cover annual town meetings on the first Tuesday of March for the Gazette.

Nominator John S. McCright, news editor of the Addison Independent in Middlebury, recalled big stories he pursued as a reporter with Connelly. "The most notable was a scandal involving auctioneers of dairy cows who also happened to be presidents of three local banks and, as it turns out, first-class crooks. While these weren’t elected officials, Ross knew they were just as important in their roles as keepers of the public trust; and he and I reported the story well beyond the borders of the newspaper’s coverage area up until the disgraced bankers went to jail."

Connelly has won many awards for his reporting and editorial writing. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Howard University and master's degrees from the University of Michigan and Boston University. To sell the paper, he ran an entry-fee contest for the best essay on "why they wanted to run a community newspaper."

"In his efforts to sell The Hardwick Gazette, Ross was committed to finding a new owner who recognized the importance of community journalism," wrote nominator Mike Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association. "He was committed to finding a person who would maintain the newspaper as the important 128-year-old institution it is rather than viewing it as a commodity to be exploited for a return on investment. The essay contest . . . brought attention to the reality that weekly newspapers are and remain a critical part of democracy. While the contest did not draw enough entries, it did attract a New England couple interested in carrying on the tradition that Ross and his wife did for several decades."

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