|Left to right: the late Paul Nyden; Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail; and Howard Berkes of NPR|
They are Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail; his mentor, the late Paul J. Nyden of the Charleston Gazette; and Howard Berkes, recently retired from NPR, who nominated Ward for the honor several years ago.
“Each in their own way, they overcame adversity in reporting on coal and other topics in rural America, where doing good journalism often requires more courage, tenacity and integrity than in urban areas,” said Al Cross, director of the institute, based at the University of Kentucky, and publisher of The Rural Blog. “Extractive industries do most of their extracting in rural areas.”
"Nyden defended the public’s interests by consistently taking on powerful state businesses and challenging political leaders across West Virginia," Ward wrote. "He exposed deadly safety violations, renegade strip-mining and unscrupulous tax scams in a career that spanned more than three decades.” Nyden retired in 2015 when the Gazette merged with the Charleston Daily Mail.
Ward said when he received the $625,000 fellowship that it was “a strong vote of confidence in local journalism, and more to the point in local journalism that doesn’t just parrot the official line, but questions and holds accountable powerful people, industries, governments and other institutions that might not be acting in the public interest.”
For the last year and a half Ward has been working for the Gazette-Mail as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. Last year, his focus was the impact on rural West Virginia of the booming natural-gas industry, which has gained much economic and political influence in the state, partly at coal’s expense.
After covering the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia in 2010, Berkes began investigating workplace safety, and discovered an epidemic of black-lung disease among coal miners in Central Appalachia that federal regulators had ignored or even denied. His work was the basis for “Coal’s Deadly Dust,” a documentary for “Frontline” on PBS.
“Howard spent weeks in rural Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky visiting lung clinics and persuading sick miners to talk with him,” said his editor, Bob Little. “I have plenty of reporters who would not take on an issue like that and choose to put themselves out there in that kind of environment; it does require you to pay a personal price; you have to own your belief in this story. He is inspired by nothing other than wanting to right a wrong.”
|Tom and Pat Gish|
The Gish awards will be presented Sept. 26 in Lexington, Ky., at the Al Smith Awards Dinner of the institute and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Their Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian will be presented to Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson, the longest-serving executive of a newspaper association in the United States and a winner of many battles for open government.
Tickets to the dinner, which is the annual fund-raiser for the institute and the SPJ chapter, are $125 each. Reserve here.
Past winners of the Gish award have been the Gishes; the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record in Canadian, Texas; Jim Prince and the late Stan Dearman, publishers 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.; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa; and Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon.
Nominations for the 2020 Gish Award may be emailed at any time to firstname.lastname@example.org.