Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Tim Crews, fighter for open government, wins Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism

Tim Crews of the Sacramento Valley Mirror held up a toothbrush outside a county jail after serving five days in 2000 for refusing to give up an anonymous source. (Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, The Associated Press)

Tim Crews, a rural editor-publisher who fought for open government in California and went to jail to protect his sources, is the winner of the 2020 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog). The award recognizes rural journalists who demonstrate outstanding courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.

Crews died at 77 on Nov. 12 after a long illness and nearly 30 years as publisher and editor of the twice-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows, a town of 6,000 and the seat of Glenn County, pop. 28,000. He was known for relentless open-records requests and for spending five days in jail in 2000 for refusing to reveal sources for a story he published about theft of weapons by a former California Highway Patrol officer. That won him the Francis Frost Wood Award for courage in journalism from Hofstra University, the Bill Farr Freedom of Information Award from the California First Amendment Association and the California Society of Newspaper Editors, and the Shield of Courage Award from the California First Amendment Coalition, which had given him its First Amendment Beacon Award in 1996.

Crews told the Poynter Institute in 2017 that his twice-weekly paper averaged more than 20 records requests a year, sometimes going to court fight for access. In 2013, a judge said his suit to force a school district to turn over 3,000 withheld emails from the superintendent was frivolous, and ordered him to pay $56,595 in attorneys' fees and costs when his income was 20,000 a year. An appeals court reversed the ruling, and that helped Crews earn the California News Publishers Association Freedom of Information Award. When he received the California Press Foundation’s Newspaper Executive of the Year Award in 2009, the Mirror was called "California's most courageous newspaper." In 2011, the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave him its Norwin S. Yoffe Award for lifetime achievement in freedom of information.

As Crews fought battles for open government, he was known as "an old-time community journalist who stood up for regular people and published obituaries for free," The Associated Press reported after his death. "He dashed about the town of Willows, population 6,000, in red suspenders and with a bushy white beard, covering crime and politics but also community events."

"Tim Crews exemplified the best in rural journalism: broad community service that includes holding local officials and institutions accountable," said Al Cross, director of the institute and extension professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky. "We wish Tim had received the Gish Award while he was still with us, but we are still pleased to recognize his service." Presentation of this year's award has been delayed by the pandemic and will be announced later.

Tom and Pat Gish at award announcement
The award is named for Tom and Pat Gish, who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years and repeatedly demonstrated courage, tenacity and integrity through advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office by a local policeman who state police believe was paid by coal companies.

The Gishes, who died in 2008 and 2014, respectively, were the first winners of the award, in 2005. The other winners, in chronological order, have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Texas) Record; Stanley Dearman (former publisher, now deceased) and Jim Prince (publisher), The Neshoba Democrat, Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler of Portland, Oregon, for her work at the Jacksonville (Texas) Daily Progress and the daily Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky.; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin, publishers of the now-defunct Yancey County News in Burnsville, N.C.; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Calhoun, Ky.; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in EspaƱola, N.M.; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times; Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon; and last year, Ken Ward Jr., then of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and now of Mountain State Spotlight; his mentor, the late Paul J. Nyden of the Charleston Gazette; and Howard Berkes, recently retired from NPR.

"Tim Crews fits nicely in this pantheon of courageous rural journalists," Cross said. "And he brings to the list one of the more varied backgrounds."

Crews was born and raised in western Washington, and served in the Marines and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. He had started in journalism in high school, and returned to it, working at papers in Washington, Colorado, Texas, California and Rome, and free-lanced from Crete. Between newspaper jobs, he was a steel-plant worker, had his own logging company in Washington, taught journalism at Evergreen State College, and worked for The Boeing Co. in Seattle. He started the Mirror after a dispute with an employer, and over the years attracted several promising interns from The Stanford Daily at Stanford University in Palo Alto.

One was Gerry Shih, now interim Beijing Bureau chief for The Washington Post. In a tribute to Crews, he wrote, "Within weeks, I knew this was what I wanted to do. Tim gave me clarity, purpose, focus. 'You have to have fire in your belly,' he said. People poisoned his dog and left death threats – hence the six-shot" in the drawer of his desk at the back of the Mirror office.

An intern who came back for a full-time job, Aimee Miles, wrote that Crews was "fiercely principled, and was willing to see those principles through to the end, even at the expense of his personal relationships. Once, after publicly condemning an elected official whom he had previously endorsed, Tim proclaimed, memorably, 'The truth is more important than friendship. It’s more important than everything.' He really believed that, and lived by it, although it sometimes meant making difficult choices. That unwavering integrity rattled some people, who read it as a ruthless willingness to betray. Many people have a threshold at which they are willing to part ways with their professed principles, the point at which fidelity imperils their personal interests. But Tim couldn’t be compromised, and nothing would dissuade him from holding public officials accountable for their actions, whether he liked them personally or not."

Miles also wrote, "One quality of his stands out in my memory. In addition to integrity and tenacity, Tim had more genuine empathy than anyone I know. I think that is what gave him the prodigious energy to do what he did for nearly 30 years. He had the rare gift of really seeing people, and was inquisitive about their lives to an extent that far surpassed his interests as an investigative journalist. He leant an ear to those who were struggling with one problem or another; people whom most others would have written off without a moment’s hesitation. I think many in the community sensed that quality as well, and that is why so many confided in him. He listened to people intently, recognized their humanity, and treated them with dignity. He truly cared for his community. That kind of profound empathy, above all, is what separates a competent journalist from an eminent one, and it’s what I remember Tim for more than anything else."

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