Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Mountain Eagle editor and reporter win Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians

Reporter Sam Adams,  left,  and Editor-Publisher Ben Gish hold the first two of the six weekly, free-circulation editions of The Mountain Eagle that were published after the record flood in southeastern Kentucky one year ago this week.

Ben Gish and Sam Adams of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., which set a new standard for disaster coverage by a weekly newspaper after last year's flood in southeastern Kentucky, are the winners of the 2023 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians.

The award is given by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, publisher of The Rural Blog. It will be presented Oct. 26 at their annual Al Smith Awards Dinner in Lexington, with Susan Page of USA Today as the keynote speaker.

Ben Gish is editor and publisher of The Mountain Eagle, which became known for overcoming adversity to provide outstanding rural journalism in 50-plus years of ownership by his parents, Tom and Pat Gish, who died in 2008 and 2014, respectively. Sam Adams is the paper's reporter and did most of the coverage of the flood that devastated much of Letcher County and Kentucky counties downstream on the night of July 27-28, 2022.

"The Eagle's comprehensive coverage of the flood and its aftermath is an amazingly broad and deep example of public service through community journalism," said Al Cross, director of the institute and extension professor of journalism at UK. "So is the newspaper's decision, in the six weeks after the flood, to forgo the $1 charge for its single-copy sales, which constitute most of its circulation."

SPJ Bluegrass Chapter President Tom Martin said, "The Mountain Eagle, in its continued reporting of developments pertaining to the flood of '22, has served as a reminder of the vital nature of a genuine, independent community newspaper. The paper's reporting on post-flood decision-making by local officials, debris cleanup, the relocation of survivors to higher ground homes, as well as efforts of neighbors lending helping hands to neighbors has reached well beyond the borders of Letcher County, Kentucky." Martin produces “Eastern Standard” for WEKU-FM, which worked with the Eagle on its “Rise Eastern Kentucky” series after the flood.

The Eagle was nominated by Dee Davis, founder and director of the nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, who wrote, "After initial stories about the devastation, the paper dug into the short- and intermediate-term response to the flood: temporary shelter for the displaced, the performance of debris-removal contractors, the complexities of FEMA aid, and more. The newspaper’s exemplary journalism has informed the county and held political leaders accountable for their response to the flood."

Adams, a native of Letcher County and a University of Kentucky graduate, began working for the Eagle in 1986. He has been environment writer at The Daily Independent in Ashland, assistant city editor of the Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro, and a freelancer; his essay, “Appalachia: Gathered at the River” appears in Water in Kentucky: Natural History, Communities, and Conservation, published by the University Press of Kentucky.

The award recognizes not only Adams' flood coverage, but Gish's preservation of his parents' legacy. The Eagle has continued to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, who sometimes strike back, as certain political interests did the day before the 2008 election, when they bought or stole most of the that week's single copies from newsstands. The Eagle has closely followed the plight of coal miners with black-lung disease, railed against coal companies and their regulators after mine disasters, defended immigrants from political attacks, and showed the promise of using reclaimed strip mines for animal agriculture.

Soon after he graduated from UK, Gish started "Speak Your Piece," a weekly feature in which readers could have their say anonymously in a county where intimidation is common. Some journalistic purists frowned on that, but Gish said "Politics can be rough here, and some politicians give letter-writers a hard time. In the early 1970s, police beat up the kids of parents who wrote letters criticizing police brutality. Or someone wrote a letter criticizing the coal industry or a politician and their family members would lose their jobs." Also in the 1970s, the Eagle's office was torched, and a Whitesburg policeman was found responsible.

Al Smith, 1927-2021
The Al Smith Award is named for the late Albert P. Smith Jr., who was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its advisory board and was its chair emeritus until his death in 2021. He published newspapers in Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the first winner of the award, in 2011.

The award will be presented at the Al Smith Awards Dinner Oct. 26 at the Embassy Suites Lexington on Newtown Pike, near Interstate 64/75. Winners of the Institute’s national Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, to be announced soon, will also be recognized at the event, along with winners of chapter scholarships and Institute fellowships.

Besides Smith, previous winners of the Smith Award, and their affiliations at the time, are:
2012: Jennifer P. Brown, Kentucky New Era; and Max Heath, Landmark Community Newspapers
2013: John Nelson, Danville Advocate-Messenger
2014: Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery, The Daily Yonder
2015: Carl West, The (Frankfort) State Journal
2016: Sharon Burton, Adair County Community Voice and The Farmer’s Pride
2017: Ryan Craig, Todd County Standard, and the late Larry Craig, Green River Republican
2018: Stevie Lowery, The Lebanon Enterprise
2019: David Thompson, Kentucky Press Association
2020: Becky Barnes, The Cynthiana Democrat
2021: WKMS News, Murray State University
2022: Chris and Allison Evans, The Crittenden Press

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