Courage? Integrity? Who are they talking about?

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

We have bragged plenty about winning The Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Last Friday, The Storm Lake Times was presented another prestigious honor that has no less meaning to us: The Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. The award, “for displaying courage, tenacity and integrity often necessary to render public service in rural journalism,” was presented by Institute Director Al Cross at the Iowa Newspaper Association Annual Convention in Des Moines.

The story of Tom and Pat Gish is far more interesting, and courageous, than ours.

The Gishes published The Mountain Eagle at Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years. The motto on the paper’s flag said: “It Screams.”

Scream they did. They took on the coal companies and the local politicians. A local police officer firebombed their office. A week later, the paper still came out but the motto changed to say: “It Still Screams.”

That’s tenacity.

It is displayed by their son, Ben, who continues their tradition as publisher. Coal country has been hit harder even than rural Iowa, and Ben has the courage to ride The Eagle as the coal companies have faded. We were humbled when Ben Gish said, “It is encouraging to know that small, family-owned-and-operated community newspapers like The Storm Lake Times … are still here and doing their jobs in very difficult circumstances with the same courage and tenacity exhibited by my parents.”

Someday I will shake his hand.

Cross said that The Storm Lake Times speaks “hard truths to power.”

“The Storm Lake Times has long been known to those of us who follow rural journalism as a great example to emulate, and Art Cullen’s Pulitzer Prize merely confirmed that,” Cross said. “We hope this award to the Cullen family will show that they have had high ideals and standards for a very long time.”

Past winners include newspapers from Texas, Mississippi, New Mexico and Louisiana. The Times is the first Iowa newspaper to receive the honor, considered the highest in rural community journalism.

It took guts for John to launch The Times in 1990 in our hometown. And it took tenacity and integrity to keep it going. We never lied to the bankers or the IRS or our readers. We have tried to cheat at poker but are not smart enough to get away with it.

It also takes a lot of courage and honor from everyone on our staff, not just kin. Jamie Knapp took a big leap of faith when he came across town to join us as sports editor 15 years ago. It takes a lot of courage for Whitney Robinson to sell an ad to someone with no money but who needs to be convinced that advertising will get you the money you need. You want to talk tenacity? Give our former reporter Jake Kurtz, who swears he is coming back in a year or two, some red meat and see how long he can hang on with his teeth.

People like that are working at newspapers big and small all across Iowa and rural America. We were delighted to see our friend Doug Burns receive the Iowa Master Editor-Publisher Award as his mother Ann, publisher of the Carroll Times-Herald, was ushered out as president of the Iowa Newspaper Association over the past year. Doug lives for the newspaper.

We won The Pulitzer Prize with the help of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council in ferreting out public records over the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit. The council defends your right to know what your government is doing in your name, from the school boards to the district court system. It is entirely funded by donations. So we were happy at the INA convention on Friday to pay some back by donating a third of our Pulitzer Prize ($5,000) to the council so it can argue on behalf of other rural journalists. Nothing could make us prouder.

It takes a lot of courage and tenacity for any rural business owner to make it. Storm Lake is covered in it, from DeAnda Auto to Zone Home Entertainment. We get awards and generous comments for it. They get to work on Saturdays and evenings. So don’t worry. It has not gone to our heads, believe it or not. But if we don’t brag about ourselves nobody else will. We never will forget that you are the reason we are here. All the honors are worth nothing if you are not reading.

No more bragging or whining for at least another week.