Saturday, March 12, 2011

Swindler Wins Journalism Award for Integrity

She has to be tough to take all of the ribbing she gets for her name, but on April 1st Samantha Swindler, publisher and editor of the weekly Headlight Herald in Tillamook, Oregon will receive the 2010 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.

In case you didn’t know,
The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, gives the award in honor of the couple who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years. Tom Gish, who died in 2008, and his wife Pat were the first recipients of the award.

Samantha, like the Gishes, is being recognized for her journalism in Eastern Kentucky and in Texas, where she began her newspaper career less than seven years ago. She has been in Oregon since July 2010.
The award will be presented to Swindler on April 1, at the spring symposium of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association in Albany, Ore. A native of Metairie, La., Swindler is a 2002 graduate in communication from Boston University.

What did such this young person do to deserve this prestigious award?
As managing editor of the daily Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky., circulation 6,000, Swindler spearheaded an investigation of the Whitley County sheriff that helped lead to his defeat for re-election and his subsequent indictment on 18 charges of abuse of public trust and three counts of tampering with physical evidence.

Swindler and her reporter, Adam Sulfridge, received repeated warnings about their safety as they revealed irregularities in how Sheriff Lawrence Hodge accounted for missing guns his officers had seized, problems with his alleged payments to informants, his failure to present cases against anyone arrested for felony drug violations, failure to send seized drugs to the state crime laboratory, and his officers' repeated failure to testify, resulting in dismissal of serious drug charges.

“She did not let anyone scare her off the story or push her around,” said William Ketter, who worked with Swindler as senior vice president/news for Community Newspaper Holdings, which owns the Times-Tribune.
Swindler recounts her experience in the latest edition of Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.
“There is a great need for good investigative journalism in rural America,” she writes. “Young reporters tend to think they need a byline from The New York Times to make a difference in the world. If they really want to have an impact, get a job with a community paper and start asking the tough questions that no one ever asked before.”
Swindler’s exemplary work on behalf of the community was not only in Kentucky. When Swindler was managing editor of the Jacksonville (Tex.) Daily Progress, the paper won a Freedom of Information Award from the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors for coverage of city police corruption. The city manager was fired after Swindler, then a reporter, found he was illegally burning condemned houses.
“She makes a wonderful example for the rest of us,” said Ben Gish, editor of The Mountain Eagle, son of the couple for whom the award is named and a member of the award selection committee.

“If in the past decade there's been any other journalist in America, rural or city, who has demonstrated the level of tenacity, courage and integrity Swindler did with that series, then I'd like to meet them,” Gish said. “Unless they were able to walk in her shoes, it would be impossible for a reporter/editor at a large metropolitan daily to understand the danger Swindler faced while letting Whitley County know its top law enforcement officer was a crook.”
William Ketter put in words why this story struck me with such force and made  me think how fortunate Oregon is to have her here now:
“Never has there been a greater need for perceptive, courageous reporting in smaller communities as big city papers reduce their resources and reach across rural America. That’s why it is so important that journalists such as Samantha Swindler stand their ground, however fraught with risks, as the people’s surrogate, holding public officials accountable.”
Welcome to Oregon, Samantha! May your tribe increase!
- Milo