LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 9, 2011) — Samantha Swindler, the publisher and editor of the weekly Headlight Herald in Tillamook, Ore., is the winner of the 2010 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.
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.
Like the Gishes, Samantha Swindler is being recognized largely for her courage, integrity and tenacity in Eastern Kentucky, but also 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.
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.
The prosecutor, Commonwealth’s Attorney Allen Trimble, told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues that the paper's "very persistent" reporting "was a very significant influence on me."
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.”
The investigation of the sheriff was the capstone to Swindler’s four years in Corbin, in which she held local officials accountable on a wide front, revealing that the county was improperly using a tourism tax to fund an airport and that city officials spent $20,000 on tickets to a country-music concert for city employees and their friends.