Coal reporters Howard Berkes, Ken Ward Jr. and the late Paul J. Nyden win 2019 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism

By Al Cross, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Three reporters whose outstanding careers have revealed much about the coal industry in Central Appalachia are the winners of the 2019 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, presented by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

They are Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail; his mentor, the late Paul J. Nyden of the Charleston Gazette; and Howard Berkes, recently retired from NPR, who nominated Ward for the honor several years ago.

“Each in their own way, they overcame adversity in reporting on coal and other topics in rural America, where doing good journalism often requires more courage, tenacity and integrity than in urban areas,” said Al Cross, director of the institute, based at the University of Kentucky, and publisher of The Rural Blog. “Extractive industries do most of their extracting in rural areas.”

Paul Nyden

Paul Nyden chronicled a reform movement in the United Mine Workers of America, and wrote a dissertation on it that earned him a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University in 1974. After teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, he came to southern West Virginia and reported for the Gulf Times before being hired at the Gazette in 1982 by the late W.E. ‘Ned’ Chilton III, “whose philosophy of ‘sustained outrage’ journalism Nyden personified,” Ward wrote in Nyden’s obituary in January 2018.

“Nyden defended the public’s interests by consistently taking on powerful state businesses and challenging political leaders across West Virginia,” Ward wrote. “He exposed deadly safety violations, renegade strip-mining and unscrupulous tax scams in a career that spanned more than three decades.” Nyden retired in 2015 when the Gazette merged with the Charleston Daily Mail.

Paul Nyden chronicled a reform movement in the United Mine Workers of America, and wrote a dissertation on it that earned him a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University in 1974. After teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, he came to southern West Virginia and reported for the Gulf Times before being hired at the Gazette in 1982 by the late W.E. ‘Ned’ Chilton III, “whose philosophy of ‘sustained outrage’ journalism Nyden personified,” Ward wrote in Nyden’s obituary in January 2018.

“Nyden defended the public’s interests by consistently taking on powerful state businesses and challenging political leaders across West Virginia,” Ward wrote. “He exposed deadly safety violations, renegade strip-mining and unscrupulous tax scams in a career that spanned more than three decades.” Nyden retired in 2015 when the Gazette merged with the Charleston Daily Mail.

Ken Ward

Ward said when he received the $625,000 fellowship that it was “a strong vote of confidence in local journalism, and more to the point in local journalism that doesn’t just parrot the official line, but questions and holds accountable powerful people, industries, governments and other institutions that might not be acting in the public interest.”Ken Ward graduated from West Virginia University in 1990 and joined the Gazette in 1991. In 2018 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship that was based on his investigative reporting for the newspaper. The foundation said Ward was chosen because he excels at “revealing the human and environmental toll of natural-resource extraction in West Virginia and spurring greater accountability among public and private stakeholders.”

For the last year and a half Ward has been working for the Gazette-Mail as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. Last year, his focus was the impact on rural West Virginia of the booming natural-gas industry, which has gained much economic and political influence in the state, partly at coal’s expense.

After covering the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia in 2010, Berkes began investigating workplace safety, and discovered an epidemic of black-lung disease among coal miners in Central Appalachia that federal regulators had ignored or even denied. His work was the basis for “Coal’s Deadly Dust,” a documentary for “Frontline” on PBS.

Howard Berkes

Howard Berkes retired at the end of 2018 after 38 years in public media, much of it reporting from rural America. His reports on the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens for KLCC in Eugene, Oregon, took him to NPR, where he covered the interior West and later became the network’s rural correspondent.

“Howard spent weeks in rural Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky visiting lung clinics and persuading sick miners to talk with him,” said his editor, Bob Little. “I have plenty of reporters who would not take on an issue like that and choose to put themselves out there in that kind of environment; it does require you to pay a personal price; you have to own your belief in this story. He is inspired by nothing other than wanting to right a wrong.”

The Gish awards will be presented Sept. 26 in Lexington, Ky., at the Al Smith Awards Dinner of the institute and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Their Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian will be presented to Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson, the longest-serving executive of a newspaper association in the United States and a winner of many battles for open government.The Central Appalachian coalfield also birthed the Tom and Pat Gish Award.

Tom and Pat Gish

It is named for the late couple who published The Mountain Eagle at Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years and became nationally known for their battles with coal operators and politicians, and the firebombing of their office by a Whitesburg policeman. Their son, Eagle Editor-Publisher Ben Gish, is on the award selection committee, with other selected members of the rural journalism institute’s national advisory board.

Tickets to the dinner, which is the annual fund-raiser for the institute and the SPJ chapter, are $125 each. Reserve here.The keynote speaker at the dinner will be NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd, host of “Meet the Press” and “MTP Daily” and author of The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House. On election night 2016, as he watched the county-by-county map of the U.S. go mainly red, Todd told viewers, “This is rural America saying, ‘Stop ignoring us!’”

Past winners of the Gish award have been the Gishes; the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record in Canadian, Texas; Jim Prince and the late Stan Dearman, publishers of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler, columnist for The Oregonian, for her work in rural Kentucky and Texas; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin for their newspaper work in Yancey County, N.C.; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in western Kentucky; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in Española, N.M.; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa; and Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon.

Nominations for the 2020 Gish Award may be emailed at any time to al.cross@uky.edu.

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