Ryan and Larry Craig, a nephew and his late uncle, are the winners of the 2017 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians.
As editor and publisher of the Todd County Standard since 2005, Ryan Craig (left) has held local and state officials accountable, sometimes to the financial detriment of his small weekly, and started an investigation that exposed serious flaws in the state’s foster-child program. He is this year’s president of the Kentucky Press Association, and in KPA competitions his paper has been judged the best small weekly in the state 10 of the last 11 years.
Larry Craig (right) edited the Green River Republican at Morgantown for Al Smith (for whom the award is named), then bought it from him but continued his work as a Baptist minister. He blended courage, curiosity, skill and humor to become a distinctive if not unique figure in rural journalism. He was KPA president in 1989. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 1994 and died in 2011.
The Craigs will be honored Oct. 12 at the Embassy Suites in Lexington, at the Al Smith Awards Dinner of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which co-sponsor the award.
The award is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its national advisory board for many years, and is chairman emeritus.
The Craigs are natives of Allegre in northern Todd County, part of the hilly Clifty Area that fringes the Western Kentucky Coalfield. Larry Craig said in a 2009 interview that when he moved to Butler County, in the coalfield, he quickly concluded, “These people are like North Todd . . . You don’t show any hesitancy or weakness.”
Ryan Craig is a graduate of Western Kentucky University, which his uncle attended without earning a degree but which later hired him to teach journalism. Ryan Craig’s degrees are in history and public relations, but he says he took up journalism after his uncle told him that he should give it a try because “You would do a lot more good, and wouldn’t have to worry about having too much money.”
Larry Craig, son of a sharecropper who was also a Baptist pastor, started preaching at 17. But he loved to write, and followed a minister’s advice to pastors who wanted to improve their writing: seek assignments from the local newspaper. He went to see Smith, editor and publisher of The Logan Leader and The News-Democrat, then twin weeklies in Russellville, who assigned him to write a 30th anniversary story about a local military unit that went to World War II. He was soon covering the county school board, which was at odds with Smith; controversies among dark-fired tobacco growers, and the 1977 United Mine Workers strike. With the help of miners at his church, he wrote what Nat Caldwell, legendary energy reporter for The Tennessean, called the best reporting on the strike from coal miners’ perspective.
Smith hired Craig to edit the Green River Republican in 1980 and sold it to him in 1982. When it became known that he had been offered a list of people willing to sell their votes, someone shot through a front window of his office. He got his gun and spent the night there, earning him the appellation “pistol-packing preacher-publisher.” His watchdog work extended to the general public; he published names he found on trash at illegal dumps, sparking the most negative reaction he ever received. He loved to tweak politicians, and others prone to self-importance, in invocations at KPA conventions and other gatherings. After he became a journalism teacher and told the student newspaper that the Ku Klux Klan was a “putrid cancer on the body of America,” a Klan member and sympathizer burned the Warren County church he was pastoring.
Craig said in 2009 that one man told him “He couldn’t see how I could raise hell all week and then preach against hell on Sunday,” but he said both professions prize truth, justice and accountability. He wrote in a 1987 column that some editors “find themselves in the role of an attack dog; others don’t go far enough in exposing wrongdoing, primarily because they don’t want to rock the boat or get anybody upset. That’s lap-dog journalism. I prefer the middle road, one based on common sense and hard-nosed journalism tempered with compassion. A good guard dog is one that is a friend to all while being a protector.”
David Hawpe, former editor of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, who succeeded Craig as KPA president, said when his friend died at 62, of liver failure, that he was “a special person who actually was an intellectual, sophisticated guy hiding in a country preacher’s persona.” Al Smith called him “one of the most unforgettable editors I ever knew.”
“Larry Craig left a legacy to which Ryan Craig has more than lived up,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and associate professor in the UK School of Journalism and Media, where he teaches community journalism. “Ryan understands that rural newspapers must not only cover their communities, but connect them to the rest of the state, nation and world.”
Ryan Craig bought the Todd County Standard in 2005 after working at daily and weekly newspapers in the area. He transformed the paper into an example of excellent reporting, editing and presentation. When it won its first General Excellence award from KPA, he heard from Uncle Larry, he recalls: “He called me and told me I was putting out a great newspaper,” then said, “Now they know you can do a great job, turn the heat up to boil and see what happens.”
It didn’t take long. Ryan received threats from public officials, including a sheriff who went through the courthouse in cocking his shotgun and saying, “Nobody is arresting me because of the Todd County Standard.” Aggressive reporting on a new jail that became a long-term burden on the county’s budget, and a story about price gouging after Hurricane Katrina, led to businesses pulling their advertising and ousting the newspaper’s racks from their stores.
In 2011, The Standard investigated the murder of a girl in foster care in a home where abuse had been substantiated, and used open-records laws to uncover serious flaws in the Kentucky social-services system. He went to court to have the girl’s files made public when state officials tried to cover up her case. The newspaper’s investigation, along with stories in the state’s two largest dailies, helped lead to the resignation of the cabinet secretary, the retirement of the social-services commissioner, legislative hearings and a governor-appointed panel to examine child-abuse deaths and near-deaths, Todd Circuit Clerk Mark Cowherd wrote in his nomination of Craig.
“Ryan’s work as a member of the Fourth Estate has helped to inform and educate not only the citizens of Todd County but also the citizens all across the commonwealth of Kentucky,” he said.
“Ryan Craig is the model of an outstanding community journalist and publisher,” said Tom Eblen, president of the SPJ Bluegrass Chapter and a columnist at the Lexington Herald-Leader. “Ryan wants his community to succeed, but he isn’t afraid to point out problems or speak truth to power. He has made the Todd County Standard a must-read in his region and a force for good.”
The Al Smith Awards Dinner is an annual fund-raiser for the Institute and the SPJ chapter, which conceived the Smith Award. But it is also “a grand gathering of people who believe in journalism as an essential element of our democratic processes and want it to observe high standards; who recognize the importance of rural America to the rest of the country; and who agree with us that rural Kentucky and rural America deserve good journalism just as much as the rest of the state and nation, to help our democracy work,” Cross said.
For information on the awards dinner, contact Al Cross at 859-257-3744 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or SPJ Bluegrass Chapter Treasurer Patti Cross at 502-223-8525 or email@example.com. Details will appear soon on the Institute website, www.RuralJournalism.org.