Newspaper receives three top journalism awards

"The Yancey County News is the quintessential great rural newspaper"

The Yancey County News, one of the newest – and smallest - newspapers in the nation, is the recipient of three of the most prestigious annual journalism awards.

No other newspaper in the nation has won all three of the awards, much less in the same year. The Yancey County News was honored with the 2011 E.W. Scripps Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment and the 2012 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the University of Oregon School of Journalism for a series of stories that documented widespread abuses in the use of absentee ballots in the 2010 General Election in Yancey County. In November, the University of Kentucky announced that the Yancey County News was the recipient of the 2012 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism, awarded by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

The Austins were nominated for the Gish Award by Roy L. Moore, dean of the College of Communication at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro and author of the textbook Media Law and Ethics.
After an unannounced visit to the paper, Moore wrote, “Susan and Jonathan are essentially a two-person operation, which is quite remarkable, given the comprehensive, hard-hitting, public-service journalism they practice in their weekly publication. I was highly impressed with their strong commitment to, and practice of, the highest standards of professional journalism, ethics and public interest. They do so knowing full well that some public officials may chastise and even attempt to punish them.”

Moore called the Austins “role models for other rural journalists . . . They represent and symbolize the best in our noble profession, and the Yancey County News is the quintessential great rural newspaper.”

Judges for the highly competitive Scripps Award said “the entry from (the) Yancey County News fairly crackles with the energy of good journalism in a charged atmosphere of reluctant – if not criminal – public officials, official nepotism and of county government operating without public oversight. It does so with reporting and writing that shows care with the facts, depth, and yet with a spritely, inviting manner – retaining a strong community (and citizen) tone even as it provides the details of research and analysis.”

Judges said the stories, written by Yancey County News editor and co-owner Jonathan D. Austin, “show a small newspaper staff pushing their resources, ingenuity and energy to the limit, day after day,” challenging “officials used to operating with a disregard for public scrutiny and accountability that spans degrees from benign to blatant.”

In winning the Scripps Award, the Yancey County News bested entries by finalists Bloomberg News and Bloomberg’s entry detailed how the Federal Reserve provided $1.2 trillion in bailout loans to Wall Street banks, and OpenSecrets’ entry tracked the role of money in American politics.

The judges for the Ancil Payne Award called the work “classic public interest journalism at great personal and economic risk.” Shortly after it began publication, the paper reported a state investigation into elections fraud involving the sheriff’s department that other local papers had ignored. Also in 2011, the paper reported that the deputy sheriff, who many revered for his tough-on-crime attitude, was pawning county-owned firearms for personal gain.

“To take on the powers that be in a rural community where citizens are afraid to speak out against local law enforcement is very brave,” the judges said. “To stake your livelihood and personal safety on it is above and beyond. This is an extraordinary example of serving the public good.”

Throughout 2011, Austin’s reports exposed how the second-in-command at the sheriff’s department was pawning his issue firearms for personal gain; uncovered efforts by county deputies to get criminals to vote; documented illegal voting by felons who had not regained their rights; and located residents who said a ranking deputy brought them their absentee ballot, witnessed the completed ballot for them and then returned it to the polls, breaking the law more than once in the effort.

Austin also documented cases from the weeks leading up to the election in which individuals were arrested, voted, then saw the charges against them later dismissed or drastically reduced.

“People say we are doing something special here, but we’re only doing what any good journalist learns in Journalism 101 class,” Austin said. “What makes this honor so unique is that we did this work in the newspaper’s very first year, that we did it with no staff, and that other local media had the chance to point out these serious issues as they occurred, but they chose to keep their eyes shut.”

Read the stories on the chief deputy saga

Read the election investigation stories

National coverage of the honors:
Listen to a podcast of the WETS program about the awards here
The Awl website