The Thompson-High family, owners of The News Reporter since 1938, are the winners of the 2021 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism. The award is presented by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
A news release from the University of Kentucky announcing the award notes that The News Reporter and The Tabor City Tribune were the first community newspapers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their successful fight against the Ku Klux Klan.
Since then, The News Reporter has continued to hold local public officials accountable “despite significant financial adversity, reader and advertiser boycotts, personal attacks and threats against family members’ lives; and taking smaller profits in order to better serve its readers,” the news release stated.
“The News Reporter also provides an example of how a community newspaper can adapt to the digital age, still perform first-class public service and even extend its reach beyond its home county,” said Al Cross, director of the rural-journalism institute and extension professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky.
“The Thompson-High family represents the very best of community journalism. It is a courageous family of journalistic crusaders, entrepreneurs and evangelists,” wrote nominator Penny Muse Abernathy of Northwestern University. She has used The News Reporter as an object example in her groundbreaking research on community newspapers.
“In an era when the owners of many community newspapers have sold out to big chains or closed their doors when faced with adversity, members of each generation pursued strong public service journalism, even as they adjusted business strategy and mission to provide residents in their region with the critical local news that feeds our democracy at the grassroots level,” Abernathy wrote. “The longstanding advocacy of the Thompson-High family is a testimonial to the difference a small, courageous independent newspaper (with a current circulation of 6,000) can make in the history and fortunes of the community and the region where it is located.”
The News Reporter’s publisher is Les High, who succeeded his father, Jim High, who succeeded his father-in-law, Leslie Thompson. “In the early 1950s, before the civil-rights movement gained much traction, Thompson defied advertiser and reader boycotts — as well as personal attacks and threats on his life — to wage a two-year struggle against the Klan, which had infiltrated local police and fire departments,” the University of Kentucky news release states. News stories and front-page editorials documented and exposed Klan beatings, floggings and drive-by shootings, ultimately leading to the arrest of more than 300 reputed Klansmen and the conviction of 62, including the Fair Bluff police chief. The News Reporter and The Tabor City Tribune, also in Columbus County, together received the Pulitzer for Public Service in 1953.
Jim High wanted to be a veterinarian, but became publisher when his father-in-law died suddenly in the late 1950s. He aggressively covered the criminal justice system, and received national notice for filing suit to overturn a gag order, a device that courts around the country were using to close sensitive trials to the public. The News Reporter won the case, and almost all the others it has pursued.
The news release explains that Les High has continued his father’s approach, taking on public officials when necessary. In 2020, he put together a coalition, including WECT, WWAY and Tabor-Loris Tribune, that won a public records lawsuit against the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office over withheld incident reports.
Courageous action despite financial pressures is nothing at The News Reporter, the news release explains. In the late 1950s, Jim High “discovered the paper was on the financial brink” and took a gamble, Abernathy wrote. “He built a new plant and purchased one of the first offset presses in the state. To reverse the slide in circulation and advertising, he committed to ‘providing better coverage than a community of this size might expect’ by adding reporting staff.”
Les High faced a similar challenge in the Great Recession. “Instead of hunkering down and laying off staff — or selling out to a large chain — Les chose to invest in digital transformation,” Abernathy wrote.
He persuaded his sister, Stuart Rogers, to return to Whiteville, and she not only improved the paper’s digital presence, but started holding community events. In recent years, Les’s wife Becky and daughter Margaret have joined the effort.
Abernathy noted that in 2018, “the family nevertheless doubled down on its digital investments — creating a metered paywall, redesigning the website, introducing a mobile app, and initiating a 24/7 news cycle to post stories and videos on the newspaper’s website as soon as possible after an event occurred.”
Despite financial pressures brought about by the pandemic, Les High pulled no punches in his editorials, and he added a full-time reporter in 2020.
High is “an example for other publishers who may lack the courage and conviction to invest for the long term,” Edward Van Horn, retired executive director of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, told Abernathy.
The news release explains that High recently secured philanthropic funding to launch the nonprofit Border Belt Reporting Center, which provides analytical and investigative reporting to residents in Columbus, Bladen, Robeson and Scotland counties.
“All three adjacent counties are currently being served by under-staffed local newspapers. Collaborating with reporters at these newspapers, the center will cover topics — such as the environment, health, education, public safety, economic development and local governance — that will affect the quality of life of current and future generations of residents,” Abernathy said.
The center’s online publication, Border Belt Independent (borderbelt.org) will provide its reporting at no charge to the other papers. “We’re not competitors,” High says. “We’re partners.”
“I can’t think of a better model for an independent, family newspaper,” said Jennifer P. Brown, who is co-chair of the rural-journalism institute’s advisory board. “The Thompson-High family’s commitment to serving the community is so hopeful, and shows what is possible.”
The Tom and Pat Gish Award is named for the couple who published The Mountain Eagle for more than 50 years and “repeatedly demonstrated courage, tenacity and integrity through advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office by a local policeman who state police believe was paid by coal companies,” according to the news release.
The Gishes, who died in 2008 and 2014, respectively, were the first winners of the award, in 2005.
The Gish Award will be presented Oct. 28 at the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in Lexington, Kentucky.