A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Rural Blog: Ryan and Larry Craig share Al Smith Award for public service through journalism

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Ryan Craig was majoring in history and public relations at Western Kentucky University when his uncle Larry, a rural journalist who was teaching journalism there, told him to try journalism: “You would do a lot more good, and wouldn’t have to worry about having too much money.”

He followed in his uncle’s footsteps, buying a weekly paper and turning it into a respected watchdog. This week the Craigs shared the Al Smith Award for public service through journalism by a Kentuckian, presented by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

The awards will be presented at an Oct. 12 dinner.

Larry Craig, who died in 2011, was a Baptist minister who took up journalism because he loved to write. At the Green River Republican in Morgantown, the night after he was 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. He loved to tweak politicians, and others prone to self-importance, and could be both deft and blunt. After he became a journalism teacher and told WKU’s student newspaper that the Ku Klux Klan was a “putrid cancer on the body of America,” a Klan member and sympathizer burned his church.

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.

David Hawpe, former editor of The Courier-Journal, who succeeded Craig as Kentucky Press Association 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.”

His first editor, Al Smith, for whom the award is named, called him “one of the most unforgettable editors I ever knew.”

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.”

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.

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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