Gish Award nominations due April 15; The Canadian Record provides a great example

Al Cross

Apr 1, 2023

Reporter Cathy Ricketts, editor Laurie Ezzell Brown and office manager Mary Smithee (Photo by Mark Rogers, Texas Tribune)

April 15 is the deadline for nominations for the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, named for the couple who exemplified those qualities as publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, for 52 years.

Nominations should be sent to and explain how the nominee(s) showed the kind of courage, tenacity and integrity that Tom and Pat Gish demonstrated, withstanding advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks and the burning of their office.

The Gishes, now deceased, were the first winners of the award named for them. The second winners were the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle, a storied rural weekly that suspended publication in March after a planned sale fell through.

The story of the Record is clearly one of courage, integrity and tenacity — and of the kindness shown by Ben and Nancy Ezzell and their daughter, Laurie Ezzell Brown, now retired at 70. That kindness and community spirit helped these liberal Democrats maintain their newspaper in conservative Canadian and Hemphill County.

It wasn’t easy. Ben Ezzell, who had voted for Richard Nixon in 1960, attended a John Birch Society meeting in Amarillo in 1961 and was so alarmed that he wrote a story that night with a headline saying the right-wing group was “a threat to America.” The story was widely reprinted, “and the Record was showered by praise and by hate,” Bill Bishop wrote in his nomination of the Ezzells.

The reaction was more negative when Ben criticized the Vietnam War. An explosive device went off outside Laurie’s bedroom, and after one editorial, someone fired 19 shots from a pellet gun through the newspaper’s door and front window. “Someone was expressing an editorial opinion,” Ben said. “It is a great American privilege.”

Ben died of a heart attack suffered while covering a high-school football game in 1993. Laurie and her mother took over the paper, and a few years later, she followed in his editorial footsteps. When large hog farms targeted an adjoining county, she wrote a series of stories about the industry. The county commissioners passed a resolution declining to provide incentives for such farms, and they went elsewhere.

Later, she got the man who wanted to be five counties’ district attorney to admit that he was being medicated for clinical depression and was taking medication, had been treated for alcoholism, and had taken amphetamines and used marijuana. He lost the election and sued the paper for libel, costing it attorney fees it could ill afford.

When the family won the Gish Award in 2007, one of Laurie’s brothers was the local hospital administrator. They “had bitter public fights over the interpretation of the state open meetings law,” Bishop wrote. When Nan Ezzell died in 2013, Laurie said, “She believed a newspaper was vital to a community. She never wavered in that. ... But my mom was a very gentle, dignified person and peacemaker.”

Laurie’s journalism is modeled after her father’s, but her personal approach is that of her mother, and that served her and the paper well, even after Donald Trump and social media nationalized and polarized civic discourse, even at the local level. Laurie took the occasional swipe at Trump but maintained her local focus, and many Canadians appreciated it.

“National news, you don’t know who to trust,” one woman says in “For The Record,” a new documentary about the paper. “We know her; we can trust that she’s gonna report the news to us.” Another woman said approvingly that the paper informs them about issues and “varying opinions.”

But no more.

In the Feb. 23 Record, Laurie reported in her Field Notes column that she had “walked away” from a sale of the paper after “a series of delayed contract signings and requests by the buyer for key changes to the contract, which we ultimately rejected. The outcome was both unexpected and quite frankly, a relief.

The sale was not meant to be.”

This wasn’t the first go-around. A previous deal had fallen through because the buyer couldn’t find anyone to move to Canadian, a town of 2,300 in a county of 3,700 on the Oklahoma border.

The same edition of the Record also reported something new that created a big obstacle to any other buyer: A long-touted lawsuit against the paper and other Panhandle news media by the family of a high-school student who disappeared in 2016 and whose body was found just over two years later. The suit appears baseless but must be defended, and Laurie is raising money for attorney fees.

“After three decades and counting under our ownership, we are 30 years older, 30 years wiser and 30 years more tired,” Laurie wrote in her Feb. 23 edition. “We cannot continue to work at the pace we have, or to shelve our personal lives to meet the demands of this community newspaper that we love.”

The next Record was the last. Laurie wrote:

“We have decided to suspend publication with this issue, a week earlier than we had announced, having felt we have done what could be done, and that there seems little more to say. As we promised, we will continue to search for someone worthy of carrying on this 75-year Ezzell family legacy and hope you will help us.

“Tonight, I will wonder what my parents would think of the job we’ve done, the changes we’ve made, and this final, difficult decision that really made itself. Deep in my heart, though, I believe we have done the job given us to do and have honored them in word and deed.

“We leave with these words, written by Annie Proulx in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Shipping News: ‘A paper has a life of its own, an existence beyond earthly owners.’ May it be so. And for my newspaper friends ...



  • Jim Prince and Stanley Dearman, current and late publishers of The Neshoba Democrat, in Philadelphia, Mississippi
  • Samantha Swindler of The Oregonian for her work at The Times-Tribune in Corbin, Kentucky, and Jacksonville (Texas) Daily Progress
  • Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, Louisiana
  • Jonathan and Susan Austin of the now-defunct Yancey County News in North Carolina
  • Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Kentucky (posthumous award)
  • The Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in northern New Mexico
  • Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in northwestern Missouri
  • The Cullen family of the Storm Lake Times-Pilot in northwest Iowa
  • Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon
  • Howard Berkes, retired from NPR; Ken Ward Jr., then with the Charleston Gazette-Mail; and his mentor at the Gazette, the late Paul Nyden (joint award)
  • Tim Crews of the Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows, California (posthumous)
  • The Thompson-High Family of The News Reporter and the Border Belt Independent in Whiteville, North Carolina
  • Ellen Kreth and the Madison County Record of Huntsville, Arkansas

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He directs the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism. It publishes The Rural Blog, from which this was adapted. For more information, write