Toast of the journalism trade

Celebrating Pulitzer PrizeIn an industry hard hit by declining fortunes, layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts and dizzying org-chart  reorganizations, there’s been something that has brought smiles and way-to-go comments from many a journalist.

It’s the story, as Bristol Herald Courier Editor J. Todd Foster has put it, of the “little engine that could.”

It’s the story of how a reporter, just one of seven in its newsroom at the Bristol Herald Courier, won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Public Service as well as awards from the Scripps Howard Foundation and other journalism contests.

It’s a story of how a newspaper took seriously its watchdog role and tackled a tough, complex story requiring hours of research, hundreds of interviews, several Freedom of Information Act requests and the analysis of thousands of financial payments.

The effort involved investigative reporting, the kind of reporting it’s exceedingly hard to do in addition to the daily routine.

And, it wasn’t even in the area where the newspaper now circulates. It is a story that others had failed to do and that even it had taken pass on at least twice.

“It’s why newspapers will continue to survive in some form,” Foster
told an Associated Press reporter of Gilbert’s work. “Nobody else is going to do this sort of

I’ve been two journalism award dinners in Tennessee in the last couple of weeks and have seen the same reaction at both.

At the Tennessee Associated Press newspaper and broadcast awards banquet  on May 8 in Nashville, the reporter who won the Pulitzer, Daniel Gilbert, was the speaker and took home an armload of awards.

Last weekend in Knoxville, his editor, Foster, walked out of the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists awards banquet into a rainy evening with a box of 20 awards, several of which were for Gilbert’s work in exposing problems with gas royalty payments to landowners in the dirt-poor mountainous counties of Southwest Virginia.

In both cases, the Pulitzer win was recognized with hearty applause and congratulations.

Any reporter who has been at a small paper (and I have) or a mid-size paper can appreciate the gravity of the Bristol newspaper’s accomplishments.

There’s no huge staff nor army of assistants. “Daniel Gilbert is still a reporter here. I’m still the editor. And like we did eight days before the Pulitzer announcement, we will send Daniel to cover an Easter egg hunt if it’s his turn in the weekend rotation,” Foster wrote in a recent column.

When the announcement came, they toasted with $4.99 bottles of champagne that Foster bought and threw in his trunk just in case.

For journalists outside of the big metro newspapers, $4.99 champagne never tasted so good.

In the photo above, Bristol Herald Courier Publisher Carl Esposito (center) and Managing Editor J. Todd Foster (right) yesterday toasted the Pulitzer Prize for public service won by the newspaper. The eight-day series was written by Daniel Gilbert (left). David Crigger / Media General News Service

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