Courage and Tenacity
How a community newspaper editor shepherded a powerful investigation of a corrupt Kentucky sheriff in the face of a series of threats. Posted: Mon, April 4, 2011
By Greg Masters
Samantha Swindler, then the managing editor of the daily Times-Tribune in Corbin, Kentucky, had been spearheading an investigation of the local sheriff when a Kentucky state trooper came to her office and told her, "You really need to be careful."
Greg Masters (email@example.com) is an AJR editorial assistant.
Another day, her reporter on the story, Adam Sulfridge, received phone calls from three different law enforcement officers telling him to leave his house because of a credible death threat.
Both Swindler and Sulfridge bought pistols "because, quite frankly, I thought my reporting might get me killed," Swindler wrote in an article for Nieman Reports. She never had to use hers, but Sulfridge -- who lived and reported in the county seat, Williamsburg, in closer proximity to the sheriff -- had his pistol close at hand when two men drove to his house on a dead-end street. In her article, Swindler describes the driver as a "man we suspected as part of a group of drug dealers associated with the sheriff."
"That was the only time I actually had to pull my gun," Sulfridge recalls. The men drove away, and a week later the driver was arrested on federal drug charges.
But Swindler and Sulfridge didn't back down. They kept asking tough questions, the paper kept running stories, and in November the Whitley County sheriff, Lawrence Hodge, was indicted and arrested on 21 counts of evidence tampering and abuse of public trust.
It is that kind of work that earned Swindler the 2010 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism. The award is given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the University of Kentucky's School of Journalism and Telecommunications. Al Cross, the institute's director, presented Swindler with the award last Friday at a newspaper publishers' meeting in Oregon, where Swindler moved last summer to become publisher and editor of the weekly Headlight Herald in Tillamook.
"You hardly ever see a local newspaper go after guys like this in small, rural areas because the newspapers lack the resources and the financial strength to withstand retribution," Cross says. "It's just not a comfortable place for most rural newspaper editors to go. But they do need to go there sometimes, and she went."
Swindler agrees that such investigations are rare. "There are not a lot of people asking these difficult questions in rural and small communities," she says. "There really is no genre of rural investigative journalism, and as these larger papers cut back on their newsroom staffs, they are even less likely to go out to these small communities and really dig into how local government works."
Swindler, 29, grew up in New Orleans and Houston and in 2002 graduated from Boston University, where she studied communications. She says she originally wanted to be a scientist like her father, who is a chemist. That plan changed during a school trip to a Houston cancer center, where Swindler says she "saw those rats with tumors and decided it wasn't for me."
Though she was the yearbook co-editor in high school, she never really wanted to be a journalist. She says she "fell into" a newspaper career in 2004 when she became a news writer at the Daily Progress in Jacksonville, Texas. "I was working in a Harley shop, and a reporter position opened up that was closer to my house and less of a commute, and I thought that I could probably do that." A self-described "nosy, curious person," she took to her new job with enthusiasm.
In her two years at the Daily Progress, she was promoted from reporter to city editor to managing editor. When she was managing editor, the paper received a Freedom of Information Award from the Associated Press Managing Editors Association of Texas for its coverage of corruption at the Jacksonville Police Department.
In 2006, she moved to Kentucky to become managing editor of the 6,000-circulation Times-Tribune, where Cross says she soon started "making waves."
"The first story I noticed was she found that the local governments were using a tourism tax for improper purposes," Cross says. "That is the kind of thing that, frankly, most local newspapers would not even pay attention to, but it was a substantial amount of tax money."
"Sam is a rare breed," says Bill Hanson, a former Times-Tribune publisher who worked with Swindler for three years in Kentucky; he is now publisher of the Jeffersonville, Indiana-based News and Tribune. "She's a throwback to the hardcore journalist that there aren't enough of anymore.... She would never be the most polite person in the room. She's very direct, and you knew where you stood with her when she was talking to you."
"Everything she does, she does with passion -- whether it's belonging to the book club or chasing after a crooked sheriff," Hanson adds.
Hanson says Swindler is "not afraid to ask the tough questions and not afraid to call people on the carpet." He also says she is "like a sponge -- very, very interested in learning more about the area she lived in."
That sponge-like quality is what led Swindler, in the fall of 2009, to launch the investigation that would eventually bring down the Whitley County sheriff. Overhearing her sportswriter make a joke about being able to buy guns in the back of the barbershop where the sheriff worked, Swindler did a double-take.
"That just sounded so odd," she remembers thinking. She decided to request the sheriff's evidence logs to find out whether logged items -- such as guns -- matched up with arrest reports. The sheriff, whom Swindler described as "defensive" and "trying to be intimidating," initially denied the request, but Swindler persisted and got hold of the logs. Finding inconsistencies, she sent an open records request for documents related to 18 specific weapons.
Six days later, on December 21, 2009, the sheriff reported a break-in at his courthouse office and said guns had been stolen from his evidence locker -- including those the Times-Tribune was asking about. That day, ATF agents asked the Times-Tribune for information it had collected in its investigation of the sheriff, and the paper cooperated. The information included an interview the sheriff had agreed to the previous month.
Swindler says her favorite part of that interview was when she "asked him why he was having the property tax records changed to give himself discounts on his personal property taxes. His quote was, 'That was my bad, I guess. I shouldn't have done that.'"
"I didn't even have a follow-up question to that," Swindler recalls. "I think my jaw dropped."
Cross says he was most impressed by Swindler's tenacity. "It's easy to get discouraged in doing these stories, but it seems like at every turn [Swindler and Sulfridge] were willing to keep on going and explore new avenues and keep on the story."
When he created the Gish Award six years ago, Cross says he understood tenacity in the sense of "longevity" and never expected to give the prize to someone under the age of 30. "This is a more compressed and intense kind of tenacity," he says.
Sulfridge says Swindler is "very truth-oriented. She cares about people. In the same way that she wouldn't let anyone lie to her, she will not permit anybody to lie to the public."
Sulfridge, 22, worked as a reporter for a little over a year. "I had to leave it," he says. "I couldn't report here anymore. I couldn't go out in the county. I couldn't go to the courthouse." He still lives in Williamsburg and occasionally contributes background information on the sheriff investigation to the Times-Tribune. He is now the Whitley County tourism director.
Swindler plans to keep doing what she has been doing at her new job with the Headlight Herald, which she says is a "bump up" because she now oversees editorial content for six different papers. "I'm not passionate about community journalism because I like covering bake sales and car accidents," she says. "I think you can make a difference -- that's what attracts me to it."
But investigative reporting in rural areas poses special challenges. Cross says most community newspapers have limited resources to devote to it, and reporters may lack the required skills, knowledge, time and "gumption."
"In community journalism and rural journalism, the personal always conflicts with the professional," he says. "We've done surveys that show that editorial timidity tends to decrease as circulation increases...The smaller the market, the more your role as a citizen and neighbor comes into conflict with your professional role as editor or publisher."
Ben Gish, editor of the highly regarded Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and the son of the couple after whom the Gish award is named, says rural investigative reporting takes a special skill. "You can't go do investigative journalism in a rural area like a bull in a china shop. You have to finesse it, and you first, I think, would have to gain the trust of your readers before you can even attempt it."
Swindler knows how to gain that trust. Hanson says she "got very involved in the community, unlike a lot of editors that I have worked with in my career."
"You start becoming a part of the community when you work at a small newspaper," Swindler says. "I cared about the community, and I wanted to see it grow and flourish. And there were people in positions of power that were not allowing that to happen."
She acknowledges that it can be grueling work. "It's a hard job. It's a lot of hours, it's very often thankless, but I do it because I just think it's important to do."
She adds, "If I stop caring, then I'm not going to do this job."