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Huntsville Paper Takes Award, Fair and Square

4 min read

Ellen Kreth is a north Arkansas newspaper publisher and owner. Shannon Hahn works for her as business manager of the Madison County Record in Huntsville, population nearly 3,000.

But both are also reporters, storytellers and, foremost, community members, duty-bound to tell their neighbors even the hardest news. “There’s no greater obligation as a community newspaper than to tell people factually what is going on,” Kreth told Arkansas Business last week.

And the Record did just that last year, when Kreth and Hahn reported deeply and sensitively on something their neighbors didn’t necessarily want to read about: Huntsville school officials were minimizing sex abuse allegations by junior high basketball players who were bullied, held down and subjected to unwanted locker-room contact in “baptism” rituals we won’t detail here.

The Record’s series on the cover-up won the 2021 Taylor Family Award for Fairness from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, known for its generous yearly fellowships for newspeople.

The Huntsville paper, which has a press run of 3,800 a week and about 200 digital subscribers, got wind of the award last month. Hahn was so shocked and thrilled she cried. “To be honored for something so basic as fairness was overwhelming,” she said before adding Kreth to a serendipitous conference call. “What is more important in journalism than telling an important story fairly, especially one so sensitive?”

The Record’s runners-up were The Washington Post and a Miami Herald-Propublica collaboration. “The community weekly with a circulation of just 4,000 and only five staff members found that the local school board members sought to conceal not only the assault allegations but also their decision to reduce the recommended punishment for some students and to throw out punishment for others,” the foundation said in announcing the award.

Ellen Kreth’s grandfather was Orval E. Faubus, the state’s longest-serving governor and not exactly the best-loved figure in Arkansas news history, though he owned and published the Record for years.

Before following his footsteps as publisher, Kreth chose her own path, earning a journalism degree from the University of Alabama and reporting for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in the 1990s. (Disclosure: She and I were colleagues there.)

“There are two sides to every story, and a lot of people in the community were not happy that we were reporting on this,” Kreth said. “But none of the complaints were about accuracy. We took great care collecting the facts, confirming a timeline, sending so many [Freedom of Information Act] requests. It had to be right, because one of the roles of a newspaper is to hold people in power accountable. But we didn’t seek out this story. It came to us.”

After parents shared documents with Hahn, fearing officials would soft-pedal the abuse reports, she and Kreth toiled over what they called the hardest story of their careers. They filed rapid-fire public information requests, verified a thousand documents and worked “weekend after weekend.” Kreth’s daughter, Celia Kreth, a student journalist at the University of Pennsylvania, offered help.

Hahn said FOIA, pronounced FOY-uh, “became the second-most-used word around here,” and the paper persisted against a backlash and social-media name-calling. School officials eventually conceded violating openness laws, board members were ordered to undergo FOIA training, and two lawsuits over the episode remain active. After the series, 19 candidates filed to run for seven school board seats in February; two years earlier there had been no challengers.

One key to being fair was keeping the spotlight off the boys, Hahn said; they were never publicly identified. “We focused on the failures of the adults.”

One judge in the awards, Pat Beall, a Gannett investigative reporter and former editor of the Orlando Business Journal, described the Record as a “small paper punching far, far above its weight class.” She judged the series in a “context of how the fairness and accuracy of these stories, published by a third-generation newspaper in a small community where school basketball is king, would have been challenged in ways no national or major regional news organization would have experienced.”

Hahn said a newspaper must confront community issues going unaddressed, even if it means temporarily hurting sales or advertising. The paper felt an ethical obligation to give voice to unheard players and parents, she and Kreth said. “We carried this investigation close to our hearts, Ellen and I, but it was a burden. It’s amazing, amazing, that we got this recognition for being fair.”

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