NC family with local news legacy wins Tom and Pat Gish Award

News Reporter Publishers Leslie Thompson, Jim High and Les High. Credit: The Rural Blog

Inside the lobby of the UNC School of Journalism and Media, The News Reporter is a fixture, with a featured display celebrating the small newspaper’s work prominent upon entrance. The Whiteville, North Carolina paper, owned by the Thompson-High family, provided insightful and in-depth coverage that fought against the Klu Klux Klan. This work led to a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1953, leading The News Reporter to become one of the first weekly papers to receive the award, along with fellow Columbus County, North Carolina paper The Tabor City Tribune.

The family honors don’t stop there — last week, the Thompson-High family was awarded the 2021 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky.

The award is an honor given to leaders with significant accomplishments in independent news — and was spurred based on former Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media Director Penny Muse Abernathy’s recommendation of The News Reporter.

“The Thompson-High family represents the very best of community journalism. It is a courageous family of journalistic crusaders, entrepreneurs and evangelists,” Abernathy told the Institute, per The Rural Blog, which featured the family last week.

The paper’s current publisher is Les High, the son of Jim High, who succeeded his father-in-law, Leslie Thompson. Following on the path of exposing injustice, the family has taken on corrupt public officials, cops, the criminal justice system and more.

Those risks came with financial and safety repercussions, as the organization has endured lawsuits, reader and advertiser boycotts, personal attacks and threats against family members’ lives. Transformation has become second-nature to the family as they’ve reinvented their revenue strategy multiple times to focus on long-term growth. Their key strategies: Doubling down and investing in high-quality reporters to punch above their weight and investing in building a digital presence.

The News Reporter participated in the first UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Initiative program in 2017-2018, with Les at the helm.

Les not only carries on the legacy of his family by leading the paper, but is expanding news efforts in southeastern North Carolina by creating the nonprofit Border Belt Reporting Center and the online publication Border Belt Independent.

“Collaboration is a key tenet of journalism today. The partnerships we developed through UNC CISLM and the UNC Table Stakes program set the stage for the Border Belt Reporting Center,” Les told CISLM during the Border Belt launch.

This national award has been given to independent news leaders across the country, from Ken Ward Jr. of the Mountain State Spotlight to Samantha Swindler of Portland, Oregon, for her work at the Jacksonville (Texas) Daily Progress and the Times-Tribune of Corbin, Kentucky. The award was named for the couple who published The Mountain Eagle for more than 50 years and repeatedly demonstrated courage, tenacity and integrity through advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks and even the burning of their office by a local policeman who state police believe was paid by coal companies.

Read more about the family and the impressive legacy of The News Reporter in this expansive post on The Rural Blog.