Tom and Pat Gish have survived floods, death threats, arson and theft. They’ve covered poverty, corruption and mining disasters. And when they weren’t hunched over typewriters and printing presses, they fought for the First Amendment.
It’s hard to believe that the couple purchased their small weekly newspaper in hopes of living at “an easier pace.”
“We didn’t come here to be revolutionaries,” said Tom Gish, publisher of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg.
But a look back over the past 50 years proves that in this Appalachian community, that’s exactly what they were.
“These people have demonstrated more tenacity than almost any crusading rural newspaper in the country,” said Al Cross, a former Courier-Journal reporter who is now director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “Fifty years is a long time to ride a white horse.”
And in typical Gish fashion, they plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of taking over The Mountain Eagle on Jan. 1, and the paper’s centennial 10 weeks later, by focusing on what they always have — publishing news.
When the Gishes purchased the paper from W.P. Nolan and his wife, Martha, for $48,000 in November 1956, The Mountain Eagle was fairly unremarkable. Its front page carried stories about the local Lions Club, bake sales, petty theft and the like.
Its masthead read “A Friendly Non-Partisan Weekly Newspaper Published Every Thursday” — a reasonable depiction of the contents.
“They didn’t cover city government; they didn’t go to any meetings,” Pat Gish said.
To Tom Gish, the newspaper was available in the right place at the right time. After 10 grinding years of covering politics and Frankfort for United Press, he was ready for a change, something with less pressure and closer to his native Letcher County.
Still, they couldn’t shake off their love of hard news.
Pat Gish rose through the ranks at the Lexington Leader (now Lexington Herald-Leader), moving up from a proofreader to the newspaper’s top reporter covering the General Assembly.
When they arrived in Whitesburg, they expected to do what they had always done — deliver the facts — but on a smaller, local scale.
Their first task was an easy, but important one: The “friendly” masthead was scrapped for the bolder “It Screams!”
Within two weeks of taking over publishing the paper, the Gishes were dealt their first blow — a major flood devastating Eastern Kentucky communities, including Whitesburg.
As the new publishers struggled with their own damage, The Mountain Eagle offered coverage comparable to that of major metropolitan papers in the state. And, in what would become a Gish trademark, they continued to write in-depth stories about the painfully slow recovery well after the big-city reporters lost interest.
But it was a simpler act that would earn the couple praise for decades to come. They insisted on covering government meetings.
For the Gishes, covering the fiscal court and the local school board was an obvious duty of a small-town newspaper. They soon found themselves shut out of meetings.
Tom Gish said, “Convincing readers it was important to cover it, that we had a responsibility to cover the news, that was a decade-long battle.”
A battle they’d eventually win, but there would be more.
Scathing editorials on previously untouched issues, ranging from strip mining to police corruption, led to advertising boycotts, threats of violence and losing their first newspaper building to firebombs in 1974.
The community would eventually learn the Gishes weren’t the type of folks to back down.
Their small staff of mostly volunteers filed scores of stories that attracted national attention to Appalachia, serving as an impetus for the War on Poverty and the 1977 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act. They covered the lack of health care in the hills, the dilapidated schools, jobs lost to the mechanization of the coal industry and dangerous mining conditions.
“We got into it pretty deep, and it wasn’t the popular thing to do,” Tom Gish said.
And in an unusual move for most rural weeklies, they followed stories that took them beyond the county line.
Cross cited The Mountain Eagle’s stories that held the Tennessee Valley Authority — established as a federal natural resource agency — responsible for encouraging large-scale strip mining without adequate reclamation.
“To me that’s just the first example of how they connected Appalachia to the rest of the country, the rest of the world,” he said.
Added Mimi Pickering, an Appalachian filmmaker who is working on a documentary about the Gishes and the newspaper, “I think they’ve set the standard for what high-quality journalism should be, whether it’s in a small town or big city.”
The Gishes have earned a slew of regional and national journalism awards.
Yet, despite their nationally recognized coverage and regional impact, the Gishes have chosen to keep the small weekly as just that, resisting notions of going daily or selling out of the family.
“The population of Letcher is less than half what it was when they moved up here,” said Ben Gish, editor of The Mountain Eagle and the couple’s son. “But circulation has more than tripled.”
The paper has managed to stay relevant in a digital world that increasingly relies on minute-by-minute news coverage.
Their secret: “We try to go more in-depth than some folks would,” Ben Gish said. “Everybody knows the daily news. We keep an eye on stuff we can develop.”
The newspaper recently made a brief debut on the Internet as a result of another local incident. The pre-Election Day issue of The Mountain Eagle mysteriously disappeared from newsstands, either bought up or stolen, shortly after distribution.
An investigation by the state is pending.
It was a major setback, since more than half of the newspaper’s 7,000 circulation is through single-copy sales, but the Gishes refused to fold. Instead, they posted the stories on the Internet for their readers.
“That taught us a lesson,” Ben Gish said. “We’re going online.”
Observers say The Mountain Eagle will remain an important part of the community even as the world goes high-tech, especially since a growing number of metropolitan newspapers are cutting back on coverage of rural areas.
“The sad thing about rural journalism is that the market is driving bigger papers out of rural areas and it’s reducing coverage,” said Dee Davis, head of the Center for Rural Strategies. “It’s quite important to have small-town papers that work. The Mountain Eagle considers its responsibility to people seriously.”