Samantha Swindler is the managing editor of the Times-Tribune of Corbin, Kentucky (circulation 6,000). She says that while many reporters think they need to work at the New York Times to have an impact, investigative reporting in small communities can make a huge difference in people's lives. Swindler recently won the Institute for Rural Journalism’s Gish Award for “courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.” She talks about investigative journalism in her community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the current issue of Nieman Reports, journalist Samantha Swindler writes, quote: “Young reporters tend to think they need a byline from The New York Times to make a difference in the world. If they really want to have an impact, get a job with a community paper and start asking the tough questions that no one has asked before.” As managing editor of The Times-Tribune of Corbin, Kentucky, circulation 6,000, Swindler did just that. She and her staff stood up to local officials and pursued hardhitting investigative journalism that led to the indictment of a powerful county sheriff. Swindler has since been honored with the Institute for Rural Journalism’s Gish Award for, quote, “Courage, Integrity and Tenacity in Rural Journalism.” Samantha, welcome to the show.
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So before we get to your prizewinning reporting, tell us about Corbin, Kentucky. In your Nieman essay you refer to the importance of community papers. What about the community of Corbin?
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: Corbin is a small community in Southeastern Kentucky. It is probably best known as the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. That’s our small claim to fame. It’s a very blue collar community. There’s a little bit of coalmining in that area, not a lot of jobs, really, just a small little Appalachian town.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Your initial suspicion about corruption in Whitley County – that’s Corbin’s county – came from an offhand remark by a colleague right inside your newsroom?
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: That's right. I heard a sportswriter make a joke about being able to buy guns out of the back of the Sheriff’s barbershop.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems like you didn't think much of it at first because you gave the assignment to Marty, the intern.
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: [LAUGHING] Yeah, I did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did he do?
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: Marty, the intern contacted the Sheriff's Department and asked to view their evidence logs, and there was a lot of resistance. I told Marty to file an Open Records Request. And the sheriff said, what are you doing snoopin’ around here and who are you workin’ for? And so Marty, the intern filed an appeal with the Attorney General’s Office. I guess at that point Marty’s internship ended and I [BROOKE LAUGHS] sort of took it over from there.
[LAUGHTER] I realized there was something a lot bigger going on, the way that he reacted like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so give me the blow-by-blow.
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: A lot of it was through Open Records Requests, and we had to fight for every single one of them. I think just about everything that we asked for had to go through the State Attorney General’s Office, and they had to be compelled to give us the information. When we finally got a chance to view the evidence logs, I saw that there were months where there was nothing logged. There was no guns, drugs, money, anything noted as being taken in evidence. And I knew that that couldn't be right because we had arrests happening all the time. There was a meth lab and drug-related [LAUGHS] story in just about every edition of the newspaper. It happened all the time. So I started to question where all this stuff was going. And when I started asking the Sheriff particularly about the drugs, he said, oh, we just flush that.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Well, I guess he didn't think that I'd keep asking that question, but when I went to the State Police they're like, no, you can't just “flush that.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you also filed a records request about the whereabouts of 18 guns. And -
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - a few days after the request, but before you actually received a reply, the Sheriff's Office was reportedly broken into and the sheriff claimed that 78 guns, drug evidence and paperwork were stolen, which seemed very convenient.
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: When that happened I realized we were really onto something. I knew we were onto something before, but then I knew, oh, my gosh, it’s this bad? He staged a break-in of the Sheriff's Office?
[BROOKE LAUGHS] I'm absolutely convinced that that is what has happened. And there was a federal affidavit that was released this week in which the ATF investigator comes to the same conclusion that I have, and talks with several area drug dealers about how they helped Hodge dispose of the guns that went, quote, “missing” from the Sheriff's Office.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, throughout this process, you started feeling a sense of genuine menace. It got so oppressive that both you and the reporter ultimately - bought a gun.
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: Yes. When you have law enforcement officials with other agencies and the Kentucky State Police and the ATF telling you that you really need to be careful, that you really don't need to be going out into the county, that you don't need to be going on scenes where the Sheriff’s deputies are working, you get a little bit, I guess, creeped out. A couple of the people who were eventually both arrested on federal charges of being involved in this big drug ring had approached my reporter at his home in Whitley County. He'd drawn his pistol on them and they did get back into their car and get off of his property, but these were rough people. These were people dealing drugs, dealing guns, who were using the drugs that they were dealing. You didn't know how they were going to react.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The story ends, your story ends with the indictment of this very corrupt Sheriff, Lawrence Hodge. But, Samantha, do you ever wonder was it worth possibly, just possibly, dying for?
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: We always had a joke [LAUGHS] in the newsroom before we'd go off, you know, searching in the courthouse, if I die, I want a full-page front, you know.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] I want at least, you know, 80 font size headline and -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Come on -
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - that’s really big. [LAUGHING]
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: At least! You know, I want of those eternal flames [BROOKE LAUGHS], like JFK had, burning for me in downtown Corbin, you know. That was kind of the joke. It was worth it. I'm happy for the community. I'm happy that they got rid of this person and his group of cronies that are around him that were not doing justice in Whitley County.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The prosecutor in the case said he couldn't have caught the corrupt Sheriff Lawrence Hodge without you.
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: I think he said that our reporting was “very influential.” I interpret that to mean that everybody knew something wasn't right and nobody was gonna bother to do anything about it until we keeping harpin’ on it for months. And that was the impression that I got in the community, and from people in the courthouse. Everybody knew that something wasn't right. Some people had a better idea than others of how bad the corruption was. But nobody was that surprised. I think in that area people sort of expect corruption from local officials, and there’s sort of a defeatist attitude about the whole thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What community are you in now?
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: I'm in Tillamook, Oregon on the Oregon Coast.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it corrupt?
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: [LAUGHS] I've only been here a couple of months so [BROOKE LAUGHS] not that I have been made blatantly aware of.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] But, I mean, I've got a couple of things in the hopper, you know. We're lookin’ into some stuff. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Samantha, thank you very much.
SAMANTHA SWINDLER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Samantha Swindler is winner of the 2010 Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky.