Trapp family wins Gish Award

Sep 29, 2015

A family that has published a crusading weekly newspaper in a small town in northern New Mexico for almost 60 years is the winner of the 2015 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism.

The Trapp family of Española, NM, has published the Rio Grande Sun since 1956. Robert E. and Ruth Trapp died in 2014, just months apart; their son, Bob Trapp, is the publisher. He will accept the award Oct. 29 at the annual awards dinner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in Lexington, KY.

The Tom and Pat Gish Award is named for the couple who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, KY, for more than 50 years and became nationally known for their battles with coal operators and corrupt politicians, and the firebombing of their newspaper office by a Whitesburg police officer. The Eagle, now published by son Ben Gish, and the Rio Grande Sun have exchanged subscriptions for many years, Trapp said.

The Sun is likewise nationally known for fighting “the crooks and the crooked politicians, the declining health and educational systems in one of the poorest counties in the country, and the fight for open records and open meetings in a county where political shenanigans is the rule,” said Ben Daitz, producer of “The Sun Never Sets,” a 2012 documentary about the paper, wrote in a nomination.  Robert E. Trapp “did not care what advertisers thought, and neither does his son, and the paper still sells out every week.”

The Sun claims the largest paid circulation of any New Mexico weekly. “Its success shows that robust community journalism can be good business,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky.

But a good newspaper often makes enemies. “A geologic feast of rocks, all thrown through the Sun’s windows over almost 60 years, is displayed on shelves around the newsroom,” Daitz wrote. “This April, the Sun was firebombed, but luckily, damage was contained and the presses ran.”

Robert Trapp was president of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors and won its Eugene Cervi Award for a career of public service and adherence to the highest standards of journalism. He won many state, national and international awards, but thought his biggest victories were in the courtroom fighting public entities for open records and meetings. The Sun successfully sued or settled every one of the more than 15 open-records or open-meeting lawsuits it filed, according to its website. Trapp was a founding member of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and served as its president.

The Sun has also shone its bright light on the drug abuse that plagues Rio Arriba County. It “prints a one- or two-paragraph vignette about each overdose death—their names, ages, and the medical examiner’s toxicology and autopsy findings,” wrote Daitz, a physician and professor at the University of New Mexico medical school. “It’s a descriptive diorama of a death scene; of how they were found, a needle left stuck in a vein, a bottle of spilled pills by her side. They are obituaries without the family and friends, or instructions about where to send the flowers.”

Daitz added, “Newspapers are not in the public health business, but as a physician, reading the Sun over the years, I realized I was seeing a pattern – the signs and symptoms of an endemic health problem, reported not by the medical community or state government, but by a community newspaper.”

Robert and Ruth Trapp backed out of the newspaper’s daily operations in 2001, but he “kept in touch with the business side,” the Sun’s website states, “and Ruth read copy until the day she died, often offering different headlines and an optimal way to state something.”

Daitz noted that the back of Robert Trapp’s business card is a Benjamin Franklin quote: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” He wrote, “His journalistic ethic is shared and venerated by his son and countless young, and now, old reporters.”