Longtime KPA executive David Thompson wins Al Smith Award for public service

Jun 1, 2019

David Thompson

Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson, the longest-serving executive of any newspaper group in the United States, is the 2019 winner of the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian.

Thompson will receive the award Sept. 26 at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort in Lexington, during the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner held by the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The organizations co-sponsor the award, which is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its advisory board and is chair emeritus.

Thompson has been executive director of KPA since Sept. 26, 1983, so the awards dinner will mark his 36th work anniversary. No other current member of the Newspaper Association Managers Inc., which serves groups in the U.S. and Canada, has served so long as chief executive of an association.

“It’s been a real honor to serve alongside him,” said NAM Clerk Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association and former editor of the Glasgow (Ky.) Daily Times. "David is a dedicated, hard-working advocate for community journalism and freedom of information.”

In the last session of the General Assembly, Thompson led successful efforts to defeat bills that would have substantially weakened the Kentucky Open Records Act. In 1992, he coordinated the last major revision of the act, which was passed in 1976.

"David has been a tireless advocate for good journalism in Kentucky," said Tom Eblen, president of the Bluegrass SPJ Chapter. "He has not just supported Kentucky's newspapers. He has worked hard for their readers to make sure Kentucky's open-records and open-meetings laws are protected and enforced in the public's interest."

That work has sometimes meant legislative battles with groups such as the Kentucky League of Cities, but it was the league that nominated him for the award.

“KPA and KLC have sometimes been on opposite sides of a legislative issue,” KLC Deputy Executive Director J.D. Chaney wrote in his nomination.

“Nonetheless, we have great respect for David’s integrity in all areas of his work. He is a fierce and respected advocate for journalism in Kentucky.” He added, “We can think of no one who has shown more journalistic leadership in serving the communities of Kentucky. ... He has represented Kentucky’s small, local newspapers above all else.”

All but two of Kentucky’s 120 counties, many of them small, have a newspaper. The prevalence of small papers has helped give the KPA the largest board of directors of any U.S. press group. “It can be a challenge to work with such a large board, represent all valid interests and keep your eyes on the prize,” said Institute Director Al Cross, who has served on the board as a journalism-education representative. “David understands the newspapers of Kentucky better than anyone.”

Thompson, who lives in Georgetown with his wife, Teresa, is a journalism graduate of the University of Kentucky and an Army veteran. He was a sportswriter for the Lexington Herald, where his father, Billy, also covered sports, and was publisher and editor of the Georgetown News and Times when he joined KPA. He was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2006.

At KPA, Thompson has overseen many innovations, including an open-government hotline for legal advice, a legal defense fund, an internship program for college students, a statewide open-records audit, a news bureau and story-sharing service, a move to a new headquarters funded by KPA’s business activities, and a website for public notices, better known as “legal ads.” His tenure also allowed him to manage both the 125th and 150th anniversaries of the association.
“David Thompson has invested his life working in, with, and for community newspapers,” KPA President Jay Nolan said. In seconding the nomination, he wrote, “I cannot think of another journalist in the state who has consistently contributed so much to so many for so long.”

Sharon Burton of Columbia, the winner of the 2016 Al Smith Award, wrote in her seconding letter, “David may not have penned a local newspaper article since he accepted the role of KPA executive director in 1983, but he has certainly been a part of every community newspaper across Kentucky for the past 36 years.”
John Nelson, executive editor of Landmark Community Newspapers and the 2013 Smith Award winner, said, "As past KPA presidents, many of us have been given credit for initiatives to hold government accountable, to advance efforts to expand transparency, and to support the First Amendment — all foundations in the practice of community journalism. Behind every one of those efforts for the past 36 years has been David Thompson, without whose imagination, support, encouragement and influence there would have been little success. David’s fingerprints are all over community journalism in Kentucky, his public service hidden between the lines of our newspaper columns."