Perhaps I'm grasping at a silver lining over the recent Gruner Awards to distract myself from the fact that I'm a BIG FAT LOSER this year.

Or, maybe there's truly something larger than an award with my name on it to celebrate. (Hmph!)

For those of you who missed it, the Gruner Awards, which recognize outstanding journalism in the Central Valley, were handed out last week.

The Bakersfield Californian's Kelly Ardis won a first place for her excellent feature story on the McFarland track team/Disney movie. And John Cox won an honorable mention for his thorough and always fact-based coverage of the oil industry.

I won nothing. Not even an honorable mention. Nothing.

Not that I'm bitter.

My personal pity fest aside, the biggest winner, I think, is the citizenry of this valley.

The amount of excellent journalism being committed in this valley was astounding.

And incredibly encouraging.

Little papers all over are working their guts out to cover the day-to-day happenings in their towns, the school sports, the events, the civic organizations.

And the grittier work of journalism — holding government accountable.

That’s never easy stuff and in a small town it can get downright squirmy. Especially if, say, the mayor owns a coffee shop that runs ads in your paper.

Some of these papers I’m sure you know: the Visalia Times-Delta, Merced Sun-Star, Hanford Sentinel and Porterville Recorder.

But raise your hand if you’ve heard of these: the Parlier Post, Los Banos Enterprise, Kaweah Commonwealth, Madera Tribune, Reedley Exponent, Sanger Herald, Dinuba Sentinel, Sierra Star, Clovis Roundup.

Anyone?

I’m proud to say they are out there, every day, or week, making sure the public gets a front row seat to its own government.

With all the bad news in my industry, it was extremely uplifting to see these papers not only surviving but thriving.

That’s not to say they’re rolling in dough. Most of these newsrooms operate with just a few staffers.

But they are clearly alive and kickin' some serious tail.

The Gruner Awards, named for retired Fresno Bee Executive Editor George Gruner, used to focus solely on public service journalism.

That’s considered reporting that gives the public greater insight into its community or public agencies. It can be hard-hitting investigative stuff, or it can be more explanatory.

Either way, it was a fairly narrow focus.

Because of that, Gruner entries fell way off. There were only six last year, according to Fresno State Journalism Professor Gary Rice, who coordinates the awards.

He beefed things up this year by including several new categories: news story, column/editorial, photo, sports and feature stories.

Then he sent letters to all the newspapers he could find (with help from the California Newspaper Publishers Association) from Mariposa to Bakersfield and followed up with phone calls encouraging them to enter.

“My contention was a lot of good journalism was being done out there that just hadn’t been honored,” he said.

It worked.

The Gruners got 79 entries this year. Better yet, a lot of those folks came to the awards ceremony last week to meet, mingle and collect their prizes. (I collected nothing. The stuffed mushrooms were good.)

“I was kind of laughing,” said Sarah Elliott, who with her husband, John, owns and operates the Kaweah Commonwealth. “Other people got up and talked about the support from their editors and publishers. I’m my own editor. Today I’m doing the billing!”

Elliott won two honorable mentions, one for a news story on a huge tree die off in nearby national parks and one for a column on the right and wrong ways to handle a massive influx of bears in Three Rivers last fall.

She got some heat on the bear column, which took people to task for illegally shooting some bears.

“It can be hard because we have to answer for everything we do,” she said. “But we always ask ourselves during a really hard story where you have to put someone’s name out there, ‘What are the reasons were doing this?’ And, ‘If this was one of our kids, would we name them?’

“We’ve been doing this 20 years and sometimes it’s not comfortable. But we hold our heads up because we have good explanations and reasons for why we had to write things they way we did.”

“You definitely have to walk a fine line,” agreed Dinuba Sentinel Editor Linda Renn.

When she took the job several years ago, the city manager wanted to meet for breakfast or lunch on a weekly basis. She had to decline, gracefully.

“My job is to make sure government is transparent,” she said. “My allegiance is to the community, not the city.”

Renn won a first place award for her editorial questioning why the City Council would spend extra money to hire an interim city manager that city staff didn’t need instead of just pushing forward with the permanent hire. (Funny aside: The council tried to hire Larry Pennell, a perennial interim city manager in several Kern cities. He turned it down because it wouldn’t pay mileage.)

There were three first place public service awards and all were great.

But I was most impressed with the little Sanger Herald, which won for its unblinking coverage of a 2012 police shooting of an unarmed man.

Questioning cops is sensitive territory and invariably draws a firestorm of reaction.

Yet, the Herald dug deep into the shooting and laid it all out for readers.

“Yeah, we got a lot of flack,” said editor Dick Sheppard. “The attitude was ‘How dare you question our officers?!’

“But we had to, and will continue to, ask the questions.”

Exactly.

My heartfelt congratulations to all the winners.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry. Her column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email lhenry@bakersfield.com.

LOIS HENRY ONLINE

Read archived columns by Lois Henry at Bakersfield.com/henry.

Lois Henry appears on “First Look with Scott Cox” every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM and 96.1 FM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your 2 cents in by calling 842-KERN.

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