Journalism Alumnus Wins George Mason Award
By FLIP DE LUCA
A 1979 print journalism alumnus has won the prestigious George Mason Award for 2007 from the Society of Professional Journalists.
Lawrence K. “Lou” Emerson received the award June 7 at a banquet in Richmond hosted by the Virginia Pro Chapter of SPJ.
The award, which has been given annually since 1964, goes to people who strongly advocate freedom of the press and who have made significant lasting contributions to journalism in Virginia.
In his senior year at JMU, Emerson was editor in chief of the 1979 Curio magazine and photo editor of The Breeze. In 1989, Emerson and his wife, Ellen, founded The Fauquier Citizen. Fourteen years later, they established The Culpeper Citizen.
Emerson received the award for eventually winning a two-year court case against the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors, which he asserted held an illegal closed meeting to discuss building a new high school. Closing the meeting violated Virginia’s Freedom of Information law, Emerson contended.
After losing in two lower courts, Emerson, with the financial help and support of the Virginia Press Association and many other newspapers across the state, went to the Virginia Supreme Court. In late 2006, the court ruled unanimously in his favor.
The lengthy court battle was expensive, however, costing well over $125,000 to pursue. But in the end, the court ordered the county to pay about three quarters of Emerson’s legal fees.
“The real heroes of this story, as with most successful journalism, are the reporters” who uncovered the illegal meeting, Emerson told the 60 people at the banquet. "Editing a newspaper boils down to this: Hire good reporters and let them do the heavy work.” He said today’s reporters and editors need to display more courage – to go after the difficult stories rather than “the fluff.”
But often efforts to do good reporting are restrained by financial concerns. Reporting staffs are too small and there are too few editors to work closely with writers.
Emerson said he is discouraged by the low starting salaries for reporters, which he pegged at under $30,000 a year. He compared that to the average starting salary for school teachers in Virginia last year, which was $40,000. “As a result, we shortchange the readers,” Emerson said. “Cutting staff and costs weakens the product. Just ask the folks at Ford and GM.”
The Luray native credited one of his former professors, Dr. David Wendelken, Curio founder and adviser, with planting the seed of starting his own publication when he graduated. Curio was just one year old back in 1979. “Working with Curio opened the idea of starting my own magazine,” Emerson said.
He offered this advice specifically for today’s JMU journalism students and recent graduates: start out at a small publication where you get to do lots of different things before choosing to specialize in one thing. “Journalism practiced the right way really is patriotic,” he said. “It’s vital to the nation.”
For Emerson, this is the second major award he has received this year from a press organization. In March, the Virginia Press Association presented him with the VPA First Amendment Award.
Last year, Emerson received the D. Lathan Mims Award, VPA’s highest individual honor for an editor.
In January 2006, the Emersons sold both weeklies to Times Community Newspapers. They now run Emerson2, a newspaper consulting business in Warrenton.