Oickle, who worked at The Advance from 1980 to 1994 and who is now the editor of The Lunenburg County Progress Bulletin Bridgewater, received the Golden Quill Award June 30, the top accolade presented annually by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE).
He and his wife, Nancy, travelled to ISWNE’s annual convention in Bellingham, Washington, for the presentation.
“This is a big deal in our circles,” Oickle says. “I’ve won awards in the past and awards are gratifying. … But when I got notification that I had won this, it was like ‘wow.’”
The winning editorial, headlined “School board has lost credibility,” ran on July 12 of last year. It dealt with the now-defunct South Shore Regional School Board’s mishandling of the school review process and its failure to properly represent the students of Lunenburg and Queens counties.
The editorial and several others, along with a series of stories by the paper’s education reporter, eventually led the education minister to fire the board and create tougher legislation to review and remove school boards in the future. It was selected from 68 submissions, first by a panel of five judges who narrowed the entries to 19, and then by a journalism professor emeritus from Western Washington University.
“This story shows the passion and determination of a weekly newspaper editor to take on a major public issue in a small community and carry it to victory over a recalcitrant school board and serve the public’s right to know. This is journalism at its finest!” Lyle E. Harris Sr. wrote in his judging comments.
Oickle says the judges recognized what some local critics missed, that the editorial and the paper’s position on the issue were not about school closures. It was about holding an elected body accountable to the public when procedure was not followed.
“It was about the process. That’s where we were coming from on this issue from day one — holding the school board accountable for their inaction and their oversight in not taking the proper routes and following the proper procedure,” he says. “We didn’t back down from that despite the fact that there was lots of push the other way. I think the judges recognized that it took a lot of courage in a small community to do that.”
Being a weekly newspaper editor and putting his opinions out there each week is often a difficult task. Oickle says he routinely receives both negative and positive feedback, but writing about local officials is never easy.
“You’re writing about people you know and people you may have known for a long time and, in a lot of cases, people you respect. The other side of that is people you expect better of,” he says. “In this case, there were a lot of people on that school board that I had great respect for and I still do. I just don’t think they fully understood.”
In addition to presenting the Golden Quill Award, ISWNE shortlists a Golden Dozen editorial writers each year. Oickle made that cut in 2009.
Interestingly enough, he says five of the 12 selections this year focused on education issues. There are problems across Canada and the United States, not just on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. While at the conference, Oickle spoke with an editor from a small town in California where a similar school review process with possible closures is under way.
“We didn’t create this issue,” he says. “Education in North America is in serious trouble.”
During his 30-plus year career in weekly newspapers, Oickle has written hundreds of editorials. He says receiving this prestigious international honour is very gratifying. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was proud about it. It’s nice.”
To read the award-winning editorial go to http://www.southshorenow.ca/archives/2011/071211/comment/index001.php.