Enterprise wins 14 awards, second best in state

The Altamont Enterprise placed second in the state among single-flag newspapers based on awards given at this past weekend’s New York Press Association; we were fourth among all newspapers — including the chain newspapers — for editorial content.

Seven-hundred–and-sixty-one papers are members of the association, both weeklies and dailies, with a combined circulation of 16.6 million. Judges — our peers in the state of Washington — read 2,836 entries this year to come up with the winners.

Continuing a longstanding tradition, The Enterprise placed first, and second, for Community Leadership. We also won for News Story, Picture Story, Editorials, In-Depth Reporting, Obituaries, and Best Editorial Pages.

And we were recognized, too, for our coverage of local government, of education, and for editorial cartoons, graphic illustration, feature photos, and for providing the best overall digital experience.

Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, known most recently for his successful prosecution of corrupt politicians, was the keynote speaker for the conference. He received a standing ovation Friday from the crowd at the Gideon Putnam in Saratoga Springs.

Bharara, who was a journalist in high school and at Harvard, drew a parallel between the work of lawyers and the work of journalists — both often reviled.

Some of the cases that mean the most to him, he said, are those that affect ordinary citizens, that “make the lives of average people every day better.” These include cases that reduce gang violence or opioid abuse — “I hope you continue to write about this. Prosecutors alone can’t solve…important public safety problems,” he said. “We need public awareness.”

Bharara went on to list cases against fraud, and against corruption. “Ordinary people need to have confidence in how their government works,” he said.

“We don’t know where all the bad guys are,” he said to the journalists. “Often you folks are much better at getting people to talk to you than the feds are…You can ferret out and expose things.”

Bharara exhorted the journalists to “keep the faith,” quoting Edward R. Murrow: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”

He noted the charge wasn’t easy as nationwide newspapers had cut 30 percent of newsroom positions, 14,000 jobs, in recent years.

“It is this press that knows what’s going on…It is this press that knows what problems we need to fix…It is this press that knows what is being swept under the rug.,” he told the association members.

Although journalists, like lawyers, “have become much maligned,” said Bharara, “There is tremendous nobility for the practitioner that remains true to ideals.” Both professions “abhor hypocrisy and corruption…both know to temper toughness with fairness” and that “the ultimate responsibility is to the public.”

Although both have the power to right wrongs, champion underdogs, and destroy myths, both can also end careers, ruin reputations, sow confusion, and distort reality, he said.

“We will be judged by how well we have wielded our power,” said Bharara.





Community Leadership

Bharara’s words echoed in our head the next night at the awards dinner.

Like most newspapers, The Enterprise, too, has had to cut back on staff but we continue to do the sort of investigative reporting that makes a difference.

Our staff is small — just three full-time employees, two owners who work full-time, and five part-time workers. Each one is essential and each is dedicated to making our paper the best it can be.

Myself, the longtime Enterprise editor; my husband; and Marcello Iaia— all award winning journalists — bought the paper from Jim and Wanda Gardner in July. I continue with my editing and reporting duties as Iaia, the former Hilltown reporter, now manages the business as well as our online presence as he seeks ways to make journalism sustainable.

These are our full-time staffers:

—Christine Ekstrom, our graphic designer, with a degree from the State University of New York Collge at Oswego, who creates all of our original ads and composes every page of our paper electronically each week, never losing her cool aplomb;

— Jo E. Prout, our 20-year reporter, currently covering New Scotland with grace and precision. A Notre Dame anthropology major, in the midst of earning a master’s degree in ministry, she delights us with columns about everyday issues; and

— Elizabeth Floyd Mair who this year stepped up from a part-time beat covering the villages of Altamont and Voorheesville to a full-time beat covering our largest town, Guilderland. A Guilderland High School graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the University at Albany, she is fluent in Japanese and more widely read than anyone we know.

Our part-time staffers include photographer Michael Koff who also delivers newspapers; illustrator Carol Coogan; office workers Holly Busch and Ellen Schreibstein who handle myriad tasks to keep our operation running smoothly; and Cherie Lussier, our longtime accounts manager who sells the ads that make our paper possible.

Beyond that, we draw on a wide variety of community contributors for whom we are grateful.

Saturday night, as The Altamont Enterprise was named the winner of the Sharon R. Fulmer Award for Community Leadership, Michelle Rea, the longtime executive director of the New York Press Association said, “In the eight years that this award has been in existence, The Enterprise has been honored six times…They really have their fingers on the pulse of the communities they serve.”

While many of the competitions are divided into categories based on circulation, the Community Leadership Award applies to all sizes of papers — from those with the largest circulation to those, like The Enterprise, with the smallest.

The winning series showed the role The Enterprise along with residents and their letters had in opening up the government in the rural Helderberg Hilltown of Westerlo, including articles, editorials, and many letters to the editor. Most of the stories were written by Iaia, and the editorials by Hale-Spencer.

The Westerlo Town Board planned, and voted for, an expensive project to build a new highway garage and to update the town hall, breaking New York’s two sunshine laws in the process. The board met illegally — not notifying the public — with engineers to plan the project and then denied Iaia access to documents detailing the costs — documents to which the public was entitled.

Our editorial outlined the problems and called for citizens to petition for a vote on the $2.8 million project. They did, and the issue was soundly defeated at the polls.

The controversy and our coverage spurred Republican candidates to back a full town board slate for the first time in memory.  Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 4 to 1 in Westerlo and all the elected officials are Democrats.

Our post-election editorial urged citizens to continue to demand transparency from the representatives elected to serve them.

The judges wrote, “It is not an easy job in a smaller community to uncover the truths behind council actions when the facts are not there. Your coverage and community engagement on your editorial page seems to have brought about change in the council election as well. You are a true leader in community journalism and deserve this special award.”

Community Leadership is the only press association award that comes with a cash prize. We plan to donate the $500 to the Hilltowns Community Resource Center, located in Westerlo, because we know it has needs and does real good.

The second-place award in Community Leadership was for a series on heroin addiction. The series began in 2014 when Anne Hayden Harwood — our longtime Guilderland reporter who left The Enterprise in December to pursue her passion to become a midwife — wrote about a young, homeless man, Adam Rappaport, who hanged himself in Albany County’s jail.

We used his story as a way into examining in great depth two nationwide problems for inmates today, drug addiction and self-harm. The reams of research are brought home through the insights of the superintendent of the county jail, the sheriff, and chief deputy. In an editorial, we outlined five changes that should be made at the county jail, which might have prevented his death.

We also looked at the ways school and community leaders were tackling the heroin epidemic in our midst.

In 2015, Floyd Mair dug into the story of a bungled burglary at an Altamont laundry to document how heroin had led a middle-aged, middle-class mason astray. Painkillers for work-related injuries caused an addiction that he satisfied with heroin and resulted in his first arrest as he sought funds to feed his habit.

In July, Hale-Spencer profiled a local mother who bravely told the story of her daughter, an addict — “Heroin and cocaine were her drugs of choice,” she said — who died of an overdose of synthetic cannabinoid — fake pot. She had been deeply wounded by sexual abuse in her childhood and never got the help she needed, in and out of jail on arrests for petty crimes to support her habit.

In an August editorial, we scolded the Albany County District Attorney for squandering money gotten from drug busts on self-promotion rather than getting to the root of the drug problem — helping the addicts who commit crimes to satisfy their habits. “Addiction leads to crime as those who are hooked will steal to support their habits. A program at the jail could break the vicious cycle,” we wrote.

In October, we commended the Albany County Sheriff for starting a program at the jail — the sheriff’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program called SHARP — that could do just that, providing treatment and counseling for inmates who are committed to kicking their habits. A year of our hammering away on the problem yielded a result that could, indeed, break a vicious cycle.

We wrote the editorial on the anniversary of Adam Rappaport’s death and hope the program will keep others from the fate he suffered.

“This series of articles revealing the hardships of addictions and the justice system were very well produced,” the judges wrote. “Excellent job bringing insight from your community about a national problem. Your staff writing, photography and page layouts were outstanding and engaging…Once again, you got the ball rolling to inspire your community leaders to take a look at the process and work on finding solutions to solve this problem.

So, yes, Prosecutor Bharara, we are continuing to cover public safety issues, to educate and raise awareness.


In-Depth News

A traffic stop in which a sheriff’s deputy fired his Taser at a young man who had his hands up would barely get a mention by most media but it opened a door for reporter Floyd Mair to look closely and in depth at police use of Tasers, or stun guns.

In her initial report, in July, Floyd Mair got all sides of the story, from the cops who face fear as they make traffic stops  — “You never know what’s on the other side of that door,” said one — to the kids who felt harassed by the traffic stop. She reviewed videos — one from the patrol car and another taken by one of the passengers in the stopped car.

She also reviewed local department policies on use of Tasers, wrote about citizens frustrated with the deputy who made the stop and shot the Taser, and interviewed the director of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on the rights of citizens at a traffic stop.

We ran an editorial with her stories, giving background on the use of Tasers and urging local police departments to tighten their rules.

In short, Floyd Mair produced a thorough and balanced look at the incident, but she didn’t stop there. She dug deeper, filing a Freedom Of Information Law request to look at the Taser rules followed by the sheriff’s department, and she continued to follow the arrested man’s case in court.

When the FOIL request was answered, Floyd Mair reported that the Albany County Sheriff’s Office Taser policy stated that stun guns could be used against subjects who are verbally noncompliant — as in the recent traffic stop — and also referred to Tasers as a means of de-escalating “potentially violent confrontations.”

The sheriff’s office policy, she was told, was modeled after the recommendations of TASER, International, which manufactures and sells the stun guns. Floyd Mair followed up with the company; its vice president told her, “We’re experts in making the device, but we don’t issue use-of-force policies.”

Floyd Mair continued to follow the story and learned from the sheriff in August that this sentence had been added to the policy: “If possible, members should avoid using Taser equipment...on passively resisting suspects.” Before the year was out, she learned that the deputy who had fired the Taser was no longer on patrol.

“The Altamont Enterprise’s coverage of police tasing practices is extensive, relevant and compelling,” the judges said. “They followed this case from start to finish and did a great service to readers in evaluating motorist rights and the sheriff’s office policy.”



Editorial and Editorial Pages

The Enterprise once again was recognized for both its editorials and its editorial pages. Our editorial pages reflect the richness of our community. The dialogues among letter writers shed light on varied issues. And our columnists are treasured: Guilderland historian Alice Begley; John R. Williams whose wit and wisdom show through each week as he describes the breakfasts shared by The Old Men of the Mountain; Mike Seinberg whose off-beat humor lends fresh insight; Frank L. Palmeri who revels in the quotidian; and Dennis Sullivan who delves deep in the human soul.

Each of our editorials is illustrated by Carol Coogan with the pages creatively designed by Christine Ekstrom.

“The editorials are well written and interesting and the graphics are very good,” wrote the judges in awarding us first place for Best Editorial Page. “There are many letters — evidence of an engaged community.”

The Enterprise also won first place for editorials; the entry consisted of three, written by Hale-Spencer.

It is gratifying when words move people, when shining a light on a problem lets citizens and leaders alike see clearly the way to a solution.

In June, we wrote an editorial, calling on the citizens of Westerlo, to petition for a vote so the public could have a say on an expensive town building project. The Westerlo Town Board had approved the $2.8 million project, breaking both of the state’s sunshine laws. Hilltown reporter Iaia persevered to get the information citizens needed and were entitled to. They did, indeed, petition for a vote and the measure was soundly defeated.

In July, we wrote an editorial calling for police to narrow the rules for use of Tasers — stun guns that can be lethal. We went over research like that from Amnesty International that found between 2001 and 2012, at least 540 people in the United States died after being shocked with Tasers. Floyd Mair had detailed a traffic stop in which a sheriff’s deputy fired his Taser at a young man who had his hands up. In August, this sentence was added to the policy: “If possible, members should avoid using Taser equipment...on passively resisting suspects.”

In November, Floyd Mair wrote about a father who had called us, upset his son was being harassed by a sheriff’s deputy, Philip Milano. She advised the father to do what we had reported on: File a complaint. In our editorial we reviewed the stories we had written where Milano had behaved inappropriately, and we urged local police departments to review their data for bias and to develop policies to ensure fair treatment. Later, the sheriff told us, and we reported, Milano is no longer on patrol.

“These editorials illuminate issues that impacted the community in a meaningful fashion,” the judges wrote. “The voice is clear and consistent. Each editorial is well organized.”




Michael Koff added two more awards to his growing tally — he won first place for Picture Story and third place for Feature Photos.

Koff has worked for The Enterprise since June 2007 as a general-assignment photographer. He has covered a wide variety of events — from sports to fires, beauty pageants to funerals.

Koff says he has taken pictures since he was a little kid. “I’ve always loved it,” he said. “I like capturing moments.”

A graduate of the Albany Academy for Boys, Koff went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Siena College in 2002. In order to pursue his passion for photography, he then earned a second bachelor’s degree, in art with a concentration in photography, from the University at Albany.

Week after week, Koff captures for our pages the substance of small-town American life. This past year was no exception.

His Oct.1 “Watchfire Inflames Patriotism” picture page, designed by Ekstrom, depicts — in seven photographs — an event at the Altamont fairgrounds honoring veterans.

Koff crouched on the ground to shoot through the grass a monolithic World War II tank.  He captured one Gold Star mother comforting another, both of them dressed in white. He depicted the crisp posture of Patriot Guard Riders, in profile, backed by American flags. A close-up showed a flag being ceremoniously cut and he showed a Battlefield Cross made up of a soldier’s rifle, boots, and helmet, a solemn reminder of the dead. Another close-up of retired flags stacked on a pallet ended finally with a shot of an inferno — the watchfire.

“Engaging images really do the storytelling with minimal assistance from the text,” the judges wrote. “Nice variety of angles and close-up detail contrasted with the wider-angle shots. Admirable design restraint as well; one more image would have been clutter.”

Almost all of the winners in photography in recent years are colored pictures. Remarkably, both of Koff’s award-winners were in black and white. He uses classic elements of light and shadow to emphasize shape and elicit emotion.



His feature-photos entry was another black-and-white picture page, “Silent Night,” shot last December a year to the day that 5-year-old Kenneth White was murdered in Knox.  The page is topped with a close-up of two weeping women.



The central image is of the murdered boy’s father, his solemn face illuminated by the candle he holds — with pitch black all around him.

“Rarely do you get to see this side of people,” the judges wrote. “The photographer brings you in so close you feel their grief.”



News Story

Only The Enterprise covered the story of an interim administrator who resigned from Berne-Knox-Westerlo, a rural district with a crisis in leadership.

Mothers of students in the school told us he resigned because he touched their daughters in ways that made them feel uncomfortable. The mothers didn’t want him to be passed from school district to school district the way that offending priests had been passed from parish to parish. We wanted to talk to the girls, to hear from them directly, and agreed to protect their identities. Their stories were convincing.

We also learned that this administrator had had problems at other schools and we were determined to document his problems here, in the Helderberg Hilltowns, so they would be accessible in the way the records at other schools weren’t.

The two-part story ran under a single banner headline — the girls’ story, by Hale-Spencer, and the administrator’s perspective, by Iaia. While the viewpoints are distinct, the issues cross back and forth, creating an informative and dynamic reading experience.

In an editorial in the same edition, we described why we covered the story and how, and we outlined three changes that should be made to safeguard the future. A new and we hope more permanent and responsible leadership team is now in place at the school.

“This is an example of powerful investigative reporting coupled with an even more powerful editorial,” the judges wrote. “This reporter should be proud for not only uncovering the truth about a ‘creepy’ man but also calling the community to action against allowing this type of behavior to go unnoticed. Well done.”



Best Obituaries

Following another longstanding tradition, The Enterprise was again awarded first place for its obituaries — a category that includes newspapers of all sizes.

The Enterprise considers obituaries to be important news rather than paid advertising; reporters interview family and friends of the deceased to create a full portrait.

The winning obituaries were those in the Jan. 29 and Feb. 26 editions. Jan. 29 had a front-page obituary of Altamont’s Mojimar Frinta by Hale-Spencer.  Born in Prague in 1922, he had planned to be a painter but, “the war got in the way,” the obituary related. After World War II, he hitchhiked around Europe, seeing the devastation but also finding hope in the churches he visited, in “the redeeming beauty of the art made by humans,” his daughter said.

“Dr. Frinta spent the better part of a lifetime restoring, researching, and teaching about that art,” the obituary said. “He was a world-renowned scholar of medieval painting and sculpture….”

Inside, the Jan. 29 edition had two obituaries written by Prout. Ellen P. Abbruzzese, a founder of Altamont Orchards, “was the one who held the farm together,” her son told Prout. “All she did was work, with six boys!”

Marie D. Hallenbeck, Prout wrote, was “a woman whose smile lit up a room.”

The January edition also included an obituary by Hayden Harwood on Beryl E. Naginey, “a woman with many interests who was dedicated to her community,” Hayden Harwood wrote.

The Feb. 26 edition featured an obituary by Hale-Spencer on the editorial page of a Voorheesville community icon.

“Roger Spencer had a sheriff’s badge. It was perhaps his most treasured possession. He had it with him always, even when he died…” wrote Hale-Spencer. “He couldn’t read or write but he had a way of reading your mind. He had a high-pitched voice and sometimes it was hard to decipher what he was saying, but his exuberance was always clear.”

The piece was headlined, “Roger’s greetings were like a robin in spring — at once expected and miraculous,” and it was illustrated by Coogan with a sensitive pen-and-ink portrait, showing Roger Spencer in his ever-present cowboy hat, a robin nearby.

On the obituary pages were two portraits by Iaia. He wrote of Daisy May Schanz, “a homemaker who sewed brightly-colored quilts and kept her cookie jar full for her grandchildren,” and of Thomas R. Filkins,  “a gentle and friendly man who was a tank mechanic during World War II and a postal carrier for most of his career, relishing the role of a public servant.”

Also inside were two obituaries by Hale-Spencer. “Betty R. Van Hosen kept her hands busy with crafts and her heart filled with generosity,” she wrote. And: “An efficient and particular woman, Eileen Ruth McKenney put her family first, followed by her faith, friends, and community.”

“All of these obituaries had fascinating ledes that drew the reader in,” wrote the judges. “The first story, about Roger Spencer, is particularly touching.”



Illustrations and Cartoons

Coogan lives the life of a woman passionate about her art — she illustrates a thoughtful children’s book with the same care she uses to make a political point in an editorial cartoon. She supports herself with her art, and teaches it, too.

In a category dominated by computer-generated art, Carol Coogan’s arresting hand-drawn image captured third place for Graphic Illustration.

Coogan illustrated the Oct. 29 editorial, “We must stop the nightmare of rape by standing together behind the survivors,” by showing a woman trapped in a coil of rope that ends in a noose.

The woman’s forehead is creased with worry, her eyes are wide with fear, and her hand grips the hand that covers her mouth.

The colors are vivid — her red hair disheveled as she is awash in a turbulent sea of blues and grays.

“Great use of graphics and colors,” the judges wrote. “Clearly shows the fear of survivors.”

Coogan also garnered second place for Editorial Cartoon. Her winning cartoon is both elegant and terrifying.

It ran with an April 9, 2015 editorial, “The anonymity of white hoods may be replaced by that of the Internet,” detailing a recent trend of racists who work as “lone wolves,” often online rather than meeting in Ku Klux Klan groups that can more easily be policed.

Coogan’s drawing depicts a hooded figure at the center, working at a keyboard. All around him, he is generating snake-like tentacles — computer cords, each with a Klan hood at its endpoint. The cobra-like tentacles are insidious and threatening.

“Beautiful and evocative drawing of the problem with internet and racism,” the judges wrote. “A difficult decision to place this as second.”

Coverage of Local Government

The Enterprise was awarded third place this year for Local Government Coverage based on five stories.

Floyd Mair took an in-depth look at how a convenience-store expansion in Altamont would affect a village neighborhood for our May 14 real-estate section.

Iaia wrote on June 11 that the Westerlo Town Board met without public notice about plans for a new highway garage and then directed the clerk to withhold documents related to the project.

Hale-Spencer wrote on Aug. 13 how the rural and scenic town of Rensselaerville was divided over the county sheriff’s proposal to build a 180-foot radio tower in the midst of a protected vista.

Prout wrote on Sept. 10 about a missed deadline to save New Scotland’s historic Hilton barn from destruction by a developer.

And Hayden Harwood wrote on Dec. 10 about Guilderland’s “senior center that wasn’t” — months after the town announced a new development was offering space for the town’s senior programs, the project had stalled.

“All excellent stories that covered all sides and gave good background on issues that obviously had an impact on life in the area,” the judges wrote. “I don’t like stories that run on forever unless they have content that has a point, but these kept me interested throughout the read.”

Coverage of Education

Five stories on education, by Prout and Hale-Spencer, garnered an honorable mention for The Enterprise.

These included a look at local schools’ reactions to relaxing Common Core requirements, a study of suburban poverty as it affects education, a look at inclusion through the eyes of a boy with cerebral palsy who feels he belongs at Altamont Elementary School, and the story of Berne-Knox-Westerlo girls who felt uncomfortable with the way an administrator touched them.

“Good mix of stories and excellent reporting in each one,” the judges wrote.

Best Overall digital Experience

The Enterprise got third place in a statewide category, without circulation divisions, for Best Overall Digital Experience.

This is the third year in a row we’ve been recognized for a site we launched three years ago.  Hale-Spencer sketched out the original design with help from Iaia who maintains it. The site was built from scratch using the Drupal content management system by Gavin Langdon, then a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and now a game designer in California.

“Clean site,” the judges wrote. “I appreciate the font and use of photos as well as art...Nice variety of stories and coverage.”

More Editorials

  • As Americans, we are well aware after Jan. 6, 2021, that democracy needs to be carefully tended.

    Too many of us take our form of government, and the freedoms it offers, for granted. Citizens can be engaged in supporting and protecting democracy in many ways.

  • The natural world — and even what we can recreate of the natural world in our own yards — sustains not just us but other species on this planet we share.

  • We urge those selecting and serving on the committee that will chart Guilderland’s future to think about what would both enhance the town’s sense of community as well as help quell climate change. The two are not unrelated.

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