From the editor: The Enterprise 3rd in state among single-flag newspapers

Michael Koff took second place for sports feature photo. "Great emotion, great moment, great image," said the judges.

Elizabeth Floyd Mair listens to voices others often don’t hear. She is persistent in ferreting out the stories of people who are sometimes crime victims, sometimes perpetrators. She finds the humanity in both.

Her work was recognized by judges — our colleagues in the Michigan Press Association — in this year’s New York Press Association’s annual contest which, along with the work of all of our staff, saw The Altamont Enterprise named third in the state for single-flag newspapers — that is among papers that are independently owned. The Sag Harbor Express, on Long Island, was first, and the Albany Business Review, second.

Altogether, 156 newspapers submitted 2,783 entries to the contest for work in 2017. Among all those papers, The Enterprise tied for fifth place in editorial content — that is articles, opinion pieces, photographs; everything but advertising — with The Press-Republican, a daily based in Plattsburgh. While the New York Press Association used to be largely made up of weeklies, in recent years many daily newspapers have joined the organization, which remains robust due to its focus on local news.

We are proud that our tiny staff shines even when compared with much, much larger publications. In addition to Floyd Mair, who has been an Enterprise reporter for three years, we have Hilltown reporter H. Rose Schneider who joined us two years ago straight from the University of Albany with a freshly minted journalism degree, and Sean Mulkerrin covering New Scotland and the villages. He came to The Enterprise last year after working for not-for-profits and, before that, in construction, with a degree from Wentworth Institute of Technology.

We have a dedicated photographer, Michael Koff, who has been with us 11 years. His forté is sports but he covers a wide variety of events — from political rallies to fires to kids hunting Easter eggs — enlivening our pages week after week. Artist Carol Coogan illustrates our editorials each week with original drawings that can produce laughter or rage or tears.

Two splendid women — Ellen Schreibstein and Holly Busch — keep our office running and our papers circulating under the guidance of co-publisher Marcello Iaia. Cherie Lussier, our longtime advertising accounts manager, sells the ads that enhance our pages, inform our readers, and support our work. And longtime reporter Jo E. Prout who left us when she was called by God still assembles our arrest reports each week.

That’s it. That’s our entire paid staff. But we have something more.

We have columnists — Dennis Sullivan, John R. Williams, Mike Nardacci, Mary Ellen Johnson, Frank Palmeri, and Mike Seinberg as well as librarians and seniors and leaders of community organizations — who write purely for the love of writing or of community or of truth.

We also have Gary Spencer, my husband and a co-publisher, who does what he can to support our efforts. We have Rich Mendoza who crafts an editorial headline each week. And we have our readers who chip in with their varied views and make our opinion pages a common meeting ground to solve shared problems.

At a time when many newspapers are struggling or worse, folding, we remain profoundly grateful to have readers that support us in our mission to seek the truth and inform the public, a cornerstone of democracy.

Community Leadership

The Enterprise has been awarded for Community Leadership nine times, more than any other newspaper. This year, we took both first and second place in a contest that spans papers of all sizes.

The award was established in 2008 in honor of the late Sharon R. Fulmer who had edited The Review in Liverpool, New York and who was devoted to community service.

The coverage that led to the first-place prize this time was directed by Saranac Hale Spencer who started her career at The Enterprise and is now a reporter for FactCheck.org. She filled in at The Enterprise last spring as her mother underwent cancer surgery.

When 17-year-old Alyssa Gelfand died after a crash on Hurst Road, Saranac Hale Spencer was immediately aware of two teen deaths The Altamont Enterprise had covered on the same stretch of rural road 17 years before. Guilderland reporter Floyd Mair then pursued this, talking to residents of the road and others who shared stories from even earlier generations being attracted to the road for the thrill of “getting air” by speeding over its undulating surface.

The front-page story that week, detailing the crash, included pictures of the memorial that still stood from the long-ago crash as well as photographs — by Koff and also by Andrew Schotz, who also started his career at The Enterprise and returned to help during the cancer surgery — showing the community’s outpouring of grief over the recent death.

An editorial the next week, by Melissa Hale-Spencer, urged something useful could be done with that grief. The editorial took pains to explain the functioning of an adolescent brain and its tendency for risk-taking, poignantly illustrated by Carol Coogan. But the editorial went on to offer a practical solution — level the road.

While the town supervisor said, “It’s a properly designed road for the posted speed. You could make the argument that no town roads are made for going 90 miles per hour or more,” The Enterprise got the highway superintendent on the record, saying he would level the road. We wrote we believed he was a man of his word and we would hold him to it.

He was. Floyd Mair reported in October that the road was leveled. being regraded to a gentle slope. Dmitry Gelfand, the father of Alyssa Gelfand, who had been killed in the spring, told Floyd Mair, “It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing that the town is doing. Any effort that the town makes with regard to this situation and this road that may potentially save one life would be monumental.”

The contest judges wrote, “The power — and importance — of community journalism rang true in this entry. Getting a result that will save lives is a wonderful accomplishment for a newspaper.”

The award comes with a $500 prize. The Enterprise is following Dmitry Gelfand’s recommendation and donating the money to the Alyssa Project for a film he is making called “My True Fairy Tale.”

“I’m an award-winning filmmaker,” he said on Tuesday from Seattle where he said he is “signing the deal” to make the film. “It’s a teenage suspense drama about a young girl who gets in a car crash and disappears,” Gelfand said. “Everyone is looking for her. She comes back as an invisible superhero … It’s a magical fantasy about saving the people you love.”

Gelfand also noted that a scholarship has been created in Alyssa’s name and will go to a graduating Guilderland High School senior who is going on to Syracuse University. “That was the school of her dreams,” he said.

The second-place Community Leadership award was for a series of stories and editorials over the course of more than a year, detailing planning conflicts in Voorheesville, urging that the village develop a master plan, and then covering the formation of that plan.

Sometimes the truth can hide in plain sight.

We made a mere mention in a July 2016 Voorheesville Village Board story about the board’s plans to establish a means in village code for a planned unit development, which would allow residential housing on vacant land owned by a Catholic church in town.

It turned out villagers were largely unaware of the proposal. The next meeting was packed with disgruntled residents. Melissa Hale-Spencer not only recorded the objections and concerns but also interviewed the church’s pastor for his side of the story, and looked at problems with the planning process. Koff provided illustrative photos.

We followed, on Aug. 18, with an editorial — aptly illustrated by Carol Coogan — on the village’s need for a comprehensive land-use plan. We had made this call before, as development encroached on this once-rural village, but now the time was right, and our call was heard. The editorial was referenced at the meetings that followed both by the public and by board members.

In September, we reported on another controversial matter in the village as Stewart’s Shops, a chain of gas stations and convenience stores, made plans to build in Voorheesville. We covered not just the developer’s plans but also the village’s concerns with water resources — all of which reflected a piecemeal zoning code. The story ended with the mayor answering our reporter’s question on the need for a master plan. “We don’t want a crazy quilt of regulations and zoning laws,” he said. “We’ve had preliminary discussions on some type of comprehensive plan.”

On Sept. 29, we ran a story on the top of our front page that Voorheesville had indeed decided to draft a comprehensive plan, in which we detailed both public response and the ins and outs of making the decision.

On Oct. 6, we wrote an editorial not just commending the village on its choice but providing guidance from a neighboring village on how best to go about creating a responsive and forward-looking plan.

In April, Schneider wrote a thoughtful story about how village residents, under the guidance of planner Nan Stolzenburg, shared their visions for Voorheesville’s future.

We were pleased to close out the year with a thorough front-page story, by Mulkerrin, on the proposed comprehensive plan. The Enterprise played an essential role in informing the public about plans for development in the village and offered a solution that would allow a wide variety of voices to be heard as part of a process that will map a clear and openly discussed future.

“It is nice to see a newspaper use its resources to better a community in a meaningful way,” wrote the judges. “If we as journalists don’t who will? This is the type of series that shows the relevance of community journalism.”

News awards

Floyd Mair won first place in Division 1 for Best News Story for her sensitive and thorough look at a 16-year-old boy on the autism spectrum who was arrested on a felony charge for helping a friend make a fake bomb threat at Guilderland High School. His friend, who was 15, had his case handled through the Family Court system and his name was not released.

Floyd Mair had written a series of stories about the bomb threat and the arrest but she pursued beyond where other media went and eventually the family of the arrested boy agreed to share his story.

“An amazing story made more impactful by several twists and turns, including the timely Raise the Age legislation,” the judges wrote. “The article is full of police records, court records, and in-depth interviews. The number of parties involved to report the issues completely is dizzying, yet the reporter keeps the writing clear.”

Although The Enterprise has a longstanding tradition of winning awards for its in-depth news coverage, this year the award was enhanced with a contribution from the widow of Thomas G. Butson, former publisher of The Villager in Greenwich Village. In a stirring speech, she told the journalists who gathered at the Albany Hilton for the awards banquet on Saturday night about the value in these turbulent times of reporting news without fear or favor.

In another contest that spanned categories of papers of all sizes, Floyd Mair won second place for her in-depth story on a day laborer who died in a woodchipper his first day on the job.

Most of the media overlooked the life of Justus Booze, a poor 23-year-old from Schenectady who thought he could earn $60 for a day’s labor in suburban Guilderland. The other media wrote briefly about his death; it was dramatic: he was mangled in a woodchipper.

Floyd Mair alone dug in to find out about his life. A product of the foster-care system, he had no family, but, at age 23, was about to take on the roles of husband and father. He was set to get married in two weeks, and his fiancée’s three young children considered him their father.

Besides putting a human face on this tragedy, and writing a moving obituary, Floyd Mair talked to investigators in the case and delved into Occupational Health and Safety Administration regulations and the hazards of woodchippers.

Most important, Floyd Mair stayed with the story, regularly checking over the course of six months, to learn what penalties, if any, would be levied against the tree-care company that had employed Booze. Late last year, we published Floyd Mair’s in-depth look at the violations, coupled with views from the manufacturer of the woodchipping machine and also with the thoughts of the tree-care association.

When the owner of the tree-care company did not respond to her calls, Floyd Mair followed the story further, reporting that the owner is contesting the fines. She set that in context with comments from the North East New York Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.

We editorialized in that issue, calling for a change in the law so that families of workers who are hurt or killed can get benefits. Floyd Mair’s research — of the human, technical, and enforcement sides of this story — made our informed stance possible.

Floyd Mair continued to follow the story in 2017, reporting in May on how Booze’s family was doing a year after his death and on a ceremony to honor Booze and other laborers who had been killed on the job. We did a podcast with Maureen Cox, the chairwoman of the North East New York Council for Occupational Safety and Health, further documenting problems faced by workers in the current political climate. We also editorialized on the need for legislation that would allow criminal prosecution across the state for egregious cases, not leaving it up to each district attorney to make an independent, sometimes political decision.

Finally, in November, Floyd Mair was the only journalist to cover the rare OSHA trial where the owner of Countryside Tree Care contested his fines. Her account was balanced and thorough.

“Many papers would have written about the death of Justus Booze with adequate coverage, but this writer didn’t stop there,” the judges wrote. “She made the effort to dig deep into the issue and approach it from several angles. She shows what initiative and hard work can accomplish.”

Floyd Mair’s crime stories — a package of five — garnered second place in the Division 1 category for Coverage of Crime, Police, and Courts.

This includes a May 4 story on James Hockenbury who had been arrested for sexually abusing a 3-year-old he had been babysitting. Floyd Mair broke the news that he was accused of abusing more than one boy.

On May 11, on the eve of the Guilderland School Board election, she broke the story that a teacher who was running for the board had been sued by parents of a child in his class who broke both of her wrists on the playground. The suit alleged that the teacher, Timothy Horan, had not allowed the girl to go to the nurse’s office. Koff’s photograph depicted the slider zip-line from which she had fallen.

On Aug. 3, Floyd Mair wrote a compelling feature about an activist from the Adirondacks and an activist from New York City who worked together to provide homes in the Adirondacks so that families from the city would have a place to stay when they visited inmates in prisons.

On Aug. 31, Floyd Mair wrote about two Chinese women arrested in Guilderland for doing massage without a license. She contrasted the way the case in 2017 was handled with the way a similar case had been handled last year by the federal government.

Finally, on Sept. 7, Floyd Mair wrote about the 16-year-old boy with autism who had been arrested for helping to make the fake bomb threat.

“I particularly liked the initiative shown with the story regarding the prison and families of inmates,” the judge wrote. “Also, the story about different outcomes for defendants in two cases puts those issues in perspective for readers by going beyond just stating the facts.”

Best Editorial Cartoon

Carol Coogan, for the second year in a row, won first place in Division 1 for her illustration. “Cartoon” does not adequately describe the powerful artwork she created to illustrate the Oct. 12 editorial, “Campus rape: Don’t rebuild the stonewall.”

The drawing portrays pure pain, coming from the mouth of a screaming woman. The woman appears to have broken loose from a glass jar in which other women are trapped — a variety of women, each in a different posture, showing responses ranging from fear to resignation.

Coogan conceived of this just before the MeToo movement gained traction.

“Powerful illustration really draws readers into the accompanying opinion,” wrote the judges.

Best Editorials

The Enterprise continued another long-standing tradition of winning in its division for editorials, written by Melissa Hale-Spencer. Each in this year’s package of three looks at the way federal directives in 2017 played out in our backyard.

Using a local lens to look at national issues lets our readers effectively participate in democracy. Many of our editorials since Donald Trump’s election have tapped local leaders to clarify for our readers how federal directives would affect them and how corresponding policy and actions could be shaped accordingly:

— Feb. 2, “Don’t reverse the Bill of Rights”: After President Trump’s January executive order putting a hold on refugees, Guilderland’s police chief said her department would not collect information from refugees under the federal directive without a court warrant. Guilderland’s school superintendent said the district would follow the state’s directive and any student, regardless of immigration status, would be welcomed in the schools;

— March 2, “We stand as one with transgender students”: After President Trump in February rescinded protection for transgender students, we surveyed the progress that had been made in our local schools, supporting transgender students, clearly spelled out New York State’s policies, and offered our unwavering support for the students who had on our pages so bravely educated others about the persecution they had suffered;

— Oct. 12, “Don’t rebuild the stone wall”: After Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued new guidelines canceling the Obama-era requirement that universities use a lower standard of proof when judging whether an accused student is guilty of sexual assault, we reviewed the progress that had been made on our local campus, the state University at Albany, and urged that the university stay its course.

“Through extensive and thoughtful examinations of deeply important issues, these entries rose to the top,” the judges wrote. “Solid writing is backed up by great organization and a clear sense of why these topics are important. The deep dive into the many facets of campus rape was particularly sharp. These are great editorials.”

Melissa Hale-Spencer also got an honorable mention for a series of columns telling Enterprise readers honestly about her cancer and attempting to show her gratitude for their support. The judges wrote, “One column started with three simple words: ‘I have cancer.’ This was a very moving piece that really hit home as we all have someone close to us who has gone through this same journey.”

Photos

Michael Koff took second place in Division 1 in the category of Sports Feature Photo for his picture of the Voorheesville girls’ volleyball team celebrating its Section 2 Class C championship. The game against Lake George had been a nailbiter when the Blackbirds, trailing at first, pulled out a victory.

“It’s total elation,” Koff wrote, “as the last Lake George shot got called ‘out.’ Emily Bablin falls to her knees in happiness as her teammates come together, jumping up and down, and hugging, to celebrate clinching their fifth sectional title.”

Koff followed the team both before and after that victory, keeping fans informed as he tweeted results — and pictures — of the Blackbirds’ matches.

“Great emotion, great moment, great image,” the judges wrote. “This image tells the whole story.”

Koff’s picture of a young girl in a cowboy hat winging a rope above her head as she competed in the Miss Altamont Fair pageant graced the cover of our special section on the fair. Marcello Iaia, who designed the cover, wrote in a type font that replicated the rope, “Lasso Some Fun.”

The cover got an honorable mention in Division 1 for Best Special-Section cover.

The judge’s wrote, “Cute, could have added some color.”

That comment shows how talented Koff is. Nearly every single winning entry was in color. The Enterprise is frugal and uses color only when we have an advertiser willing to pay for it. For that reason, we’re grateful that Dan Dymes of Altamont Country Values has been supporting us for the past year with a back-page colored ad.

Nevertheless, Koff garnered both of these awards with traditional black-and-white photography.

Special Section

The Enterprise won third place for its 28-page keepsake graduation edition. The stories had been developed when Saranac Hale Spencer was editing, and went beyond the usual coverage of graduation ceremonies.

The front page, designed by Iaia, featured a full-page color photo by Floyd Mair of a glowing Guilderland graduate, diploma in hand, with flowers topping her mortarboard. Type in the exact color of her red diploma ran vertically up the side, proclaiming: “The Class of 2017 Marches On.”

An editorial by Melissa Hale-Spencer, “Graduation, like education, should be inclusive,” commended our local schools for including students with disabilities in their commencement exercises and urged passage of a law that would require such inclusiveness. The editorial was illustrated with photographs by Koff and Floyd Mair of beautiful local students who had overcome disabilities to graduate.

Floyd Mair not only wrote about the Guilderland graduation but produced a story, months in the works, following the successful careers of Guilderland alumni and alumnae in theater. Saranac Hale Spencer wrote a feature about an immigrant’s journey to graduation.

Melissa Hale-Spencer profiled Voorheesville’s valedictorian and salutatorian as well as covering the school’s commencement ceremony while Schneider profiled the top scholars at Berne-Knox-Westerlo and covered the BKW exercises — all illustrated with photos by Koff.

Koff also culled vivid sports pictures of seniors for a round-up highlighting the best moments of their final year.

Finally, Schneider wrote a story about BKW’s hopes of one day offering college courses, and also wrote a feature about a BKW graduate, Brad Abelman, who won an unusual college scholarship — for fishing.

The edition, as always, was put together in the wee hours of the morning by co-publishers Iaia and Hale-Spencer.

“Nice mix of content for a graduation edition,” said the judges. “Nice layout.”

What’s nicest of all, we think, is that our keepsake graduation edition embodies community. We’ve heard in the past how these editions have been saved for years — a way of holding memories in your hands. The 2017 edition is filled with fresh faces and inspirational words and also with ads from a supportive community offering good wishes to the graduates — our future.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

More Editorials

  • The most essential thing to teach our children is how to differentiate facts from falsehoods, truth from propaganda.

  • It would be a shame if our democracy — our governance on a local level — were to just wither away through neglect.

  • Words can move people.

    On January 6, President Donald Trump’s words moved people to violence. 

    “We’re gathered together in the heart of our nation’s Capitol for one very, very basic and simple reason, to save our democracy,” Trump said.

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