The Altamont Enterprise is among top 10 in state for editorial excellence

“The Box”: Artwork by Carol Coogan illustrated The Enterprise’s series on solitary confinement, which took first place for in-depth news reporting.

The pandemic has changed much in our everyday lives. Among the many cancellations in our newspaper’s regular routine was the spring convention for the New York Press Association. We did not get to gather with our peers to learn at workshops, to share ideas, to applaud one another for work well done.

Instead, this past Thursday and Friday, a roster of award winners was announced through videos, which like so much else these days, we watched in isolation, talking heads on a screen — no warm embraces, no spontaneous applause.

We’re proud to have been recognized for our coverage of the environment, of agriculture, of education, of crime — and for community leadership. We can do without the applause because what we value most is serving the truth, and thereby our community.

The pandemic, while changing much, has also laid bare for us what is essential for a newspaper: informing our readers. In March, when the shutdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus began, The Altamont Enterprise started sending out a daily newsletter, for free, to keep subscribers informed of the ever-changing and important news, both locally and statewide, on COVID-19.

As our advertising fell away — because, after all, closed businesses had no need to promote themselves — we continued to print a weekly edition, summarizing the news we post daily. We were heartened, and at times moved to tears, by the outpouring of support from our readers, some who paid extra for their subscriptions and others who donated outright, telling us how they valued our reporting as their only source of local news.

We’re also grateful to Holly Busch and Ellen Schreibstein who have continued their important office work for The Enterprise in the midst of the pandemic.

And so this year’s awards — on work done in 2019 — take on added meaning for us. The Enterprise once again was among the top 10 in the state for editorial excellence. One-hundred-and-seventy-three newspapers submitted 2,918 entries, which were judged by members of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

Most of the awards are given in categories based on a newspaper’s circulation; a few are statewide, including the smallest weeklies to the largest dailies.

Opinion

In a statewide award, The Altamont Enterprise came in third for Best Editorial Page. The entry was made up of three sets of opinion pages: for April 14, May 16, and Oct. 31. The judges recognized, as do we, the value of an open forum where the community can talk to itself.

“These pages reflect a newspaper firmly rooted in the local soil,” the judges wrote. “The lead editorial is always a nice piece of writing, and on the many, many pages that follow, community members weigh in with lively election debates, folksy columns, claims and counterclaims, many which carry editorial notes and responses from the other side of the fence. Other editorial sections are more carefully pruned, but here the pages are an organic thicket that serves the community well.”

The columnists who enrich our pages include John R. Williams writing “Old Men of the Mountain”; Dennis Sullivan, “Field notes”; Jesse Sommer, “So swears the New Scot”; Mary Ellen Johnson, “A glimpse of Guilderland history”; Michael Nardacci, “Backroads geology”; Frank Palmeri, “Thinking about things”; and Mike Seinberg “Skewed view.”

Rich Mendoza has for the past several years crafted headlines for the Enterprise editorials. His contribution to this entry was:  “Meet you at the place where the future gets decided,” a call to vote. 

Every editorial is illustrated with original artwork by Carol Coogan. Coogan this year received an honorable mention for Editorial Cartoon for her drawing that accompanied an editorial about a drastic decline of bird populations in North America in the last half-century.

Coogan’s artwork shows birds we recognize, like an eagle and a sparrow, gathering around an extinct dodo, under a bell jar.

“Big message with no words. Each bird is well-drawn and easily identifiable,” wrote the judge.

Editor Melissa Hale-Spencer, who writes the Enterprise editorials, received an honorable mention for a series of three editorials: April 14, on why The Enterprise posted a recording of a public meeting in response to a subpoena from the Voorheesville School District; Sept. 5, on the misuse of 50-a by the Guilderland Police, which has since been repealed; and Nov. 7, against the use of solitary confinement in jails.

“The in-depth analysis of very personal experiences really draws the reader in,” wrote the judges.

News

Hale-Spencer took first place for the Thomas G. Butson Award for In-depth Reporting with a series stressing the horrors of solitary confinement. The capstone was a podcast with Damion Coppedge — a poet and chess teacher in prison for manslaughter — who did time in what prison officials euphemistically call a “Special Housing Unit” or SHU, and prisoners call “the box.”

Hale-Spencer researched a suit filed by four young men from Rikers Island in New York City who were shipped, before any trial or conviction, to Albany County’s jail, alleging they were routinely assaulted, including sexual assault, by prison officials upon their arrival in Albany and that they were then foced to live in solitary confinement, also called punitive segregation, for months on end. The suit was settled for $980,000, with neither Albany or New York City officials admitting any wrongdoing.

“You really drew me into this story, great detail,” wrote the judge.

A chilling picture of the county jail, shot through its barbed-wire fence, illustrated the piece. That picture was taken by the Enterprise’s longtime staff photographer, Michael Koff.

Elizabeth Floyd Mair received an honorable mention for in-depth reporting for her series, extending over several years, on the death of Justus Booze, a young man who died his first day on the job when he was ground by a woodchipper.

Three-and-a-half years after Boose had died tangled in a woodchipper, a judge from the United States Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission ruled that his employer, Tony Watson of Countryside Tree Service, willfully violated safety regulations in allowing his workers to place trees and brush into a running woodchipper without proper training or supervision.

“You told a difficult story with cautionary insight and weaved in the family’s loss,” the judge wrote.

Floyd Mair also won third place for Best News Story for her May 23 story on a Guilderland mother who shot her kindergarten daughter before killing herself as well.

“Well written, timely, well sourced for a difficult story to research, develop and write. Well done,” said the judges.

Best Feature Story and Writer of the Year

Floyd Mair won first place for Best Feature Story for “Found: Family reunited at father’s deathbed.” With photographs and words, she deftly detailed the work of attorney Ray Wood who reunites Amerasian children of American servicemen with the fathers they never knew.

“Heartwarming story of reunion includes a mystery and how it was solved,” the judges wrote.

That story, along with four others, won Floyd Mair third place as Writer of the Year.

The other stories that led to this prestigious statewide award were: a survivor telling how she was groped by her popular fifth-grade teacher; an article detailing how Guilderland residents fear overdevelopment and loss of their neighborhoods; an Altamont couple’s journey with in vitro fertilization; and a news story on a mother killing her daughter and herself.

“Great writing, and very hard-hitting work from this reporter,” the judges said. “Stories included difficult-to-obtain information that I’m sure were difficult to write due to their subject matter. These stories will change lives and will continue to give your very fortunate readers a reason to pick up their newspaper moving forward.”

Floyd Mair, who covered Guilderland for five years, left The Enterprise in March to take a job with Albany County. We’re pleased that she continues to freelance for us with occasional feature stores.

Education

The Enterprise won second place for its coverage of education, a submission made up of five articles. The judges focused on the work of Sean Mulkerrin.

Mulkerrin, who has covered New Scotland as well as the villages of Altamont and Voorheesville for three years, also specializes in data analysis, often taking deep dives to educate readers on the forces shaping budgets, commerce, and businesses.

In his April 4 story, Mulkerrin analyzed how prescription drug costs blew a hole in the Voorheesville school budget. 

“Very in-depth article on drug cost impact to budget,” wrote the judge. “Love the chart — easily educated the community on budget changes as well as potential reductions. Very thorough and thoughtful presentation of data. Paper is not afraid to tackle tough issues. Does a great job of putting things into context and communicating facts/data. Good use of pull quotes, charts, to support storytelling.”

The other stories in the entry included three by Floyd Mair about the Guilderland schools: one on a mother who wouldn’t allow her daughter to go on a field trip to a venue that didn’t allow a lesbian wedding, a second on a Black family that felt the district needed to be more inclusive, and a third telling the story of a girl who had been groped by her fifth-grade teacher.

The final story in the entry, by H. Rose Schneider, was about the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school superintendent decrying Enterprise coverage of test results for students with disabilities.

 Schneider had covered first New Scotland for The Enterprise and then the Helderberg Hilltowns before leaving last year to work as a reporter for the daily newspaper in Utica, The Observer-Dispatch. She was replaced by Noah Zweifel not long before contest entries were due.

Crime, Police and Courts

The Enterprise won third place for its coverage of crime, police, and courts.

“The paper is recognized for its wide range of in-depth stories, with first-person interviews,” the judges wrote.

The entry included five stories, including one by Schneider about an Altamont priest accused of raping boys in his care, and another by Hale-Spencer about Guilderland’s Happy Cat Rescue being shut down while volunteers claimed there was no wrongdoing.

Also included were Floyd Mair’s stories on the survivor of groping from her fifth-grade teacher, and on the mother who killed her child and then herself. The fifth story, by Hale-Spencer, was on a federal judge taking the unusual step of calling on federal and state prosecutors to investigate allegations made by Rikers Island inmates of mistreatment at Albany County’s jail.

Environment

In a statewide award, The Enterprise took third place for coverage of the environment.

“Some nice, hard-nosed reporting in this entry. Stories go beyond studies and government handouts and show real initiative,” wrote the judges. “Good job.”

This award, too, was based on five stories. Two of them were written by Mulkerrin: “As developers gobble farmland, conservations work to protect it,” an in-depth look at local land-preservation efforts, and “With passage of the state’s new climate law: Will New York produce enough renewable energy in time to meet its strict deadlines?” in which Mulkerrin looked at local efforts to do so.

The entry included two stories by Floyd Mair about pollution problems in Guilderland: on the state requiring cleanup of the Master Cleaners brownfield, and on the town’s plans to reduce TTHM levels in its drinking water.

Finally, Schneider wrote about how authorities had not been contacted, as the law requires, about a sewage spill in Berne.

Agriculture

In another statewide award, The Enterprise won third place for its coverage of agriculture. This entry was based on the articles in two editions, Aug. 15 and Jan. 24.

The front page of the Jan. 24 edition was dominated by a Koff photo, taken at the county’s airport, of produce Hilltown farmers had donated to TSA workers who continued to show up to work in the midst of a government shutdown, with a story by Mulkerrin. Mulkerrin had a second front-page story — a primer on how landowners could conserve rather than cashing in on their property.

Mary Ellen Johnson, the Enterprise’s history columnist, wrote about how ice was a crop to be harvested a century ago. Hale-Spencer wrote about an enduring Westerlo farm family, “Snyder Farm celebrates a century: Chores are constant, but so is the satisfaction.”

In the Aug. 15 edition, Hale-Spencer wrote a tribute to Pauline Williman, who grew up in a farm family and donated the farmland she inherited to raise food for the poor. Mulkerin wrote a story about how Willamin’s vision was flourishing at the Patroon Land Farm in Knox.

The tribute was illustrated with a portrait of Williman by Coogan that perfectly captured her spirit. The story was illustrated with photographs by Koff.

Aug. 15 was in the midst of Altamont Fair Week and the edition included a story on raising rabbits by Hale-Spencer, on old farm tools by Schneider, and on kids showing poultry by Floyd Mair.

“The coverage of agriculture strongly displays the value the newspaper places on farming issues,” the judges wrote. “The writer’s story on rabbits was a delight to read. Nice variety of stories, and the pieces devoted to local farming history were deftly executed.”

Community Leadership

The Enterprise continued to be recognized for community leadership this year with an honorable mention for its coverage and editorials on the dismissal of workers that had Civil Service protection.

Schneider covered the story on New Year’s Day 2019 when three transfer-station workers in Knox were summarily replaced; two of them, she learned, had worked their jobs for five years and so had Civil Service protection. Hale-Spencer reported on Westerlo’s 19-year assessor being removed without a hearing.

“Solid investigative reporting and op/ed support,” wrote the judges. “Reporter H. Rose Schneider exposed the possible illegal actions in the firing of transfer-station employees and her publication backed it up with a call for correcting the situation. Following the story through, the coverage and editorial support eventually prompted the improper terminations to be overturned. Excellent leadership. This package shows how a newspaper can make a difference in the community.”

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