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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 13, 2006

From the editor
The Altamont Enterprise
brings home eight state awards,
Judges praise ‘dogged effort’ and ‘diverse approaches’

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

The Altamont Enterprise brought home eight awards this year from the annual New York Press Association competition, in which 242 weekly newspapers submitted 4,052 entries.

We received awards for our coverage of the environment; education; local government; and crime, police, and courts as well as prizes for community leadership, feature photos, columns, and feature writing.

Our two first-place awards show the range of Enterprise coverage — from celebrating the wonders of small-town life to taking a provocative look at some of its problems.

Reporter Holly Grosch won a first-place prize for her photograph of a joyous Jeffrey Weeks washing his family’s sheep at the Altamont Fair.

"Great photograph promoting an event — perfect fair shot with kid having fun. Nice composition," wrote the judges, who were members of the Washington State Newspaper Association.

There were 234 entries in the feature-photo competition and only four first-place winners, one for each of four divisions, based on circulation. (The Enterprise, with a circulation of about 7,000, competes largely in Division 2.)

Grosch, who has covered New Scotland for The Enterprise for two years, has, during those two years, also covered the Altamont Fair with equal enthusiasm and care. Her photograph graced the cover of a special section on the fair, designed by Carla Luft.

Coverage of Crime, Police and Courts

The Enterprise also again took first place for its coverage of crime, police, and courts.

The judges wrote that the newspaper "took complicated cases and issues and presented readable stories backed up with plenty of research."

They also praised the paper’s weekly blotters column. "Many newspapers shy away from publishing names of offenders," they wrote. "This paper doesn’t. Good job."

The win was based on two editions — June 30 and Sept. 29 — which highlighted the work of Nicole Fay Bar. Fay Barr, who covered the town of Guilderland assiduously for four years, recently left her beat for a tougher and more satisfying assignment — motherhood.

The front page of the June 30 issue was devoted entirely to Fay Barr’s coverage of Erick Westervelt’s trial — the young man from Guilderland was convicted of a brutal hatchet murder while he and his family staunchly maintained his innocence.

Fay Barr listened to hours of testimony and conducted additional out-of-court interviews to write several stories in a single edition that rang true for both the family of the dead man and the family of the convicted man. The stories were illustrated with photographs by Saranac Hale Spencer of Westervelt, shackled in handcuffs, and also portraits of his parents and friends who testified at the trial.

Other stories highlighted in that edition included Hilltown reporter Matt Cook’s story on a Knox man accused of manslaughter and drunk driving after a crash resulted in the death of a Binghamton professor, and Fay Barr’s story on Jason Kutey’s arraignment for holding his ex-girlfriend hostage in Guilderland.

The front page of the Sept. 29 edition was again devoted entirely to a single issue, expertly researched and rendered by Fay Barr. Her series on abuse was perhaps the most difficult we have run in our 121-year history.

We told the unusual story of an abused woman and relied on her courage, even in the face of law-enforcement officials and abuse experts telling us that she or we could be endangered by publishing the story.

What made the story unusual was, after the woman had left her abusive husband, he began using police, court, and social-service agencies to abuse her, by reporting false incidents. No one else has told her story.

Fay Barr did voluminous research, sifting through cartons of papers, to verify the incidents. Her series included not just the woman’s story, but also the viewpoints of the agencies who had failed her. Based on Fay Barr’s series, we were able to editorialize on changes that need to be made.

The Sept. 29 issue also included a story by Fay Barr on Guilderland’s Democratic Councilwoman Patricia Slavick quitting her state job because of the Hatch Act; an article by Grosch on graffiti at the Clarksville Elementary School leading to a police sweep; another story by Grosch on a 44-year-old man arrested for molesting two girls while camping; and an article by Cook on a Berne man arrested for molesting a nine-year-old girl left in his care.

Community Leadership

In a competition without divisions, including newspapers of all circulation sizes, The Enterprise took a second place for Community Leadership.

"The paper’s dogged, ongoing efforts over several years on an Army toxic waste dump shined a light on a health threat that needed to be addressed," the judges wrote. "Thanks to the Enterprise’s refusal to quit, cleanup is finally beginning. Good job!"

This year, editor Melissa Hale-Spencer covered the story of the cleanup on Joan Burns’s property. Burns purchased her Guilderland property from the federal government in her youth, without being told of the waste buried there, and has spent most of her life in fear, unable to use her land. Burns credited The Enterprise for its years of coverage of her plight; the story has been virtually ignored by other media.

The Enterprise’s in-depth and ongoing series on the toxic waste buried at the old Army depot began in 2002 with work by reporter Carol Kaelin and was carried on, after Kaelin retired, by Fay Barr and Hale-Spencer.

Aside from many interviews and detailed research of documents, the Enterprise’s investigation has also been, quite literally, hands-on. Frustrated by lack of funds for testing, Hale-Spencer put on tall rubber boots and protective gloves and, under the direction of an environmentalist on the Citizens’ Restoration Advisory Board, she scooped up samples of bottles that were surfacing throughout the defoliated areas of Burns’s property. Editorials have run along with the news stories.

Best Column and Feature Story

Editor Hale-Spencer, who has written for The Enterprise for 18 years, took a second place this year for Best Column and a third place for Feature Story.

"She shares parts of her life and times that unquestionably are the best-read stories in her newspaper," the judges for Best Column said.

One of Hale-Spencer’s winning columns — "A true picture" — explains the impetus behind the feature story that won third place. Her daughter, photographer Saranac Hale Spencer, covering the Altamont Fair, had taken picture of a part of the fair that neither The Enterprise, nor any other local media, had ever focused on — a sideshow on the midway.

Melissa Hale-Spencer describes how her initial revulsion and anger subside as she interviews the people — self-declared freaks — her daughter has photographed and comes to understand, at least in part, their way of life.

"This is a thorough look at a curious and fading facet of the entertainment industry," write the feature judges of Melissa Hale-Spencer’s story, illustrated by Saranac Hale Spencer’s pictures of Tommy Breen swallowing a sword, Ses Carney inserting needles into his eyes, Norbert Terhune eating fire, and Chelsea Rammen sitting on an "electric chair" while she shocks a volunteer.

"In this well-written article," the judges say, "Hale-Spencer takes the time to explain the joy behind what at first appears to be a gloomy profession."

The Feature Story category, always the most competitive in the contest, had 338 entries this year.

Coverage of Education

Following a long-standing tradition of receiving awards for coverage of education, The Enterprise won third-place this year.

The award was based on two editions — March 17 and May 5. The judges termed our coverage "thorough."

The March 17 edition included an editorial — "Shining school on the Hill" — commending Berne-Knox-Westerlo for its success rate in meeting new state standards and examining the methods it used.

Holly Grosch wrote an in-depth preview, with photographs, of the Voorheesville Dionysians’ Beauty and the Beast, and Hale-Spencer wrote one of the Guilderland Players’ production of Into the Woods.

The March issue also included articles by Hale-Spencer on a change in school-board leadership and a debate on private funding as well as a two-page spread on an author telling schoolchildren about his journey on the Hudson River. Fay Barr wrote a story on the effects of town-wide reassessment on school tax rates.

The May 5 edition featured a front-page look at Ron "Cook" Barrett, who spoke at Guilderland High School, and has made it his mission to reduce gang violence and to prevent teenagers and young adults from joining gangs.

Fay Barr wrote the story after police said gangs were rioting in Crossgates Mall. Her in-depth reporting led to our editorial that urged residents not to judge people by their appearance but rather by their actions, and further to get involved in solving the problem.

"Good job of getting diverse approaches to the gang story," the judges said.

The edition also highlighted a timely and well-researched story by the Enterprise’s long-time sportswriter, Tim Matteson, "X-C coach’s pleas hit the wall."

Matteson described the response of Ken Kirik, Voorheesville’s cross-country coach, on being ousted from a program he began more than 30 years ago. Matteson quoted runners who opposed the ouster, as well as including the views of parents and administrators.

The May edition also included pages of in-depth, issues-based interviews of school board candidates — in Voorheesville by Grosch and in Guilderland by Hale-Spencer — which gave voters the information they needed to make informed decisions in the upcoming elections.

Additionally, Cook wrote about BKW graduates taking the frugal route and attending two-year colleges, and Hale-Spencer wrote about an awards program for physical-education students where a former Olympian spoke.

Coverage of Local Government

Continuing a strong tradition of good local-government coverage, The Enterprise won a third-place award in its division this year, based on the Jan. 13 and Aug. 11 issues.

The judges wrote that the Enterprise’s government coverage is "more than just covering meetings." They praised our "good follow-up and sourcing, clear explanation of issues and situations, and good use of background and history on stories."

"In reference to our coverage of town reorganizational meetings, the judges termed our listing of appointees a "good public service."

The Jan. 13, 2005 issue led with an in-depth story by Fay Barr on a controversy over the Guilderland animal shelter, which the judges termed "very strong."

An editorial urged the village of Altamont to develop a fair and open system for awarding out-of-village water to those who seek it.

Jo E. Prout, the Enterprise’s most senior reporter, currently covering Guilderland’s planning board, wrote a story profiling that board’s newest member, Linda Clark.

Cook had two stories in the January edition — one about a Congressional bill that could revitalize properties for commercial uses in places like Altamont; and the other about Robert Price being belatedly re-appointed as chair of the Knox Planning board.

Reporter Bill Sherman, who covered Altamont for about a year, had two stories in the January issue — one giving an overview of a proposed senior-housing complex, and the other detailing controversy and confusion over the project’s access to village water.

Grosch wrote about New Scotland’s reorganizational meeting and Fay Barr wrote about Guilderland residents pleading ignorance on zoning violations.

The Aug. 11 front page was dominated with a picture, which the judges called "great," and a story, both by Cook, profiling Price as a "Weed Warrior" leading a charge in Knox to stop the spread of invasive purple loosestrife.

The page’s lead story was also by Cook — a prescient look at the Albany County executive’s drive for Tech Valley, which has left some local leaders with doubts and concerns. Cook has covered the Hilltowns for two years and also taken on a variety of other assignments — ranging from play reviews to creative features.

That issue’s editorial — "When it comes to Tech Valley, planning is as important as promotion" — was based on Cook’s research.

The August issue also included a story by Grosch on a New Scotland race for judge.

Coverage of the Environment

In a competition without divisions, including newspapers of all circulation sizes, The Enterprise took third place for Coverage of the Environment, based on the April 14 and Dec. 15 editions for 2005.

The judges termed the Enterprise’s stories "important," and called the coverage "good aggressive news reporting."

The April 14 front page featured a picture and story by Melissa Hale-Spencer on plans for a new playground at Altamont Elementary School, covering concerns about arsenic in the pressure-treated lumber used to build the current playground.

The front page also features a story by Fay Barr on plans by Watervliet to increase the level of its reservoir, which is located in Guilderland and supplies most of Guilderland’s drinking water. Fay Barr detailed the concerns of local environmentalists, that the rising reservoir would raise contaminants.

The front page of the Dec. 15 issue featured three local stories on environmental issues.

The lead story, by Hale-Spencer, broke the news on a long-standing dump in wetlands located in the Northeastern Industrial Park; dumping in wetlands is illegal. This wetlands is of concern because it is next to the Black Creek, which feeds the Watervliet Reservoir.

The story was based on information obtained through a freedom-of-information request to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which was in the process of trying to get the Galesi Group to remove the construction and demolition debris.

Cook pursued further concerns on the reservoir expansion with responses from Watervliet.

The December front page was dominated by a picture of the snow-covered grounds on Joan Burns’s property where winter weather had stilled a massive $650,000 cleanup project of toxic waste buried by the Army decades ago.

The accompanying story by Hale-Spencer documented in detail the progress that had been made and the hurdles that yet remain in the cleanup

The editorial praised the local citizens on the Restoration Advisory Board, particularly co-chairs Charles Reilly and Thadeus Ausfeld, who had pushed for the cleanup, and urged them to keep on pushing.

"Large state and federal bureaucracies, as well as protected private companies often need goading," we wrote. "Because of such prodding, Joan Burns may at last have peace of mind, knowing threats to her health have been removed. If we, as citizens ‘wake up’ and ‘get involved’ as "Ausfeld and Reilly have urged, we may well ensure the health and peace of mind for future generations."

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