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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 3, 2008

Hale-Spencer wins the Golden Quill

By Jo E. Prout

ALTAMONT — The Altamont Enterprise and Albany County Post editor Melissa Hale-Spencer on Saturday received an international award for editorial writing.

Hale-Spencer, 55, was awarded the Golden Quill in Detroit, Mich. by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors for her editorial, “We, the people, are responsible for what our government does.” This award marks her fourth recognition by the organization, and her first Golden Quill.

ISWNE was founded in 1954 to encourage and promote high standards of editorial writing, to facilitate the exchange of ideas, and to foster freedom of the press in all nations. Each year, it holds a competition for non-daily opinion and editorial writing. The top entry is given the Golden Quill, and 11 others are chosen to make up the rest of the Golden Dozen.

Hale-Spencer is proud of her 20 years at The Enterprise.

“The owners, Jim and Wanda Gardner, stand behind difficult editorial decisions and really care about serving the community,” Hale-Spencer said. “The entire staff is dedicated to producing the best newspaper that we know how to put out.”

Professor Ben Burns, the director of the journalism program at Wayne State University in Michigan, which housed ISWNE conference attendees last week, was the judge who selected Hale-Spencer’s editorial as the best. Burns has been an adjuror for the Pulitzer Prizes and has over 30 years in the newspaper business.

“‘We, the people, are responsible for what our government does,’ exactly fulfills that charge,” said Burns. “The newspaper pointed out the problems of an individual and called government officials to account for their handling of that problem. It is in the best tradition of journalistic opinion.” Burns said about Hale-Spencer’s entry.

Her winning editorial focused on open government in Altamont. The stories were written by Enterprise reporter Saranac Hale Spencer, Hale-Spencer’s daughter.

“Editorials are only as good as the reporting they’re based on,” Hale-Spencer said.

Burns noted in his comments that weekly editors have a much greater risk than those at larger outlets to tell the news the way it is, because they are so much closer to their communities.

“The subjects of editorials are not held at arm’s length, but are the folks the editorialists may see every day,” said Burns. “It is considerably easier to toss thunder bolts from Mt. Olympus than it is to constructively criticize a person you might run into at the local grocery store the next day.”

As the recipient of the Golden Quill, Hale-Spencer was invited to the weeklong conference with travel, room, and board included as part of her award.

Entries for the Golden Quill included an eloquent call from The Jackson Herald in Jefferson, Ga. to stop memorializing the Civil War; an up-close account of a corrupt sheriff from Orange County, California in the OC Weekly; and a description of the “humble chub” as the miner’s canary in Lake Michigan’s waters from the Ozaukee Press in Port Washington, Wisc.

“There were some stunning, stunning entries,” Hale-Spencer said. “I was amazed and humbled because the writing and reporting and level of commitment was so impressive. It was really gratifying because I was nervous about making the [acceptance] speech, and, when it was over, the whole room just burst into applauses as people sprang to their feet.”

“It must be how Barack Obama feels every day,” Hale-Spencer said. “People understood what it was about and appreciated what was said. It was nice.”

Hale-Spencer attended the weeklong conference for only two days, returning in the nick of time Sunday to cover the Guilderland High School graduation straight from the airport. Hale-Spencer admitted that she works 70 or 80 hours per week at The Enterprise.

“I grew up in a family where newspapers were very important,” Hale-Spencer said. Her father, Ed Hale, “was a newspaperman from the old school. We had long dinnertime conversations about news and stories,” she said.

She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley College, and, while there, cross-listed journalism courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She did her graduate studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Hale-Spencer started at The Enterprise as a reporter covering the Hilltowns. Since then, she has covered the Guilderland School District, and written editorials and general news, taking the reins as editor in 2000 after a three-year co-editorship with Andrew Schotz.

Hale-Spencer’s husband, Gary Spencer, was a newspaperman for 25 years, she said. He is currently the spokesman for the state’s Court of Appeals.

“He is very supportive of my long, long hours,” she said.

Hale-Spencer’s two daughters are both Cornell University graduates. “Saranac, I’m happy to say, is working here now,” Hale-Spencer said. Her daughter, Magdalena, is pursuing doctoral degrees in law and in veterinary medicine at Cornell University.

Hale-Spencer first submitted to the ISWNE columns written by late Enterprise reporter Bryce Butler, who chronicled his experiences with a cancer diagnosis.

Hale-Spencer was first named to the Golden Dozen for her March 5, 1998 editorial, “Celebrating a life,” which, the judge wrote, helped to lift the stigma against suicide.

She was named to the Golden Dozen a second time for her March 29, 2001 editorial, “Workers can’t wait,” which detailed the plight of a local spray painter as a means of exploring President George W. Bush’s repeal of ergonomic regulations.

Her third Golden Dozen winner was the July 15, 2004 editorial, “Letter to Jordan,” written to the three young sons of Shokriea and Ali Yaghi, who had joined their father in Jordan as their mother, an American citizen, fought for her husband’s return.

Hale-Spencer is the first New Yorker to receive the Golden Quill.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to get to meet people who come from all different places, but share a common mission,” she said. “I was honored to be part of it.”

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