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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 1, 2010

As one of the state’s top papers, we stand strong for democracy

For a democracy to work, citizens need to be informed. More than 750 local newspapers across New York State, like ours, fill that role.

Every year, we meet with our peers from throughout the state for the spring convention of the New York Press Association. This year, we were honored with eight awards, including three for first place, in a contest that drew 2,908 entries and was judged by members of the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association. This placed us sixth among single flag or independently owned newspapers.

Our 125-year-old paper is owned by James and Wanda Gardner who have spent their entire working lives seeing that our community, which includes Guilderland, New Scotland, and the Hilltowns, is informed.

This year’s convention, in Saratoga Springs, offered, as usual, scores of seminars and workshops for news staff. But it was remarkable for launching a campaign to highlight the strength of community newspapers and the critical importance of accurate and fair reporting.

Michelle Rea — the long-time director of the 157-year-old association, which represents over 750 community newspapers including weeklies, small dailies, and culturally specific papers — wowed the crowd with numbers. A decade ago, she said, the state had 588 weekly newspapers, reaching 7.2 million people. As of January, New York has 727 weeklies, reaching 11.6 million. That’s an increase of 139 papers and 3.4 million readers in a decade.

Fifty-five daily newspapers are published in New York with a combined circulation of 5 million. The much-publicized demise of some large dailies, and the cutting back of staff on many others has created an increasingly urgent desire for local news, Rea said.

Eighty-six million Americans read community newspapers every week, said Rea, which is more than the number that watched the Super Bowl. And, New York, she said, has fewer chain-owned, and more independently owned, newspapers than any other state.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center examining a week of local news coverage in Baltimore, Md. discovered that most of the “news” people receive has no original reporting — eight out of 10 stories just repeated or repackaged information that had already been published. Nearly all of the stories that had new information — 95 percent — were from traditional media, mostly newspapers.

“Indeed,” wrote the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “the expanding universe of new media, including blogs, Twitter and local websites — at least in Baltimore — played only a limited role: mainly an alert system and a way to disseminate stories from other places.”

As news is posted faster online, the study found, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is dominating more. Government releases initiated most of the news. And, the study reported, “We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such.”

Quite frankly, this frightens us. Democracy will falter if citizens are given only government accounts masquerading as enterprise journalism.

The Enterprise byword has long been “We seek the truth and print it.” We remain more committed to that than ever and to the “square knockdown with wrong” our founder wrote of well over a century ago.

And so we are especially proud of the awards we won this year, and of our colleagues — 10,000 strong— working for papers represented by the New York Press Association who are fighting the good fight every day to keep readers informed about local news.

Community Leadership

The press association gives out just one award with a cash prize — for community leadership. The award is named for the late Sharon Fulmer, who edited The Review in Liverpool, N.Y. and was devoted to community service.

First place went to the Merrick Herald on Long Island for its coverage of the dangers of drunk driving, spurred by real-life tragedies.

The Altamont Enterprise won both the second- and third-place prizes.

The second-place award was based largely on the reporting of Saranac Hale Spencer. A Cornell philosophy major, she has reported for The Enterprise for four years, currently covering the town of New Scotland.

For two years, since she first overheard a whispered comment after a town meeting, Hale Spencer has doggedly pursued the story of an out-of-town developer that planned to build a Target-anchored retail mall at the site of an old melon farm in New Scotland. Her scores of stories included breaking news as well as carefully researched enterprise pieces. The stories also earned a third-place prize for in-depth reporting.

Hale Spencer’s enterprising stories examined in depth larger issues related to economic development. One story looked at the scale of commercial development with examples from across the nation, and another studied the economic impact of agriculture versus commercial and residential development.

The entry also included some of the exhaustive coverage of every turn, analyzing the significance of each step, illustrating The Enterprise’s leadership on the issue, which came from its singular depth of knowledge about the community.

Traditional political parties became meaningless in the heated November town elections, since candidates and their supporters split along lines related to development. The issue, in some cases, split apart the parties themselves, with half of the Republican committee stepping down.

Discussion in the community unfolded on the pages of The Enterprise, with citizens, politicians, and officials writing letters to the editor on a weekly basis. Many on both sides of the issue told us, since we broke the story, we were the only responsible source of information. People turned to The Enterprise for moderated debate, sometimes meaning lengthy editor’s notes, and for informed reporting, setting the story’s latest developments in context.

In the end, the constituency was well informed and made its choice. The press had served democracy. Saranac Hale Spencer continues to cover the story, as the town board attempts to modify New Scotland’s zoning code.

“Essential background coverage leads us to a year-long crusade that is equal parts good reporting, level-headed editorializing, passionate community involvement and strong, insightful political reporting,” write the judges for the Community Leadership Award. “Kudos to the publisher for allowing all the letters to the editor to run to their full length.”

The third-place award for community leadership was a result of the Enterprise’s longstanding policy of covering suicide. While most media do not cover suicide, we write about it like any other death. The entry included stories as far back as 2001, which explored psychological and legal aspects of suicide as well as agencies that are available to help.

It also included a story by Melissa Hale-Spencer from last October on 17-year-old Andrea Guido’s suicide, which was followed by a community forum, also reported on by Hale-Spencer, during which a variety of health-care professionals enlightened the community.

A man whose son had killed himself wrote us, “I thought you brought your impressive array of writing skills and sensitivity to the task of thoughtfully acknowledging the openness and honesty of the Guido family and your rightful commendation to the many experts who came together to offer their knowledge and support.”

“A near decade-long campaign comes to fruition in 2009,” wrote the judges, “in this thoughtful series of straight news reporting, feature-writing, and editorials. The newspaper’s persistence and clarity of work brought a community together and helped it heal.”

The cash prize from the New York Press Association is being donated to the Samaritans program in Albany, which runs a hotline for people who are depressed or in crisis, and also provides suicide prevention education as well as support services to people who lost someone they love to suicide.


Competing in the smaller of two categories based on circulation, The Enterprise took first place for its coverage of education. The entry was made up of two issues — Feb. 19 and Nov. 12.

The Feb. 12 issue included a front-page story by Jo E. Prout on a Voorheesville school forum that was set up in response to a story Prout had broken on cyberbullying. Prout, a Notre Dame anthropology major, has written for The Enterprise for  14 years. She is currently writing part-time for the paper as she raises, with her husband, Roberto Flores, three children.

The issue also included an editorial by editor Melissa Hale-Spencer on teaching lessons beyond measure based on stories she wrote in the same issue — one was about Westmere Elementary students who paid a Valentine’s Day visit to cheer a classmate being treated for leukemia; another was about a group of Guilderland Elementary students sorting through garbage to track recycling progress.

Zach Simeone wrote a story about project-based learning at Tech Valley High. Simeone, our Hilltown reporter, is a University at Albany graduate who studied both journalism and theater. He has worked at The Enterprise for two years while also appearing in local plays.

The Nov. 12 issue had front-page stories by Melissa Hale-Spencer about a community forum that followed the suicide of a Guilderland High student, and an article breaking the news about a contract settlement for teaching assistants. Hale-Spencer also wrote an editorial on the aftermath of suicide.

And, she had an inside story on Guilderland’s budget review process. A picture page by Saranac Hale Spencer captured the wonders of home-grown food at a harvest festival hosted by the Voorheesville schools.

Town historian Alice Begley contributed a column on Guilderland’s historic one-room schoolhouses.

Finally, the issue included Simeone’s in-depth write-up on Losing Patients, a play being performed at Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School.

“Reporters supplied impressive, comprehensive coverage of education issues,” wrote the judges. “It is obvious the teenage suicide was traumatic in the community, and I’m sure the coverage about screening was helpful and appreciated. The historical perspective, budget information, cyberbullying story, a high school theater story, editorial, and multiple letters to the editor all contributed to this great coverage.”


In a contest that included newspapers of all sizes, The Enterprise won first place for its obituaries, something it has done before. We are proud once again to be recognized for writing the best obituaries in the state; our community deserves no less. While most newspapers these days treat obituaries as paid advertisements, we don’t charge for ours.

Our reporters talk to the families and friends of those who have died to create a full portrait of their lives. Although some of the people whose lives we document have names that have never appeared in print before, the threads of their lives form the fabric of our community, and they will be recorded as part of our history.

Obituaries are typeset by Ellen Schreibstein, proofread by the eagle eye of Barbara DeGaetano; formatted by Brenda Powell, and posted on our website by Susan Spaccarelli, production supervisor.

We’re grateful to them as well as to the crew that bundles and readies the paper for mailing.

The advertising that makes all this possible is sold by our ad manager, Cherie Lussier, and our sales representative, Kathy McGreal. Elisabeth St. Louis often designs those ads.

So, it is a concerted effort that allows us to document the lives that have created our community.

Two newspaper editions — March 12 and 26 — were entered in the obituary competition. The March 12 edition included an obituary on Amos Edward Hallenbeck, who had worked as the commissioner of the Albany County Highway Department. It was written by Jordan J. Michael, our sportswriter, a political science major from New England College who has been with The Enterprise for nearly two years.  Michael quoted Hallenbeck’s son, describing his father as “a stubborn man, a strong-willed person” who cared for his family and “fixed a lot of roads in his day.”

Robert G. Asch’s obituary was written by Anne Hayden, our Guilderland reporter, a Siena College English major who has worked for The Enterprise for just over a year. She described the insurance manager as “a quiet, modest man with simple pleasures.”

Saranac Hale Spencer wrote an obituary on Nancy I. Edmunds whose “honest kindness could not be taken advantage of.”

Melissa Hale-Spencer wrote about Harriet Flower, described as “Ancient Grandma,” who knit together a family with care and love. Hale-Spencer also wrote both an obituary and editorial on Hy Dubowsky, a public servant with a passion for helping those in need. He died of cancer at age 58 while serving as a member of the Guilderland School Board.

The editorial tribute to Dubowsky was illustrated with a painting by Byrd, depicting a story his son, Eric, told of their arduous hike, scaling New Mexico’s Mount Baldy. “At first, Eric struggled and was buoyed by his father’s support,” Hale-Spencer wrote. “But then, on the sixth day, when his father’s knees gave out, it was the son who carried the heavy pack so the father could continue the climb. They reached their goal together because they had learned the value of caring, and sharing the burden when the need was greatest.”

The March 26 issue featured an obituary and editorial by Melissa Hale-Spencer, on Donald Otterness, a Guilderland sheep farmer and intuitive teacher who linked generations of local kids to farm life. The editorial, “A shepherd who built bridges to make the mundane marvelous,” featured a whimsical drawing by Byrd of a rustic arched footbridge crossing over a rocky stream.

The edition also featured three obituaries by Hayden.

The judges called the obituaries a gift to friends and family. They wrote, “The tributes to Don Otterness and Hy Dubowsky were poignant, funny, sad, and beautiful.”

Graphic Illustration

Forest Byrd continued his winning ways in this year’s contest, earning a first-place award for Graphic Illustration in a category with two divisions. Byrd, a studio art major from California State at Long Beach, has been with The Enterprise for four years. He literally thinks outside the box and has redesigned our editorial page, incorporating art in the midst of the text.

The prize-winning picture — an original alone in a field of computer-generated art — was a painting that illustrated an editorial on swine flu raising concerns and closing schools.

Byrd depicted a pig, sitting at a school desk, as human classmates and a teacher looked at him askance.

“I chose this because the illustration is gripping and perfectly shows the concern over H1N1 in schools,” wrote the judge. “There is a lot of emotion and this was a huge story this year. The ‘reason over rumors’ theme of the editorial pairs perfectly with this illustration.”

Crime, Police, and Courts

The Enterprise took second place in a category with two divisions, for its coverage of crime, police, and courts.

The entry consisted of coverage in the Sept. 24 and Dec. 24 issues, which was dominated by Anne Hayden. As the Guilderland reporter, Hayden each week reviews all the arrests made by the Guilderland Police in order to write our blotters column. She often develops in-depth stories from her research. As a marathon runner, Hayden knows how to pace herself for the long haul.

Earlier in the year, Hayden wrote about the arrest of a young man for rape. She interviewed his father and quoted him about what a fine young man he was. This riled one of our readers; the same young man had forcibly touched her daughter. Hayden turned that girl’s story into a riveting and eye-opening account of what the victim of such a crime endures. That story, “After rape arrest: Teen recalls her trauma,” led our front page on Sept. 24.

Inside, Melissa Hale-Spencer had an in-depth story about two pet dogs that were shot in the Hilltowns; the article looked at the applicable laws and those who enforce them.

Simeone contributed two stories — one on an investigation into voting irregularities in Rensselaerville, and the other on a Knox man arrested for carrying on an international scheme of Internet theft who was brought up on additional charges, along with four other Hilltown men, for blowing up a turtle with pipe bombs.

The front page of the Dec. 24 issue featured stories by both Simeone and Hayden. Simeone wrote about the reaction in Berne to the town’s one-time judge, Thomas Spargo, being sentenced to 27 months in prison. He was found guilty of extortion and bribery for orchestrating a plan to solicit funds from lawyers with cases before him as a state Supreme Court judge, in order to pay his own legal bills. His problems had started with accusations of wrongdoing during his Berne campaign for judge — an angle no other media covered like The Enterprise did.

Hayden wrote about a car crash that took the life of an Altamont teen; police said speed and alcohol were most likely factors. Hayden’s story included the reaction of a rescue worker who was at the scene as well as the heartfelt thoughts of the young man’s father.

Our photographer, Michael Koff, illustrated her story with a picture of an impromptu shrine, flowers tied to a utility pole, at the site where the teen had crashed. Koff, who holds degrees from both Siena College and the University at Albany, enriches our paper every week with pictures that capture the everyday life as well as the big events in our towns.

Inside, Saranac Hale Spencer had a story on a Voorheesville resident, a doctor, who was the first person in the county to be arrested under a new law that makes it a felony to drive drunk with a child in the car.

“Very good coverage of local crime and courts,” wrote the judges. “The teen rape story and the teen car crash story had great quotes from sources. The story about the two dogs that were shot and killed was good reporting. The newspaper did a nice and thorough job each week with blotter listings.”

The past year also included some provocative work on crime and courts from our village reporter, Philippa Stasiuk. As the New York State Legislature in June considered bills to prevent wrongful convictions, Stasiuk not only interviewed legislators about the issue but also talked to a New Yorker, Steven Barnes, who had been exonerated for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. She framed her carefully researched story with his stunning comments.

 In August, Stasiuk interviewed men and women who were putting their lives back together after jail. She attended their graduation ceremony from one of Father Peter Young’s programs, and visited a threadbare old hotel where they worked.

Stasiuk has taught in Korea, worked for Americorps, earned a master’s degree in international policy, and done intelligence work for a drug company. She and her husband, David, are raising two young daughters.

Spot News

On a Wednesday afternoon, our busy production day, crackling voices through the police scanner let us know that several fire departments were being called to the rural Helderberg Hilltowns. Simeone leapt to action, driving to the scene to find out what was happening.

He found a home fully engulfed in flame with firefighters hard at work, trying to quell the inferno. On deadline, Simeone interviewed a sheriff’s deputy at the scene who told him that Christopher David, who lived with his family in the old farmhouse, had set it ablaze with a Molotov cocktail.

Simeone also talked to an off-duty firefighter who gave him insight into how the fire was being fought. Back at the news office, Simeone realized that we had written about Christopher David before — when he had to be talked down from a cliff’s edge. This became the lead of Simeone’s story, which raised the question of mental illness from the start, giving context to an otherwise unfathomable act.

“Truly riveting coverage of the details of the fire and the past of the alleged arsonist,” wrote the judges. “Excellent example of the importance of on-the-scene coverage that can’t be recreated behind a desk.”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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