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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 10, 2008


From the editor
Enterprise
draws praise and seven state awards 

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
— Mark Twain in an 1896 cable from London to the Associated Press

By Melissa Hale-Spencer 

We’ve all heard the reports of plummeting newspaper circulation, how the younger generation isn’t interested in reading the news in a paper but turns to faster means like television or the Internet.

A packed and vibrant conference of weekly newspaper people, held this weekend in Albany, led us to conclude reports of our ultimate demise are greatly exaggerated. Local weeklies deliver the news you can’t get anyplace else. It takes a dedicated staff to do so and we’re proud that we have one of the best.

Some of our youngest staff members shone bright this week as the New York Press Association announced results from its annual contest that this year had 3,455 entries from 170 newspapers across the state.

Our Hilltown reporter, Tyler Schuling, was named Rookie of the Year, and artist Forest Byrd won awards in three different categories. Our most senior reporter, Jo E. Prout, was pivotal in our winning a first-place award for coverage of agriculture.

All in all, The Enterprise brought home seven awards, three of them for first place, putting us 11th statewide in contest points for editorial content.

An artist of many talents

Forest Byrd, a graduate of the University of California at Long Beach, makes ideas vivid with his drawings. He started drawing cartoons for The Enterprise in 2006 and won a second-place prize last year. This year, he won both first and third for his cartoons.

Byrd’s first-place cartoon illustrated our March 1 editorial, “Public servants must be accountable,” about the lack of information released by officials on a controversial police chief in Guilderland, a tenured music teacher in Voorheesville, and a superintendent of building and grounds for the Guilderland schools. All three public servants were placed on administrative leave without explanation.

Byrd’s cartoon depicts a giant scale of justice. Public officials hold down information while citizens’ rights are left up in the air.

“Public officials vs. the public’s right to know — good cartoon,” said the judges.

Byrd’s third-place cartoon ran on June 14, after Saranac Hale Spencer wrote of an Altamont widow being forced to leave her home because the village turned off her water for unpaid bills. The “Byrd’s-Eye View” depicts a reporter demanding information as the mayor stands before the stonewall of Village Hall.

“Holding public officials accountable — good job,” said the judges.

For graphic illustration, Byrd won third place in a competition dominated by colored computer-generated art.

“Good technique,” said the judges. “Cartoon throws back to a bygone era of editorial cartooning.”

The meticulously rendered drawing, inspired by the well-known Uncle Sam recruiting poster, illustrated an editorial, “We can create a safe haven for those who have lived through genocide,” which was based on a series of stories by Saranac Hale Spencer on the massacre of the Banyamulenge, a tribe of Tutsis, some of whom have settled locally after fleeing from Africa.

Uncle Sam leans on a cane of “suffering” as the flags of many countries lie crumpled behind him; the print above his star-studded top hat declares, “I need you to care.”

Finally, Byrd won second place for his Nov. 29 special section cover. The holiday section, “A Soldier’s Christmas,” had stories by Saranac Hale Spencer about local soldiers serving in Iraq and about a campaign to send them goods to help them through the “hardest holiday.” The idea for the section came from graphic artist Diane Groff whose son served in Iraq. Production manager Susan Spaccarelli added the cover’s red border and title.

“Forest Byrd has drawn a heartwarming modern scene for the cover of our Christmas edition,” said our Nov. 29 editorial. “A welcoming fire blazes in a well-kept home. Candles rest on the mantle shelf along with a Christmas card. Look closely, and you will see the American flag etched in one side of the mantle and the Iraqi flag on the other.

“The stockings, as the classic Christmas poem puts it, are hung by the chimney with care. But the children are not nestled all snug in their beds. Some of them are on the other side of the world, fighting in an unpopular war. The visions dancing in their heads are not of sugarplums, but of mortars and car bombs.

“Their pictures dominate the scene, rows and rows of them above the mantle — portraits of men and women in service. They serve in different branches; they are different races and different genders. Several salute. Many are backed by the American flag.

“There are too many to fit on our cover. The portraits of sailors and soldiers and marines are hanging in a place of honor and we should cherish their service. Even if we do not agree with the war the United States is waging, we should be grateful there are Americans willing to risk their lives to serve their country...

“Think of the portraits hanging over the mantle as belonging to all of us, gracing our collective hearth. We may not recognize their faces or know their names, but they are ours nevertheless. Now is a good time to show you care.”

“This cover I’m sure hit home for all Americans,” said the judges. “It touched my heart! Great artwork also.”

Rookie beyond compare

Not quite two years ago, Tyler Schuling left his native Iowa and a secure job in his family’s business, to become a journalist at The Enterprise.  With a 2002 degree in English from the University of Iowa, he answered a job ad on the Internet, looking for a truth seeker, and through hard work, he has not only sought truth but found it.

The portfolio of work on which he was judged included five stories:

—         March 29: Steroid use and abuse was making national headlines when a young man from East Berne died of a suspected misuse of the drugs. Unlike reporters with the other local media, Schuling didn’t lead with the press release of a crusading county district attorney. Instead, he spoke at length to the man’s mother and pieced together an honest and wrenching story of his life and death.

—         April 5: Rumors feed a mob mentality. Schuling, again and again, got the facts as tension mounted in rural Rensselarville over a youth detention facility — Cass Residential. A former kitchen worker at Cass, who had been raped there by a resident, was circulating a petition, calling for the facility to be more accountable. This spring, her house was vandalized; the word “slut” was spray-painted on her home. Schuling talked to both the woman and her husband about the incident. He also talked to Cass workers who feared they would lose their jobs.  His stories did much to diffuse an ugly situation so the public could work on a rational solution. Youths are no longer housed at the center; it is used to train park officers.

—         Aug. 9: Schuling became aware of an under-reported trend in the windswept Helderberg Hilltowns — people were individually and quietly harnessing the wind’s energy. He researched the subject in depth and interviewed individuals in three different towns, painting a realistic picture of the sacrifices and savings involved.

—         Oct. 11: Our newspaper adopted a “Back to Basics” theme for our fall home and garden section because of Schuling’s wonderful story on a Knox farmer rioting for austerity. Sharon Astyk, her husband, and four children have scaled down their energy use to just 10 percent of the American average. She and her “partner-in-ecology,” a Minnesota mother, document their lifestyles on a blog that has 1,000 people in 14 countries joining the precedent-setting effort. Schuling captures both the passion and quirkiness of the project in a lengthy story that makes a fascinating read.

—         Dec. 13: When a local library hosted a well-known author, Schuling, as always, went right to the source. He spoke, in advance, with Ela Stein Weissberger about her years in a Nazi concentration camp and the hope she found performing in an allegorical opera, Brundibar. Schuling told her story and captured her indomitable spirit, setting her words, like gems, in simple and elegant prose.

“Tyler is a tremendous storyteller,” said the judges. “His editor says he has good instincts for sniffing out stories. He transitions easily from features to hard news; his stories were all good reads.”

Schuling follows a long-standing Enterprise tradition of being honored in the Rookie competition, which included Andrew Schotz, Jo E. Prout, and Nicole Fay Barr.

First for Coverage of Agriculture

For the second time in four years, The Enterprise placed first in the state for its coverage of agriculture. This year’s entry was made up of two issues, April 26 and Sept. 13.

The central piece in the April issue was Jo E. Prout’s “Win-win: No-till farming and gardening saves time and fuel and helps the soil.”

Prout, a Notre Dame anthropology major, has reported for The Enterprise for over a decade, most recently covering planning.

She interviewed national specialists and local farmers to highlight an under-covered trend in agriculture — no-till planting, “coming closer to what nature does,” as one specialist put it.

Prout reported, with great detail, how environmentally-friendly farming methods can actually improve soil health and increase yields.

The Sept. 13 issue included a front-page story by Schuling on local farmers protesting the closing of the federal farm service office in Albany County. This was accompanied by an editorial, “Saving our farms is a burning need,” by editor Melissa Hale-Spencer, and a cartoon by Byrd — a take-off on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” in which the farmer with the pitchfork looks resolutely ahead while the woman in the apron turns to face the burning barn, labeled, “Albany County Farm Service Agency.”

The opinion pages included a letter from an Albany County legislator, calling for the FSA office to stay open, and a letter from Clinton J. Milner Jr. of Westerlo, tracing generations of his farm family’s history and concluding government hasn’t helped the farmers.

Inside stories included an article by Hilltown reporter Schuling about Rensselaerville citizens being surveyed on how farmland should be protected, and an article by New Scotland reporter Rachel Dutil on municipalities being able to seek grant money from the state for farmland protection planning.  (Dutil, who covered New Scotland for over a year, is now working as a paginator for The Saratogian, a daily newspaper in Saratoga Springs.)

“These folks get it!” exclaimed the judges. “Agriculture is obviously a major part of life in the coverage area, and the paper reflects that. From economic to health issues, editorial coverage and daily life and politics, The Enterprise seemed to know what was going on. Nice job!”

Best Editorial Page

If our writing forms the heart of the paper, our editorial page is its soul. We’ve won many awards for our editorials over the years, most all of them based on local stories unearthed by our writers.

Our opinion pages begin each week with an editorial by editor Melissa Hale-Spencer, in recent years often complemented with an original Forest Byrd cartoon.

The judges had this to say about our prize-winning pages: “Fascinating writing, unique design.“

We sincerely believe that the variety of views expressed on our opinion pages — those of our columnists as well as those of our readers — make us more of a community and improve our lot. Our democracy depends on well-informed constituents and a variety of views to succeed. We’re proud of our part in providing a meaningful forum. That’s why we put our opinion pages first.

Our pages are enlivened each week by the wit and wisdom of John R. Williams, scribe for The Old Men of the Mountain. And we always feel lucky when Mike Seinberg shares his carefully honed and often humorous views with us.

Likewise, our readers are richer for the history shared by Alice Begley and the slice-of-life writing by Frank L. Palmeri.

This past year, more than our rural readers appreciated the sensitive “Once upon a farm” columns penned by Teri Conroy, and Diane Cameron’s “Common reader” columns unearthed common ground with deft prose.  Conroy and Cameron are now writing for the Times Union.

Mike Nardacci brings local geology to life for our readers while the rotating writers for the Community Caregivers’ column can inspire us to be better people, and a “Mother’s Page” by Barbara Page never ceases to inform and amuse.

One of our favorite editorials this year was our Aug. 16, “Turning horror into hope,” based on a story by our veteran sportswriter, Tim Matteson. He had followed Stephenie Bintz’s swimming career for years and wrote a poignant story about how she had suffered with scoliosis and faced difficult surgery to have two titanium rods put in her spine.

“She could have become a quadriplegic,” Bintz’s mother told Matteson. “It was very, very life threatening.”

Matteson skillfully told the story of how Bintz spent months in recovery and went on to compete in the Empire State Games.

One of our readers, Corrina Goutos, another young woman with scoliosis, wrote a letter to the editor about how Stephenie’s story inspired her. “While reading Stephenie’s story, I saw my future self, or at least a potential me....” she wrote.

Such is the alchemy of our opinion pages. They form a common ground where people meet and share, and lives can be changed.

Our Aug. 16 editorial concluded, “To turn an ailment into an opportunity, to turn isolation into camaraderie, to turn horror into hope, to inspire others to believe in themselves expands life’s horizons for us all.”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor


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