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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 9, 2009

From the editor
Winning awards as we move a community onward

Illustration by Forest Byrd

It’s a Byrd! It’s a plane! It’s Super Artist! For the second year in a row, the mild-mannered Forest Byrd swept the awards for art given by the New York Press Association.

This weekend, his two awards for best cartoon and his two awards for best graphic illustration were presented during the association’s annual convention held at the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs.

In addition, the Enterprise’s rookie sportswriter, Jordan J. Michael, won first place for his news story on high school football players using performance-enhancing drugs. And veteran reporter Jo E. Prout took second place for her news story on cyberbullying.

Also, the Enterprise  editor, Melissa Hale-Spencer, was once again awarded for editorial writing, taking third place.

Altogether, 182 newspapers submitted 2,944 entries to the contest for work completed in 2008, which were judged by members of the Pennsylvania Newspapers Association and the New England Press Association. The Enterprise, with a circulation of 6,500, competed in the third of four divisions, for papers with a circulation of 4,000 to 8,000.

Winning news stories

Both Michael and Prout broke difficult stories about the Voorheesville schools this year and, in both cases, school leaders responded by facing the problem and educating the community.

Michael broke the story on Sept. 18 that some players on the Voorheesville football team were using performance-enhancing drugs. It was a tough story to break — at first, no one wanted to talk, not the coach, not the acting superintendent.

Michael, who grew up in the Capital Region, graduated from New England College in May 2007 with a degree in political science. He wrote for his college newspaper, The NewEnglander, during his junior and senior years. The paper’s advisor described him as tenacious in the pursuit of news, citing an exclusive Michael got after the college president resigned abruptly and no one knew why. Michael walked to the president’s house as others on the staff were discussing how to handle the story, and interviewed him.

Michael, who covers high school sports at Voorheesville, Berne-Knox-Westerlo, and Guilderland, uses that same direct approach here. One by one, last September, he called the Voorheesville football players until he got one who would speak on the record. The Enterprise decided the unpopular story was important to run. Then, something rare and wonderful in the world of journalism happened.

The principal of the high school agreed the community should be informed and said the school would hold a forum on student use of performance-enhancing drugs. He credited our coverage.

We ran an editorial stating that information provides the best defense and commended the school for dealing with the problem.  “We’re just trying to hold the line...” Principal Mark Diefendorf told us. He could have been talking about football. It’s an important sport here, a focus for the community. The team was losing by huge margins.

But the principal was talking about something more important than football: the game of life. He was talking about teaching kids a lesson that could shape their future.

“We’re just trying to hold the line and make sure kids are making the right choices,” said Diefendorf.

It would have been easy for the coach, Joe Sapienza, to look the other way, to put winning ahead of teaching important life lessons. But he didn’t. He suspended the players and, he said, was supported by their families.

We still believe the school’s code of conduct needs to be rewritten to address the matter, but we’re pleased and gratified the district faced the problem head on and educated the community. The forum was well-attended and informative, and Jordan J. Michael was there to cover it.

The press association judges called Michael’s story “a thorough look into the performance-enhancing drug culture filtering down to high school scholastic sports,” and concluded, “The story does a good job in discussing the differences in codes of conduct and the need for reforms to control the situation.”

Jo E. Prout, the paper’s most senior reporter, broke the story on cyberbullying at Voorheesville in the Nov. 13, 2008 edition. After the story ran, community reaction told us that the problem is widespread, but often not acknowledged. Many schools consider cyberbullying that happens off of school grounds to be out of their purview.

The press association judges wrote, “Jo’s determined effort to bring out the scope of cyberbullying directed at students in the Voorheesville School District resulted in raised consciousness among officials who plan to take action. The coverage is thorough and evocative.”

Prout, on hearing a complaint at a school board meeting, coaxed a reluctant godmother to tell how her goddaughter was being tormented online.  The days that followed were difficult for her and her family. In the end, the godmother, who was initially distressed with the coverage, told Prout that friends of her goddaughter had read the story. They hadn’t before realized she had been harassed in that way. The newfound understanding and support improved her goddaughter’s life.

We editorialized by asking: How do we stop hate? We may not be able to change what is in someone’s heart, but we can require civil behavior. When no one objects to bullying, it emboldens the transgressor. And passivity adds to the victims’ suffering.

The district once again responded by holding a forum, in February, to educate the community, and Jo E. Prout was there to cover it.

Local experts on online predators, how students network on the Internet, and the resulting legal complications of these activities formed a five-person panel. Panelists stressed that parents, who are digital immigrants, must educate themselves about the technology of their children, who are digital natives, so that students can be both monitored and protected.

Prout, a Notre Dame anthropology major, is a mother herself. She brings to her work the keen eye of a detached observer and the compassion of someone who raises children well. She has covered a variety of beats in her years at The Enterprise — the villages of Altamont and Voorheesville, planning in Guilderland, and most recently the town of New Scotland. She’s won numerous awards, most recently as part of a first-place Press Association award for coverage of agriculture.

Prout was pregnant with her third child when she wrote her prize-winning story on cyberbullying. She came back from maternity leave to cover the February forum. She gave birth on Monday night, April 6, to Marcella Fleur. Marcella will join her sister, Clara, and brother, Benito, and their father, Roberto Flores, in the Victorian farmhouse the family is restoring.

We eagerly await Prout’s return to the newsroom.

Super Artist

Artist Forest Byrd has been with The Enterprise just over two years. In that time, he has raised our quality in the same way a superb singer can raise the level of an entire choir.

Byrd, who grew up in California and lives now in Knox, was an art major at California State University, Long Beach. His artwork has graced our special-section covers, illustrated our stories, and reinvented our editorial pages.

This year, his first-place cartoon illustrated an editorial calling for an extended building moratorium as New Scotland tried to align its zoning with its comprehensive land-use plan.

The art had its genesis in words whispered midst the bustle of crowds exiting a town board meeting. The whispered words caught the ear of our reporter, Saranac Hale Spencer: “I don’t want to be remembered for bringing Wal-Mart here,” the town supervisor said discreetly. After Hale Spencer dug in and broke the story on plans by Sphere Development to build a large retail mall on the old Bender melon farm, the public reacted.

A citizens’ group formed and gathered thousands of signatures, demanding that a reluctant town board adopt a moratorium on commercial building while new zoning was drafted. As the committee worked, time was running out, and we wrote an editorial calling for an extension to the building moratorium — which was ultimately granted.

Byrd’s cartoon captures the dilemma perfectly as a runner races hell bent into a stonewall. “Interesting portrayal of the race CZAC finds itself in,” wrote the judges. “Stopwatch and wind-blown hair along with markings on rocks depict speed and further emphasize the race against time.”

Byrd’s third-place cartoon uses the sort of whimsy that informs as it amuses. After a local update of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, we wrote an editorial about the dilemma of getting accurate information on global warming and climate change. A letter writer asserted polar bears weren’t threatened. We cited reputable sources that said otherwise, and explained the importance of reliable information. “We think of the polar bears’ dying the way the coal miner thought of their canaries. The miners brought the caged birds into the mines to warm them of the build-up of dangerous gases they couldn’t otherwise detect. They knew to get out of the mine when the canary died to save their own lives. We can’t get out the earth but we can make changes so the human race can go on living.”

Byrd drew a family of polar bears, nonchalantly checking their computer for the latest weather reports. “This cartoon accurately illustrates how confusing global warming can be due to the wealth of information available. The apathy of the polar bears,” the judges concluded of Byrd’s personified creatures, “is reflective of American attitudes…like the local tie to the global issue.”

Byrd routinely amazes his newsroom colleagues with his ability to — like the Super Artist he is — save the day when photographs we have planned fall through. (We rely week in and week out on the dedicated work of photographer Michael Koff but sometimes no subject presents itself.)

That happened as we were putting together our special section this summer on the Altamont Fair. Zach Simeone, a most careful and thorough reporter who capably covers the Hilltowns, wrote a feature on a new chili cook-off at the fair, put on by the Army. We had no photograph.

In less than 10 minutes, Byrd sketched two chili peppers stewing in an upturned Army helmet. One asks the other, “So…How long have you served?”

With a few deft strokes of his pencil, Byrd not only perfectly illustrated our story but also managed to raise some concerns about the stop-loss program, keeping soldiers “in the stew” for longer than the hitches they had signed on for.

The bold and creative effort brought Byrd the first-place award for Graphic Illustration, a category usually dominated by computer-generated art.

“Forest has a tremendous talent,” wrote the judges. “The illustration techniques are amazing. Bold, strong, creative, powerful. Simply outstanding!”

Byrd took second place for Graphic Illustration, too.  The entry illustrated an editorial, “Standing strong for the sake of democracy,” on the important role of newspapers’ informing citizens. It featured Superman as a favorite childhood comic, always ready to help someone in need, ready to right wrongs. While reporters may not be squeezing into phone booths, and emerging with colorful capes, the editorial opined, those of us working for the Weekly Planet are, like Clark Kent, aware of what is happening in our communities. We stay away from the kryptonite of citizen apathy by empowering our readers with knowledge. We use our editorial voices to right wrongs and help those in trouble.”

Byrd drew Superman, slumped before a TV set.

“Forest does it again,” wrote the contest judges. “The Superman illustration is fantastic. Wonderful composition!”


The third-place prize for editorials is one in a long line of awards, both state and national, The Enterprise has won for its editorials. Our words help to move people because they are based on solid reporting by a dedicated staff. The newest additions to our writing crew are Philippa Stasiuk, covering the villages with depth and insight, and Anne Hayden, covering Guilderland with verve.

This year’s award was for a May 8 editorial, “Public office is a public trust,” detailing spending by Rensselaerville officials at an out-of-town conference on such extras as cocktails and nightclubs and calling for accountability.

“The paper shines a light on alleged graft and misuse of taxpayer monies — then offered suggestions to remedy the problem and pushed those accused to come clean,” the judges wrote. “Good work keeping your eye on the community.” This January, the Rensselaerville Town Board decided that any official attending a convention would have to pay his own way.

As our readers continue to keep their eyes on us, we’ll continue to keep ours on the community. Together, we’ll right wrongs.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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