Apr 17, 2018 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Can local news be saved? Not in the hands of Alden Global Capital

This illustration shows the original Denver Post staff members still remaining from a 2013 Pulitzer celebration photo. The Post and its sister papers, including The Saratogian, have suffered debilitating staff cuts by its hedge fund owners, Alden Global Capital.

Anyone want to buy The Saratogian? Please?

I don’t mean today’s edition or a subscription, print or online. I mean the whole kit and caboodle. The newspaper.

Local news is dying, and it’s not merely because publishing companies failed to figure out how to stay profitable in the Internet age. In Saratoga Springs and a couple hundred other cities and towns around the country, one particular owner of local newspapers is intentionally killing them.

The hope for local news, as I see it, could come in one of two forms: a buyer with big bucks and a real commitment to news, or an existing publisher who realizes that in-depth local news can be profitable as well as altruistic.

A few years ago, a hedge fund called Alden Global Capital bought the bankrupt Digital First Media. It owns about 200 papers, including The Saratogian and The (Troy) Record. The purchase wasn’t to save local newspapers from being shuttered, but to squeeze every last penny out of them.

It’s not like these papers, especially the smaller ones, were flush with resources to begin with. But Alden hasn’t simply cut staff to the bone. It has sucked out the marrow, cut the arteries and yanked out the organs. It did this to The Saratogian, which was consistently among the top-earners of journalism awards for its coverage despite its small staff, and to its Pulitzer Prize-winning papers, including its flagship, The Denver Post, and to all its papers in between.

The owners not only made a beloved job not fun; they made it intolerable. That’s why I and other colleagues took a buyout in 2015, and why others, including the esteemed editor of The Denver Post, walked away a year later. It’s why staff at the Berkshire Eagle rejoiced when Digital First sold them to new owners who truly care about local news and restored newsroom positions.

Earlier this month, the Denver staff – or what’s left of it – did a remarkable thing. The Post published a no-holds-barred criticism of Alden Global Capital and urged the owners to sell the paper. Pretty amazing for the employees to call out their owners so dramatically and publicly. I guess they figured they had nothing to lose and they were right: A Colorado civic group has responded, and investors have thus far pledged $10 million toward the purchase, CBS News reported Saturday.

Digital First Media’s staff cuts cannot be shrugged off as a sign of changing times for the media: Alden has been accused of draining hundreds of millions from its newspaper holdings to improperly prop up other questionable investments.

Meanwhile, a cadre of 10 dedicated journalists – no exaggeration, you can count them on two hands — do all the reporting, writing, photography, editing, headline writing, web posting, social media, everything for two seven-day-a-week papers (The Saratogian and The Record) and southern Saratoga County’s weekly Community News.

Who cares if no one digs into local news? Here’s one case for caring: Then-reporter Caitlin Morris took the time to review police logs and investigate an “unattended death” that turned out to be a homeless woman who froze to death – a story that ultimately led to the creation of the Code Blue shelter in Saratoga Springs.

The remaining two handfuls of staffers at The Saratogian and The Record are doing a good job against impossible odds. They believe, as I do, that local reporting is vital for providing news that people need to know and ought to know, to hold our institutions accountable and to serve as a catalyst for positive change.

All we need are people with big enough hearts and wallets to keep it alive.

Mar 23, 2018 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Young water-sellers back in business thanks to City Council member Franck

Accounts Commissioner John Franck has once again demonstrated leadership and problem-solving as a member of the Saratoga Springs City Council member, this time making it possible for kids to continue selling bottled water outside Saratoga Race Course.

Last fall, then-Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen announced a ban of the young vendors as his solution to a few problems with some of the sellers (or their parents). The ban was announced after the six-week racing season was over, in plenty of time for someone to figure out a better solution before the track reopens in July.

WAMC’s Lucas Willard explains how Franck worked with Skidmore College interns, the city attorneys, the police department and the code enforcement office. As Saratoga Springs resident John Kaufmann noted on his recent blog, Franck came up with a proposal that addressed concerns to the unanimous satisfaction of his four City Council colleagues.

I’m glad to support a youthful entrepreneur hawking bottled water for $1 – a real bargain compared to prices inside the gate. Common sense, with some rules attached, has prevailed thanks to Franck taking the initiative.

 

Mar 13, 2018 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Saratoga Springs City Council to young sledders: Use common sense

My neighbor is a law-abiding citizen who wants to set a good example for her second-grade daughter. So rather than simply ignore the “no sledding” post that suddenly appeared in January near a short, low-grade, unobstructed slope in Congress Park, she reached out to City Hall by phone and email to make a case for removing the sign from that area.

For four weeks my neighbor was bounced between well-meaning but ineffectual people in the mayor’s office and the public works department and was finally told that the sign was posted in error and would be removed that day.

It wasn’t.

This is a textbook example of the inefficiency of Saratoga Springs’ commission form of government, which is designed to have no one in charge. The mayor can eventually determine that a sign should be removed but lacks the power to direct public works staff to remove it.

My neighbor didn’t give up. She spelled out the situation in an email to City Council members and politely brought the matter to their attention during the public comment period of their Feb. 6 meeting.

Long-tenured City Council member Skip Scirocco, the commissioner of public works, responded at the meeting, saying the signs were posted to keep sledders off steep slopes near trees or stumps. Scirocco said “it’s not an issue” on the mild slope if children are supervised and people use “a little common sense.”

One of Scirocco’s council colleagues, Accounts Commissioner John Franck, whose oversight responsibility includes “risk management,” added that years ago an accident on a steep hill in the park had raised insurance issues. But neither he nor anyone else disputed Scirocco’s statement that parents needn’t worry about supervised youngsters sledding in the area that can barely be called a hill.

You can see and hear what my neighbor considered to be a satisfactory response from Scirocco on the video of the meeting, which is readily available on the city’s website. But that part of Scirocco’s comments are totally absent from the written meeting minutes, which are also on the site.

As a lifelong journalist, I know reporters must pick what to include and what to emphasize. They must condense long and sometimes rambling statements. And they must decide what to leave out. A clerk responsible for creating minutes of a public meeting faces similar challenges. In this case, the Feb. 6 meeting minutes ought to be amended to note Scirocco’s unequivocal assurance in response to my neighbor’s specific concerns.

My neighbor didn’t want the lesson for her daughter to be that it’s OK to ignore official signs. But at least she received the City Council’s promise that common sense would prevail in allowing children to enjoy mild sledding in that safe little section of the park – even though the poorly placed sign remains, two months later.

 

Mar 13, 2018 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Stefanik offers weak explanation for partisan vote on Russia probe

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik cites 2018 elections for supporting partisan end of House probe into Russian interference.

A day after the Republicans on the House intel committee announced its conclusion of its Russian interference (totally excluding the committee’s Democratic members), this area’s congress member, Republican Elise Stefanik, offers this weak explanation for supporting a totally partisan action in what she calls a “bipartisan investigation.”

She went along with her GOP majority colleagues in light of “2018 primary elections already underway and only several months until the mid-term elections.”

Huh?

She says she will “continue to be an outspoken supporter of the Mueller investigation, which I believe is best equipped and our best hope to get to the apolitical truth.”

Meanwhile, she considers her committee’s incomplete report finished, and the Republicans can tout its findings, which fly in the face of what our nation’s intelligence has established about Russian interference and the unresolved question of collusion by Trump or his family and supporters.

Mar 12, 2018 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Silent Stefanik should justify vote on House Judiciary Committee

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik should tell us how she justified her vote.

To U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, who likes to tout transparency: Please tell us how you, as a Republican member of House Judiciary Committee, justifies closing the Russian election interference probe without committee Democrats, and drawing conclusions in direct conflict with U.S. intelligence. Your silence on anything controversial is deafening.

 

 

Feb 22, 2018 - Uncategorized    No Comments

How I Spent My President’s Day Weekend in New York City

Following the Hudson River on Amtrak.

Overlooking St. Patrick’s

Egyptian doppleganger?

Pleading for her sister’s life in “Last of the Mohicans” painting.

Poached egg on avocado toast at The National.

“Come From Away” set at Schoenfeld Theatre.

When you’re done with deadlines and your spouse has a three-day weekend, a weekend in New York City is a perfect getaway.

My husband invited me to surprise him with tickets to the Broadway show of my choice, and I chose “Come From Away.” This uplifting, low-key musical focuses on 9/11 – yes, the day of the 2001 terrorist attacks — when 38 planes were diverted to a tiny Newfoundland town, focusing on real townspeople and passengers (all played by a solid 12-member ensemble).

I’d seen it last fall, loved it, wanted to see it again and guessed, correctly, that he’d enjoy it, too. This Tony-winner is charming, funny, moving and, most of all, an affirmation of the goodness of people.

Also good for the soul was our morning at The Metropolitan Museum of Art for the “Atlantic Crossings” exhibit featuring the work of Thomas Cole, known as founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting in the 1800s. I especially liked the portrayal of a scene from James Fennimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans.”

I also liked seeing in person the huge Washington Crossing the Delaware and John Frederick Kensett 1869 painting of Lake George, whose framed print hangs over my fireplace. The Met is so large and varied that you can wander through one wing or another for hours. Seeking out a restroom, I happened upon Egyptian mummies and the actual Temple of Dendur from 10 B.C. during the reign of Augustus Caesar.

The Met was a change of pace from my go-to Museum of Modern Art, which is across the street from our go-to southern Italian restaurant, Il Gattopardo. I order something different almost every time we eat there (Saturday it was chickpea soup and the special pasta with mushrooms), and I’m never disappointed. For a full breakfast, we like The National, where I’m partial to the poached egg on avocado toast, something I’d never make at home.

My other pampering for the weekend was a 36th-floor room overlooking St. Patrick’s Cathedral across mid-town Manhattan all the way to the Hudson River.

Keeping with the Hudson theme, I picked the right side – which is to say, the left side – of the train leaving Penn Station, following the partially frozen water past the Catskills all the way to Rensselaer County, where Albany’s Empire State Plaza pokes up across the river.

Feb 7, 2018 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

Pulitzer-winner Eyre an inspiration to future (and current) journalists

 

Pulitzer-winning reporter Eric Eyre, whose newspaper filed for bankruptcy.

An email arrived today that illustrates why I remain optimistic about journalism despite being worried to death about its future.

It started last week, when I asked my journalism students at the University at Albany to read the work of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner of their choice and email the writer some questions. Four students chose the investigative work of Eric Eyre of the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette-Mail, who won, as explained on pulitzer.org, “For courageous reporting, performed in the face of powerful opposition, to expose the flood of opioids flowing into depressed West Virginia counties with the highest overdose death rates in the country.”

Today, Eyre sent me this email: “Hi Barbara: Just trying to figure out the best way to answer these questions from your students. Our paper filed for bankruptcy last week and things are a bit hectic right now.”

Yikes.

This Pulitzer assignment was intended to inspire the next generation of reporters, not scare them into public relations.

Niraj Chokshi summed up the situation in a Feb. 2 New York Times story about the bankruptcy: “For decades, The Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia has exposed corruption, greed and incompetence with a tenacity that was rewarded last year with journalism’s highest honor, a Pulitzer Prize. But the newspaper now faces a painful reality: No matter how strong its journalism, no publication is immune to the economic pressure on the industry.”

Don’t I know it. My heart aches as the hedge fund that owns my hometown paper continues to squeeze the life out of the newsroom I managed for more than 30 years. Granted, we didn’t win a Pulitzer. But in 2017 the East Bay Times in Oakland, Calif., owned by the same fund, did – for exposing the city’s culpability in a fire that killed 36 people. Yet the staff there is also shrinking through buyouts and layoffs.

Journalists are doing awesome work at every level, not to win awards but to give voice to the disadvantaged, the overlooked, the ordinary citizen. Doing that takes people to report the news, owners committed to journalism, and a public willing to pay for it.

Chokshi’s article offers hope that the expected buyer of the Gazette-Mail will continue to invest in its newsroom. Meanwhile, as Eyre and his colleagues wait uncertainly for what’s next, he told the Times, “The news goes on, and we’re there to cover it.”

Yet with all that going on, a thoughtful Eyre still found time to reach out to me, concerned about responding to a handful of college students 600 miles away in upstate New York. That’s class. So, while I worry about the business of journalism, I’m not worried about future journalists – not with people like Eyre to inspire them.

Jan 31, 2018 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Donors needed to match grant for state park tennis courts, lights

Saratoga Spa State Park is a local treasure, and one of its gems — the tennis courts – could get even better this summer.

The state is offering $75,000 in matching funds to add lights and double the number of artificial clay courts from four to eight. So far, about $15,000 has been raised toward the match, including $5,000 from the nonprofit Friends of the Saratoga Spa State Park (whose volunteers maintain the existing courts) and contributions from assorted tennis lovers.

The courts are open to all players, no charge. More people will be able to enjoy them, for a longer period, if enough donations are made to the Friends of the Saratoga Spa State Park at 19 Roosevelt Drive, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, or online at www.friendsofsaratogaspastatepark.org.

As the snow falls, I’m grateful for my Saratoga Regional YMCA membership and the use of their indoor courts. But truth be told, I can’t wait to get outside on the clay.

Jan 26, 2018 - Uncategorized    No Comments

‘The Post’ reminds us: A protected press protects the public

The Pentagon Papers revealed how four presidencies misled the public about an unwinnable war.

A friend of mine who admits to applauding at the end of movies said she was in good company at a recent showing of “The Post.”

“What do you think,” she asked her politically conservative husband as the credits rolled, “is the audience full of liberals?”

“No,” he replied. “Patriots.”

A round of applause!

I wouldn’t give “The Post” a best movie Oscar; despite a terrific cast and riveting premise, it was a bit sappy. But I shamelessly and spontaneously whooped when the Supreme Court recognized the crucial role of the First Amendment and a free press in holding government accountable. I love the film’s snippet of Justice Hugo Black’s eloquent opinion about how press freedom must be protected so that it may “serve the governed, not the governors.”

I’m hopeful that “The Post” will inform a new generation about the Pentagon Papers (of 18 students in my University at Albany journalism class this semester, no one had seen the movie, one had heard of it, and only a couple were at least vaguely familiar with the Pentagon Papers).
Besides, it’s never been more important for people to appreciate the role of the press.

My stomach churns every time the president says “fake news.” When he called the press the enemy of the American people, it felt like a punch in the gut. And his flip comments and tweets inciting violence against journalists scare the heck out of me.

Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker (whose column appears in The Saratogian) this week addressed the connection between Trump’s relentless demonizing of the media and a disturbed 19-year-old’s recent calls threatening to kill CNN staff. “Fake news. I’m coming to gun you all down,” he said in one of the milder rants.

Writes Parker: “One could reasonably argue that Trump isn’t to blame for what others do or say. On the other hand, one could also posit that when the president targets journalists or media institutions by name in his frequent ‘fake news’ rants, he bears some responsibility for what happens as a result. … When a pattern of incitement can be demonstrated, should the inciter be held accountable?”

Trump’s incitement, Parker continues, “doesn’t make him culpable if someone goes off the deep end, but it does make him a despicable human being, which is bad enough. In a president, it’s unpardonable.”

Nov 13, 2017 - Journalism    3 Comments

Commissioners Misuse City Funds for Political Agenda

Counting all the valid votes in an election is a good thing, right? Of course it is.

That’s the rationale three commissioners on the Saratoga Springs City Council are giving for their decision to hire an election lawyer to oversee the process of counting absentee ballots in the hotly contested charter change vote.

In a special council meeting on Monday, Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan defended the decision on the basis that proponents of the charter change are hiring a lawyer to oversee the process. Accounts Commissioner John Franck previously told the Times Union that he anticipates the attorney working on behalf of charter change advocates would try to get votes disqualified.

But using public funds for this purpose is essentially unheard of in New York. Election lawyers to oversee ballot counts are hired by candidates or issue activists, not by a local government.

“This is among the most categorically outrageous and inappropriate uses of public money I have ever seen and I work in Albany,” tweeted Ken Giardin, a policy analyst with the Empire Center for Policy, an independent think tank.

Advocates against charter change (including Madigan, Franck and Public Works Commissioner Skip Scirocco) could hire their own attorney using private funds.

So why are Frank and Madigan leading this charge? They need every paper ballot counted to overcome the 48-vote lead pro-charter change advocates had after Election Day. It has been reported that the returned absentee ballots (more than 510) lean Republican, which anecdotally should benefit opponents to the charter change.

Franck said on Monday that his opposition to the charter change was “immaterial,” but it’s hard to imagine he would take this position if his side was leading in the vote.

This was a guest post by David Lombardo, who has covered multiple absentee ballot counts as a reporter and oversaw the absentee ballot count for Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara in 2014.

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