Saturday, July 17, 2021

Legacy-saving editorial wins weekly editors' top prize; other winners deal with pandemic, impact of protests, local issues

New York's Helderberg Escarpment overlooks a site an editorial helped save. (Photo by UpstateNYer, Creative Commons)
Editorials are falling out of favor at many American newspapers, for various reasons, including a desire not to upset and chase away readers. Unfortunately, many rural newspapers don't opine. But one journalism organization with mainly rural members was founded to encourage and advance editorial leadership in newspapers, and the only awards it gives are related to editorials.

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors gave its 2021 Golden Quill award for best editorial to Melissa Hale-Spencer of The Altamont Enterprise in New York for her piece that was central to a campaign that ensured fairness for an incapacitated subscriber and preservation of historic structures on her 87 acres at the foot of the scenic Helderberg Escarpment, the northeast extremity of the Allegheny Plateau, which overlooks the capital of Albany and the Hudson River.

Hale-Spencer discovered that a court-appointed lawyer was going to sell the property to a developer. “We believe the price is not right and the assets are being ignored in the name of haste,” she wrote, raising other questions about the procedure that seemed to favor the developer. The editorial stirred interest in preserving the property and prompted the judge in the case to appoint an attorney to look out for the subscriber's interests, and to pick another buyer, who not only paid more money but agreed to a conservation easement that preserved the centuries-old house and barn.

Melissa Hale-Spencer
“I feel incredibly lucky to have a newspaper that brought people in our community together to solve a problem,” Hale-Spencer said in accepting the award at ISWNE's annual conference, which was held online. (Next year it will be at the University of Kentucky, July 20-23.)

Pandemic and protests prompt commentary and courage

Noting that two of the 12 winners in the contest's "Golden Dozen" wrote about the pandemic, Hale-Spencer said, "The pandemic has made clear that accurate information can be a matter of life and death." She told the editors, "I urge you to stay strong, to believe in the worth of your work."

Mark Ridolfi, assistant editor of The North Scott Press in Eldridge, Iowa, warned Sept. 2 that inconsistency in state and Scott County measures against the coronavirus were putting residents at risk, and noted the infection of the school superintendent and 40 students. To those who wanted to let the virus "take its own course" and develop herd immunity, he asked, "Who is it OK to infect?"

Fines Massey, editor of the Laclede County Record in Lebanon, Mo., wrote Oct. 17 that virus cases were “skyrocketing” because residents were not wearing masks and keeping their distance. We have to stop shrugging this away,” he wrote. “We have to take this more seriously before it becomes seriously too late.” He also knocked the herd-immunity folks, calling them “incredibly heartless.” He told the editors that local attitudes are "much worse" now, and his publisher "asked if we were beating a dead horse," but Massey said, "If even sway one person, it's important that we continue."

The pandemic was also the topic of the winner of the college division of the contest, The Observer, the student newspaper for the University of Notre Dame, Saint Mary's College and Holy Cross College. On Aug. 21, as students prepared to return, the editorial board implored readers to “approach this virus in an appropriate and serious manner” and “Don't make us write obituaries.”

Two of the Golden Dozen editorials stemmed from the protests spawned by the Minneapolis murder of George Floyd. Rachel Woolworth, managing editor of the Herald Democrat in Leadville, Colo., criticized the local sheriff and police chief for writing, “The media has chosen to focus on Mr. Floyd’s skin color and the police officer’s skin color, because that is what sells.” She wrote, “These words dismiss the existence of institutional racism in our country.”

The hostility displayed by Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter protesters on either side of the main highway in Beacon, N.Y., led Jeff Simms, Beacon editor of The Highlands Current, to acknowledge “the anger and frustration our neighbors feel after a lifetime of slights and centuries of abhorrent treatment. Conversely, most police officers are not racists or rogue and must feel unfairly criticized and taken for granted.”

Other winners were purely local, except Paul Fletcher, publisher and editor-in-chief of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, a statewide publication. He warned against a possible return to a bounty-style compensation system for local prosecutors' offices, which "just looks and sounds bad."

Steve Bagwell, editorial-page editor of the McMinnville News-Register in Oregon, questioned the legal analysis of a judge in allowing "a remorseless teen murderer" to be free at age 25.

Tamara Botting, news editor of The Sachem in Stoney Creek, Ontario, called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit the area to deal with a land claim by some local First Nations.

Donald Dodd, publisher of The Salem News in Missouri, called for creation of a utility board "that can acquire an expertise of sorts" after a billing debacle in the city's $8.5 million utility department. 

Lori Freeze, news editor of the Stone County Leader in Mountain View, Ark., endorsed a school-tax hike, saying "It’s generally understood that local economies in rural America are consistent with the success of local school districts." (It lost in a referendum in late May, 927 to 826.)

John Hueston, editor-publisher of The Aylmer Express in Ontario, noted a high local death rate from alcohol and its contribution to the local court docket, and said the province's Liquor Control Board should hear some testimony from victims of alcohol abuse.

Jeremy Waltner, editor-publisher of the Freeman Courier in South Dakota, used a detailed description of the decline of Main Street to encourage the Freeman City Council to make improvements.

The editorials and judge's comments are in the latest edition of Grassroots Editor, ISWNE's quarterly journal.

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