Blogs > Fresh Ink

Barbara Lombardo writes about journalisml, local news and anything else that strikes her fancy. She is executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News, sister papers in the Digital First Media family. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Good news about complying with Freedom of Information Law requests

City Editor Charlie Kraebel had seven reporters do a little experiment over the last few weeks to test how government entities and schools on their beat responded to requests for public documents.  All seven, who write for our daily papers, The Record and The Saratogian, and our weekly Community News in southern Saratoga County, were assigned to make a request through New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

It’s a terrific and important law, designed not merely for the media but for the public. Public institutions are doing the public’s business, and most of what they do should, by law, be available for the public to see. Government agencies even use it when they need to get documents from other public agencies.

The result of our FOIL experiment waspublished in The Record and The Saratogian on Sunday. All reporters received the legally required responses and found their requests filled. We thought there was an exception from the city of Saratoga Springs for records about animal control services, which was graciously accepted in person by the city records officer, who indicated familiarity with the law. They then replied in writing – but the letter was inadvertently mislaid on our end. The city didn't deserve the critical write-up in the originally published version. 

The FOIL request test was timed to coincide with Sunshine Week, described on sunshineweek.org as “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” 

It began with Florida newspapers in 2002 and spread nationwide. The date it tied to the March 16 birthday of James Madison, the fourth president of the U.S., a founder of the Constitution and author of the Bill of Rights. States have varying versions of Freedom of Information laws, and New York’s is one of the best in protecting the public’s right to know.

Learn more about how to obtain public records, and about access to public meetings, in New York at  www.dos.ny.gov/coog/

Friday, January 30, 2015

'A Constellation of Vital Phenomena' would've been worth the fine

“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra, a 2013 novel set in a war-torn village in Chechnya, was recommended to me by a couple of friends.

After borrowing a copy from the Saratoga Springs Public Library and reading the first three pages, I was hooked. I selected it as my book club’s read the next time it was my turn to pick.

I love this book, but one copy suffices. The library initially
insisted I couldn't renew my copy because someone had
reserved it, even though several were in the stacks.
The library's Jeannine Jeter solved the problem.
Marra’s writing is beautifully vivid, his story-telling remarkable. Although the main story takes place over only five days, readers learn in layers about the past and future of the main characters as well as those who pass through in only a sentence. Not a word is wasted in what Ron Charles described in the Washington Post as “fresh, graceful prose.”

I’m about a third of the way through the book. I knew it was due any day now, so when I happened to be at the library yesterday, the woman at the checkout desk scanned my key card: “Tomorrow,” she said. Renew it, please. “Can’t,” she replied. “Someone reserved it.”

Probably someone in my book club.

Over in the M’s, five or six copies awaited a borrower. “There’s a bunch of them,” I said. “Just switch the reserved copy to one of the available ones.”

“Can’t,” she replied. Maybe someone at the Information Desk could help, she said.

At the Information Desk was Jeannine Jeter, who appreciated the absurdity of the situation. But she didn’t know how to outsmart the computer system’s insistence that only my copy of the book would satisfy the waiting customer, even though several were in the stacks.

Short-term solution to avoid a late fee: Check out one of the other copies, and return the copy at home before the end of the next day.

A short while later, though, Jeannine sent me a message: She’d figured out how to switch the reserved book request to an available book, and renewed the copy I’d originally borrowed. So now I have two on loan, one of which I will drop off on my way home from work today. I promise.

I love it when someone won’t take no from a computer for an answer, when someone takes the initiative to tackle and solve a problem, for the satisfaction of getting it done. 

Thank you, Jeannine. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

'Girls Who Code' founder speaking in Saratoga Jan. 24

Science. Technology. Engineering. Math.
Reshma Saujani is the speaker for the
Cabin Fever luncheon Jan. 24 in Saratoga Springs.
Sign up at soroptimistsaratoga.org. 
Combined, they form STEM, an acronym for what students ought to be studying to fill well-paying jobs in the public and private sectors.
Many of our local schools, elementary through post-graduate, are focusing on STEM. More than a million STEM-related jobs are expected to be open up in the next four years — “but there won’t be enough qualified graduates to fill them,” according to a federal government website, studyinthestates.dhs.gov.
Next Saturday, we have an opportunity to hear firsthand from a woman who has been in the front lines of preparing young women for jobs in technology. Reshma Saujani, founder of the national nonprofit organization Girls Who Code, is the speaker at the Cabin Fever Luncheon on Saturday, Jan. 24, in Saratoga Springs. I’ll be there, for sure, and seats are still available. (See below for details unabashedly plugging the event.)
Saujani’s interests and experience may be rooted in STEM, but her reach is much broader. Her website describes her as “a true political entrepreneur (who) has been fearless in her efforts to disrupt both politics and technology to create positive change.”
It’s not bragging. A graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Yale Law School, her recognition includes being named one of Forbes’ Most Powerful Women Changing the World, Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People, and Business Insider’s 50 Women Who Are Changing the World. Her book, “Women Who Don't Wait in Line,” is about female leadership and, as summed up by the Daily Beast, “talks about running for public office and having the courage to fail.”
Saujani is an Illinois native of Indian descent, has been a lawyer, a congressional candidate, and Deputy Public Advocate of New York City. Her political platform focused on “creating educational and economic opportunities for women and girls, immigrants, and those who have been sidelined in the political process.”
Which brings us back to STEM and Girls Who Code.
The GirlsWhoCode.com website succinctly states its mission and vision:  “To inspire, educate, and equip girls with the computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities.”
Boys ought to have those skills, too. But as people in the STEM fields will attest, girls have catching up to do.
“We believe that more girls exposed to computer science at a young age will lead to more women working in the technology and engineering fields,” explains GirlsWhoCode.com.
Among the exciting things about Girls Who Code and Saujani’s other work is her success in bringing together leaders in the public and private sectors —  educators, engineers, and business — and combining instruction, mentoring, entrepreneuship and civic engagement.   
Now, about the Cabin Fever Luncheon. It is hosted by Soroptimist International of Saratoga County, the local branch of an international public service organization that I’ve belonged to for more than three decades.
Soroptimist efforts address both local and global issues, such as domestic violence, human trafficking, grants to local nonprofits, and scholarships to women and girls improving themselves through education and community service. The group has two big fund-raisers each year, the Secret Gardens Tour (July 12 this year) and the Cabin Fever Luncheon.

To sign up for the luncheon or learn more about Soroptimists, visit soroptimistsaratoga.org or call 581-1201 ext. 4184.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Focusing on local news, across county lines

You are more likely to find me at my
desk than at the gym. (And, full disclosure,
my desk is this neat only the night
before a vacation.)
My standing New Year resolutions include going to the gym, eating healthier, worrying less about my children and writing regularly. And here we are, the first Sunday of the year, and so far so good — for the writing.
Since Jan. 1, I’ve been to the gym, um, not once. I had Chinese food for dinner and leftover Chinese food for breakfast. When my sons call I drop everything, even though they’re 27 and 25 and living independently (while my husband wryly observes that he lands in voice mail).
For me, 2014 was a year of personal and professional change.
The big thing was that I turned 60, an age that I am happy to have attained and yet in denial of having reached. If you’re my age or older, you know what I mean. If you’re younger, just wait.
Professionally, after years as managing editor of The Saratogian, where I began my journalism career, I was promoted last January by Publisher Mike O’Sullivan to the expanded role of executive editor of The Record, The Saratogian and the weekly Community News, which all fall under the umbrella of a company called Digital First Media.
A regional approach already in play in the advertising department under Advertising Director Barbara Fignar and in the sports department under Executive Sports Editor Kevin Moran expanded into the digital and print news coverage under the leadership of Editor Lisa Lewis, News Editor Paul Tackett, Digital Editor Karen Wallingford, and City Editor Charlie Kraebel, who just celebrated his one-year anniversary with us. Happy anniversary, Charlie!
Mid-way through the year, newsroom staff reductions — an occupational hazard in the news business everywhere — necessitated a leap into a regional approach to planning, reporting and editing. One of the challenges has been keeping our eye on news of particular interest to our specific and diverse communities, while recognizing that a regional approach is in fact appropriate for much of the news, especially as it relates to our quality of life, health, finances, jobs and family.
Consider, for instance, some of the top local stories of 2014:
The sprawling Albany diocese, which includes Rensselaer and Saratoga County, got a new bishop, when Edward B. Scharfenberger was appointed by Pope Francis to succeed Howard J. Hubbard, a Troy native who led the diocese for 37 years.
The 62-year-old Hoffman’s Playland in Latham got a new lease on life with new owners a new location for this summer adjoining Huck Finn’s Warehouse & More.
A Schenectady waterfront project was selected for the region’s only full-scale casino, beating out two proposals for Rensselaer County, including one put forth by the owners of Saratoga Casino and Raceway.
One of New York’s most power politicians, former state Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, whose district included Rensselaer and Saratoga counties, was acquitted of charges tied to accusations that he took a businessman’s bribes in exchange for steering state money toward the man’s business interests; the state attorney general subsequently agreed that the state would pay $2.4 million as reimbursement for his legal defense bills.
And there was business growth of note in both Troy and Saratoga Springs, along with milestones like the 50th anniversary of the Holiday Inn, the hotel that spurred the revitalization of downtown Saratoga Springs, and the 30th anniversary of the Saratoga Springs City Center. Those two entities continue today to anchor the two ends of Saratoga’s lively Broadway.
Impressive development in downtown Troy during 2014 included the reopening of the former Proctors building on Fourth Street as home to the Rensselaer County Regional Chamber of Commerce; the start of renovations to Tech Valley Center of Gravity’s future home; new life breathed into the historic Dauchy Building by Saratoga-based Bonacio Construction; the purchase by Pfeil & Co. — another firm with ties to both Troy and Saratoga Springs — of the historic building that houses the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall; and the debut of the River Street Lofts.
The regional outlook is in addition to, not in place of, local news.
For instance, our daily Community Page in print and the digital Community page under Lifestyle on our websites, troyrecord.com and saratogian.com, contain a running calendar of events submitted by representatives of local organizations as well as a large photograph, usually submitted by readers, to feature a local activity that has occurred or promote one that is coming up. (Send photos to Charlie at ckraebel@digitalfirstmedia.com.)
We realize that our readers’ interests and concerns don’t end at the city or county line. We work, play, seek medical care, study, travel and have connections throughout the Capital Region. And a good human interest story is always a welcome read, regardless of ZIP code.
That said, our niche is what it’s always been — local news — including the celebration of individual achievements in the school and workplace, non-profits and their staff and volunteers, spaghetti suppers and other fund-raisers large and small, neighborhood issues, keeping officials accountable, and providing a forum for opinions.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. You know where to find me: Not at the gym.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Skidmore College earns A+ for getting word out in emergencies

Reporter Paul Post took this picture of police
responding to Monday's bomb scare on the
Skidmore College campus. 
No one was hurt, thank goodness, when Skidmore College faced a couple of recent safety threats — the Oct. 1 lockdown prompted by the presence of an accused rapist, who was apprehended, and Monday’s bomb scare, which, happily, turned up nothing and resulted in canceled morning classes. The police did their jobs well in both cases. And what is also worth noting is how well the school’s emergency notification system works. The college wasted not a second getting its warnings out, using texts, email, updates on skidmore.edu, and notification via Facebook and Twitter, as well as alerting the region's media. The notification system worked. In addition, in both recent cases, Skidmore sent emails to parents after the emergencies were resolved.

I asked the college communications folks for more details, and Dan Forbush explained that Skidmore has the ability to send an emergency alert to students and employees simultaneously by phone (converting the typed message to voice), text, and email, and also deliver it instantly to their own home page, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. “When an emergency arises, Campus Safety uses e2campus to summon all the key people to a conference bridge, so that we’re able to constantly pool our information and determine essential messages to be transmitted, not only to students, faculty, and staff, but also to parents. It takes a lot of teamwork,” Forbush wrote. 

After incidents like these, the dean of students and campus safety director review what went well and what could have done better. “We always learn a few valuable lessons that help us confront the next emergency situation, whatever it may be,” Forbush said.

“It’s worth noting that in both of these recent incidents, students played key roles,” he added. “In the first, students spotted the intruder and immediately reported it to Campus Safety. In the second, it was a student who found the threatening note and brought to Campus Safety. We appreciate their vigilance and assistance.”


We appreciate the students’ vigilance, too, as well as the good work of the college and police.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Election Night focuses on the Internet

It’s 1:30 a.m., way too late to be blogging for someone who’s been up since 6 a.m. and has to be back at this desk in seven hours. But we just wrapped up Election Night online coverage, and I wanted to tell you how proud I am of the way our staff turned around results for readers of TroyRecord.com and Saratogian.com and followers on Twitter and Facebook.
A number of races were uncontested and several weakly contested – but some were hard-fought campaigns that could have gone either way till all the ballots were in. Keeping tabs on results kept reporters at their various campaign locations and the handful of editors at The Record and The Saratogian (Lisa Lewis, Chelsea Kruger, Paul Tackett, Lianne Kim and Karen Wallingford -- yes, you can count us on one hand) hopping from the time the polls closed till past midnight. We wanted to be able to tell you who won the local races, as well as what was happening nationally.
To be sure, it’s weird to publish print editions before the polls close. Even after a couple of election cycles with the deadline, I don’t like having a morning paper without last night’s results. But that did free us tonight to concentrate on being where most readers are: on the Internet.


As for the campaigns: I’d like to say kudos to all the candidates who cared enough about their community, state and country to run for office; and congratulations to those who won. I’m so glad the robo-calls and mailings will be on hold for a few months. And I’m glad to say that I picked some winners when I voted Tuesday morning.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Wind turbines are elegant harnesses of Mother Nature's energy

Two of the many wind turbines
visible from the road en route
to Hamilton, NY
The photo I took from the car this past weekend barely caught two of the more than a couple of dozen wind turbines that poke over the hills en route to Hamilton, N.Y.
I can’t speak to complaints that the turbines make noise or harm birds, both issues that should be addressed.

But for those who don’t like their looks, I beg to differ. The turbines are elegant testaments to meeting a need for power smartly and creatively. They are showing up en masse in more and more places, harnessing Mother Nature’s unbounded energy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Letchworth State Park: the peak of fall vacation


I'm tempted to call it gorge-ous. The views at Letchworth
State Part just after Columbus Day were spectacular.
Cleaning out the garage to make room for the cars before snow falls was a gratifying accomplishment on my vacation last week.

But what I really loved about this vacation was the breathtaking fall foliage enjoyed from four vantage points not all that far from home: to and from the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.; an afternoon with fellow members of the Voorheesville High School Class of 1972 on George and Judy Klapp’s lovely homestead; an early evening on the gorgeous 60 acres of DZ Enterprise’s newest project in Galway, a place for parties, meetings and get-togethers amid ponds, trails and rolling hills; and, last but not least, a morning taking in the place that bills itself,
The Middle Falls has a railroad trestle in the distance and is a
stone's throw from the quaint Glen Iris Inn, which
offers this view if you're lucky enough to dine there.
immodestly but not too unreasonably, as “The Grand Canyon of the East” – Letchworth State Park, in western New York.


Letchworth is what I want to tell you about today.

One of Letchworth State Park's three waterfalls.
At its northernmost entrance is Mt. Morris, which accurately boasts about being “best town by a dam site.” It is home, after all, to the oldest dam of its type east of the Mississippi. Last week, as turkey vultures weaved overhead, the water was pretty much non-existent on the dammed side; my husband, Jim, who grew up in Mt. Morris, remembers how it was filled to overflowing when the valley flooded in 1972.



Several times a year we return to the town to visit my Jim’s father. But it had been years since we drove through Letchworth, long past the days of bringing the boys and even longer past searching for a place to neck. The park last week was a carpet of trees in bright yellow, orange, green and red, rising above the Genesee River and along the cliffs of three waterfalls. A bit past peak, it could hardly have been more beautiful – if you like that sort of scenery. I love it.





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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Grants available for literacy projects

There's money to be had for organizations that promote literacy, and I want to help give some of it to groups in this area.
The money comes from the New York Newspapers Foundation. I've had the honor of being a trustee for the past few years. We've funded a variety of projects, many that come from libraries and literacy organizations, and I'd love to see some applications from this region on the table.
Another round of funding is coming up, so I'm spreading the word in time for the Nov. 7 deadline.
Here's the press release with more details:
ALBANY >> The Trustees of the New York Newspapers Foundation are seeking applications for funding of projects that foster the development of literacy, with particular emphasis on innovative programs which involve networks of community organizations, and which can be replicated in other communities.
In general, grants are issued on a one-time basis and organizations are expected to seek ongoing support from alternate sources. Recent grants have supported community
wide reading projects, parent-child reading programs, and library projects designed to help recent immigrants to develop reading skills.
The New York Newspapers Foundation, a non-profit organization, was established in 1977 by the New York State Publishers Association (now the New York News Publishers Association). The purpose of the Foundation is to encourage the advancement of freedom of speech and of the press, study and scientific research in related fields, the promotion of education, and to assist those involved in all endeavors relating to the dissemination of information.
Organizations wishing to apply for grants from the New York Newspapers Foundation, and whose work is in keeping with the foundation’s goals, are encouraged to supply a brief statement (two pages maximum) describing their work and a project budget to: Diane Kennedy, New York Newspapers Foundation, 252 Hudson Ave., Albany, NY 12210. Application materials are available at www.nynpa.com/foundation.html.
Requests should be submitted by Nov. 7.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Joan Watkin: a quiet person and expressive artist

Ray Watkin next to a self-portrait of his late wife Joan,
whose work was on display Sept. 12-14 at the
Universal Preservation Hall.
The times I would run into Joan Watkin, she was pretty quiet. I learned that she was a shy person, the perfect foil for her husband, Raymond.

But she most definitely expressed herself: through her art.

Joan was a talented artist, and I was glad to get to see some of her work on display this past weekend at the Universal Preservation Hall, the renovated former church at 25 Washington St.

You may recognize some of the portraits by the
late wife Joan Watkin, whose 
work was on display
Sept. 12-14 at the 
Universal Preservation Hall.
Joan passed away Aug. 19, 2013, a couple of months after her and Ray’s 50th wedding anniversary. She was a trained artist and worked as commercial artist for various places, including The Saratogian. Her passions were art and animal welfare.

Although I never really got to know Joan, I’ve had a special connection to her husband almost since moving to Saratoga Springs to become a newspaper reporter in June 1977. But it wasn’t because Raymond Watkin was mayor when I was covering the city beat. It’s because one year later he performed my marriage ceremony, a story for another day. He and Joan were guests at the wedding.


So it was a pleasure to see Joan’s work on display – a variety of media and a mix of self-portraits, portraits of many local people, landscapes, animals and more. My husband and I bought a couple of packs of notecards of her work to benefit the UPH. I think I’ll use some and save a few, just to enjoy. Her lovely artwork is a reminder that a quiet person may have quite a lot to say.