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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Keeping King's Dream Alive

When commemorative dates like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday rolls around, it's a reminder to journalists to focus on the subject -- and also an embarrassing reminder about how little is done as a matter of course the rest of the year.
Attitudes and opportunities have advanced dramatically over the last 40 years. I distinctly remember a former white co-worker who was my parents' age expressing disgust and anger when he saw a mixed-race couple -- a black man and a white woman -- walking down the street in Saratoga Springs. He's long gone, and I don't know if his attitudes have softened with time. He wasn't alone in his abhorrence and wouldn't be to this day.
Thankfully, most of society has moved forward. And now we have a self-described black man -- the son of a black man and a white woman -- who is a contender for the Democratic nomination of president of the United States.
I wish Martin Luther King had lived to see this day.
Closer to home, the lessons of tolerance and equal opportunities were brought home by local students whose teachers were encouraged to have them write essays based on King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. I was honored to be asked to review the high school students' essays and select a couple to be honored for "editor's choice" recognition.
In addition Harriet Finch, who was overseeing the essay project, shared with me some of the essays written by younger students. One girl wrote: “Before this assignment, I didn’t know anything about the horrible conditions and mistreatment of blacks in the south. I was just glad to have another day off. Now I am forever changed. Starting with me ... my family will not tolerate discrimination.”
Attention, parents and teachers. No further proof is needed of the value of talking and teaching about race relations, tolerance, and Martin Luther King

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When It's OK to Yell "Fire"

This morning, on my first day back to work after several days off, my cell phone buzzed before 8 a.m. from a caller identified as "Frank" -- my boss.
Hoo-boy, welcome back, what now?
"There's a fire in town," the publisher said. "A big one."
In that instant, vacation mode evaporated and the almost shameful thrill of a breaking news story started the journalism adrenalin pumping.
I called the police station to find out what was happening. "Can't talk to you, we're really busy," said a polite dispatcher. "Give me someone in charge," I asked.
When an officer came on, I identified myself and said I had heard there was a fire on Beekman Street. "153," he replied (which turned out to be Grand, not Beekman, but close enough). "You should be able to see the smoke out your window."
The first news person I tried to call was Rick Gargiulo, the chief photographer who is also the daytime photographer. I left messages on his home phone, cell phone and office phone -- discovering shortly thereafter that he already was at the in-town fire, went from there to a fire in Burnt Hills, and then doubled back to photograph a school event to go with a story by Ann Marie French.
Next I woke up Ed Burke, in case Rick didn't respond.
Then it dawned on me to call our Web editor, Steve Shoemaker, who I caught running out the newsroom door, equipped with the video camera, still camera and a pad. He covered the story as a modern-day multi-media reporter, interviewing, writing, videotaping and then coming back to the office to write up his story and load the video. (Check it out!!!)
With coverage set, I called the Circulation Department, where the tip for the fire originated, to thank them and let them know they shouldn't hesitate to call me at home for breaking news. Customer Service Rep Stephany Quevillon had heard about it from a driver, and when she didn't know whether a photographer was available she hustled out to the scene herself and snapped a couple of shots with flames on her cell phone camera. What great teamwork. (Maybe I can steal her from the circ department.)
The other night, on the prodding of my son, I started watching "The Wire." In one scene a handful of jaded employees of the Baltimore Sun are standing in the newsroom, looking out the window at smoke from a distant (but not too distant) fire. The city editor steps over, and, disgusted, said what I was thinking: "What kind of people see a fire and just stand there."
This morning, I was proud to be working with people who recognize a story and jump on it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Government’s role isn’t to push gambling

The eagerness and avarice with which politicians raise public money through lotteries has always made me a bit queasy. And Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to lease some of New York’s lottery operations to the private sector leaves me even more unsettled.

Over the years, government went from banning illegal numbers running to going into the lottery business itself, big-time. Rolls of snazzy scratch-off tickets beckon from the counter at convenient stores, commercials urge citizens to drop a dollar for a dream, and big deals are made about ordinary folks who’ve become instant millionaires.

Now, New York is looking at returning to private operation of at least some lotteries. This time, however, government intends to keep a major cut of the operation. Unlike backroom bookies, it will work with billionaire business people who would supposedly be able to increase lottery revenue (and, of course, their own profits).

How will they do it? By getting you to gamble more.

State lotteries are a regressive volunteer tax camouflaged as a way to raise more money for school aid. It is shameful to promote gambling under the guise of supporting education.

I am not against gambling. That would be a bit disingenuous coming from a 30-year resident raising a family in a city whose economic lifeblood is horse racing.

That said, I’m not much of any kind of gambler. At the racetrack, I drop a few bucks on exactas based on names and birthdays, all part of the day’s entertainment. The office pool is the only thing that interests me in the Super Bowl. I’ve tucked a scratch-off or two in a birthday card, and enjoy receiving them. And I’ve thrown a buck now and then into the pot when there’s a gazillion-dollar payoff, rather than be the only employee left in the building after Yolanda Vega calls our number.

However, “playing” a game is supposed to be fun. Though the prospect of a big payoff is tantalizing, I’ve never been one to stomach the risk of losing more than a couple of bucks.

There’s no doubt that lotteries are extremely profitable, and I can’t argue that anyone is forced to play. Still, government getting into the act of encouraging gambling has always rubbed me the wrong way. It just doesn’t seem right, as a society, to push gambling.

Yet just about every state government has gotten into the act, and a few in addition to New York are looking at leasing lottery operations as a way to make even more money.

So who would make out in this deal? A New York official said a key element of any proposal would be protection of the 350 existing lottery-related jobs. So there’d be no savings in state payroll. And a way to increase revenue would be to improve financial incentives of the ticket-sellers.

Government is supposed to provide services for the public good, at a cost that does not include making a profit. The private sector may be more efficient at some things; but all we can say for sure is that they’re less accountable. Here’s a safe bet: the private sector is interested only because it stands to make a hefty profit. And who’s paying for all of this? Check your pockets.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Overcoming an Identity Crisis

Well, it's not a crisis, really. Just a bit of a P.R. challenge: Getting used to calling what was known for decades at the Saratoga Springs Historical Society by its relatively new name, the Saratoga Springs History Museum.

Got it?

Folks from the Saratoga Springs History Museum met with some of us at the newspaper this morning to talk about ways in which The Saratogian can assist in speading the word about this being the year of their 125th anniversary. The museum, located in the Canfield Casino in Congress Park, is well worth a visit. The museum is planning several special events over the course of the year, as well as its annual favorites, such as the summertime antique show and sale.

The name change makes sense if you consider that its main focus is the museum. Besides, they thought a "historical society" sounded like an exclusive club, when they really want people to feel welcomed into the organization.

In addition to the monthly column about local history, during this anniversary year The Saratogian plans to publish a monthly column from the museum that will include a trivia question for you to answer, plus a special edition at the end of March.

Stay tuned for details. Meanwhile, call 584-6920 for more information about visiting the museum or getting involved in its good work.

Friday, January 4, 2008

No newspaper when the network lets you down

A week or so ago, I heard that Paul Vandenburgh, the longtime local talk-radio host who recently joined investors to start their own station at 1300 AM, was on the air griping about Verizon.
Vandenburgh was frustrated, with good reason: The connections at his new station wasn’t working, and the communications company wasn’t getting the problem fixed with any sense of urgency.
You can’t have talk radio if people can’t call up to talk. Poor guy, I thought at the time. How awful to be at the mercy of a communi¬cations company.
Over the last week, I’ve felt Paul’s pain, and then some.
Last Saturday, The Saratogian lost the connection provided by Verizon that enables us to use our computers to publish a newspaper. We could turn on the computers, but we could not turn on the newsroom writing, editing and page layout programs. We could not access the stories, photographs and ads in the system. We could not transmit any already completed pages to our print site at The Record in Troy. We could not get to any Associated Press stories. We could not access e-mail or any other aspect of the Internet.
We waited, and waited, and waited for Verizon to do what it is Verizon needed to do to patch up the connection. Someone was calling someone. Someone was looking into the problem. Some¬one was working on something. Someone was going to be there any minute now. Someone thought they’d have an answer in half an hour … an hour … two hours. Or in three hours, they’d be able to tell us how long it would take them to figure out what’s wrong.
The thing is, with a newspaper you can’t just shrug, snap off the lights and call it a night. As the minutes and hours tick by, you’ve got to pick a cut-off time and turn to Plan B.
For us, that meant editors packing up and heading down to Troy, where The Record staff made room for us. The photographers e-mailed their photos from their homes to the Troy news¬room. A reporter typed on a laptop and e-mailed his work via the wireless Internet at Uncommon Grounds.
The company that owns The Saratogian and The Record gave both papers the same editing sys¬tem, which is great to have as a backup. But it’s not a perfect pairing. We couldn’t send Saratogian pages to Troy’s proof printer, so we had no draft pages to proofread. And we couldn’t see that on some computers pages would come out with what we call “blown out” type, where the intended font is replaced by a bizarre version of Courier, the typewriter-style type.
The connection problem vanished for a while, but returned with a vengeance all of Monday, ruining some staffers’ New Year’s Eve plans, and continuing into Tuesday, ruining my plans to baby a minor hangover and, worse, requiring the editors to drive through the New Year’s Day snowstorm to Troy to bring you Wednesday’s paper. Ads were carried to Troy on a CD, loaded into their computer system, and placed on pages one at a time by the editors. Local stories and photos were again transmitted by e-mail. Proofs were again unprintable.
Yet, no surprise, we published. It was kind of nice to be in the building where the paper is printed, to be able to literally get a copy of The Saratogian hot off the press. But it was much nicer Wednesday to have everything up and running on good old Lake Avenue.
Being in the newspaper business is a labor of love, but there are moments when it is a love-hate relationship — such as when your workday, your day’s plans and your product are all at the mercy of a communications company.