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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, March 20, 2009

When comments are not fit to print

A reader wanted to know why some reader comments have been removed or blocked from stories. Simple: Destructive, cruel and outrageously inaccurate and needlessly hurtful anonymous comments do not warrant space, even in cyberspace, under the auspices of The Saratogian. We've also run into some where the comments identify victims of crimes.

I regret that we don't have the staff to monitor each and every comment before they are posted; instead, we have for a long while relied on a system that relies on readers to click on the "report abuse" option. We discovered a flaw in our system one Monday when we realized painfully mean comments posted over a weekend had been reported as abuse but gone unnoticed because the recipient of the report was not available over the weekend. We attempted to remedy that by having more staffers listed as editors to whom the abuse reports would be directed. Regrettably, the only way we can control the awful, irresponsible comments that some stories seem to attract is to entirely block comments on those stories. Readers still have the option of submitting letters to the editor.

Not every reported abuse results in the removal of comments. This week someone reported abuse, and when I looked into the criticism, I found it to be critical of a public figure but acceptable -- it was sharp but thoughtful, and not really a personal attack.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Coin drops are accidents waiting to happen

I’ll gladly give you a penny for your thoughts — unless you’re standing the middle of the street for a “coin drop.” Then you get nothing.
Coin drops have always worried me as an accident waiting to happen. My way of protesting them has been to keep the window rolled up.
Drivers are paying less attention to the road than ever, distracted by cell phones. I figured coin drops would continue unabated until the terrible day that someone gets hit by a car. So I was glad to see, instead, that the city could end by banning coin drops because of state traffic law.
The rule basically says you can’t stand in the road to solicit a ride or to “solicit from or sell to an occupant of any vehicle,” as pointed out by Public Safety Commissioner Ron Kim, the City Council member who oversees public safety.
Kim’s City Council colleague in charge of granting permission for such things, Accounts Commissioner John Franck, is intent on finding a way around the law. The Web site for the office of City Clerk, which is under Franck’s purview, states that coin drops for nonprofits are allowed under certain circumstance, and not during the racing season (presumably because of the danger posed by all that extra traffic).
At issue is whether the state law takes precedent over the city’s practice.
Franck wants to come up with a local law that would allow coin drops to continue. The rest of the council seems amenable to that plan.
Kim told The Saratogian that he couldn’t really stop Franck’s department from granting licenses for coin drops and he hadn’t intended to enforce the law — but noted it was a law nonetheless. He said that drivers have complained that sometimes the coin collectors are difficult to spot and that he “can’t just deep six the law.” Bear in mind that the law was originally aimed at panhandlers, not of the nonprofit organization kind.
Lots of worthy organizations that depend on community donations have found coin drops a successful way to raise money. Coin drops are a common practice, but that doesn’t make them smart ones. In Saratoga Springs alone, 15 nonprofits rely on coin drops. Some of them are youth organizations that rely on adults to stand in the street. I know how difficult it is for groups to raise money. No one wants to make it harder.
But do we really have to wait for an accident before coin drops are banned? A better, safer alternative would be to follow the existing (but long-ignored) law prohibiting them.
It’s not the blatant begging for money that is the problem, but standing in traffic to do it. Instead of standing in the street, the fundraisers should stand in front of stores, like the Salvation Army.
Or perhaps groups could raise money by helping police enforce another ignored law, the one that bans hand-held cell phones. Volunteers could stand on the sidewalk of a busy street corner and take digital photos of people blabbing on their hand-held phones, along with a shot of the license plate. That could turn out to be the next big money-maker.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

No Whitney Gala? That's front page news

When Marylou Whitney has something to say, there’s a good chance that it’s news. And when that something involves canceling the black-tie, invitation-only ball that’s been a mainstay of the racing season for decades, that’s front page news.
But don’t take my word. Let me bring you into the decision-making process.
Every afternoon the editors at The Saratogian sit down to critique that morning’s paper — a brief review of story selection, editing, presentation and headlines — and then dive into how we should present the news for tomorrow.On Feb. 18, we had three guests at the afternoon meeting — members of Leadership Saratoga, the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce’s program to develop effective volunteers in management roles. Their assignment was to learn something about local media. I invited them to the meeting for a taste about how decisions are made.
The top local stories that day included:
• The shareholders of Advanced Micro Devices approved the creation of a company that would manufacture computer chips in Malta.
• Water and sewer rates in Saratoga Springs could increase 5 percent.
• Marylou Whitney told us she will not have her traditional racing season gala this summer, saying it seemed inappropriate during this economic downturn.
• The members of the Jewish congregation Temple Sinai, which has been on Broadway for 40 years, are mulling whether to move.
• The late real estate entrepreneur Geraldine Abrams is going to be honored posthumously as Woman of the Year by the Tech Valley chapter of Business and Professional Women.
• Skidmore College’s faculty will be voting at the end of the month on whether to eliminate its University Without Walls program.
• The assemblyman whose district includes southern Saratoga County outlines which organizations will be receiving his legislative salary, which he donates.
The artwork available for the day included an architect’s rendering of the computer chip plant and a photograph of trucks working at the site; a provided photo of Marylou Whitney wearing a tiara and amethyst necklace that she was about to loan to a museum in Lexington, Ky.; an exterior photograph of Temple Sinai and an interior shot of someone in his library/office/ meeting room; a photo from our files of Geraldine Abrams; and two similar pictures of kids ice skating in the Saratoga Spa State Park in what we call “standalone photos,” meaning they are not accompanied by a story.
Local news is our niche and we strive for an all-local front page in addition to an all-local page 3A, and a local and regional Page 2A, which includes police news, upcoming meetings and Sound Off.
So what story belonged where in the Feb. 19 newspaper?
First we boiled it down to which stories would go on the front page: The AMD vote (a huge project affecting our area economy), the water rates (a bigger bill for Saratoga Springs property owners), the Whitney Gala cancellation (a prominent name and well-known event) and the Temple Sinai story (because it’s a Broadway property).
The art would be Marylou Whitney, the two AMD pictures, and only the exterior of the temple, so readers would recognize the building being discussed.Next is deciding what goes “over the fold” — the headlines and pictures that will show up in the newspaper vending machines. Some days the decisions are easy, but often it’s open to debate which stories should get top play.
Our Leadership Saratoga guests were unanimous on two points: the chip plant and the Whitney Gala both belonged over the fold. One guest basically said he’s never been to the party, but everyone knows about it. If it’s not happening, that’s news.
News Editor Paul Tackett, who is usually the architect of the front page (he grabbed you with last Sunday’s cyberbully and Wednesday’s modern dance at SPAC), managed to get three items over the fold: Whitney, AMD and the water rates.
Responses to the Whitney story affirmed that the story was indeed big news. The Capital District print and broadcast media jumped to follow our lead. And readers had plenty to say. Some understood why it was a big deal.
One lifelong area resident wrote that she had her wedding at the Canfield Casino “because of the storybook feeling it came to have” as a result of the Whitney gala.
Marylou Whitney’s whimsical grand entrances always drew a crowd of people and all the TV stations.Marylou and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney were stars of the horse racing and business worlds. They created the social swirl that Saratoga came to take for granted. After his death, she continued the tradition of the annual gala as well as the huge donations to countless local causes, especially Saratoga Hospital. She and her third husband, John Hendrickson, have also taken on the betterment of the track backstretch workers as one of their philanthropic goals.
Hendrickson told me it seemed in poor taste during an economic downturn to host an extravagant party. After all, it’s a “fun” raiser, not a fundraiser.
Some readers noted that the gala generates money for the community, since it creates work for caterers, food services, decorators, musicians and entertainers, not to mention drawing spectators and publicity for the city. “We look forward to the pomp and circumstance in August and our town could really benefit from it,” one Saratoga Springs resident wrote.
Hendrickson was careful to say the gala was not going to take place this year — which is not the same as saying the era of the Whitney Gala has ended forever. With or without an economic downturn, who could blame Whitney for wanting a break from hosting an annual gala after almost 50 years? Well, we’ll see what she says — and then report it. When Whitney speaks, it’s news.