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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.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

'12 Years a Slave' a powerful story with a Saratoga connection

Finally saw “12 Years a Slave” this past Sunday afternoon at Bow-Tie Cinema downtown, where the matinee was fairly full. It is a powerful, moving film.
Solomon Northup’s story is extraordinary story and the movie does it justice. What an incredible man he was. He not only survived kidnapping and 12 years in slavery, but he never lost hope. He eventually succeeded in getting word home, leading to the rescue from his 12-year nightmare. Quickly thereafter, in 1853, he published his story — and the story of those around him, the good and the evil. Plenty of evil.
Northup and his wife and two children lived in Saratoga when he was tricked by two hucksters, abducted and sold into slavery. He is commemorated by a plaque near the SaratogaSprings Visitor Center. The Visitor Center website notes that he worked at the then-grand Grand Union Hotel and other hotels and was an accomplished violinist. In 2002, the City Council proclaimed the third Saturday in July “Solomon Northup Day,” thanks largely to the efforts of city native Renee Moore.
A website called Faces of Solomon is filled with images and information about his descendants, many of whom live upstate. It’s an inspiring living testament to keeping the story of Solomon Northup alive.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Brushing up for another semester in Journalism 200

This weekend I will be preparing for the introduction to reporting and news writing class that I have been teaching for seven years to journalism majors at University at Albany. I revise the syllabus every semester to keep up with what’s new in the media and to keep me and the material fresh.
My first journalism class as a student was an elective at Binghamton University taught by Dick Thien, then editor of the city’s morning paper. He had us lug our typewriters to the lecture hall, where we interviewed his city editor and wrote a story on the spot. I was hooked. And I use the same basic techniques today – lots of practice interviewing, writing, re-writing and writing some more.
An exercise that an experienced prof shared with me when I started teaching has been gold on the first day of class. The students are members of the press and I am a fire department dispatcher holding a press conference about a string of arsons and a missing boy. The students have to tweet the news, write a version for immediate online publication, and come up with ideas for follow-up stories.
The press conference gets the students thinking and interacting right away. Their on-deadline stories give me a good idea of their raw talent. The exercise has lots of teachable spin-offs – about asking questions, getting the 5 w’s and more, making assumptions (did the boy die in the fire?), weighing the reliability of second-hand information, accuracy (Smyth with a Y), crafting a lead, deciding what doesn’t belong in the story at all (is the homeowner’s race relevant?), and how 20 people at the same press conference can come up with different versions of the same allegedly direct quote.
I like to use timely issues and real news. For instance, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push for medicinal marijuana will be the hook this coming semester for exercises on critically analyzing and reporting on surveys, localizing stories and interviewing.
The textbook I use is “Inside Reporting” by Tim Harrower. The UAlbany journalism teachers have agreed to spread the book over two consecutive semesters, for intro and intermediate reporting. It’s relevant, appealing to read, easy to digest and full of good examples and exercises.
I have a game plan for each class, though it is invariably modified during the semester depending on the abilities and interests of the class, guest speakers, and breaking news. Each class is almost three hours long, so I also prepare a rough timeline for what I want to tackle that night, striving to mix up critique, discussion, interviewing and writing. I can barely sit through a 15-minute meeting, even when I’m running it, so I try to shake things up, get students off their butts, sending them out for “instant interviews” on campus.
I have a few rules, such as no using phones or computers in class except when researching or writing, 10 points off for every error of fact in a story, and no late assignments (though I will entertain requests for extensions made well in advance). Absences are excused only if I am notified before class starts, same as with a job.
I put a lot of effort into marking up writing assignments, and it pays off, judging from the improvement I see in their work as well as anonymous student critiques of my classes. However, I’ve had to learn it’s too much to copy edit every assignment in depth. Hit the main points. Easier said than done for a compulsive editor. I pick and choose examples to share with the entire class, to highlight good work and show various ways of approaching the same story. I usually write and share my own version, too.

Being an adjunct is a time-consuming, low-paying second job. I teach the class because it’s energizing and fun – and I hope the students feel the same way.

Ceramics find a happy home at Saratoga Springs senior center

Dad's ceramic lighthouse
could be yours for the asking.
I lost count of how many times my father offered me one of his ceramic toilet seat clocks.
“I don’t want a clock in the bathroom,” I said. “Don’t want the pressure.”
All the “johnny clocks” found a home, along with ceramic umbrella containers; planters; frog-shaped glass holders; Christmas and Halloween villages; pasta dishes; platters; deer, ducks, cats and other animals not in scale to one another; deviled egg servers; watermelon-shaped fruit bowls; Passover plates; electric Hanukkah menorahs; and a chess set. On a shelf in the newsroom is what may be, by virtue of its size, his masterpiece: an electrically lit lighthouse (which could be gifted to an appreciative recipient; proximity to water or an electrical outlet not required).
But my father retired from painting ceramics before he’d painted all the pieces he’d acquired. And the other day I decided it was time to find a better place than my basement for the lone member of the Seven Dwarfs, the Halloween village, the pure white Donald Duck and a plastic bin full of other unpainted critters.

The Saratoga Springs senior center — technically the “Adult and Senior Center” —was happy to have them, and that made me happy.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Memo to Gov. Christie: Abuse of power reflects on leadership

You’re only as good as the people who surround you.
It’s hard to believe that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie didn’t know that his staff was intentionally creating major traffic jams as political retribution. But giving him the benefit of the doubt, he is still responsible for a staff — and a culture — where power could be abused with arrogance and confidence of impunity.
The now former aides and transportation cohorts compounded their stupidity with emails, which is fortunate because it made it possible to begin to track down who did what when. The number of people involved is likely to grow. How high the chain reaches remains to be seen.
Dirty political tricks are nothing new, but that doesn’t mean they should be shrugged off.
Whatever field you’re in, your basic responsibility is to make your boss look good. If Christie himself did nothing wrong, his staff still made him look terrible — and their behavior reflects badly on his leadership.
Several years ago, during a weekly newspaper department head meeting, one of my colleagues told our boss, the publisher, that he hadn’t completed a project assigned by the publisher because he was busy dealing with something he thought he needed to do to “cover his ass.” The publisher replied: “Your job is to cover my ass. If you have time after that, cover yours.”

Christie’s staff didn’t cover their own or his. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Firefighters brave freezing weather

Fire is hot but the weather was COLD,
 as you can see in this photo of a
firefighter taken the other day by Erica Miller.
Saratogian Photography Supervisor Erica Miller has been at a handful of area fires since the New Year. The other day her pictures froze forever several images of frozen firefighters and equipment.

The number of actual fires has dropped greatly over the years. But when there is one, we take for granted that a 911 call will be answered quickly and effectively, whether by Saratoga Springs’ municipal force or by the volunteer firefighters who staff the towns. 

When it’s too cold to go out, I usually don’t. And knocking down a fire, in any weather, is nowhere on the radar of anything I could do or would ever want to do. 

I am so glad there are people who are committed to putting out fires, whether it’s a paying job or volunteer work. They are risking their lives to save ours.

It's terrific to see efforts to encourage young people to become firefighters, like the three-year program started by 1st Lt. Kevin Krogh of the Eagle Matt Lee Fire Company.

Fire engines are heading out on Lake Avenue while the latest snowfall covers the mix of pavement and ice from the weird up-and-down temperatures of the past week. Just heard the siren, and hope it’s nothing serious.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Look, Ma, no duct tape: New year, new trifocals

The week before Christmas I did something I haven’t been doing enough: Exercised at the Y. Then I did something I never do: Took off my glasses. After barely breaking out dainty beads of perspiration, I stepped off the machine — and onto my glasses. Snap.
Now I was really sweating.
I can see without my glasses. I can legally drive without them. But I can’t read anything smaller than the event sign outside the Saratoga Springs City Center.   

It was a Saturday morning and I went straight from the Y to Vaughn Vision, where a very nice woman tried to superglue the teeny plastic nose piece. Try electrical tape, she advised, handing me back my two-piece trifocals. It’s more subtle than duct tape. Very professional.
Next stops were CVS for reading glasses and Price Chopper for electrical tape. She was right, it was more subtle than duct tape. But it held about as well as the glue.
Three days later I was back at Vaughn for the full-fledged eye exam that was due anyway. I tried on every pair of glasses, twice, and bought the first one I looked at, which shockingly resembles every pair I’ve owned for the last decade. They felt right on my nose.
Then came two weeks of waiting, during which I alternated between no glasses, reading glasses, prescription sunglasses, trifocals from two prescriptions ago, and the electrical tape glasses. When I went to see my sister in a play in Albany, everyone on stage was beautifully air-brushed, softened around the edges. But when I tried to text message her about the performance, my iPhone screen was a blur.
So I was delighted Friday morning when the call came that the new glasses were in. They felt good. Everything straight ahead was amazingly sharp — but everything in print, not so much.
You may need a day or two to get used to them, she told me.
I’m not leaving with these, I declared; it’s like the shoe salesman telling you it will feel better later.
Call later if they’re not right, she reassured me, and I promise we’ll take care of you.
So I left, skeptical. But I think she was right. I can see again. Better than ever. Near. Far. Out the back of my head. (OK, the last one was something I learned from my mother to tell my kids, and may or may not be true.) And when I go back to the Y, I’ll keep my glasses on or in a case. You know the sound I don’t want to hear: Oh, snap.

Friday, January 3, 2014

A birthday gift for Ed Lewi: A thank you to Maureen

This is a birthday present for Ed Lewi, who turned 80 on New Year's Eve.
It is a thank you to his wife, Maureen Lewi — not for being Ed’s better half, though that alone is worth countless accolades, but for her essential role in the success of Saratoga 150 festivities that generated so much excitement this past year.
Preparation for the 150th anniversary of thoroughbred racing in Saratoga Springs began many months in advance, and Maureen was a key player from the beginning. She coordinated, delegated, did plenty of hands-on work and accomplished enormous tasks in her typically understated manner. She never seeks the spotlight, though she’d look great under one.
For decades, Ed and Maureen were the team behind the promotion and marketing firm that bears his name, bringing razzle-dazzle to fundraising events and community projects in and beyond Saratoga Springs. They have enough stories to fill a book, and don’t be surprised if you eventually see one.
After they sold Ed Lewi Associates, Saratogian society writer Jeannette Jordan wrote in 2010 that Maureen was more eager than Ed to retire. It’s a good thing they did, or Maureen wouldn’t have had the time to turn Saratoga 150 ideas into memorable realities.
Toward the end of the racing season, I was catching up with Ed and he lamented the lack of a public thank you to Maureen for her tireless efforts. I thought it would be a good topic for one of my columns. But it couldn’t come from him, he warned. She’d kill him. So I took the idea, wrote a draft, and never quite got it done.
For one thing, I didn’t want to be responsible for Maureen killing Ed. For another, many people deserve credit for their hard work on various aspects of Saratoga 150. There were chairs, honorary chairs, committee members and innumerable volunteers. It didn’t seem quite right to single out one person.
For instance, if this column was strictly about the Floral Fete and Ice Cream Social, it would be a no-brainer to thank both Maureen and Marlene Okby, the co-chairs. This extraordinary event drew more than 30,000 people to downtown Saratoga Springs the evening of Aug. 2, and, in terms of community involvement, it was the single most successful of the myriad events celebrating racing’s milestone anniversary. Likewise, Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson provided inspiration, a celebrity presence and incredible generosity to bring widespread attention to the city they love. As honorary chairs, they did a lot more than lend their name to Saratoga 150.
Thus, weeks went by and I set the column aside, though it was never out of my mind. I was touched by how Ed thought Maureen should be publicly acknowledged, despite the certainty that she wanted no such attention. And then, just before 2013 slipped away, I came up with a hook: Ed’s milestone birthday.
It takes a certain personality to be content to work your buns off behind the scenes. But that’s where Maureen Lewi is comfortable, personally and professionally. She is also an extremely gracious person. So I’m counting on her to take this unsought recognition with her usual poise.
Thank you, Maureen.
Hope you had a wonderful birthday, Ed.