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Reporters' Roundtable: The top stories of 2013

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On the last morning of 2013, NCPR news director Martha Foley talks with reporters Brain Mann, David Sommerstein and Sarah Harris to run down some of the biggest regional news stories that broke and developed during the year.

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Martha: This morning I am joined by most of our NCPR reporting team to review the news of this year. Good morning, Brian.

Brian: Good morning, Martha.

Martha: Sarah Harris.

Sarah: Good morning.

Martha: And David Sommerstein will be joining us in just a second. We think this sort of focused economic development effort and especially the personal touch from Governor Andrew Cuomo is at the top of the story list this year. Brian, you reported on the linchpjn of this strategy just last week as we were coming to the end of the year.

Brian: Yeah that’s right. The governor of course was here for the Adirondack Challenge down in Hamilton County, he’s been back again and again for different events. And what he really has argued is that using his regional economic development council model and then adding this personal touch of his own involvement, it’s all built up to a kind of momentum or a kind of synergy that’s changing.

This is his argument, changing the mood and the spirit of the North Country. Here he is talking about it this year:

“Investing in the Bombardier plan, Plattsburgh airport, Ogdensburg Bridge Authority, you add them all together, Whiteface, Momorial Highway to be redone, you add them all together and you see activity all across the North Country.”

Martha: Well he’s been talking like that all year long, and as we heard from that list it really goes from side to side of the North Country. Morning David!

David: Good morning.

Martha: So he was kayaking, he came to the Bassmaster’s tournament in the St. Lawrence Valley.

David: Bass fishing on the St. Lawrence River, and of course he was snowmobiling in Lowville yesterday. To be honest, I don’t think Governor Cuomo has the same passion and verve for the western side of the North Country than maybe the High Peaks, I think maybe he likes vacationing in the High Peaks. But he shows up, in person and in deed. He has given five million dollars for a biotech partnership between Trudeau in Saranac Lake and Clarkson in Potsdam, he mentioned the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority, money for redeveloping the Mercy Hospital in Watertown. A lot of money, and we’re starting to see the campaigning, running for reelection of Governor this year.

Martha: Brian, one of the points of your story last week was that we shall see what we shall see. The proof will be in the pudding.

Brian: Yeah that’s right. This regional economic council idea has grown hugely in popularity, not least because the North Country has won three times in a row extra money. But the metrics are still unclear on whether this is moving the overall needle of in terms of unemployment, in terms of investment.

People are starting to think with things like the two big hotel projects in Saranac Lake that maybe we are starting to see some momentum. But again, I think over 2014 that’s one of the big stories we’ll have to crack open, is whether we can really measure progress based on this idea.

Martha: Okay so let’s turn to something that we do know about, which is milk.

David: Milk. We know a lot about milk and dairy.

Martha: But this is another sort of Cuomo driven, I don’t know what you call it… sensation.

David: For sure, a sensation. And it started in 2012 with the yogurt summit. I mean, who would have thought that we would have a yogurt summit in New York State. But that led to the Greek Yogurt boom, and we are now the “Silicon Valley of Greek Yogurt,” New York is now the nation’s top creator of Greek Yogurt. And it’s been a big job creator at the nearly 40 plants across the state.

And one of the big questions that we asked this year is how much will this help dairy farms? Because there’s a problem here is that even though all of those Greek Yogurt plants want that milk, the weird and arcane federal milk price means that the demand is not necessarily reflected in higher price for dairy farmers. So it is creating a demand for New York milk. When you talk to the bigger farms, 500 cows and up, they’re bullish, they think that this Greek Yogurt thing is really helping the industry. They’re ramping up to fill the demand by becoming more modern and more efficient.

And I spoke last summer with Shelley Stein, who’s a dairy farmer near Batavia. And she told me that the Greek Yogurt boom, what it does is it enables her to take risks and invest in her farm.

“I now have a stable market and a demand for our milk. It allows us to invest in growing our business, attracting our young people back to our farm businesses and showing a greater investment into what makes us efficient.”

Martha: In fact, the Cuomo administration gave this increased efficiency a name – they call it “dairy acceleration” and they made lots of grants available to help farmers do their work smarter.

David: And they eased environmental regulations to induce small farms to grow bigger – green groups opposed that move. But when I talked to some small farmers, they said that unresponsive milk price, that sort of lack of the milk price going up, is a bigger barrier to growth than anything else, than environmental regulation. So some of them may not grow. That’s a story we will be tracking in 2014.

Martha: Let’s turn to something else. Schools are always in the news. School budgets, it’s one of the stories that have local reporters coming back year after year. But this year has been a particularly big year for education. And actually, you’re going to be spending the year going to school.

Sarah: That’s right, Martha. This and last school year, New York state public schools are knee-deep in implementing educational reform. That includes rigorous Common Core standards, the optional curriculum that goes along with them, there are new teacher evaluations that require additional testing, and data driven instruction.

Martha: Its crunch time at school!

Sarah: Yeah, well it’s led to a really big debate about whether this reform package and whether Common Core is good or bad for students. And that sort of culminated in some angry meetings between parents in Poughkeepsie and Education Commissioner John King. King cancelled town hall meetings across the state, then rescheduled them under pressure. He visited Schroon Lake and Plattsburgh in November.

And in the North Country, some educators say the rigor and increased testing leaves little time for fun. Tricia Sardella teaches 5th grade at Peru Central School.

"It’s taken over. The creativity is gone, everything is teach to the test.”

Martha: In Canton, educators say the state's asking them to do more with fewer resources.

Sarah: That’s right. Canton is facing a budget crisis and at the same time they need to meet the new standards and work with a new curriculum.

I spoke with Beverly Snyder, she teaches 5th grade at Canton Central School. She says her students have risen to the occasion and are capable of performing at a higher level. But she and her colleagues are still figuring out how the standards – and the optional curriculum – translate to their classrooms.

“This Common Core is like an airplane that we’re flying, but while the airplane is still in the air, we’re trying to build it.”

Martha: That sounds tricky. Thanks Sarah... Sarah will be spending lots of time at Canton Central this year for our series “Inside School.” One of the big stories of 2013 was health care.  Obviously, we had the Affordable Healthcare Act in Washington that was at the center of the government shut down and a big debate.

But here in the North Country we also had continuing consolidations and mergers of major healthcare facilities. That meant lay-offs in an industry that has been one of our top provider of high-paying jobs. Brian, through the course of the year, you interviewed a lot of the top healthcare leaders across the North Country, what are they saying about where this is all going?

Brian : Well it’s been interesting to kind of track the regional impact of this national story. And a lot of these healthcare, despite the controversy in Washington, a lot of the leaders in the North Country told me that the Affordable Care Act was a good first step, but that a lot more reform is needed — and that they're still struggling to find a way to make rural healthcare more affordable and more available. 

I talked with Stephens Mundy at CVPH in Plattsburgh engineered a close partnership between his hospital and the hospitals in Burlington Vermont and Elizabethtown in Essex County.  But he says a lot of small medical providers - especially North Country nursing homes — are still right on the edge financially, getting squeezed harder and harder.

“The ones that scare me are the organizations that are in the very rural areas that are totally unaffiliated or are loosely affiliated and are struggling. That keeps me up all the time.”

Martha: You know Brian, it looks like there is a response coming to that anxiety. In early December, state Health Commissioner Dr. Nariv Shah appointed a new commission to make recommendations for improving preventive, medical, behavioral and long-term care from Glens Falls to Plattsburgh to Watertown.

Dr. John Rugge, of Hudson headwaters health system is a co-chair. He says,

“It’s not any one part of the system that’s in trouble. We need to think how care is being across the whole care spectrum and across the entire North Country”

Martha: The commission is supposed to report back at the end of March. That’s supposed to include restructuring and capitalization, and identify merger and partnership possibilities. We’re not actually quite done with one of this year’s big stories, the pre-Christmas ice storm. David, you were sort of anchoring our coverage while I was out.

David: It was the worst ice storm since 1998. I guess that the big headline to that, people are back with power now, and I think there were a lot of lessons learned from 1998. There was a huge injection of line crews up here and there were emergency operation centers in the counties really got help to the places that needed it pretty quickly. It was a pretty impressive response.

Martha: Some effects still being felt, as we know. Brian, let me turn to you.  One of the stories you followed over the last 12 months was the revelation that a serial killer, Israel Keyes, was active here in the North Country over a period of years - really a terrifying guy.

Brian: That's right.  Keyes committed suicide last December in an Alaska jail cell but throughout 2013 the FBI slowly released more information about his activities here in our region.  Keyes kept a secret stash of murder weapons in St. Lawrence County and he owned property up in northern Franklin County. We know that he robbed a bank in Tupper Lake and murdered a couple across the lake in Vermont.  And it's now believed that he likely buried at least one of his victims in the Adirondacks. 

Through the course of this year, the FBI also released more and more recordings of Keyes being interviewed, so we actually heard his voice, talking about his murder spree which lasted more than a decade.

Keyes: "There is no one who knows me or who has ever known me who knows anything about me, really. They’re gonna tell you something that does not line up with anything I tell you because I’m two different people basically."

Interviewer: "How long have you been too many people?"

Keyes: "Long time. Fourteen years.

Martha: Frightening, frightening story. There’s so much to talk about but we’re running out of time here. I do want to pose a final question to you all, I want you to pick that’s your top story as a reporter. Was it fun, was it challenging, not necessarily the biggest issue of our day, but what would you say.

Sarah: I had the most fun this summer when I spent two days on the Lois McClure, which is a replica of a ship at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and I sailed with them, well we didn’t sail we tug boated got towed, from Vergennes to Westport and all the way down to the southern end of the lake, and that was really a delight.

Martha: So just fun. David?

David: I want to talk about Idle No More, which is a huge story of 2013 in Canada. Idle No More is this indigenous movement, aboriginal movement that spread through social media at the very beginning of 2013, in the very first days of the year. There were protests all across Canada, people doing round dances in malls and here in the North Country, people walking from Massena and Awkwesasne on the U.S. side across to Canada and doing a round dance all around the traffic circle in Cornwall, shutting down traffic in a peaceful protest, demanding more attention from the Canadian government. So I joined that march and while walking across the two bridges, I spoke with Caroline Francis who’s a social work on Cornwall Island about what Idle No More means for her.

“So we need to have the Canadian government listen to us that we are still here, and we are still going to make them stand up to the treaties that were written a long time ago.”

David: I think that Idle No More is asking Canada to rethink its history and grappling with some really painful and cruel moments in it’s past. There’s a new, young group of aboriginal people who are doing really cool and inventive things to sort of be more involved in their country.

Martha: So Brian Mann, down in the Adirondacks, our bureau chief there. Do you have one story that sticks out in your mind?

Brian: Yeah I’m going to very quickly say two things. One is that through this year we’ve done the Prison Time Media Project. Natasha Haverty, our producer and myself have worked, really looking at the North Country’s prison industry and how it fits into the national challenge of mass incarceration. The Rockefeller Drug Laws, that’s been an absolutely fascinating project to be out of the North Country towns, prison communities talking with correction officers and inmates.

The other thing that I’ve spent a lot of time doing is being up in Lac-Megantic, Quebec reporting on the just devastating train accident there that killed so many people and that destroyed the heart of a small time there, and that really echoed as well here in the North Country. David, of course, doing a lot of great reporting on how the oil tankers flow through our towns as well. So Lac-Megantic is just one of those stories you work on as a journalist that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Martha: Well it’s my great pleasure to work with all of you, to wrangle everything into the news broadcast, the Eight O’Clock Hour and ncpr.org where you can find a post in our inbox remembering these stories and many more for this year.

Listeners, certainly add your picks for the top, best, most fun, challenging, worst stories of 2013.

Thanks so much Brian Mann, Sarah Harris and David Sommerstein. On to 2014.

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