Commentary: Capping my red pen on a high note

Annette Potter, editor of The Cordova Times from 2016-2021. Photo by Vivian Kennedy/for The Cordova Times

The Cordova Times was awarded first place for Best Comprehensive Coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic by the Alaska Press Club on Saturday, May 1 for stories written by Zachary Snowdon Smith and Margaret Bauman. The award, a new category in the annual statewide competition among newspaper, radio and television journalists, is for work published during 2020.

The newspaper garnered four other awards including first for best weekly newspaper, third for best social media, second for best page layout and design, and first for best humor column written by Dick Shellhorn.

The one I’m most proud of is the award for our coverage of the pandemic.

“Best angles to the story of the decade, combined with really nice layouts and storytelling,” contest judge Brian McCrone wrote in the award comments. “I wanted to read this paper more. Be proud of this service.”

This is a particularly high honor, because the pandemic has affected every aspect of our coverage over the past year. I can hardly think of a story we published that didn’t include the phrase “due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

A virus we barely understood in the beginning of March 2020 had turned our world upside down in every possible way by the end of that same month. Through it all, I had the incredible honor of witnessing and editing stories written by Smith and Bauman and our many community contributors, columnists and letter writers. Report, write, adapt and keep on reporting, seemed to be their mantra.

Initially, when Gov. Mike Dunleavy rolled out statewide mandates and recommendations to protect Alaskans from the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Municipality of Anchorage and city of Cordova followed suit with their own local mandates to protect communities and prepare us for a year of cancellations, modifications, controversy and challenges.

In that time, government leaders gave frequent press conferences and addresses to roll out new recommendations and rules. Initially, we knew very little about this new virus and how it spread. Scientists and medical experts were sharing new information daily. The news was evolving more rapidly than we could digest the information, let alone become well versed enough to report it.

Dunleavy’s daily press conferences — with Alaska’s chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink and other state leaders — were livestreamed and aired on television. Press events — something usually not witnessed by the general public — suddenly became a nightly event for viewers statewide. What the average listener couldn’t tell was that reporters had to call in and listen to the live conversation with one ear on the phone for their turn to ask just one question, and the full audio of the press conference aired on TV and Livestream.com with the other ear, which was usually time delayed by just a few seconds.

Our very own, “Margie from Cordova,” became a bit of an internet folk hero for her nightly, “hello, can you hear me?” introduction to what were always excellent questions that garnered important stories. Bauman wrote a nightly COVID-19 pandemic update for readers seven nights a week for many, many months. She only slowed down when the pace of the state’s case reporting did, and press conferences were no longer held over the weekends.

There were days when I listened to NPR, cable news, local news, podcasts, all while scrolling social media and news apps the whole time to try and keep track of all the topics we needed to cover. I did this with my son at home next to me, consuming far too much screen time himself, and trying to learn via school on Zoom.

Eventually, as I no longer had the endurance to keep up with editing Bauman as fast as she wrote, Smith stepped in to help edit and post her updates. These two reporters never wavered and consistently stepped up to the challenge of covering the news through this complicated and challenging year. I feel so honored to have worked alongside these journalists.

It is always a challenge for journalists to cover a crisis with nuanced, rapidly changing information, but we couldn’t have ever imagined one would impact our world on a macro and micro scale the way this pandemic has. We adapted how we share information, work, learn, shop, fish, celebrate, mourn and everything in between.

Additionally, we journalists are much more comfortable behind the camera and pen are not used to being a part of the story. But often when disaster strikes a community, journalists are faced with covering topics that affect their lives at home as well.

It became clear to me during this time that Smith was ready to take the torch and become the next leader of this publication I have held so dear to my heart over the past decade. In February, I was able to recommend him for a promotion to editor of The Cordova Times. Smith joined The Cordova Times in June 2019 as staff reporter and photographer. Smith, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism, moved to Cordova from Melbourne, Australia. He has won awards for his coverage of the Alaska Marine Highway System and constantly inspires me with his unwavering news ethics and excellent command of the English language.

I am packing my belongings and preparing for a move to Washington state at the end of May to run the news desk for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, near my family — people I have longed to be closer to during this unusual, challenging, life-changing pandemic.

It seems fitting, that as the sun rises on my final Alaskan springtime, I awoke to a text message from Zachary’s predecessor, the talented Emily Mesner, congratulating the paper on its second year in a row honored with first place for Best Weekly Newspaper by the Alaska Press Club.

Thank you, readers, sources and the Cordova community

As I pass my red pen on to Zachary, there are a number of people I would like to recognize for their contributions to the newspaper over the past decade:

  • Zachary Snowdon Smith: For devoting time, ink, sweat and sleepless nights to this newspaper. Thank you for stepping up to carry on with what we have built.
  • Vivian Kennedy: You keep the ship afloat, steady and pointed due north with your hard work on many beloved pieces of the newspaper including the ever-important obituaries, life announcements, calendar, advertising, special projects and a million things behind the scenes that keep this newspaper running each week. If you feel the Cordova community represented in the pages of The Cordova Times, you can probably thank Vivian for that.
  • Margaret Bauman: Margie could fill every page of The Cordova Times with important, engaging news — in fact, there have been times when she has done just that. Mentor, editor, friend — you are my role model. If I can be half the journalist you are, I will know I have done well.
  • Dick Shellhorn: Columnist, sports reporter and author of two books based on four decades of contributions to The Cordova Times, thank you for your words and the laughs over the years.
  • Emily Mesner: For your role in the newspaper during my tenure and helping it reach the quality it has. Thank you for your photos, your eye and for building out the newspaper’s Instagram.
  • Cinthia Stimson-Gibbens: For your beautiful words and photos. Thank you to all the reporters and editors that preceded us.
  • Amanda Hayes: For helping me execute my vision for the digital version of The Cordova Times, which reaches a readership tenfold larger than the population of the town the publication serves. The social media award is product of your labor, the foundation you built and the social media strategy you developed.
  • Jennifer Gibbins: For saving The Cordova Times in 2011 when Calista Corporation decided to liquidate all seven publications owned by Alaskan Newspapers, Inc. Thank you for recruiting me and convincing me to stay in journalism after we were laid off. I owe my career to you. The Cordova community would be poorer without the publication that you saved from demise. Who would have known a decade later how far we would come?
  • Freelance contributors: Cathy Sherman, Jane Spencer, Laine Welch, David Little, Cathy Renfeldt, Teal Barmore, Amy O’Neil Houck, Wendy Ranney, Paula Dobbyn, Roy Corral and the many others who took assignments and contributed to The Cordova Times over the years.
  • Penny Johnson: For making sure our newspaper safely reaches our newsstands and readers in Cordova each week. Thank you for leading what might be the last paper-kids delivery program in the state and for taking on even more work when the pandemic forced us to pause that program.
  • Our vendors: Thank you to the good folks at Anchorage Printing are responsible for the high-quality printing of our publication, and the staff at PIP make sure mail subscribers get the newspaper each week.
  • Native Village of Eyak: For stepping up to carry on this century-long tradition by purchasing the newspaper in 2016. Thank you for believing in our work and investing in us. Thank you to the NVE Tribal Council: Mark Hoover, Sylvia Lange, Pam Smith, Tom Andersen and Raven Cunningham. Thank you to all the wonderful people at NVE who make the newspaper business run smoothly, especially Brooke Mallory, Bert Adams, Jim Gittleson, Celeste Gasmen, Kym Magallanes, Steve Bambikidis, Andy Pfeiffer, Denna Francischetti, Aniessa Hodges, Rebecca Calfina and Reyna Newirth.
  • Advertisers: For supporting local journalism. Especially Copper River Family of Companies, Cordova Telephone Cooperative, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Copper Valley Wireless, City of Cordova, Trident Seafoods, Native Village of Eyak, Ilanka Cultural Center, Ilanka Community Health Center, LFS Marine, Nichols Frontdoor Store, Eyak Corporation, XOAK, Prince William Sound Science Center, Prince William Marina, Goodrich Accounting, Copper River Boats and Permits, Cordova Outboard, Alaska Boats and Permits, Net Loft and Prism Optical.
  • Most of all, thank you Cordova. This is your newspaper.