Expect the Unexpected

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Our Oscars, the NENPA newspaper convention

Hersam Acorn Newspaper NENPA winners. — Ian Murren photo

Hersam Acorn Newspaper NENPA winners. — Ian Murren photo

Pats on the back for newspaper reporters are few and far between. It’s not the career path to take if you need to be told by your boss that you are doing a good job.

You write your stories, you meet your deadlines, and you do the best you can to get news to the public, no matter how big or how small the story.

And you always aim to spell the word “public” correctly. That “l” is very important.

Once a year, journalists like myself do get some recognition though at our newspaper conventions.

Checking out environmental reporting nominees at NENPA.

Checking out environmental reporting nominees at NENPA.

My paper, The Weston Forum, is part of Hersam Acorn Newspapers in Connecticut, which publishes 16 weeklies. We belong to the New England Newspaper and Press Association (NENPA), and had our convention a few weeks ago in Boston.

NENPA’s Better Newspaper Contest is our version of the Oscars. Thousands of stories from across New England are judged and a select few receive awards. Unlike the Pulitizer Prize though, there is no monetary award. But for a brief shining moment, if you’ve won a NENPA, there’s your “Atta Girl.”

Our papers had a great year, and snagged 22 NENPA awards, including General Excellence (equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar) for The Ridgefield Press, Best Reporter (Darien Times) and Best Rookie (Ridgefield Press).

Rocco Valluzzo, my paper’s sports editor, took first prize for a wild series of stories he wrote about the controversial resignation and subsequent re-hiring of a high school basketball coach who made an “adult” video. The story quickly went viral and even showed up on Good Morning America.

I also won a first prize award, for environmental reporting for a story about an alarmingly high level of arsenic found in local well water.

Rocco Valluzzo and me at NENPA.

Rocco Valluzzo and me at NENPA.

But while I may have written the story, it wouldn’t have seen the light of day had it not been for a very brave woman. She told me how she was getting sicker and sicker until she finally discovered her well water had a high level of arsenic in it. Arsenic is an odorless and tasteless heavy metal that comes naturally from bedrock. It is highly toxic in large doses. The woman had specialized medical tests done, and sure enough, she was suffering from arsenic poisoning.

As soon as she learned about the problem, she tried to warn her neighbors and local health officials so they could be alerted to the danger, but they didn’t seem to care. In fact, many people belittled her and warned her that if she made the issue public she would bring down property values in their very wealthy neighborhood.

Heeding her conscience, she went public anyway and I wrote a series of stories about arsenic which was not only found in her well, but in wells across the town. After publication of the first story, local and state health officials took notice and tested a number of wells. They found areas across the state that had elevated arsenic levels in private well water. As a result of those tests, the state of Connecticut issued a report recommending all private well owners have their water tested for arsenic, uranium, and other heavy metals.

It turns out that a special filter is all that’s needed to protect people from arsenic poisoning. No one’s property value went down as a result of the story. And who knows how many lives this courageous woman might have saved.

I’ve won a fair number of NENPA awards over the years, but this one, for this story, was the most satisfying.

High level of arsenic reported in Weston well water

After Weston reports: State urges testing wells for arsenic, uranium

Weston’s health district is compiling well water results

Weston health department to hold arsenic discussion

Weston wells: Arsenic test results are in

Some crazy curling fan and his lovely daughter at NENPA. (Steve Coulter, Rookie of the Year, right, looks on.)

Some crazy curling fan and his lovely daughter at NENPA. (Steve Coulter, Rookie of the Year, looks on in disbelief)


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