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Year in Review 2020

By The Shoestring

2020 wasn’t the year we were expecting when it began. But 75 articles later, we are pleased to share a few highlights that we’re proud of. At the beginning of the year, we endorsed Bernie Sanders for President of the United States. And by the end, the institutional knowledge and amount of reporting on policing and local media we have built up over the years was more relevant than we had ever hoped it would be. We followed hyperlocal politics, COVID in jail, business-owner-bootlickers and more. All of this writing wouldn’t have been possible without the sustaining support of our monthly contributors—many of whom have signed up this year. If you’ve appreciated the Shoestring this year and are in a position to contribute, please consider making a one time or monthly donation. —The Editors

A Handy Guide to Telling on Your Boss (Jan 26th). Contributing Editor Roman Nicholas created a how-to tutorial for reporting labor violations to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. The piece is part of an ongoing effort to demystify bureaucracy and make sure workers have the power to fight back. 

Forward to the Past (February 2nd). Contributor Brian Zayatz took on Joe Kennedy III’s bizarre bid to challenge incumbent Senator Ed Markey. Zayatz went to a Kennedy campaign stop in Amherst and reported back: “Coming from someone whose success is largely the result of bloodline, the message for the rest of us is that we will be allowed to have healthcare as long as we promise not to use the S-word.”

The Shoestring Endorses Bernie Sanders for President (February 10th). Speaking of the S-word, all the Shoestring editors weighed in on our personal reasons for supporting Sanders’ longshot bid for the White House. The Shoestring had never endorsed a political candidate before and may not do so in the future, but it felt important to not sit this one out.  

PAC Man (February 20th). During the course of 2020, we tried to keep our eye on Congressman Richard Neal of western Mass’ first congressional district. In this piece initially published by our friends at Sludge, Ashfield based journalist Donny Shaw revealed that Neal was the number one recipient of corporate money in all of Congress. Co-editor Will Meyer wrote about Neal’s climate policy (or lack thereof) and we shared another investigation by Walker Bragman, Julia Rock and Andrew Perez showing that Neal sent a “threatening letter” to a local TV station demanding they remove ads containing Shaw’s revelation. 

Up In Smoke (March 8th). Moments before the pandemic took hold, we published a recap on our year-long investigation of Northampton’s downtown smoking ban. Contributor Brian Zayatz and co-editor Harrison Greene went to plenty of Board of Health meetings to learn: “After a year of meetings in which major changes seemed just on the horizon for Northampton’s smokers and tobacco retailers, little has changed, except on the state level. That didn’t stop the Board from taking on a fairly self-congratulatory tone: Director O’Leary praised the Board’s process as ‘excellent’ and repeatedly told them she was ‘proud’ and had ‘warm fuzzies’ over the way the Board took everyone’s feelings into consideration.” 

Fully legal but shrouded in fear: paying taxes if you’re undocumented (March 18th). Contributor Sierra Dickey penned an excellent feature that may have been buried by the pandemic on resources for undocumented people to pay taxes. As tax day rolls around again this year, Dickey’s piece has plenty of great info on how documented people can help their undocumented neighbors in paying Uncle Sam. 

Disappearing Ink (April 18th). And the layoffs began. Co-editor Blair Gimma reported on the first round of endless-seeming pandemic layoffs at the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Sarah Robertson has continued on the beat and filed multiple reports on the outsourcing of the paper’s Northampton printing press (which many saw as a union busting move) and again just last week on the axing of the paper’s Editor in Chief, Brooke Hauser, along with seven more employees.
Hundreds Attend Northampton Budget Hearing and Call for the Defunding of Police (June 4th)
. Soon after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, through his beat, City council columnist Brian Zayatz learned that the police were asking for a budget increase while other departments were having their budgets cut. As news spread on social media, the $194,000 budget increase revealed by Zayatz became a flashpoint in fights over the city budget that ultimately reduced the police budget by 10%. 

Burning for a Change (June 14th). In a spellbinding essay, contributor M.C. Porter takes stock of a season of protest, writing: “I’m watching who claims each Black death as a tragedy, but then condemns the radical tactics employed in the fight to prevent more.” 

Eric Suher: ‘I Bleed Blue’ (July 3rd). Through a public records request, The Shoestring was able to obtain an email sent to Police Chief Jody Kasper from local property mogul Eric Suher. In hands down our most read piece of the year, Suher extends his deepest sympathies to the NPD. 

Northampton Police Misconduct Trading Cards (August 12th). In 2017, the Northampton Police Department received a grant from the retailer Wal-Mart to produce baseball style trading cards to be handed out to school children in the city. In response, we created Northampton Police Misconduct Trading Cards in collaborations with our friends at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. So far there are three in the series, keep your eye out for more in the new year. 

Western New England University’s reopening plan is setting students up to fail (Aug 22nd). A professor at Western New England University penned an excellent take down of his school’s reopening plan, writing: “From the failures of testing strategies and the reopening plans of states, to, yes, the failures of individuals, the dangers we face are so various, so multi-vectored, so largely unintelligible, that we are being set up to fail.” Around the same time, reporter Klara Ingersoll investigated how UMass Student residence workers who demanded a safe reopening were being laid off right before the school year began in Risking Reopening (Aug 21st)

“Worse than 2008”: housing advocates prep for eviction crisis (October 11th). Reporter Sarah Robertson talked to groups who are organizing against housing displacement. “Collective fights are always the better fight because the more numbers you have the more power you actually have,” Springfield No One Leave’s Rose Webster-Smith said. “We really push for housing to be a human right and for community control over land and housing.”

Growth Hacking the Unemployed: MassHire Enables Coursera to Exploit a New Market (November 20th). In this exposé, journalist Jonathan Gerhardson looks out how the state’s unemployment program MassHire was offering free online classes through the education-tech company Coursera: “With hidden costs, a limited trial period, and questionable value to job seekers, it is hard to see how the Coursera for Workforce Recovery Initiative actually helps workers at all. But the benefits for Coursera are numerous.” 

“A Kaleidoscope of Madness” (December 16th). Contributor Brian Zayatz interviewed local war photographer and photo book author Ben Brody about the woods behind his Southampton home. During a socially distant walk, Zayatz and Brody discuss the ethics and philosophy of photojournalism as well as what the forest in his backyard can teach us about conflict abroad.

“A Kaleidoscope of Madness” (December 16th). Contributor Brian Zayatz interviewed local war photographer and photo book author Ben Brody about the woods behind his Southampton home. During a socially distant walk, Zayatz and Brody discuss the ethics and philosophy of photojournalism as well as what the forest in his backyard can teach us about conflict abroad. 

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