Remembering two colleagues

THE COUNTY LOST two people in the last few days who helped us understand who we are and what makes Columbia County tick. Vicki Simons, the former editor of a newspaper called The Independent died Monday evening at her home in Ghent. Bob Mitchell, a reporter who wrote for The Independent and the Register Star, and was the county’s public information officer, died Saturday at Albany Medical Center.

Both did more than cover the news, and their obituaries, which appear in this issue, list their public accomplishments. But we knew them as colleagues, and we respected them as people who cared deeply about sharing information with their friends and neighbors. Vicki and her husband, Tony Jones, bought The Roe Jan Independent in 1986, when it was a weekly paper that covered mostly the southeastern corner of the county. Vicki became the editor, and within a few years the paper had expanded to cover the whole county. Then it added a second edition each week followed by a version for southern Rensselaer County. The front wall of the paper’s office in Hillsdale was covered with plaques and awards the paper won for its writing and photography.

To grow and prosper like that requires intense energy and discipline, and Vicki Simons had both in abundance. She also had a fierce dedication to gathering the news and to getting the facts right. Young reporters and editors–and some not so young–learned quickly to get it right or face the consequences of having their mistakes explained to them, unsparingly. And when we once naively suggested that the paper could take its time developing a story rather than rushing it into print, she explained in no uncertain terms that she wanted The Independent to have the story first. Period.

Readers responded, making The Independent the most widely distributed local newspaper in the county. Under her editorial leadership the paper became indispensible. If something wasn’t in The Independent, people didn’t know about it, and she wanted everything that happened in the paper. People knew more than ever before about what was happening all around the county because of her relentless curiosity.

Vicki and Tony sold The Independent in 2001 to a newspaper chain. Then last year, with the chain on the verge of bankruptcy, the company abruptly closed The Independent. The newsroom and circulation had shrunk from its hay day when she was the editor, but it was very much like the community newspaper she had built even at the end. Over and over again readers reacted to the paper’s demise as if a member of their own family had died. They mourned the loss of the institution that Vicki Simons and Tony Jones had built.

With no apologies, The Independent is the model on which The Columbia Paper is based. It’s hard to think of a more direct form of praise and respect for Vicki. She could be a tough boss, though she possessed a warm and supportive side too. But what distinguished her most in her role as editor is the inherent generosity that informed her actions; she drove the paper toward higher standards because she believed her readers deserved the absolute best that she and her staff could give them. That’s a remarkable legacy and one well worth remembering.

Bob Mitchell seemed at times like too nice a guy to be mixed up in the news business. Even when he had something unflattering to report, he never succumbed to the temptation to slam people, nor did he fail to offer both sides a chance to have their say.

His assignments at The Independent included one particularly fractious town, where meetings spawned more arguments than decisions in endless loops of rancor and mistrust. Bob would simply shake his head and marvel at how oddly people behave. He liked the folks he was writing about and never belittled them regardless of how badly they acted.

Bob knew local government from the inside, too, having served as the press contact for the county for a few years. Speaking for those who hold power goes to the head of some spokesmen, and they begin to think of themselves as authorities in their own right, rather than as a bridge between government and the public. But he displayed a level of good judgment and restraint that enhanced his credibility. As a journalist and a public servant, Bob Mitchell was somebody people could count on to give them the straight story.  

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