I’ve been trying to find work as a newspaper reporter for years. YEARS! Honestly, as I watched newspapers nationwide crumble, I thought it was a pipe dream. I was looking into going to grad school for economics, because the possibility seemed too remote.
Part of that is my fault. I love the outdoors, so I chose to move back to rural New Hampshire after college. If I was completely consumed by a drive for a job in print I would have moved to NYC, or Boston, or at least an urban center. But in order to rock climb and ice climb and ski I moved to Glen, NH, right next to the greatest climbing town in the world. (Check this out for proof.)
And I tried to find work in journalism. Northern NH is not the place to job search, I soon found out, and I had a lot more trouble than I’d hoped. I was able to piece things together, working as an ice climbing guide and doing freelance graphic design work, but the only journalism work I could get was the occasional freelance piece for NHPR. It was not nearly enough to eek out a living, much less to satisfy my professional ambitions. I needed more.
Not a lot more, but forward progress. I love journalism. I always thought I wanted to work for a daily paper, but now I know better. I want to tell stories, to get human experience across, whether it is on a page, through photographs, video or sound. I took a job at a radio station through college because I wanted to learn how to tell stories like they do on This American Life. That is what I want to do, because journalism is the greatest tool for positive change available in a free society. I cannot, as one man, make abortion legal or illegal through political means. I cannot make gay marriage legal or illegal. I cannot stop violence in Sri Lanka, Somalia, the Sudan or South-central L.A. through any application of political, military, or economic force, as one man.
But I can by writing. I can by photographing. I can by recording, and editing, and broadcasting, and showing.
The first piece I did for New Hampshire Public Radio was about methadone. In Conway, NH, a group tried to open a methadone clinic, but they couldn’t muster support within the community. Eventually the plan disintegrated. People were divided on whether they liked the idea or not, sometime rather vehemently. It was a decisive issue that made people angry on both sides.
I didn’t feel like rehashing one side’s argument, then the other. And the news director at NHPR didn’t feel like airing that story. But he did like the story I wanted to tell: people drive from Conway to Somersworth, home of the nearest methadone clinic, 62 miles way, every day to get their treatment. Agree with the clinic or not, their story, their experience, should be told. They are part of the argument, part of the town, and their story needs to be told too.
It is a universal fact: no story isn’t worth telling. No one’s life isn’t worth showing. A corporate executive, a president, a thief or a child, all of their stories are valid. Some people tell their stories with pictures. Some tell it with art. Some tell it with Twitter. And some tell it in Print.
I work for the Berlin Reporter. That’s Berlin, NH, not Berlin, Germany, and it is pronounce BER-lin, with the emphasis on the first syllable. They changed the pronunciation during WWII to disassociate themselves with the Third Reich. It is “the city that trees built,” according to its motto. It was a mill town. The city is proud of its heritage, but it is still trying to figure out how it fits into the present. I am the only reporter for the paper. It comes out once a week, made up mostly of the stories I write and the photos I take.
It is a wonderful thing, the paper, because it is for a city that does not get its news from the Internet. It is for a city where everyone has a home telephone, and not everyone has a computer. The paper costs 50 cents and people are willing to pay for it. It is a city with only its big toe in the 21st century; the rest is unsure how to dive in.
Berlin has empty mills, houses and storefronts, but people with a passion for the city that makes them do strange things. At the last city council meeting the council had to fill a vacant seat until the next election. Five people showed up to interview for the seat, and a sixth, a high school student, wasn’t able to make the meeting. Not one of the applicants had served in a political position before, but each one said this was their city, and they wanted to lever it forward, to regain its past glory. One of them, a homemaker with two kids, said honestly she didn’t know many specifics about the most recent issues the town was dealing with, but she loved Berlin and wanted to help it prosper again.
Prosper again. Berlin prospered once. Earlier in the 20th century, Berlin had 22,000 residents. Now it has 10,300. Berlin was the third largest city in NH, a city quite literally built by trees. The paper mills, and pulp mills, and industrial production that fueled the city’s growth have withered, and only their hulking remnants remain. Berlin was left behind by the American Century, and it has a long way to catch up. It is a city not clear where it is going or how to get there, but passionate people help it along.
I can’t help but notice the parallels between Berlin, NH and the profession I’ve chosen. I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel for Berlin or print, but I am amazed by their noble histories. I can’t imagine a world where the people who love either would allow them fail. It seems both ludicrous and painfully obvious that the city of Berlin and the institution of print journalism are past their prime.
I work in city that is a relic from America’s industrial age, chronicling its slow decay. And I do it in a medium doomed to follow suit. I hope print journalism has people as dedicated to it as the residents of Berlin are to their city. And I hope to be here watching as they are both reborn. I hope I am not the Last Print Journalist.