More questions, and a few answers.

I make the rounds of the journalism websites that interest me the most, and I often find interesting discussions. The combination of a few of the websites, along with an interview with a dentist from Gorham, have been shifting my opinion about journalism’s future.

Why blame the newspapers? Or, more to the point, why look to them for a solution? Newspapers are like American car manufacturers: 20th century relics. Twitter and YouTube provided more by the minute reporting than the Times or the Post. Most of CNN, FoxNews and MSNBC were reporting what anyone with an Internet connection could have accessed at home. Both television and print journalism are in trouble, but journalism isn’t.
What do these mediums do well, and what do they fail at? Newspapers have proven to be better at second generation news. They do not cover unfolding events well, because as Jason Jones of the Daily Show put it, everything is at least a day old. Instead, they do a good job of compiling the breaking news into more in depth coverage. Sort of something between a weekly news magazine and Twitter.
Television news does opinion well, and that’s what they should stick to. MSNBC and FoxNews battle for viewers as CNN falls behind. What people are looking for on these stations is validation of their viewpoints, not an open discourse on the day’s events. That is what they do well, and they should stick to it.
It is up to the next batch of reporters to figure out how to make things work.
A dentist in Gorham was sent to the Dominican Republic by the U.S. Navy because of new computer techniques he was using. He said dentists hadn’t yet figured out how to best use technology, so he was trying to be on the forefront. That creativity is imperative for journalists.
The cost of video, audio and photo equipment is at an all time low, and the ability to post on the web is essentially zero. There is room for an explosion of publications run by individuals who’s passion is reporting. How will they make money? No one knows, but they will.
Look for opportunities, not challenges, and don’t be dragged down by the companies stuck in the past. Newspapers see challenges, not opportunities.
Young reporters, who have grown up in the digital age, have to be the ones to create the new model. They have to devise the next journalism, because the current one won’t last. It won’t fail, but the future will look very different. And instead of looking to the papers to figure it out, reporters themselves should be the ones pushing forward. The newspaper industry’s future is no bleaker than our own if we can’t devise whatever comes next.

The Problem with Prisons

New Hampshire is out of money. Legislators were looking at casinos, a capital games tax, suspending tax credits and other measures to keep the state in the black, but they decided not to do any of those; instead they bumped up driver’s license fees and other random things a little bit and decided to make deep cuts.
One of the services they cut is the Department of Corrections. They closed a prison in Laconia and moved inmates to Berlin and Concord. There were layoffs in Berlin that will take effect July 1. Eight people with less than 10 years in the prison system will lose their jobs that day, and 10 people from the Laconia will take their place. Seniority matters in the prison system.
Overall, however, the prison will still be overcrowded and understaffed. Two additional staff won’t make much difference, according to staff. Several people who worked at the Concord maximum security wing in the 1990s told me it had similar problems that resulted in several assaults and two inmates killed.
Corrections officers have been grumbling about conditions, but none will go on record to talk about the issues for fear of retaliation. They don’t want to wind up losing their jobs or the chance of being hired back in the future. The jobs aren’t there right now, but when the federal prison opens and experienced personnel move there the openings will be available. Even people laid off now don’t want to lose that chance a year from now.

Which comes to the problem with prisons. Why are so many positions being cut there? Why is the DOC a place where jobs can be cut?
Prisoners’ rights is not a popular issue. Housing and protecting people who broke the law is never going to garner wide support for advocates who would like to increase spending. Corrections officers and prison staff are fighting an uphill battle. They need more money to keep inmates safe, but inmates are at the bottom of the list of priorities as budgets are slashed across the state.
There are about 100 inmates sleeping in bunk-style accommodations in the gym at the prison. The prison was set up to have corrections officers watching areas continuously, but because of staffing cuts they are now performing roving patrols. Some programs are losing positions as well, so staff are watching inmates instead of corrections officers.
The result? At this point it is unclear. One person reported more intimidation and more inmates that have to transfer to different facilities due to safety concerns. There have not been increased reports of violent exchanges with corrections officers yet, but some people have expressed concerns that there could be soon.
But it is unlikely the state will find the money to address corrections officers’ concerns anytime soon. In fact there are rumors of more job cuts to deal with the budget gap. According to union representatives, moral is down and people are scared they will lose their jobs. Legislators and commissioners have been looking for more ways to cut the budget, and prison staff feel trapped.
Or, to put it another way, like they are in prison.

The Future?

I have no idea where journalism is headed. Neither does anyone else. Witness the power of Twitter and Facebook in Iran and it’s clear traditional methods of media crack down will be insufficient worldwide. The democratizing force behind these advancements may be unstoppable, but it leaves me and the rest of the world wondering about the future of media.
Have you seen the video of Neda AghaSoltan’s death? She was gunned down by the Iranian government militia, called the Basij. The video was posted to Facebook through a web of forwards that got it out of the Iranian clamp down on communication. Now her name, which means voice in Farsi, has become a rallying cry. Twitter, Facebook and Google have been swarmed with searches for her name and views of the video. Journalism has moved from the hands of the reporters to the hands of the people.
YouTube now advertises the latest videos from Iran on what it’s calling CitizenTube. They seem to be acknowledging their roll as part journalist in this fight. And Twitter is appearing on CNN, FOXNews and MSNBC as a source for what’s going on behind closed borders.
In all this, with the newspaper industry having so much trouble, it’s hard to imagine what comes next. Journalism will be around forever, I have no doubt, but the 3.0 version may look much different. What are the funding streams? How will it be broadcast? Who will be the practitioners? I don’t have an answer. I feel like I’m on the first wave about to crash into the shore, and no one knows whether it’s rocks or sand below.
The future has possibilities expanded by technology — Iranians have proven that. Everyone now has to figure out where they lead.

New Turn for Town?

Biomass energy has a number of questions associated with it, probably more so than answers. White Mountain’s Community College hosted a forum Thursday night to try to tackle some of those questions, with panelists from UNH, Clean Power, BEDCO and other places. The resulting discussion far from answered all questions, but it might resolve the issue for Berlin.
Here is the argument laid out at the meeting. And keep in mind, this isn’t just industry people — the panel included people interested in sustainable environmental practices and forestry. Not every view was represented, but this wasn’t a biomass press conference.
Biomass can mean many things. Burning wood for heat is biomass; so is burning wood for electricity. These two are not created equal: thermal production is 75 to 80 percent efficient, while electricity production is 20 to 25 percent efficient. That means if you have four pieces of wood, you waste one making heat, or you waste three making electricity. Seems clear which you’d choose, right?
Sort of. Northern NH has a need for heat. Home heating oil costs Americans roughly $3 billion a year. That’s $3 billion that is sent overseas instead of pumped into the local economy. By using a biomass plant to generate heat communities can support their local loggers, reduce dependence on foreign oil, reduce carbon output (wood burns cleaner), be more efficient and save money.
What it takes is a community cooperative, where pipes are laid like like for sewer or water to everyone’s house, that taps into the thermal generation capacity of a large scale biomass plant.
But heat isn’t all people need — they need electricity also. By coupling these two together it is possible to achieve something close to 50 percent efficiency. That is the idea with Clean Power.
What they would do is make electricity their primary focus, but thermal production would be a part of their operation. The executive director of the Biomass Energy Resource Center said making the thermal output the primary focus results in the best efficiency, but Clean Power is looking for profit, not just efficiency. By coupling the two they will get reasonable efficiency, two logs out of four, and good profits.
They’ll have excess heat though, and Berlin can harness that. What’s more, it’s hard to store electricity. Batteries don’t do a great job of it — that’s why electric cars can’t go nearly as far as gas powered cars. But it is easy to store hot water, and through it thermal energy. A couple silo sized thermoses would create heat reserves for the entire city. There are also ways to create refrigeration with heat pumps (beyond me but sounded cool) for food storage and using the water for snow removal by laying radiant floor heating in parking lots and melting the snow as it falls. The possibilities are being explored in Europe, according to the Northeast District Energy Corporation, and they are working to bring them here.

What would it do to the forests? And to the loggers? Those questions are hard to answer. The paper industry is down and demand for building materials is close to zero, so right not wood looks like a cheap resource. Another market would be great for the loggers. But those markets could turn around and it’s hard to predict what that would mean. The biomass facility would burn the tops and limbs of trees, and those trees not valuable for production. They might also plant fast-growing trees on unused farmland to increase the volume of material without affecting the market for pulpwood or the wood destined to become for lumber. However the loggers would need to figure out ways to defray some initial cost of investment for things like chippers to turn the waste wood into usable material. A couple ideas were floated around, like creating co-operatives or having a chipper at the biomass plant to encourage smaller scale loggers to get involved.
The forests are hard to judge, but Clean Power reduced the size of their plant because they didn’t want to overbuild as compared to the capacity of the land. They only want to get wood from within 30 miles of the plant because trucking costs and emissions would be prohibitive from further away. How much wood is there in that range? No one can answer that exactly, and it would be hard to tell without the plant in operation what the overall impact would be. Speakers stressed sustainable harvest practices and how important they are to the continued success of the plant; it doesn’t do any good to have a biomass plant and no wood left around to fuel it.

I could continue. It was one of the most informative two and a half hours I’ve ever been to, and by the end my head hurt. Maybe I can touch on the wood markets at a later time. But biomass answers made it seem like the questions are worth asking. Can the city handle two plants? Again still a question. Can it integrate the community heating program and invest in the appropriate infrastructure to get the full value from the facility? Again, it isn’t clear. But it would change Berlin from a city in the darkness to the forefront of the green energy movement in a matter of years if it happened. All while remaining “the city that trees built.”

No Casino

It doesn’t look like Jim Rafferty’s dreams of a casino on Main Street is going to happen. The legislature rejected gambling as the way to balance the budget less than 12 hours before I interviewed the Berlin police chief to get his views on the subject. He said he didn’t think the discussion was over; it is likely people will continue to push for a casino locally. Mr. Rafferty said he spent $10,000 on the architectural drawing he brought to the city council and the casino meeting. That sort of investment dies hard. The vote does end one chapter in the debate, however, and at least pushes any facility back from the “best case scenario” time frame of Fall 2010.

So it still leaves the question open — what is Berlin going to do?

Quiet Weekend

It is strange when a weekend with more than a dozen arrests is considered “quiet,” but a weekend without a fire is a blessing around here. At 8 a.m. every Monday I go to the police station to get the police log, and it is an activity I’ve started to dread.
Living in Glen I miss most of what happens in Berlin on the weekend unless it’s a scheduled event I’m planning to cover. So usually the police log is my first encounter with the weekend’s destruction. I meet Craig Lyons from the daily paper just inside the station, and he usually already has the weekend report for me. This weekend it was a prowler getting arrested after a foot chase. Last week it was a three story building burned. I have to say I prefer the former.

I’ve been working for the Reporter for something around seven weeks. I can’t claim to be anything close to a local, living in Glen, growing up in Maine and being born in Virginia, but the people I interact with in the city are warm, inviting and interested. I walk into stores looking for someone to talk to and often end up getting the opinion of almost everyone in the place. It has the feel of a city time forgot, and not only in a bad way. Part of my idea behind this blog is that Berlin is looking to find its way into the twenty-first century, but then there are those aspects of the city’s character where I’m sure residents don’t want to “progress.”

And progress might be Berlin’s biggest problem.
Ryan Landry, the newest city councilor (and Last Print Journalist reader, thanks Ryan) made a comment about how people from out of town were wrecking Berlin’s way of life. He made the comment when he was being interviewed by the city council for the seat he wound up filling. He said people were moving to Berlin to take advantage of the cheap rent and they were changing the character of the city.
Since then, as I’ve gone around the city having my repeated economic discussions, I’ve posed that thought to other people to see if they agree. I received an array of responses.
First, there are certainly people who agree with Mr. Landry. Several business owners on Main Street said they have had people come in and say they just moved to Berlin from Lowell, Mass., or Manchester, or Lewiston, Maine. They told the business owners their landlords raised the rent and said if they wanted to keep the rent the same they had to move to the landlord’s property in Berlin. In one part of the equation, this view is correct — people are moving here from out of state. Many of these people are on disability, according to the business owners, and they are looking to stretch their limited financial resources as far as they can go.
And who can blame them? A dollar in Berlin goes further than in almost any other city in the Northeast. Berlin is certainly seeing a migration of low income individuals, but are those people to blame?
One business owner said no, it is the landlords who are at fault. They buy properties for cheap, do the least amount of work possible to make them habitable, and then start jacking up rents to the south to speed up the migration. These out of town land owners are the ones destroying the character of the city.
But really, really, is it because of these out-of-towners that Berlin is suffering?
The police said no, it isn’t the out-of-towners that are doing all this bad stuff. They put the ratio at 50/50; 50 percent out-of-towners, 50 percent locals. They were talking about petty crime, theft, drugs and arson. This is interesting, because it is a report from the front lines about who in the lower socio-economic levels is hurting Berlin. Is it those from here, or those from away? Turns out, it’s a bit of both.
Today, however, I heard an incredibly insightful critique of higher level socio-economic sabotage in Berlin I’ve heard yet. It could be argued there is a 50/50 split between who is to blame for Berlin’s eroding character at this level too. I’m not sure this is the case, but I think it is an intriguing argument.
It goes like this:
These out of town landlords who buy these apartment buildings, what is their investment in the community? Not much. They buy an building, do a minimum of work to it and rent it out for as much as they can get. People know it is going on and blame them for the effects.
But who locally is benefiting from the sale of these properties? Who benefits from every property that sells? Who is desperate to move every apartment house they can?
The real estate agencies. The Realtors. And how many of them live in Berlin? How many commissions have the Berlin Realtors made by selling properties to out of state landlords? How much money has passed through their hands as Berlin has foundered?
Do the Realtors know when they are selling to a slumlord? Doubtful. But as the problem has grown and owners have bought more and more Berlin buildings it has become clear who the slumlords are. Could the Realtors really not know when they are selling their city’s character?
The real estate agencies seem to be oblivious, however, and continue to sell Berlin’s future for short money.

Kind of an interesting thought, it isn’t it?
So next time it isn’t a quiet weekend, think why it isn’t. Next time a building burns, or a car is broken into, or a fight breaks out, think about the 50/50 chance it is someone from Berlin. And if it’s not, maybe 50 percent of the blame for that person living here belongs in Berlin anyway. Maybe more. Interesting thought.

Starbuck’s Morning Joe

I have to admit, as bad as print journalism is faring, at least it isn’t stooping to this level:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Corporate SynerJoe
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Newt Gingrich Unedited Interview

Personally, I’d rather see newspapers fold than have corporate backers like Starbucks. Thank you, Jon Stewart, for pointing out the sad trends in cable news. Joe Scarborough made some retaliatory comments on the air about the Daily Show piece, which Stewart dealt with on Monday night’s show. It is sad that Comedy Central has to keep its eye on cable news, but at the same time we are lucky to have Stewart’s analysis. Check out Hulu to watch the Daily Show, it’s worth it.

Parking Pressure

Jim Rafferty from NH Charitable Gaming gave a presentation to residents Tuesday night about the casino his company would like to build in the Berlin downtown if legislation currently before the NH House passes. They would start with 250 slot machines and 10 table games in the Albert Theater and hopefully grow into a 40,000 square foot $50 million facility with a 300 room hotel and convention center at the Rite Aid building across the street. The city would get 3 percent of revenues, or an estimated $300,000 the first year. That doesn’t include the property tax and other taxes the city would collect.
Casinos, of course, have lots of opponents. Gambling is often considered a vice, and proposed casinos in nearby states have resulted in bitter battles.
The opposition in Berlin Tuesday rallied around only one issue, however: parking.
The city would lose valuable parking spaces if there was a gaming facility in the downtown area, opponents said, and businesses on Main Street would suffer.
Councilor Lucie Remillard asked if Mr. Rafferty would consider other locations outside the downtown. Others suggested the east side or the old Converse factory aside. Mr. Rafferty said the Albert Theater was the most viable location and he hoped to make the location work.

Many of the opponents were business owners with shops on Main Street. These shops would benefit from increased traffic through the downtown, and they would benefit from visitors to Berlin, no matter the draw. People made it clear they don’t want the casino in the downtown, but they didn’t really address why. Parking as a reason is ridiculous.

What if viable businesses moved into all of the empty buildings in downtown Berlin? What would the city do for parking then? Would business owners say having all those businesses in the downtown is a detriment because of the parking challenges it creates? What other industry would move into Berlin and spend the money to level a building to create 187 parking spaces? The phase one of the casino plan would level the Rite Aid building to build a parking area — no other business would.

Traffic could be a concern; Main Street wasn’t built to handle large numbers of cars. But if too many cars in Berlin would be a significant improvement over the current problem of too few. Both Mayor David Bertrand and city manager Pat MacQueen pointed out there are ways to deal with parking issues, and that a parking problem with adequate revenue isn’t really a problem. Mr. Rafferty said if they casino is so successful there is no place to park he’ll build the city several garages.

This debate goes back to the earlier discussion about creativity. What makes people see only roadblocks instead of opportunities? What made Lorraine Leclerc see opportunity in a burned out school building while others see roadblocks when an entrepreneur approaches the city with a business idea?
Casinos have negative characteristics. In many places opponents to gambling gain enough traction that municipalities see battles between pro- and anti-gaming factions. Such a debate is important, particularly in Berlin, which has to decide what path it wants to take forward into the twenty-first century. But parking as a roadblock to economic development? What sort of draw to the downtown can there be without creating congestion? How can the city reestablish the downtown as an economic, social and cultural center without people? What depressed city shoots down a business idea because it’ll attract too many people to the area?
Where is the ingenuitive spirit to attack this challenge? Where is the dynamic community ready to move quickly to clear a path for business? What is the yoke around this city’s neck that makes everything appear overwrought and dangerous?

A luke-warm reception to gambling is understandable. But not for such a thin reason as parking.

A prison, a biomass plant, another prison…

… and a casino.
Will Berlin change its motto from The city that trees built to Not in your backyard? How about here? It is discouraging to think the only businesses the city can pursue are the industries everyone else wants to get rid of.
Yesterday I got sidetracked while talking to one of the firefighters about the most recent fire. We wound up discussing the economic challenges the city has, making for one more conversation to add to my list. The fireman said he looks around and sees many opportunities no one takes advantage of. He mentioned rescuing someone off Mt. Forist, the big cliff on the west side of town.
“That could be the next Cathedral Ledge,” he said.
Being a climber, I don’t agree; I think it could be better than Cathedral. Or at least it has the potential to be more of an everyman cliff than Cathedral, because it is waiting to be developed. Easier routes could go up without being scary or dangerous. This could be one part of the multi-step approach to drawing people to Berlin.
He mentioned ice climbing, and boating, and ATVs, but Berlin doesn’t have a single hotel and the restaurant selection is pathetic. What does it take to move toward adventure tourism? I don’t hear anyone even discussing it.

The creativity of people trying to solve the problems in Berlin is lacking. Norm Charest, Tri-County CAPs economic development director, said people in the area are caught in a mindset that keeps them from seeing opportunities. His biggest critic, Lorraine Leclerc, is on the same page — it was Project Rescue’s creativity and drive that got things going at the former Notre Dame school.
But these two are doing battle publicly instead of joining forces to solve the city’s problems. Maybe it is the curse of society to have more challenges created by living together than are solved, but it seems Mrs. Leclerc’s creativity is exactly what Mr. Charest championed. Mr. Charest had other development ideas, like an indoor adventure center near the ATV park to provide poor weather and after dark entertainment. Who is going to come up with more ideas like this and move them forward?

The city council seems to be waiting for someone to arrive with this type of creative thinking. They are hoping to find something better than Laidlaw to fill the center of town, some sort of economic advancement that doesn’t spew smoke. They don’t need one employer to bring back the 2,000 jobs the mill used to provide, but they need something. The council has been approached now for a fourth time with an outside idea: build a casino. Casinos may have positive economic effects, as do biomass facilities and prisons, but they aren’t the MOST desirable business to build a community around.
So where are the inside ideas? Where is the creative thinking coming from inside Berlin? The Gill Building was renovated in hopes that by cleaning up the downtown the economy will improve, but that misses the step of having something to build a beautiful downtown around. Who is going to come up with that?

Mr. Charest said he thinks the citizens are so beaten down they don’t know how to get out of this rut. Mrs. Leclerc proved they can. Who in Berlin is going to take the ball from these two and run with it?

Fire Five

Empty houses burning — at this point they just make me sad. The house with the sign on it has been sitting vacant for years, according to one of the firefighters who put it out Saturday morning. Three surrounding buildings will need repairs, including the one in the picture, which was on fire when crews arrived. And this three unit house, listed for less than $50,000, is now basically worthless.

It goes back to the issue of what to do with these vacant houses. They are a drag in so many ways, and worst of all when they catch fire and damage other people’s property. Hopefully the $4.3 million will make some headway in dealing with this problem. If not, there are still a lot of empty buildings sitting around waiting to catch fire.