In some ways Berlin is leading the nation. I work for a newspaper that doesn’t exist in Berlin. Or anywhere for that matter. I am a backpack reporter, journalist 2.0.
The Berlin Reporter building is being turned into a restaurant by some hardworking people willing to take a chance investing in real estate in a city hopefully on the backside of a depression. I never worked in that building. Neither did my predecessor. I work from my car, from my cell phone, and from poached internet around the region.
When the city manager called me the other day he asked where I was. He assumed my 207 telephone number meant I was calling from Maine. And why shouldn’t he – no other local newspaper has an out of state number. But I don’t have an office, so my cell phone becomes my office.
Some days, when I’m trying to drum up stories, this arrangement is challenge. I often track back and forth from the community college campus to meetings and interviews because the college is the best place I can find to work that has Internet. No one minds if I hang out all day, making appointments and phone calls and writing stories.
I got a job in Berlin because the population of the city does not rely on the Internet sufficiently to close the newspapers. The Reporter and the daily paper both succeed while newspapers nationwide are folding. They aren’t really threatened by the Internet. Try to find a car on Craigslist in Berlin. They are there, but without the critical mass that makes Craigslist viable in other cities. Try for a Google News search to find out what’s going on in Berlin. There are stories, usually about the prison, but not the sort of coverage people expect and get in other places.
Berlin is disconnected. The distance between Berlin and Gorham is probably greater than the distance between Gorham and Concord. It is hard to imagine if you don’t spend a lot of time in the area, but if you ask the city council they know it. People forget about the city and have a hard time understanding its idiosyncrasies.
The people of Berlin are among the hardest workers I’ve ever met. They cling to their blue collar roots, which at times is a hindrance, but it is a city with a work ethic. Years of the promise of mill jobs trained people if they worked hard they would be successful. As industry has evaporated, however, this maxim no longer holds true. Industriousness is no longer enough, and the infrastructure isn’t there for other avenues to success.
Part of that missing infrastructure is high speed Internet. Berlin has the only public library I’ve been to in recent years without wireless Internet. There is also no Internet cafe in town. People don’t have the same connectivity as they do elsewhere, and that is a threat to their economy.
I used to live in Portland, Maine, where I met my wife and went to college. In the time I lived there I went from hating computers and connectivity to working and living through Apple products. Almost every building in the city has wireless Internet. It is easy to be a freelancer or employed at an online business. When my wife and I moved to the Conway area it was a shock how much different it was. Most of our friends are college educated, and most of them own computers. But many of them went to town to the library or the local cafe to do their web surfing. Sasha and I have uber-high speed wireless at our house and would be hard pressed to continue our professional lives without it. It was a transition to get used to people who worked in a different paradigm.
Then I got a job in Berlin. If the initial Conway shock was a tremor, Berlin was an the earthquake. There is no Internet cafe, no wireless at the library. The NHWorks office and the community college offer connectivity, but the community is not set up for the twenty-first century worker. The desire to draw those people to the community is there, but not the infrastructure.
A friend asked if Berlin could be an artists community in the same way Deer Isle is in Maine. I think it could be — it is beautiful, with inexpensive property for sale that could be easily renovated into studio space. These people don’t need much except inspiratirational surroundings and a quiet place to work. Berlin has a wealth of both. But they do need a way to get products to market; this is where Berlin is lacking.
Councilor Lafleur raised this point at the last city council meeting. He said the state needs to pave a highway to the city to increase its economic viability.
I disagree. That is twentieth century thinking, based on twentieth century technology. Relying on the internal combustion and cheap gasoline is not the way to ensure long-term economic success. Like building a biomass facility in the center of town, this is a solution for the last hundred years, and a mistake for the next hundred.
Instead the city should look to the Internet as its method of connection. There is no need to pave a highway to the downtown. In fact it would ruin many of the valuable assets the city has. Instead, the city should preserve its heritage, its buildings and its aesthetic. The twenty-first century highway is the information super-highway. This is where the city should put its energy and its lobbying efforts.
How do I know this will work? The Berlin Reporter already proved it does. I am an employee for a paper no longer in the community. I work twenty-first century style, commuting more miles over the Internet than I do in my car. The challenge is that Berlin is so poorly set up for this type of work. It is does not have the infrastructure to handle more workers like me. It needs to implement Internet 3.0 now to step into this century.
As it is, I am a backpack journalist working for print media. The only thing about this solution is it might put me out of a job.