The Real Problem…

I wonder what the real problem is. I was talking to a friend who lives a block away from the house where the shooting happened, and he said he thinks the real problem in Berlin is the landlords renting out slums and moving people up from Nashua and Manchester to where their welfare dollars go further. Actually, to be fair, he only mentioned the landlords as the problem, and I am filling in the blanks. That is one version of the problem, the one he sees, and by all accounts one others agree with.
But low valuation of the property could be the problem. If the properties weren’t essentially worthless it wouldn’t be worth it for people to rent them out for so little they would be enticing to no-income renters.
And the property is valued so low because industry has dried up and there are no more jobs. Unless a sustainable economic model develops nothing is ever going to change in Berlin.
But the jobs that were there aren’t ever coming back, as Norm Charest often points out, because the manufacturing sector has sailed far to the east, and as yet there is nothing to replace it. There are jobs here and there that may come back, but no large scale employer coming anytime soon.

I wonder what, really, is the problem. There’s a graduate fellowship in Illinois where they will pay for your masters degree if you will then go to a post-industrial community to address exactly that question. I wonder what it would take to get them to send one of their fellows to Berlin.
The city took down 92 Main St. and 844 Third Ave. in the last few weeks, and they have dozens more properties scheduled for demolition, but still the changes can’t come fast enough.

Berlin is racing toward its future with a boatload of assets, but with every step it gets jostled and risks spilling them all. One misstep could flatten it. It feels like the stakes rise the closer the city gets to evading failure.
The $4.3 million is working. It will be doing good for the community, even if that takes time to sink in. There are already several “happy little piles” around the city, including the one freebie on Mason Street. But then someone gets shot and dies in the street, and it’s hard to be reassured by the progress.

I’m waiting for the prison to open, for a biomass project to get going, for a few more of the buildings to be occupied and a few more of the relics to come down. Those are the steps it will take, tiptoeing around the end of industrial era, that will bring jobs back to Berlin.
And with the jobs will come the stores, and the property values as well. And rising property values rising will push out the property owners only looking to make a buck by moving people from south to north.

How long can the city hang on? It’s been fighting through the detritus left by the closing of the mill for the last several years, but it’s been fighting the slow death of the industry for decades. I don’t see residents giving up anytime soon.
The real problem is too complex for me. I report on the symptoms from time to time, but the root is still buried deep under the soil. As the only reporter for the Berlin Reporter it is beyond my capacity to get deep enough. I’ve discovered something about being a newsroom of one—you only have so many stories you get to. But in Berlin there is one story more pressing than all the rest, and it deserves individual attention: it is the real problem, which no one can explain, and it’s leaving kids dead on the streets. I wish I had the answer, but lacking that I wish I had time to delve into the question, because people are losing more than just sleep.

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Sensational News

After a few comments about sensationalism, and then an opportunity for truly sensational reporting, it couldn’t be a better time to talk about the subject.

This is a photo of the door knob not at the house on Third Avenue, but at the house on Western Avenue where they found the man now in the hospital. I knocked on the door to see if I could find someone to talk to about the incident on Friday, and then I noticed the blood. Not just on the door handle, but on the door, the floor and the window. It won’t appear in the paper, because any blood is too much for a local weekly like the Reporter, but it’s worth posting here for discussion.

What level or “right to know” do people have? What level of self-censorship should papers exhibit? A dead body would never make it into the local paper, but there are heated debates about publishing photos of caskets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. How are those discussions separated? Should they be? The funeral for man who was killed is today, and many papers would expect at least a photo. Is that appropriate? How do you react when you see something like that in the paper?

I have no interest in covering shootings. I love to follow the debates and politics, the policy discussions, and tensions between opposing sides in any forum. It is fascinating the agreements people reach, particularly in a small community, because, as one local public official told me recently, the person you are shouting at during a council meeting might be up pulling you out of a ditch the following night. This is an environment ripe for compromises.
Those debates are an integral part of reporting. They are the essence of politics, and I’m always psyched to cover them.

But then someone gets shot. I am the person covering Berlin for my paper, so of course it is my story. I was knocking on people’s doors at 616 Third Ave. in the rain on Friday, thinking how glad I am this is a rare occurrence in Berlin. I heard facts and details that won’t make the paper, and really don’t need to. What is the public’s right to know in this regard? Why do people care about? As a reporter out asking the questions, I had to wonder.

But as a consumer of news, I want to know what is going on. The incident that unfolded in Seattle yesterday, for example, is powerful and nationally significant, and I hope reporters don’t stop covering such stories. Maybe it’s just the wrong beat for me—I know lots of people who dread sitting through a planning board meeting.

I can’t affect any meaningful change by reporting on the shooting, and so I have trouble seeing the value in my doing it. It isn’t like it’s maintaining the press’ watchdog role to find out who shot who. No additional information about the gunshot wounds or the assault the preceded the shooting will do anything to keep a 23 year old man from having died on the street. The social pressures, the economic disparities, the societal influences that led these men to invade a home interest me; the direct result of the incident does not. Reporting about corruption or starvation or war, where someone can still do something to make it better makes sense to me, but it’s hard to see how this story will help people avoid a similar fate.
Other reporters don’t share my view on this. I heard one colleague got a phone call from a friend congratulating them on covering their first shooting. That would be a call I would not take.

City Manager Pat MacQueen compared Berlin to Mayberry several weeks ago. It’s ironic that so soon afterward there is a shooting that leaves one dead and one in the ICU. How is the local paper supposed to cover that? How is it supposed to tiptoe between the good and the bad in a community?
Berlin has lots of both. I’m constantly impressed with the city’s ability to rise above the devastating circumstances surrounding it, but at the same time I can’t ignore or stop reporting the bad. I would rather be covering the opening of ATV trails and new businesses than covering shootings, but I would be remiss if I did only one or the other. I’d rather be following the debate in city hall than avoiding the blood on Western Avenue.

So what is sensational? What is inappropriate? If some people want to know, and some don’t, who should the paper cater to? Normally these would be editorial decisions I wouldn’t be involved in, but because the Reporter is so small they are part of every story I cover. While most people will agree there is no value in a photo of a blood-stained door knob, what is the value of a story about incident that left the stain? How should the paper cover it? If it humanizes the people involved, does that treat ignore the crime they were attempting to commit? How do you tell the story of the life of the man that was shot to death when committing a crime? People sent flowers to his funeral, so some people obviously still care about him. I find it hard to believe anyone is all bad, but how do you do justice to all sides? How can a paper navigate those treacherous waters?
Those questions ought to be above my pay grade. In a small community like Berlin, however, they aren’t. The questions aren’t sensational, and the answers aren’t easy.

One Dead…

One person was killed and one was wounded after a home invasion on Third Avenue on Wednesday night. Police are still looking for a third person involved in the incident.

I’ll be looking for more information tomorrow. Just thought readers ought to know.

Update: Got the names of everyone involved except for the third person police are still trying to identify. Sounds like it was a busy Thanksgiving on Green Street.

Facebook Questions

I posted video of the wall on Main Street coming down yesterday to the Berlin Reporter’s Facebook page. I thought people would be happy to see it coming down, but the comments were mixed. One person said they should start at one end of Main Street and continue to the other, and then go down Western Avenue.
I spent yesterday going in and talking to several of the store owners on Main Street about the Roger Brooks visit last week, and every one of them was positive about the outlook. They came out of that meeting with a real optimism. They didn’t share any of the Facebook community’s hard-edged views.
Berlin’s biggest battle is convincing the world it isn’t a dead city. It doesn’t need to work to draw people in, because if the stigma is gone they will come on their own. The Reporter’s Facebook page has fans from around the country—I would imagine they are Berliners who fled years ago. It’s interesting to see how their opinions about the community compare with mine. Theirs is a long view of Berlin’s history without the most recent context, and mine is the recent events without the baggage. The more time I spend there the more I find Berlin values its heritage and its history, even to the point it hurts the economy.
Roger Brooks made a comment that communities can’t hang their hats on their history when it comes to tourism. Berlin built an entire park to its past. Northern Forest Heritage Park is a symbol of pride but not a big tourist attraction.
Councilor David Poulin offered to buy all the paper featuring the city seal at the council meeting on Monday. Some people see the council’s decision to change it as an affront to the city’s history. In a place where everyone examines the past with such scrutiny, it’s hard to plot a course forward with confidence.

It is hard for people to move past what they know. Norm Charest is often saying the city needs to be looking for the next economy. But the city also has to keep from loosing what is valuable. Berlin isn’t the type of city where people become lost in the crowd. People greet each other by name, and they remember what street you live on and whether you were born there. As someone said to me yesterday, who is the most-loved person in Berlin? Bobbie Haggart. That kind of community is something residents don’t ever what to lose, and for good reason.
That is the image of the city Berlin needs to get out there. That is the city people need to be reminded of. It happened before, when the building collapsed on Mason and Pleasant Streets, that I noticed the perspective the rest of the state views Berlin through. I’m not sure how to fight that, but you have to.

I’m starting to understand why residents get so frustrated with the rest of the state. I posted that video yesterday thinking it was good news, which is how most people from Berlin feel, but the outside perspective twists that around and turns it against the city.
Berlin needs an action plan—a way to combat that negative perspective. Complaining about it doesn’t change anything, so the city needs to figure out what does. Maybe an NHPR underwriting campaign that says, “Berlin, New Hampshire: It’s not what you think.” Maybe Stacia Roberge’s idea about sending out odorless car fresheners labeled “Berlin, NH.”

The problem isn’t Berlin, it’s the Berlin in their heads. The Berlin I go to cares about community and the people in it. It is the type of place where people look out for one another. It is the kind of place people should love. That idea, however, hasn’t permeated the state. It is still recoiling from the old Berlin. I wonder just what the steps are to change that, and how the city can take the first one.

Council Cracks

Tonight’s city council meeting was awesome. Great. Phenomenal.
Councilor Dick Lafleur made it clear he was unhappy with the other councilors for not making the meeting last Monday.
“The greatest responsibility of every public official is to be here,” he said.
Councilor Lafleur was appointed to fill the mayor’s role for that meeting, but only Councilors Ron Goudreau, Tom McCue and Mark Evans joined him for that meeting. Councilor Lucie Remillard called in sick and Mayor David Bertrand was on vacation, but the other councilors were unaccounted for.
I’m not sure what protocol is in that situation, but Councilor Lafleur was clearly not happy with the outcome. He said he was angry then and now, and that he was embarrassed by the situation councilors put him in.
Mayor Bertrand tried to reel him, asking what the remarks had to do with the budget, but Councilor Lafleur said the budget was of utmost importance and councilors had neglected their responsibility to it last week. He then continued with his comments.
Councilor David Poulin asked the mayor if he was going to bang the gavel or if he should hit Councilor Lafleur with it. He said he was not going to be lectured to about his decisions, that he had good reasons for missing the meeting, and that it was disrespectful for Councilor Lafleur to speak to his fellow councilors that way.

I pulled out my camera right at the end and missed getting it on tape. As someone who enjoys political theater, this was rich stuff. I’m sorry I don’t have a visual record of it to share. I might know someone who has audio of it, however, and I’ll see if I can’t get it up here. This was the second YouTube worthy display by Councilor Poulin—I’m going to have to keep my camera ready when he’s around.

This group has worked well together in the time I’ve been covering them. Councilors Lafleur and Poulin seem to taunt each other every once in a while, but this was the most hostile tone I’ve seen between sitting councilors. Up until now they saved it for opposition candidates.

The atmosphere of city council seemed to change about the time the election got heated, and I’m not sure it has settled since. I’m also not sure it will settle any time soon. Councilor Poulin ended the meeting by saying he wanted to buy all the stationary featuring the stack in the seal to get rid of it as soon as possible. Since Mayor-elect Paul Grenier has made it clear he wants to reinstate the old seal it is hard not to see this as a slight to the incoming administration.

After such a hard-fought election, where both sides clung to visions of Berlin’s future that are in many ways irreconcilable, it will be interesting to see how things move forward. Mr. Grenier told me he expects everything will smooth over rather quickly; I’m not so sure. If Councilor Poulin’s statement about the paper is any indication, some of the remaining councilors are preparing for a fight.

Facepage

Just so you know, the official Berlin Reporter Facebook page is now up, and I’ve been handed the reins. Because it’s a weird week with the holiday, there won’t be any council in this Tuesday’s paper. (See, it is a weird week—normally the paper comes out on Wednesday.) So I’ll be giving a brief summary and wrap up on the Facebook page.

That digital revolution in media is still supported by the wobbling knees of the print edition. Berlin is holding its own for now, but hopefully someone will come up with the next model before the knees buckle. For now, however, the BR facepage will have to do.

J–Time

I went to a presentation by the New Hampshire Press Association on Thursday where presenters talked to high school students about what it means to be a reporter. There were representatives from a number of northern New Hampshire papers, including both Berlin papers, and people from the southern part of the state.
The reporters from the southern part of the state talked about a newsroom with three full-time photographers, and assignment editors, copy editors, firewalls between the advertising side of the industry and tens of thousands of subscribers.
Berlin isn’t like that. Northern New Hampshire isn’t like that. The owner of the News and Sentinel spoke; she is both the editor and the publisher of that paper. At the Reporter I am the only full-time person—the sports reporter is part-time and the editor and other reporters are shared with the Democrat. At the daily the managing editor is a part-time position.
Whatever the role of journalism in a society, its capacity is only so great as its infrastructure. At every city meeting I wonder what would happen if there was no press there. Most members of the public don’t attend council meetings, much less the sub-committees and various boards. I certainly can’t cover all of them, but between the two papers in Berlin someone is usually at every meeting.
What happens if that falls apart? Every paper seems to be struggling. Even the Conway version of the daily is down from six days a week to five. The public is protected by a broken business model, and there is nothing on the horizon to fix or replace it.
If you think most public officials are crooks, this may be a problem for you. If, however, you’re generally a trusting person then this isn’t a big deal. But with scandals being broken daily (or even monthly or yearly on a local basis) it might be disastrous to do without.
I have to admit, the solution isn’t easy. It is like engaging residents of Berlin to civic participation. My job would be less important if every Monday the aisles were full in city hall. Instead of my translation people would have heard it for themselves.
But at the same time those people would need a fact-checker. The public system currently in place was meant to be run with a vigorous press, but in Berlin now there are already strains on that system. It seems absurd that some day that press may dissolve completely, but without a business model what have you got?
I was talking to a friend at the program on Thursday who said he’d like to start a North Country non-profit dedicated to reporting on the region’s issues. I wonder how that would work, be received, or survive. I wonder if people see enough value in journalism to give to it. I cherish NHPR News, which is a big reason why I give to that organization, but their commitment to reporting is limited in scope. Would another venue have a longer reach?
There are a lot of issues in Berlin right now, many of them quite important. But there is also a distinct lack of resources. Three reporters for a city, working for different publications, is a small crew for a place with as much going on as Berlin. I also wonder if most citizens would call themselves engaged, or if they are simply letting Berlin run itself.
It’s one more strain on an already strained city. This one, however, I don’t see the path out from.