iSymposium

I cut out early at the end of day two of the Coös Symposium to race south on Route 16 to Berlin for the budget hearing. I felt I was leaving an abstraction of Coös County to go to Coös County, the real thing. I have to admit what I have missed most while at the Coös Symposium is the people that make up Coös County.

That may seem like a strange description, but the Symposium has been more a place to talk about solutions and strategies for remaking Coös than an opportunity to connect with the region. The makeup, I would estimate, is roughly one-half Coös residents and one-half outsiders like me. The conference lacks enough influence of the most important asset that makes the region special: its people. There is more creative energy and positivity than I usually encounter working in Berlin, but outsiders don’t have the uniquely Coös perspective that sets the region apart. It takes a critical mass of North Country residents to make the environment truly northern, and right now it’s still got the taste of southern.

I would love to see the symposium happen next time in Lancaster or Colebrook or Berlin, with the discussions held at restaurants and businesses and schools. I’d love to see this group interacting more with the residents of Coös, bringing their ideas, enthusiasm and solutions to the people who need them instead of keeping them cooped up inside grand hotels.

Let me make make myself clear: I love the discussions. But when I went to Berlin and spoke with a city councilor who had to turn down his invitation it became clear the glaring deficit in this model. He would have loved to have taken part, but he couldn’t make it because three days away is more than most people can manage. Like many enthusiastic Berlin residents, he has passion for the region, but he lacks the broad understanding of the issues that would enable him to better govern and promote the region. The conversations that have been happening at the Balsams would be perfect for him, but with a job, family and obligations he couldn’t manage it.

How many people could make that same argument? How easily does this model shed the participation of those who need to be most engaged: the next generation of leaders who are too busy living their lives to go for a vacation/workshop in the mountains.

How can the symposium better engage with Coös and those it purports to want to support? How can the event be made more accessible?

My pitch for next year: hold it in town. The conversations, connections and contributions this event can make are invaluable, but it would be better served if those conversations occured where the problems lie. Invite everyone, and try to connect with those least likely to see eye to eye. The energy from the conference is palpable, and that enthusiasm shouldn’t live just at the Balsams. What Coös really needs is a symposium infused into its being, something that can push the ball fast enough that Coös momentum starts to overtake itself.

The Long and Short of It

It was a long story week this week, and now I’m facing a short week with tight deadlines.

I started with one story idea for something in depth, but midway through the week several other things butted in. How the paper comes together is so interesting, because it grows out randomness and circumstance. For the past two weeks there have been dozens of opportunities for photos and stories; all winter I was plagued by too few. The weather warms and the stories come out of the woodwork. And then I’m choosing which one to cover, not trying to uncover something to write about.

This week I had to threaten a Freedom of Information Act request as part of the first story I had in mind. Along the way the details I got from that request fell through the cracks because of everything else going on. The basics made it in the paper, of course, but the real meat didn’t get in. Still, the story was more than 1,000 words, the stated limit for the Reporter.

Then another piece blew the limit out of the water. But when police are running metal detectors over every student in a local school it isn’t easy to distill that down.

Then I had a meeting with representatives from the Union of Concerned Scientists. The story I got out of that was another monster, approaching the 1,000 word limit.

I wish there was some “objective,” easy formula for how a paper comes together, but there isn’t. Decisions have to be made on every level, and some of those decisions come down to logistical restrictions. I’ve got proms, award ceremonies, honor rolls and dedications to photograph, firefighters to interview, councilors to pester and utility spokespeople to call. I’m thrilled when every once in a while a good story comes out with my name attached. I often wonder what this job would be like if there were an office, with colleges and desks and mailboxes. The Reporter is a tag-team effort across miles of fiber-optic cable. The quality of it could undoubtedly improve, but for what it is I’m proud. My editor and I, along with a few other awesome reporters, put two papers together every week. I’ve seen life rafts with more personnel.

This week is short, and I’m going to be cramming like a college freshman to get everything in. I have the Coös Symposium starting tomorrow, and because of the holiday my deadline is Friday. How much news can I pull together in a day and a half? I’ve got a bit going already, but I’m not sure. The big news of the last two weeks will hopefully keep rolling. The budget hearing on Wednesday will likely generate at least one piece, but I’m going to have to search for other stories on limited time. When it’s long it’s long, it seems, and this week it’s short. But at least there is news at all.

Context Context Context

A recent discussion in the comments section has made me think more about how context plays a role in reporting. I found two great examples of context to enhance the discussion:

Here’s a piece from today’s New York Times that weaves excellent reporting with context, connecting a Democratic senate candidate with his ambiguous comments about his military service. It is the context, the background, the history of his comments juxtaposed with the his past that have made for a story. What will it do to his future? Who knows, but it’s good to have someone leafing through records and checking the facts. (Mr. Blumenthal responded to the article today.)

Considering the Times is often called a liberal paper by detractors it is interesting to note the candidate’s Democratic Party affiliation. Independent but not neutral would likely describe the Times’ philosophy as well.

This video is another great piece where context fills the gaps.

Notice the Russian official is held to account for her earlier comments. What does the inconsistency do to her credibility? Is the reporter exhibiting a bias by asking those questions and reporting the incongruities, or is it  good journalism?

Those are all good conversations to have in the public sphere, where people can decide just what kind of press they want. Does the Russian model seem desirable? Not to me, and I doubt it would to most people.

I bet the candidate from Connecticut, however, would likely prefer a little less press freedom right about now. But the Times is hardly to blame for his dubious statements; if he is upset with their compiling what he said he shouldn’t have said it. Each individual statement, reported as stated and unverified, was not have been news. But by compiling them and putting them in context with his record the paper exposed his hypocrisy. Context sometimes is where the story lies. Reporting isn’t just reprinting what people say.

Writing or Reporting?

I got some very interesting feedback today: someone asked me why there was such a difference between my work on LPJ and my work in the Reporter. I started to say because I don’t feel like I can afford to have an opinion in the paper, while on here I can, but they stopped me. The style, they said, that’s what they wondered about. Why the rigid style in the paper and the much more comfortable, conversational writing on here?

It was an interesting question. Whenever I tell someone I work for a newspaper they respond, “Oh, so you’re a writer?” I never know how to answer that. I’ve never considered myself a writer; I consider myself a reporter. Writing is the medium I use to get stories across, but the real product I create is the story. I like to think I’m OK at writing, but writer isn’t a title I would bestow on myself.

But their comment caught me. They obviously were more intrigued with my LPJ work than my Reporter work, and they suggested I might try applying my LPJ style to my reporting.

I went and looked back through my stories and understood what they meant, but I still have a challenge to deal with: how much of me and how much of my subjects are supposed to come through in my stories? How does that apply to the paper?

LPJ is mine, wholly and completely. I set it up because I’m passionate about reporting and the region I cover, and I don’t get paid to write any of these posts. I’m not representing anyone but myself in this venture, and if my personality shows through that’s fine. The Reporter, however, covers a city. I work there, just doing my job (reporting), and I shouldn’t overwhelm my subjects. That would do Berlin no good. I should almost invisible in the story, so to speak, in some ways.

But that doesn’t work either, because people don’t read blah stories. I could attend every council meeting from now until eternity, but if people aren’t reading what I’m writing what does it matter? It’s got to be captivating to get into people’s heads, or else they’ll put down the paper for the remote.

So I’ve decided to try to meld my reporting with the LPJ style, the one that has a bit more of my stamp in it. Hopefully it will help me improve what I’m producing  and people to get reading about their city.

I started tonight with a council story about Councilor Danderson and his comments about the police department. Honestly I think it makes me look  like I disagree with Councilor Danderson’s every word, but instead I just point out some hypocrisy in recent statements he’s made. I actually had one extra line that made him look even more of a hypocrite, but I took it out because it didn’t seem fair. But maybe it’s not fair to remove the line, because it’s all things he’s said and suggestions he’s made.

It’s a tough line to draw. It’s doubly tough because I’m not surrounded by colleagues who can weigh in with their opinions and experiences. But that’s the nature of the 21st century newsroom, where a laptop and a wireless connection are what make the news world go ’round.

This all goes along well with the last post about neutrality in the newspaper business. Hopefully I can toe the right line here, and inspire a more engaged citizenry in Berlin. One can only hope, right?

Independent, but…

I was just checking out the Colebrook News and Sentinel to find out what was going on with the explosion that destroyed a gun factory on Friday, and I saw their slogan at the top of their website: Independent but not neutral. I couldn’t agree more. The job of the newspaper is to provide information to citizens so they can better self-govern. The information has to be timely, accurate and without political bias, but it isn’t necessarily neutral. In many arguments someone is wrong. Laying out in print both sides of an argument without first establishing each argument is true doesn’t help citizens make decisions, and it isn’t what papers should do.

Unfortunately for Berlin many of the discussions that dominate the community are not true or false discussions. Was the city better off with the mill? By some measures, yes. Would it be better off without a biomass plant or a prison? In some ways. Is it more important to retain services or maintain the tax rate? It depends on your view.

Those arguments aren’t decided by newspaper coverage. They make it onto the editorial page, but they aren’t matters of fact that make for crisp stories. Ultimately residents have to decide where they want the future to be. At times democracy is a messy business.

Wild Light

Another day in the North Country. I drove home over the notch tonight around 7 p.m., just in time to catch the sun streaming through the clouds onto the mountain. I had to stop and run down to the river to take a picture, which, as usual, doesn’t do the moment justice. Even after I took the photos I kept catching glimpses as I drove south on Route 16.

A little further on, almost to the AMC Pinkham Notch visitors center, a couple cars were pulled over near the north end of the pond at the height-of-land. That’s a sign I’ve come to know well that there’s a moose about, and I slowed to grab a photo. It didn’t come out well, but seeing as I’ll likely see another dozen before the month is over I didn’t wait around for a better angle.

I went out on a tour of Lake Umbagog with Senator Jeanne Shaheen last year. She kept hoping to see a moose as we motored around the refuge. The other day there was a moose on East Milan Road, and barely a motorist blinked. In the North Country residents are accustomed to the extraordinary. They love the woods and the rivers and the wildlife, but to them it’s always there. I think about how different the rest of the state is in that regard. Someone asked me several weeks ago what I thought the North Country represents to New Hampshire residents. I think today I got a better idea of my answer. It is where the sunsets are stunning, and the moose share the road, and where the forests seem endless and inviting. It is reassuring to the rest of the state, both in the spirit of the residents who remain there and in the land that has endured there. It is a long way from being diluted through emigration, and it retains the essence of live free or die that has been slowly eradicated further south. It is a wilderness, in their view, though more often forgotten than not.

And I get to live it everyday. Amen.

Crisp Days, Level Nights

If you’ve been just looking at the photos in the recent blog posts without clicking on them, click on them now. I’ve been getting some great shots lately that I’m just disappointed I can’t tie in to anything to get them into the paper. The colors look dull in posts, but when they pop open they look great.

It was a crisp, cold day today, and the council finished the budget. Everyone got level funded, from the police and schools on down. There will be two fewer firefighters and two fewer public works employees. I get an interesting picture, because at the police department they complain about the council, and at council they complain about the police department. To hear each side tell it the other is railroading them.

Budgets are quirky. This one is thin. I’m scheduled to be at the Balsams for the Coös Symposium during the May 26th public hearing, but I may have to make a trip to Berlin for that. This has been hot lately, and I don’t want to miss where it goes. I wonder what cuts are going to matter to residents and how their comments will affect the council. I have a hard time believing support for expanded policing would cause many changes, but the school, fire and recreation departments may find themselves with some friends. It promises to be eventful from now until July first.