Back Up North

I spent the day in Coös, working on videos for New Hampshire Grand. It’s always refreshing to get up there. I was talking to someone today at Mount Prospect as I yo-yoed up and down the hill. They were saying they wouldn’t mind if there was no growth and if all the ATVs and snowmobiles went away. It was interesting to hear that from someone I know wants to see the region succeed. This person’s vision for the region, however, differs significantly from many other residents.

The Cascade mill got sold yesterday to a new company. That company has ties to Laidlaw. NHPR called me to see if I could dig into it, but I was digging for my Conway work and couldn’t get away. I read the transcript on NHPR.org from the story they ran, but it didn’t fill in the details. Probably because at this point the details are still sketchy. I would love to have the support I have now and be reporting there, but right now that’s not in the cards.

It is strange, however, to see some of my more regional stories grace the cover of the Berlin Daily Sun. The BDS was my competition, in theory, for a year and a half, although it’s reporters were colleagues and friends. I guess the Reporter is stripping down to even more limited access—the reporter who replaced me was let go and won’t be replaced. There are now two reporters and my former editor putting both the Reporter and the Coös County Democrat together, with the help of some freelancers.

So who watches the region? I think about the story I just wrote, about the Conway police spending money they maybe shouldn’t have. (It’s all a matter of opinion. I stay out of that business and just report what they bought and when.) Who can do that in Berlin? Who can do that in Lancaster? Groveton? Colebrook? I wonder what will happen if the papers there don’t keep going.

I have faith the region will survive, if for no other reason than the willpower of the people who live there. But the transition will be jarring. It already has been. Still, when I grabbed the rope-tow on Mount Prospect and chatted with the dozen people skiing and riding I knew there was no place I’d rather be.

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World Stage

A friend asked me if I’d like to partner up on a reporting trip to Afghanistan. I couldn’t help but say yes. We’re not looking anytime soon, but he’s got some interesting connections that would make it worthwhile.

I’ve been watching Egypt, Bahrain and Libya from afar ever since I got back from Iraq. Heck, I’ve been watching Iraq from afar since I got back from Iraq. I can’t help but think I could have stayed and worked my way through the Mideast and North Africa for some spectacular reporting opportunities.

I was glad to get home, but it’s a recharge session, not a retreat. I read this when I got home, it made me think about what’s next and how to do it. Moving fast and light through the stories of the world is tough. It’s always interesting to see how other people are doing it. It’s also interesting to consider how I would do it next time.

Maybe photo next time, instead of radio. Who knows, actually, it’s all reporting.

Muckraking

Every once in a while you get to do a story you’re really proud of. It isn’t about the quality of the photos, or the interesting video you captured, or the interesting audio you put together. In those stories, it’s the reporting that matters.

This is one of those stories.

I dug around a little and found out the Conway Police Department had been spending their surplus money on equipment. They had blown their $4,000 equipment budget by more than 500 percent one year, and by more than 200 percent another, spending money that otherwise would have gone back to the town to offset taxes.

The moment I looked at the budget breakdowns I realized I had something. It was like seeing an old friend—I smiled so hard I almost laughed. It isn’t that I think they police were wasting taxpayer money—they didn’t buy anything not intended for police business—but I knew in this economic climate it wasn’t going to go over well that they were spending $20,000 or more in the last few days of the year.

Digging is something you do in your spare time at a paper the size of the Sun. There are too few people and too much going on to really be dedicated to it. But there are more staff at the Sun than there were at the Reporter, and more people look to this paper to address their concerns since it’s the only one in town.

I’ve received several calls from readers thanking me for reporting on this. People wonder where I got the information and who the insiders was. One of the police commissioners wanted to know the same thing. But the entire story was built from the town finance records and the police commission meeting minutes. It isn’t a big conspiracy, it’s just putting the puzzle pieces together.

But what’s next is even better. This is phase one, but since I’ve been looking around I found phase two. There is more in store for the next installment, just wait.

Digging

I stumbled on a great story today. It was the kind of thing where as I was pouring over budget line items and meeting minutes it became clear: something isn’t right here. Too much money is going out the door in far too short a time, and I’ve got the information in my hands to prove it.

I’ve got a couple more things to dig up before I go around asking questions, but it’s a great feeling to stumble onto a clear case of waste and abuse. That’s what I got into this for—to make sure people aren’t being taken advantage of. And today I got to do just that.

Or I got well on my way to doing it. There’s still more work to do.

I was thinking about that tonight—there are two versions of what I do that I love: recognizing people who are deserving of it and haven’t been, and pointing out examples of people power poorly applied. “Waste and abuse” a member of the budget committee said the other day, although he was referring to another organization completely.

It’s funny, the politics around Conway have been heated now that it’s budget season, and that heat has done more damage than good. I’ve watched as selectmen and committee members yell at each other and residents. I watched it in Berlin as well, but there it was with frustration, not vitriol. I’ve got to wonder how “town government” works when the town is too big to make decisions as a group and too fractured to come together as a community.

But even worse, amid all the fighting and name calling no one notices actual waste and abuse. It falls through the cracks, when there are multiple boards that are supposed to be looking. That’s no recipe for town government, even if it uses local control.

I’m glad, however, to have my part in it. I’m happy to point out when someone is doing well, and I’m happy to point out when someone isn’t doing what they’re supposed to. I’m looking forward to when the paper comes out that lets people know about it, and with town meeting they can make their own decisions about it. The harsh side of local control…

And the Next One…

I’ve been home for, um, a week and a half, and tonight I’m supposed to have a conversation with someone about my next international reporting trip.

This one is still a ways out, and the details are fuzzy, but it’s there. It has been great to get home, catch back up with friends and family, and to get into the routine of reporting on the local. Things have been crazy, exciting and busy even here, in the Conway area, with budget season and such.

The rest of the time I’m still hustling. I just had a piece in the Union Leader, and I’ve been trying to do a piece on Egypt but my timing was off. I’ve got a couple NHPR stories up my sleeve, but I don’t have the time to get them out right now.

It’s been jarring to get back here after the trip, but it’s exciting to have so much going on. I’ve been running in and out of the Sun office every day this week, with meetings, arraignments and events to cover. Let’s see how much longer it lasts before there’s another plane ticket on the horizon…

Almost Back

I’ve been home for nearly a week, and it still doesn’t feel like I’m back. Things have been so busy, with catching back up at the Conway Daily Sun to side projects to stepping back into life it’s been hard to catch my breath. But I’ve got a lot of great things going on.

Already I’ve been looking at another international story: Egypt. A friend put me in touch with an American woman who stayed behind, so I’m talking to her today to see if I can get her on the radio. That story has been exploding over the past two weeks and is only now settling down, but it still has serious implications. I’m interested to hear the American perspective.

Then, of couse, there are the local politics playing out in the Conway area. It’s interesting to shift from international reporting to talking about who is supposed to clear the sidewalks. My mind hasn’t quite done it, but I’m getting there.

And I’m definitely looking for my next big project. I’m not sure what or where, but I do know that covering something in the manner I did this story is incredibly rewarding. I will keep doing it, I just need to figure out how.

Home at Last

I got home today, four days after I’d planned on getting home. Funny how that works. I’m still stumbling around a bit. It’s certainly easier to come east to west and follow the sun, but I’m jet-lagged anyway.

The plane ride home from London last night was a six hour sunset. We launched around 4 p.m., and I got to watch the sun descend until we were over northern Quebec. It was a spectacular end to a great trip. My loving wife braved the snow to pick me up at the airport, but on the drive home it overwhelmed us. We pulled over around Portsmouth and got a hotel room.

I’ve talked to a few people today who asked me how it was. What a difficult question to answer. I have so little experience with the military, that alone was eye-opening. Add to that the complexities of the country I was reporting from, and the complications that arise from embedding as opposed to being independent, and it’s a fractious experience to explain. All I can say is it has helped me to better understand the challenges and the complexities soldiers face when they go off to fight for their country. And though my job is to put into words such things, I’m having a hard time doing that right now. It is too big, and that’s just from the little slice I witnessed. How can you get across the immensity of what it means to be away from your family, to be battling for your life at times, in a war (or whatever it is) that’s largely off the maps? I don’t know. But I’m glad I got the opportunity to gain a little better understanding.