More To Do

Things don’t ever slow down, it seems. I am heading up north tomorrow to see what the reaction to the sale of the mill is among locals for NHPR. And then on Sunday I’m going to Manchester to talk to two Sudanese men about the referendum there.
If I didn’t like my new job so much I’d swear there was enough freelance work to launch a career on my own. But today I got to write up the editorial panel interview with the hospital president, another awesome task.
And that’s when it hits: I’m a wonk. I can talk policy, and I like it. Hopefully I can explain the complexities to readers who have less interest in being immersed in such subtleties, but for me the opportunities to engage in these discussions are priceless.
So while there is a ton going on, I’m enjoying all of it. I just hope successful sale of the Cascade facility has more to do with paper production than demolition in the end.

A Few Good Tips

Saturday was one of the most productive work days I’ve ever had, and I didn’t get any work done. I drove to Concord to do a half-day workshop, where I learned ways reporters can be more effective covering the courts.

I also got about four story ideas on the drive down and the drive back, and I learned about an interesting program at Boston University in investigative journalism. It was a fantastically successful day, as far as I was concerned.

One thing that was interesting was the response I got when I mentioned I’d reported in Berlin. One guy snorted and laughed. It reminded me of just how misunderstood the northern part of the state is, and just how disconnected it is from the southern tier. I was in Coös County today working on a project. I love it up there. I wonder if the reactions were because people don’t know what it’s like up there, or if their perceptions are already so rigid they wouldn’t be able to see anything else but what they expect.

North Country Reminiscence

On Marketplace today was a story about broadband Internet and banking that began in Colebrook, and I got an email from the new reporter that will permanently fill my position at the Reporter. A pang of regret hit me each time. I’m not up there full time anymore, and I miss it.

My new position is great, however, and I don’t regret the move. The pace of a daily is a good challenge, as is reporting a new beat with new people. Once life gets fully settled I’m looking forward to getting deeper into the Conway community, where there are surely stories to tell. But I must admit I find myself reminiscing about North of the Notches.

I was talking to a candidate for state senate today, and she called Carroll County the North Country. All of the representatives from the North Country need to band together, she said, because they all have the same challenges. Carroll County is more like Coös County than it is like southern New Hampshire, she said, and they have to stick together.

I told her I didn’t think many people North of the Notches would agree on that point. She agreed—she’d lived there herself. I have to admit, after being let into the club up there, it feels like something special. Most people just don’t understand Coös. I’m not sure I do fully either, but I get enough of it in me that I connect to it.

And I’ve still got things going up there, things that I have to get back to. The story is continuing in the North Country, and though I’m not going to be covering it every day, I don’t want to let it go. Otherwise I’d spend all my time reminiscing.

First Day

I wrote about a pedestrian who got hit by a truck and a man who drowned int he Swift River yesterday. Not exactly a slow start to the new job.

But I have a desk, and other people to talk to, and an office with a kitchen. The little luxuries…

But again, as the Fraser mill nears the deadline, I can’t help but to be drawn north. The experience and proficiency I’ll gain by working at a daily are important, but I don’t want to lose sight of other long-term projects. I’m trying to pitch a larger, more nationally focused version of my NHPR story it I can, hopefully to air before the mill closes.

By the way, if you missed my NHPR piece, you can listen to it here.

And check out my new paper, the Conway Daily Sun.

More NHPR

Well, that was encouraging.

After feeling like I was juggling a bit more than I could handle, today I dropped and came out fine.

In the crazy week that was I thought the Lumberjack Festival was today. So I went up there to take pictures as my last act for the paper, and also to interview people for my NHPR story on the Fraser mill.

Well, the festival is tomorrow. And I couldn’t just wait around: my editor needed the piece tonight because he was heading out of town.

So I hit up Cascade Flats, the borough where the mill sits, to talk to residents about what their reactions were to the closing of the mill.

What I got was gold. It didn’t have the kitschy sound the Lumberjack Festival would have, but it was authentic. Two of the people I talked to worked at the mill, and both had been laid off. For one it was recent, 30 months ago, and for the other it was 30 years ago.

Those two voices mixed with those of business owners, selectmen, city councilors and the governor to weave a great story about what people fear will come. It isn’t Shakespeare, but it is by far the best radio piece I’ve done. It’s nice when you feel like you trip, and you wind up doing a somersault and landing on your feet.

I think it’ll be on Monday morning, but I’ll put up more information as I know.

Short weekend though—I’ve still got two videos to finish, as well as my last stories for the Berlin Reporter. That’s OK, after such a success it’ll be a quick ride home.

Crazy

When things get busy, they get crazy.

It’s my last official day at the Reporter (I’ve still got stories to write, but those I’ll finish over the weekend), and I’m running around like mad. When something like this mill story happens it’s impossible to get too deep. New Hampshire Governor John Lynch was there today to talk to the workers, to reassure them the state was doing what it could.

I was trying to take notes, pictures, audio and video. What a way to roll.

The daily deadline (like the one I had for NHPR today) will be a new experience for me, something I’m anxious to tackle. I already received a tip for a story in my new coverage area, and I haven’t even started yet. And I’ve got freelance projects for several clients, all of which are about to come due.

So I’m sitting at WMCC with a video camera, minidisc recorder, point and shoot and laptop, trying to make sure I cover every one of my bases. It’s been an exciting day, and it’s still not over. I’ve got another interview in a couple hours. It’s already 5 p.m. on Friday night.

But that’s the way it goes, and I wouldn’t change anything. I am hoping over time I’ll get better at this, so juggling the different aspects doesn’t create a disaster. I didn’t get as much audio as I would have liked from Gov. Lynch because I didn’t have the right microphone, and when I did get close enough to him to record my minidisc went dead. I was able to fix it, but by the time I did he was done speaking. Luckily I got an interview afterward, but it wasn’t the gems I lost from earlier. It seems like I’m juggling too many balls right now, but with practice it’ll get better (I hope).

Regardless, even more interesting than Gov. Lynch’s statements were the comments I got from workers. That’s what really matters. They are who are really going to be hit. It is their story that needs to be told. And I got that. I’ve got an NHPR story lined up for next week about them, the ones who really deserve to be heard. That’s the story I don’t want to drop, no matter how crazy it gets.

Political Impact

Gov. John Lynch will be in Gorham today to speak to workers about the mill shutdown. I’ll be there for the Reporter, but I’m also going to grab some tape of it for NHPR, and maybe even shoot some video of it for myself. I am interested to hear what it is he can do. The reaction to the Reporter’s facebook page report that he was coming up was exactly that: what is he going to do about it? That’s a fair question, because at this point it seems far-fetched that something is going to come through. But we’ll see.

I’m also scheduled to speak to a Gorham selectman and Berlin’s mayor, and I’ll take the opportunity to talk to as many mill workers as possible. It’s going to be a busy day, but at least it’s raining.

What’s Next for Cascade

Funny how things work. The week after I give my notice at the Reporter the biggest story since I’ve been in Berlin breaks, and I’m watching it as I sail away.

The deal to sell the Cascade mill fell through, according to Fraser, meaning 237 employees will almost certainly be laid off in the coming weeks. The paper mill isn’t the largest employer in the city, but many of these people have no other skills. If this mill stays closed it could add significant hardship to the region.

I was on NHPR today talking about it, giving some of the details about the events leading up to the closure. I’ve been trying to prepare for this possibility all week, including interviewing a historian on the paper industry just today to get a little more background. Tomorrow I may be on the Exchange on NHPR again talking about the closure.

It’s a little strange to be answering questions as I walk away from my full time job up there, but again I won’t be leaving the area. This event is important not to let go, not to ignore, because it is both a huge shift for Berlin/Gorham and the whole Androscoggin Valley and indicative of the struggles of industrial communities around the country. I’m going to be squeezing more into less time, but my telling the story of the North Country is far from over.

A Short Look North

Several councilors and staff members congratulated me on my new job last night at the council meeting. The discussions threw into sharp relief why the transition was a difficult decision.

Berlin has been good to me. My bosses at the Reporter allowed me to chase whatever stories I wanted, and city staff, politicians, business owners and residents always welcomed me into their lives and opened up about stories, issues and events. I’ve been out on my own, but in a community, not just a city.

So why go? Because the Reporter’s resources are limited, and being a one man show in a city of 10,000 is a tough job. Many times I felt outmatched, if for no other reason than because I was alone. To get the resources to handle such a challenge I need to be the least experienced reporter in a newsroom for a while, not the only reporter in a newsroom on wheels.

But I don’t want to give up my connection to the North Country. I’m already digging into some bigger projects with more long-term objectives than a daily or even weekly newspaper. Things are changing in Berlin, some for the good, others for bad. I don’t intend to lose track of that.

I want to tell stories better; that’s what this next move is all about. I want to see how the daily deadline works for me, how the pressure to generate content in hours, not days, affects my work. But I don’t intend to reduce the other projects I’m working on, the larger pieces that fill out the flesh of daily reporting. They tell a side I haven’t been able to get into so far, but it is lining up for the future.

I won’t have the time I had at the Reporter, I won’t have the same flexibility, but a close friend of mine told me she works better under pressure than when she has the time to put things off. I think that’s a universal: when forced to perform, we do. Daily deadlines are one version of that paradigm, as are my non-print projects. I may have to squeeze them in, but in doing so I may just do them more, do them better.

But I will miss the daily connection with the North Country, and I will lament having to “squeeze them in.” But if the outcome is better storytelling, better reporting and a more impactful version of history, the sacrifice is worth it. I may miss the North Country, but it I can tell its story better it’s a change worth making.

The Length of the Story

I have a hard time expressing everything I see, everything I hear, everything I think is of value. It is almost a physical impossibility to get it all across.

Think about it: my job is to go around and talk to people all week, to find out what is going on in Berlin, and to put it down on paper. How many conversations do I have? And how many come to nothing? Lots, that’s the answer for both.

There is so much there. It is unlike anywhere else I’ve been. There is a sense I get every time I drive north on Route 16 that I’m traveling back in time to an era when neighborhoods where connected. It’s an entirely unfair feeling, since lots of people in Berlin are transient or recent emigres, but it’s what I feel nonetheless.

And every random five minute conversation tells me something more about the city. Every time I stop by the police station is see a small town going through growing pains, and I don’t know how to get that across.

Growing pains—a funny way to refer to it in a city that has lost more than half its population. But that’s what it is. Prior to the pulp mill closing, people didn’t move to Berlin. It was largely left alone to flourish, and only the resilient Berliners had what it took to live beneath the stacks.

But today, with the smell gone and the jobs gone with it, there are lots of reasons to move there. Most of them wind up in people’s pocket at the end of the month, saved from what they would have had to pay in a rental unit downstate.

Berlin is attracting an influx from away, and it isn’t the kind every resident wants. But what kind is the kind every resident wants?

I’ve heard people talk about how the smell from the mill used to be called “tourist repellent.” I grew up on the coast of Maine, so I can understand that sentiment, but I wonder how that impacts today’s environment. I have heard people express their support for ATVers visiting the area, but what happens when a different style of tourist discovers the city?

Berlin is blue-collar, and that’s largely how it wants to stay. The people flocking there now, mostly to take up residence in the slums, are not welcomed by residents. What about the other end of the spectrum? I know that isn’t currently Berlin’s problem, but I do wonder how people would like BMWs, Audis and Volvos clogging the city streets instead of ATVs and lifted four-by-fours.

Those are the things I can’t get across. Those are the feelings, the details, that tell me so much about Berlin, that make it dear to me. It is working class, maybe to the point there is too much class struggle in residents’ identities. But how does that impact them in the 21st century, when the Great North Woods no longer shelter them and no longer provide the economic engine they once did?

I am looking for a way to tell that story. That’s the one that needs to get out.