Eats, shoots,…

…and leaves.

I’ve been offered a new job. Actually, this is the third or fourth job I’ve been offered since beginning my shift in Berlin, but this is the one I said yes to.

I’m not moving, I’m going to work for the Conway Daily Sun. The paper is about 10 minutes from my house, is a daily instead of a weekly, and, most importantly, it has an office.

This was a difficult decision for me, but it really hit home today when I saw my current job on Craigslist. I probably talked to a dozen people who’s opinions I trust before I decided to say yes, but ultimately I think it was the best decision.

That after a day that was one of my busiest in recent weeks chasing great stories all over the Androscoggin Valley.

Two key conditions of the new job were that I would be able to continue working with NHPR and that I could continue with my plan to go to Iraq. Neither was an issue, so I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no.

What I need is an office environment, where I can collaborate and bounce ideas off other reporters, in order to improve as a reporter. Berlin deserves excellent reporting, beyond the caliber I’m currently able to offer. Hopefully by making this step I can get closer to that level of professionalism.

But I won’t be leaving the area. I’ve come to care about the North Country, and I’ve made connections and commitments that will keep me there. I have two projects now that will keep me in northern New Hampshire, and I’m developing plans for two more.

I’m interested to continue to watch development in the North Country, particularly the biomass projects and the federal prison. There are possibilities for the future, and I intend to stay involved, to watch what happens. Who knows, perhaps after I get the experience I crave now I’ll return. But not now. For now the role I played in the Berlin discussion for over the past year and a half is coming to an end.

Raining

Both figuratively and literally.

If bad things come in threes, how many good things come at once?

I’m working on a NHPR project, a Charitable Fund project, a New Hampshire Grand project and my Reporter work. Several other interesting offers have come up, and USF–Iraq got back to me to explain what I need to do to make the Iraq trip happen. It’s so much I’ve barely got time to write.

But the NHPR piece, which is about the fate of the Cascade mill, makes me take pause. The operation is in limbo, and the solution needs to come quick for the 237 jobs to remain. What will that mean for this area? It means the federal prison needs to hurry up and open.

It’s interesting that the debate is how to keep this facility open. The workers would be in trouble if the jobs go away, but the long term viability of paper-making in the United States is by no means given, even with the proposed improvements. It again comes back to the large scale retooling of the workforce.

But what does that mean for the people left behind? Nothing good, as far as I can tell. For them it’s raining too, but in an entirely different way.

Back to the Struggle

I got to interview an interesting man last week, an artist from Berlin who made his way back from a stroke to paint once again. He had to learn to use his left hand instead of his right, and his technique now involves a computer, but it is a fantastic story. (If you’re interested, his name is Daniel Roberge, and his show opens tomorrow at St. Kieran Arts Center.) He described getting back to creating art after being told he would struggle to ever sit up again on his own as “getting back into the struggle.” What elegant language.

And the struggle is back in Berlin, full swing. On Tuesday, before an empty chamber, save Bobby Haggart, Jon Edwards got up to speak during the public comments phase of the city council meeting. He talked about what he’d seen at the Laidlaw hearings in Concord, where he said numerous companies already invested in biomass raised concerns about the Laidlaw project.

He got about four minutes, and then Mayor Paul Grenier cut him off. Mayor Grenier smashed the gavel into the block, and he told Mr. Edwards not to lecture the council. Councilor David Poulin said he was interested in what Mr. Edwards had to say, and Mr. Edwards continued.

Maybe two minutes later Mayor Grenier was again pounding the gavel, loud enough to drown out everything else. He asked the city manager to call the police and to have Mr. Edwards thrown out. Mr. Edwards left a moment later.

What a scene. What a debate. I have come back, I feel, to the struggle.

Packed…

My two bags are packed to the limit, and I still don’t have a place for my cameras. I’ve got ice tools, crampons, a tent and sleeping bag, ropes, a harness, and all sorts of other gear.  I’ve still got to add socks and flip-flops to the mix, but mostly I’m there.

This is a project that might make me a couple thousand dollars, in addition to providing me with a great vacation. Working at the paper is a good job, but it isn’t lucrative enough to convince me to give up other opportunities. I’ve got to chase them just to make it all come together.

In many ways I’m like Berlin: I’ve got to diversify. My staple industry just doesn’t pay the bills the way I’d like it to, so now I’ve got to figure out how to spread myself around to make that work.

I just finished a video project for a nonprofit client, making three short videos aimed at their various demographics. (These are the rough cuts. I just burned the final DVD today, but I’m not going upload updated clips to YouTube before we leave tomorrow.)

These are another example of what working in the modern media landscape means. It pays to have multiple skills, because as newspapers change they are edging out the promise of a secure profession. Having a bit of photo, video and audio skills, plus some design experience and website development, really helps. It makes it possible to live in the most seemingly impossible places, like northern New Hampshire.

I’ll be chasing after another branch of my diversification in the coming weeks, and then again when I head to Iraq (hopefully) this fall. And piecing it all together, if I can make it happen, should be quite rewarding.

It’s like reviving your economy with a prison or two, a biomass plant, a resurgent paper mill and some tourism dollars—not the same as the old model, but it can work if it’s the right combination.

So while my packs are almost packed, in some ways it’s my schedule that’s even more packed. At least every piece is baggage I’m excited to carry.

More Projects…

I am in the process of finishing up everything I need to do before I travel to Peru for three weeks of alpine climbing and work. In reality, those two are one and the same—I’m trying to put together the materials for a feature length article for an outdoor magazine about climbing on the east side of the Cordillera Blanca, the main climbing destination in Peru. Traditionally everyone climbs there from the west, based in Huaraz, but my climbing partner and I will be visiting the other side of the range, which is supposedly remote and untracked.

I’m taking my cameras in addition to my ice tools and crampons, and hopefully I’ll come back with enough material to pull the article together. I’m not much of a travel writer, choosing instead to focus on hard news, but I have a feeling if I can pull together the photos I can make this happen. It is a little disconcerting, however, to be going to South America with $4,000 in camera equipment when I’ll be spending most of my time in a tent.

It been interesting in the lead up to this, because as I’ve been getting ready to leave it seems more and more keeps happening around Berlin. Developments with the biomass projects and the Fraser mill are rapidly changing, and I’ve been trying to keep on top of them while preparing to leave.

I spoke to the woman who will be filling in for me for about an hour this morning to catch her up to speed on all of this. She will working in my stead for the three weeks I’m gone, so hopefully she got enough information to move forward.

I have to say, however, it is tough in an organization like the Reporter, where contacts and institutional memory are limited to individuals. I only have a year and a few months experience, but that has been invaluable recently in making connections that break stories. What the community needs is a reserve of those types of connections, not a shallowing of the well.

But I’ll only be gone a few weeks, which, in reality, isn’t that long. A lot will undoubtedly happen, but at the same time much will stay the same. That last part is unfortunate for the region, which needs so much to change.

Planning and Development

Zoning has been big news in Berlin recently, with the council working to amend the zoning ordinance to deal with non-conforming lots. The council screwed up by rushing the effort. They had to redo it the other night, which pushes the time-line of at least one project back another couple weeks, but they are moving forward still, with the goal to make it easier to start and run a business in Berlin.

There are members of the planning board, however, who don’t favor relaxing the standards. The city should get rid of non-conforming lots over time, they argue, and the way to do that is by restricting their use.

I’m no urban planner, but both sides of the debate have merits. Berlin needs development. The city is in no position to turn away people looking to invest. But the city needs investors willing to do things right, on the other hand. All the slumlords in the world don’t help revive the housing market, for example.

I watched this talk recently about redevelopment of suburban areas that had been abandoned, and parts of it echoed the challenges in Berlin.

Planning and zoning are such interesting tools for development, and at the same time complex. The city needs to consider carefully how to implement them. What does it mean to make this change? Hopefully it creates real opportunity in the city, like jobs, taxes and growth in the near future. In the end, two weeks doesn’t matter.

Update

After a bunch of work between meetings today (I spent a long time waiting for calls back that never came) I pulled together a new banner for the website. It’s more generic, but clean.

I’ve got a couple freelance proposals out there that I’m hoping to take advantage of, so I’ve been trying to spruce up the site. I never fully finished it when I originally launched it, so now I’m trying to do that.

I’ve got a pitch in with a magazine to do a story on the Peru trip I have scheduled for August. A police officer asked if I was going to write something for the Reporter about it, but I just don’t see how I can make the connection.

For that pitch I updated my resume, which is up on the site as well. It’s important to be seen, I guess, when you’re telling companies you write.

Anyway, I’ve got 300 words to write about tonight’s council meeting, so I’ve got to get going on that. I love the weeks I totally botch my word count estimate for council. The agenda was short, but now I’ve got 1,000 words I’ve got to cram into a couple paragraphs. Awesome. It will go quickly, I imagine.

Full Plate

It’s the end of my week, and already I’m looking at four stories. Each one is “major,” in that each one is worth at least a day of my time. When it comes to issues like the Fraser mill, slumlords in Berlin, Clean Power, Laidlaw and PSNH, or any of the development opportunities the city is looking at, each one should get at least a solid eight hours. Think about it: I’ve got to talk to a bunch of people, digest and understand it all (sometimes starting from no knowledge) and explain it to readers.

Sometimes there just isn’t the time. These four stories are all going to happen, to be sure, but never with the depth and breadth I’d like.

In a city of this size it’s remarkable there are two papers at all, particularly considering the economic conditions. I have to guess a big part of why the Reporter is able to function is because the only real expense is me. Without an office, and by sharing administration with the Democrat, the paper avoids racking up large expenses. It’s essentially my salary and mileage.

But four more reporters would be awesome, wouldn’t it? I often make a call on one story, receive a call on another and get an email about a third in a matter of minutes. Multiply that by every day of every week and you’ll understand my week. I love it.

But the city needs more coverage. It needs more people asking questions. I hate to drop stories because I don’t have the resources, but it undoubtedly happens. Luckily there is another paper able to pick up the slack, but even between the two papers there are only three reporters. Not exactly a fleet.

I’m noticing, however, that I’m starting to understand things here a little better. I’m starting to know where to poke and prod to get some interesting stories. My year plus here is starting to pay off with enough institutional knowledge and personal connections to put pieces together.

I’ve been reading that one of the challenges of modern journalism is that too many reporters spend a year or two in a place and then move on, and they take their knowledge and connections with them. I understand that perspective better now, as stories are starting to grow out of those relationships.

Berlin needs those types of reporters, those with ties to the community. Without an office, however, that will be hard for the Reporter to achieve. I work out of the community college–not exactly the center of the city. With no permanent presence in Berlin, the Reporter loses out. As the reporter, I lose out. No one can drop in to drop off a tip. People need my email or phone number to make something happen.

How do you balance community connections with budgets? Beats me. I just keep running with my full plate and hope I can work fast enough for the residents of Berlin.

Speaking of, I think my phone is ringing.

Week Beginning…

And ending.

It’s always funny to me how my deadline is Monday morning. Tomorrow I’ve got the council meeting and the police log to do, but otherwise if it’s a quiet day I just finished my work week. (Only sort of, but it feels that way.)

This week is good. Real good. I got to delve into the CPD/Laidlaw issue as it pertains to the Coös County Commissioners. It’s quite a story, I think, definitely worth reading.

On top of that, I had a good discussion with the folks the New England Forest Rally about why they decided to uproot and go to Errol. It’s an interesting perspective on how Berlin works with people looking to make things happen. It’s not a glowing review, but maybe the city can learn from it.

I also hung out with Charlie Bass for a little while when he came through town to reconnect with voters. Politics is funny: he railed against earmarks, but then he said he tried to bring whatever he could back to New Hampshire. That’s his job, but the about-face is interesting to watch.

I was talking with Councilor McCue about politics just the other day. He mentioned being one of two conservatives in his left-leaning family. I’m luckier—I’m unaffiliated. I try to get honest answers out of both sides, which is tougher than picking one or the other.

I got a great response offline to my comments about dedensifying the city, and then a few day later I heard a story on Marketplace about a related topic. There are city eliminating highways, and they wind up with less congested cities. Planners thought it would create chaos, but instead it disperses traffic and supports local businesses. It’s an argument perfect to combat those people who want to see a highway to Berlin. Why? To route shoppers away from the downtown merchants?

OK, it’s late, I’m done my week (but not). I’m going to get to sleep so I’m not yawning when I get to the police department in the morning. And hopefully nothing has happened that will require scrambling tomorrow morning (did I just jinx myself?).

Busy Weekend

I just got back from the ATV festival, which certainly brought a crowd to the region. Estimates ranged, but I heard as many as 700 people yesterday, 900 today. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but there were certainly a lot of people enjoying the trails, the mud pit, the demo rides and the helicopter tours.

I also stopped by Mayor Grenier’s house to get an update on the Fraser mill. He’s hoping a plan will move forward that can save the 240 jobs, though the project has hit a snag. I’ve been hearing a lot of rumors that suggest it’s dead in the water, but no definitive proof one way or the other. It’s a big deal, 240 jobs, and hopefully something good will be announced soon.

I saw a post on Facebook this morning about how the farmers’ market is the only bright spot in Berlin’s otherwise bleak economic picture. It was from a local merchant, who said she’d seen too many $0 days. She implored residents to shop local, to support Main Street businesses so they don’t all go the way of JC Penney. That heartfelt plea is ubiquitous, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. Walmart never has a lack of customers, even when Main Street does. But it is encouraging what impact an event like market can have. It livens the downtown and brings people out in a way no other Berlin event I’ve seen does. Too many events are after closing time, so people can’t go in and support local merchants.

But what a distance a little ingenuity goes. How much could WREN have spent on this project? I’m sure not much. And yet it has an impact. Thank goodness they took the plunge, but why does it take a group from away to make these things happen. There is creativity and spirit in Berlin. The city just has to figure out how to put it to work.

I’m about to launch into a bit of writing for this week’s paper, but I wanted to post some images from the weekend. I went to the coast of Maine to visit my wife’s family, and when we left we happened upon a fantastic sunset.

Not bad, although it’s no sunset in the mountains.