From the Inside

I have been following the disappearance of 11-year-old Celina Cass since the day she disappeared with interest. It happened in a place I love (the North Country), and it closely resembled a story I covered (the disappearance of Krista Dittmeyer). Each day I’d check the local media and Facebook for updates, and I often heard the latest on NHPR as I drove to work.

Four months ago, when it was Krista Dittmeyer who disappeared, I sent NHPR a note to see if they wanted anything about it. No thanks, they responded, we don’t really cover crime.

I was happy about that, after seeing the television news crews salivating for the latest details (usually gleaned from my reporting in the Sun). I cover crime, but I don’t see day to day coverage of it really adding value to readers’ lives. It’s about feeding their interest, not informing them—probably important from the business side of things, but from the journalistic side of things not that valuable.

But when it came to Celina Cass, NHPR was on it. They had repeated stories about her, right down to when the Attorney General’s office announced it was her body they pulled from the Connecticut River.

I’m not sure anything really changed, however. They have a staff reporter up north, and he had a story to cover. He would have been covering something else if not her disappearance, so they took whatever he could offer.

I, on the other hand, would have been an extra expense. As a stringer, I get paid for what airs. If I covered the Dittmeyer disappearance for them it would have been a hit to their budget. Some part of it may have come down to money.

But also some part of it may have been staff. A few weeks ago I got a note from NHPR saying their news director had left. He’d been there 11 years, and I’d worked for him for two and a half. He’d been the one who got behind my trip to Iraq, and he’d been a great guide on how to improve my radio reporting. Perhaps his news judgement in part effected those decisions.

But ultimately what I take away from this is that reporting is a business, even when that business is a non-profit. There is a bottom line, and every decision that costs money has to be carefully considered. I see that at the Sun too, where business decisions have to be made. If I had a week to dive into every story I wanted to I could do fantastic work, but that isn’t an available luxury. I sometimes have a day to do a story, sometimes a few hours.

At the Reporter I was far enough removed from business decisions to be oblivious to them, but at the Sun, where I walk past the ad people and the publisher every day, I get to peek into their world.

Reporters are free from financial restraints, at least at a well-run paper like the Sun, as I’m sure they are at a well-run station like NHPR. But their impact still makes it into reporting, even if its in a roundabout way like choosing not to cover a big story or a complex story because you don’t have the resources. It’s interesting to see, and something I wouldn’t have noticed were I not on the inside.

Two Years

Where were you two years ago? Where will you be two years from now?

Two years ago my father was battling throat cancer, I was just over six months married, and the ground was still quaking from economic meltdown. I was also starting this blog.

I started LPJ because I had just begun a full-time job at a newspaper, a medium that had been hemorrhaging for years. The job was in a town that had been hemorrhaging as well, Berlin N.H. The industry and the town were two of the same. They were used to the good times, to American dominance, successful manufacturing and booming profits. Newspapers and Berlin were built for the mid-twentieth century, and the early twenty-first was wearing on both of them.

But I had a job, so I was flying high.

The Reporter wasn’t interested in giving me a blog on their website, so after a couple weeks of trying to convince them I decided to start my own. It focused mostly on Berlin and what I was covering at first, but over time I began to look more and more at journalism in general. Where was the industry going? What are the opportunities for people like me who want to continue to tell the stories both at home and abroad that are too often overlooked? How can I make that happen when the financial mechanisms that supported reporters for the last 100 years are proving inadequate?

If someone wants something, however, it’s up to them to make it happen.

If you had told me two years ago I would soon be riding a Humvee through the Mideast I would have said you were crazy. But then I made it happen.

I don’t know where I’ll be next. I’m now working in Conway, N.H., for the Conway Daily Sun, a great little paper with a fantastic atmosphere. I also still send stories to NHPR, something I’ve been doing for even longer than I’ve been running LPJ. I’m not sure where I’ll look next or what the next adventure will be, but it’s nice to see what can happen over two years. Hopefully the next two have as many surprises.

The Fall of American Journalism

Can you guess how the CNN piece went?

I don’t see any value in sensationalism, and that’s what the program I was on was all about. I hung up after the first 15 minutes. Someone from the show called to say they’d lost the connection, and I explained I wasn’t familiar with the show beforehand, but having heard it I couldn’t take part in it. She said she understood, and asked me to explain it to the producer who had asked me on. So I did.

I am a 29-year-old reporter with global aspirations. CNN should be my endgoal. But giving up my commitment to quality reporting isn’t worth it; I would never go work for a program like the one that just had me on (however briefly).

This story is big news. It was on ABC’s Good Morning, and there were eight or 10 television cameras at the press conference this afternoon at the Conway Police Department. But it doesn’t need to be hyped. When one of the biggest names in news is doing the hyping you have to know something is wrong.

I work for a small community paper and contribute to New Hampshire Public Radio — both venues that don’t feel like the news has to be stretched to be valuable to the audience. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to compromise on that. Journalism isn’t just about making money. It’s also about keeping people informed. Scared is not informed. It is a disservice. I have no interest in trumpeting unknowns in order to attract an audience.

If that relegates me to the small-town paper, so be it, but if that is the case it’s a shame. If it takes sensationalism to make it mainstream than journalism is indeed doomed.

But that isn’t the case at all. The New York Times, Washington Post and NPR are consistently excellent news outlets. They play it straight, reporting the news as best they can. There is value in that. It is, in fact, one of the most valuable ingredients in democracy. It scares me what damage is done by the sensationalization of valuable information.

I really only have two things to say after this experience:

  1. Thank you New Hampshire Public Radio, which, when I asked if they were interested in the story said they don’t really cover crime in that way because it comes off as sensational. What a classy response!
  2. Thank you Lt. Chris Perley of the Conway Police Department. He handled repeated attempts to prod him into sensationalism with the utmost professionalism. Bravo.

It’s hard to see your profession let you down. I don’t intend to return the favor.

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.

STUCK!

I’m still in Kuwait. After what was probably the most stressful and frustrating travel experience of my life, I’m now booked to fly home Wednesday.

So here’s what happened:

The sergeant who has been escorting me around picked me up at 6 a.m. I was ready and waiting outside. I threw my stuff in the back and got in, along with another sergeant who supposedly knew how to get to the airport and the female specialist who was partnered with the escorting sergeant.

It’s supposedly a half hour to 45 minute drive to the airport, so I should have been there by 6:45 a.m. for the 8:55 a.m. flight. Well, first we miss a turn. We go up two exits (they didn’t realize we’d missed the turn until after we went by the following exit), turn around and go back. Then we head to the military side of the airport.
“That sign says airport straight ahead,” I said, “why are we turning right?”
“It’s a back way in,” the sergeant who supposedly knows the way said.
We turn onto a road that leads to a US military checkpoint. The checkpoint personnel don’t respond right away, so the sergeant who knows the way reaches across the escorting sergeant (driving) and honks the horn. The checkpoint people then force us to wait 20 or 30 minutes (literally) and have a supervisor come out to reprimand us for blowing the horn.
When we finally get through we take the “back way” into the airport. (The checkpoint personnel never looked at my paperwork, the only non-US military in the vehicle. It was a power display.)

We pull up to the terminal, grab my bags and go in.
“Which way to British Airways?” I ask a group of men standing at the door.
People point to a hallway, but there is obviously no British Airways that way, so I ask someone at a counter.
“They’re not here. You’re in the wrong airport. There is another terminal at the other side of the airport.”
That’s when I said screw this, I’m directing traffic now. Go back to the highway, I said, where we saw the sign for the airport and follow that in. It takes us right in to the airport (surprise!), where there are cars stopped in every lane.
It’s now been an hour and 50 minutes. I’m freaking out, but I’ve still got an hour until the flight leaves. (I always freak out when there are flights involved.)
So I jump out of the car and grab all my bags and run in, leaving my escort behind. I get in the security line and go to where it says British Airways should be. But they aren’t there.
I ask around and finally find one guy with a BA pin.
“The flight is closed,” he said. “You’re too late.”
“I’ve got an hour until my flight,” I said.
“No, it’s closed. If you want to leave your baggage in Kuwait I can get you on, but not with your baggage.”
“Will I get it eventually?”
“No, we won’t watch it for you. You need to leave it.”
I considered it. If it weren’t for the helmet and bulletproof vest, I would have.
“I can’t,” I said. “When can I get rescheduled?”
“You can’t. You missed your flight. You need to buy a new ticket.”
My mouth went dry.
“OK, I’ll leave my bag.”
“It’s too late for that, you had one minute,” he said. “You’ll need to buy a new ticket.”

I was able to call my point of contact at the Camp Arifjan from a phone in one of the two Starbucks. The sergeant who had been escorting me and the sergeant who didn’t know the way met me there at 10:10 a.m. and gave me a ride back to the base. I couldn’t call British Airways US because it was 3 a.m. back home, so I called BA UK.
“No, you can’t have a new ticket,” the woman at customer service told me, “you missed your flight.”
“I missed it because I was detained at a military checkpoint,” I said, “and I was still there an hour early.”
“You were too late,” she said.
“I want to talk to your supervisor,” I said.
“She’ll tell you the same thing.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said. “I want to talk to your supervisor.”
Her supervisor did say the same thing. But then I said it was ridiculous they would ask me to just abandon my luggage.
“It would have made it eventually,” she said.
“That’s not what I was told,” I said. “The man told me I was just going to have to leave it if I wanted to get on the plane, and that I would be leaving it for good.”
“Well he shouldn’t have. Of course you would get it eventually.”
“I would have left it if I had known that!” I said.
That mistake saved me $1,000, or whatever last minute oneway airfare from Kuwait to Boston costs. The supervisor booked me on the same flight on Wednesday, leaving at 8:55 a.m. and arriving at 6:35 p.m.

I’ll be leaving Camp at 5 a.m. Wednesday, and somebody better know the way.

Final Thoughts

It’s been two weeks, but it feels like two months. I’ve been awed and amazed by this experience. It has reshaped my understanding of the military and the people who work in it. I’m looking forward to getting on a plane and returning to the cold and snow back home, but I’ll also be looking forward to the next time I am back here.

Thanks for following my travels. I’ve still got one more story to finish. It will hopefully broadcast next week. After that I’m going to have to see what kind of interesting trouble I can get myself into. Until then…

Kuwait Coffee

I got a chance to sit down and share coffee with a Kuwaiti family today in the desert just off base. It’s hard to imagine getting the urge to invite the people riding up in gun trucks into your house, but that’s exactly what the Kuwaitis did. We sat and drank and ate cookies. It was another spectacular experience on a trip full of them.

I’m going up north tomorrow to talk to New Hampshire soldiers who run long haul convoys into Iraq, and then the next day I catch my plane out of here. I’ve had a fantastic time, and I’ve been nothing but impressed with the people I’ve met. From specialist to colonel, everyone has been friendly and helpful. I know part of that is the fact that I’m media, but soldiers were always willing to go out of their way for me. The Army has bureaucracy that baffles me, but the people who make it up have passion.

Next time I do this I’ll know a little better when to ask for permission and when to announce my intentions. I got to meet up with the New Hampshire unit in Kuwait because I decided to stop waiting for the Army to connect me with them. (That’s exactly the opposite of what they direct you to do, but after months of waiting for them to connect me I gave up.)

And today, just like everyday on this trip, I got to do, see, hear or learn something amazing. I need more trips like this. You can never get too much Kuwaiti coffee.

Update: A few pictures to go along with:

One More Stop

In an effort to cover the 197th Fires Brigade, I’m now at Camp Arifjan. It’s so interesting to note here I’ve been more closely scrutinized than I was all through Iraq. I’m also in the most rustic accommodations yet. I’m sleeping in the common room at the barracks of the  sergeant from the public affairs division who has been showing me around. It’s funny, because this is supposed to be the Ritzy base, but right now it’s the one where I’m crammed in next to a couch and a footlocker.

At this point, I’m starting to taste the flight home. In three nights, less than 72 hours, I’ll be headed back to the Northeast. I guess I don’t get to go out in style.