Thursday, December 18, 2008

The eye of the storm


The power went out just past 11 p.m. one week ago today. 

It wasn't until about Tuesday that things began to get back to normal after over 300,000 residents in New Hampshire sat in the dark and the cold and wondered just how much would they would have to burn to keep the pipes from freezing. 

Out on the road Friday morning trying to navigate roads lined with down wires, tree limbs and other debris, fathoming the damage of the storm remained nearly impossible. Rockingham County had been hit hard; you could tell that just from the size of the trees that had been pulled out of the ground by the ice storm the night before. 

Cellular service remained largely weak that morning and without Internet capabilities or a land line phone that meant hitting the road to find out what was going on. Passing under blank traffic signal after blank traffic signal - emergency generators had at that point not been set up at critical intersections - created an eery Mad Max effect. Only the near continuous howl of sirens in the background added to the mood. 

Otherwise it was a perfectly normal winter day in New England. 

Salem firefighter Dave O'Brien called it the most chaotic he'd seen his department in his 20 years of service to the community. Four days later, when the call volumes had dropped back to a level of normalcy, he told me the entire department had let out a sigh of relief. 

While the duration of the power outage will surely end up raging into a public firestorm directed at someone - likely the utility companies like PSNH - those in public service became the shining bright spot in the whole mess. Most of the senior emergency management teams I met throughout the weekend and into this week worked days on end, only taking breaks to go home and make sure their families without power were okay. As Windham's Assistant Fire Chief Robert Leuci put it "We're out straight."

Still they remained cavalier at most times, joking with me when I showed up knocking on their door for more information. 

"Are you out of power too?" I asked one firefighter as he took me to the Chief's office. 

"Oh I'm fucked," he said. "No power at home, no heat, no running water. I'm just fucked."

The storm did not spare anyone and the nature of the subsequent crisis left the entire playing field level. No one had power and everyone wanted power. Windham's state representative spent several days after the storm staying in one of the Red Cross shelters set up in Salem, Londonderry and Nashua. 

On Sunday I watched half of the Jets game at the Salem emergency relief shelter while I charged up my laptop and cellphone. In a town where at that point over 5,000 remained without power, only a handful had chosen to come to the shelter. The rest left town or stocked up on wood. 

By Monday some sense of normalcy had returned to the southern portion of Rockingham County. While residents in nearby Derry still described their town as "a warzone," officials in Windham and Salem were reporting roads as cleared, whole neighborhoods back on the grid and the number of emergency calls returning to normal. 

Still, there were some dark times. 

On Tuesday a 77-year-old Salem resident succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. His was the fourth storm-related death since Thursday. Sadly, he died after power had been restored. His boiler malfunctioned and without working carbon monoxide or smoke detectors he never had a chance, Salem's fire marshal told me. 

Misuse of generators or other alternative heating appliances resulted in dozens of hospitalizations across the state and were involved in at least one other death following the storm. In Windham two individuals were placed in a hyperbaric chamber to remove the carbon monoxide from their system. Salem's Chief Kevin Breen told me that going door to door his firefighters had found dozens of improperly used generators. 

Ironically, though the storm had passed by Friday morning the worst was yet to come.

Now, seven days later things are still not back to normal. While Salem and Pelham are only reporting a few score of houses still without power, Windham has as many as 1,400 (myself included) and in Atkinson 20 percent of the town is in the dark. 

And there's more winter weather on the way...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

On the beat


Beat reporters are the foundation of print journalism. 

Or at least a vital part of the final product. Without beat reporters developing articles, contacts and storylines becomes a more daunting task, especially in a climate where people just don't trust reporters anymore. 

It's something I've come across over and over again since entering the real world and taking hold of a beat of my own. Granted, it's not a senior political position with the Washington Post or the New York Times, but it's my own little slice of New Hampshire where I'm expected to know everything and everybody, understand the issues and capture life on a daily basis.

There were obvious challenges at first and some I still come across. People were hesitant to talk to a  new reporter, especially a cub reporter. In some cases it would take days for people to give me a call back as I struggled to file stories on the deadlines I had been assigned. Over time that issue faded as I developed and then cultivated relationships within the communities I cover. Rare are the folks in Salem who won't give me at least a call back these days and more and more frequently I have people coming to me first, with news and information they would like to see put out. 

Some of those early challenges remain, of course. There are the town administrators who still don't feel the need to talk to a reporter from the Union Leader or the occasional selectmen here or there who doesn't trust a kid from Massachusetts not to rip their words out of context.

Reporters now fall under that suspicious category of people who are just waiting to take the words out of your mouth and throw it into a slanderous article that might have far-reaching consequences. We slander, libel and muck-rake our way to the top, tear down governments and exhibit and increasingly partisan bias. Worse than that, with the Internet, anything you may go on the record about will undoubtable become an object of scrutiny for some future employer. 

That is the hurdle that fresh reporters, new reporters must overcome. You don't stand aloof above the beat, be it a community, police station, business, etc., but join with it. People talk to me because they know who I am, they've seen my name in the paper and they know I'm not out to make a name for myself by producing hyperbole. 

Which is what gets me back to my original point and that is that the relationships I have established with so many different people in Salem, Windham and Pelham - from the superintendents to the members of the planning board all the way to the town manager who calls me "reporter-man" whenever he sees me lounging around town hall - makes it that much easier to do my job. 

Which is to know everything. 

But only in Salem, Windham and Pelham.


Friday, November 28, 2008

Shop 'til you drop


I've never been a big shopper. 

I like to go out and get whatever it is I'm looking for, usually after some comparative price searching on the Internet, and that is that. Done deal. 

So when I joined the mass of shoppers at the Mall at Rockingham Park today, it was the first time in my life I've participated in the Black Friday spending spree. In fact, it was probably the first time since I was six that I got up before 7 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving. 

My job was to get reactions and shopping stories and the key to eliciting a good story from a man-on-the-street perspective is asking the right question. Unfortunately, when it comes to shopping, I have no idea what that question is. 

Thankfully, despite the long lines and heavy crowds, most of the people crowding the mall (known affectionately by the local police as the M.A.R.P) were in good spirits.

"I'm spending more (this year). I'm trying to help the economy," said one laughing man. "This is the busiest I've ever seen it here. I don't know who's pulling whose leg on the economy."

A glum faced gentleman holding a bag full of purchases outside of an Aeropostale told me he was there for his wife.

"Anything for the wife," he said, before mentioning something about getting skinned alive if he hadn't been at the mall shopping with her on Black Friday. 

The last person I interviewed, a mother shopping with her two daughters, had been up since 3:30 a.m. When I asked her for her motivation, she smiled and said it was an annual tradition with her daughters. 

"I'm not a big shopper," she said. 

Sure. Maybe not 364 days out of the year, but waiting in line for a register at Kohl's for an hour is more than I'm willing to go through. 

I was happy to sneak out of the parking lot with a minimum of problems and be back in bed by 9:30 for a quick nap. Between drop-dead-deals and dozing, I'll always take a few extra hours of sleep.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Salem's Lot

Salem is a town in transition. 

It's known mostly for the Rockingham Park racetrack, Canobie Lake Park, the mysterious America's Stonehenge archeological site and a downtown strip made up of pawn shops, smoke stores and tattoo parlors.

Situated next to Methuen, Mass., and closer to Lawrence, Lowell and Haverhill than Manchester or Concord it can at times feel like Mass-Lite. Most of the residents are from south of the border - a fact that has been attributed as a reason why Rockingham County remains a "red" bedrock of conservatism in an otherwise left-leaning state (Obama won by the some of the closest margins in New Hampshire in Rockingham County which also backed John Sununu and gave Jeanne Shaheen a run for her money and elected a slate of republican candidates - and only one democrat - to Concord).

In Salem, a Boston accent is more commonly heard than in Western Massachusetts. 

Much of the crime is imported from out of state as well. According to Capt. Shawn Patten of the Salem PD, about fifty percent of crime is committed by out-of-staters. 

Salem is very much a collection of vividly different people; a mesh of separate communities with very little in the way of town spirit outside of the local schools and the Boys and Girls Club. North Salem is the only part of town that feels like New Hampshire, complete with lakes and a forested horizon. The Route 28 corridor encompassing North and South Broadway streets is littered with cookie-cutter "big box" style stores like Best Buy, Target and the rapidly liquidating Tweeter store. Aside from the stores and shops lining Rt. 28 and nearby Rt. 38 the rest of the community is relatively quite and composed of suburban-style homes ranging from the sprawl of working class ranches to even a few McMansions. 

At the moment, the town's planning board is considering a proposal that would require the development of land larger than 25 acres undergo a "master plan" process that would let board members work with developers to create a mixed-use piece of land that would incorporate commercial, residential and recreational facilities. A downtown pedestrian district, board director Jim Keller told me earlier today and several other times in past interviews, is something Salem is very interested in creating. 

I've heard the same response from Ross Moldoff, Salem's planning director and from members of a group that is rebuilding the Salem Depot Station (part of the new defunct Boston-Manchester rail line) with public donations. 

At the moment, Salem's downtown consists of a municipal complex that houses the high school, library, town hall, local DMV, housing authority and district courthouse all on the same stretch of road off of Main Street. The closest thing to a town common is the old veteran's cemetary next to the historical society down the street that houses two first world war era artillery pieces.
 
Creating a downtown district that would encompass parts of the old Salem Depot - where Main Street intersects South Broadway Street creating horrific traffic between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. - remains a vision for the town's planners. 

They understand that it is not going to happen in the near future and if the management at the Rockingham Park racetrack ends up opposing a new ordinance that officials believe would encourage such development as it did in 2003 it may take even longer than that.

In the meantime, Salem will remain a distant suburb of Boston. 

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Post-post-election coverage

I strung for the Associated Press on election night.

I like to tell people that without explaining the background or really adding any context because it just sounds cool as a stand alone phrase. Plus, it helps me convince everybody that I've become a successful journalist.

I strung for the AP on election night.

Doesn't it just have a ring to it?

The truth is much more mundane. The AP office in Concord was looking for extra stringers to help get the ballot counts from communities in Rockingham County (southern New Hampshire) into their database. I agreed to sit in the gymnasium of the public high school in Pelham, NH and wait for the town clerk to tally up the absentee ballots and combine them with the numbers from the voting machine.

Two hours of waiting, sitting in a school desk with absolutely nothing. Next time I'll bring a crossword puzzle. 

Still, I do like to tell people that I've worked for the AP before. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Critical thinking on media criticism

The problem with media criticism is that it is mostly handled by current or former members of the media. True, they are likely in the best positions to speak intelligently and offer a naunced critique of the coverage, bias, trends and tools of the media world, but after years of wheeling and dealing in the press themselves, doesn't it open them up to an ethical dilemma?

It strikes me as having about as much of a potential for conflicts of interest as say, a the chairman of your local selectmen's board writing up articles for the area weekly.

Washington Post's Howard Kurtz took a look at the love affair between the press and the Obama Campaign on Nov. 17, only a couple of weeks after the election. It might have been more interesting - not to mention timely - had he taken the time to analyze the bias (or lack there of) in the press prior to Election Day. 

More interesting was the New York Times' subtle declaration of death of the conservative movement in the United States this morning. 

Skip over the editorializing for a moment (though do notice the lack of sources): 

"Now, thanks to the coarsening effect of the Internet on political discourse, the (National Review) may have lost something else: its reputation as the cradle for conservative intellectuals and home for erudite and well-mannered debate prized by its founder, the late William F. Buckley Jr.

In the general conservative blogosphere and in The Corner, National Review’s popular blog, the tenor of debate — particularly as it related to the fitness of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska to be vice president — devolved into open nastiness during the campaign season, laying bare debates among conservatives that in a pre-Internet age may have been kept behind closed doors."

Now I'm not one to overtly criticize a major journalistic institution in this country, but I fail to see how this article is in fact newsworthy. It appears to be a non-story that has been blown up into a mountain.

Certainly, the reporting raises some interesting points. William Buckley's son endorsed Barack Obama during the campaign and popular writer David Frum is leaving the publication to strike out on its own. 

But the storyline, the larger whole, that these bits of information have been presented as part of is a thinly stretched piece of veneer: 

"The magazine, like some others devoted to ideas and politics, has the luxury of not needing to make money. It is judged by how fervently it can incubate ideas — not as a going business concern. This year, there has been a small increase in circulation. At the start of the year, its circulation was 169,000, which has grown to about 185,000 for its latest postelection issue, which will arrive this week in mailboxes. The magazine’s Web site has also been successful. In October, it had 788,000 unique visitors, up almost 200 percent from the previous year, according to comScore. By comparison, The Weekly Standard had 490,000 unique visitors in October."

So, circulation is up, online hits are up, but let's sound the death knell anyway. And yes, I do see the irony in criticizing media criticism. 

UPDATE: Click here for the National Review's response to their fading into irrelevancy.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Credit where credit is due

Leaving behind a lasting legacy is a drive that propels most people forward in life - some more so than others, it would seem - on a daily basis as well as over the long term. 

The evidence is in the decisions people make on a daily basis and the goals they aspire to in the long run. Marriage, a stable career and raising a family, though a bit less glamourous than someone shooting for the Oval Office, is certainly a reflection of that drive; children mean a physical and genetic legacy. 

On a smaller scale I think each and every one of us hopes to leave something behind at every stop on the long, meandering bus ride that is life. How else do you explain nostalgia?

Looking back at the Daily Collegian I take a significant amount of pride in the legacy that I like to think I left there five months ago. When I click over to their web site I see an incredible amount of well written news articles, something that has been going on all semester as far as I can tell. Last year, just getting student stories into the newspaper was a weekly challenge and I hope my successors have found it easier than I ever did. 

I like to think - especially when I'm falling prey to my excessively enlarged ego - that the foundation laid by the staff last year plays into that success. Reorganizing the news department to encourage student-staffers to essentially give it their all to a publication that did not pay well (or at all) and suffered a fair amount of on-campus insults was something I took an inordinate amount of pride in. 

Now the "kids" have taken it to the next level, bringing in a massive writing staff of names I don't recognize at all from my two and a half years working for the Collegian and probing the issues that I was forced to gloss over in my own tenure in the basement of the Campus Center. 

Just last week I was on the verge of writing an e-mail to the staff congratulating them for the work they've done already in a year that is still fairly young (though as they gear up for finals, it probably doesn't seem that way). What drove me to that point?

Well a couple of glasses of wine, some nostalgia and the terrific job the entire staff did at covering the election. Check out their rolling coverage of Election night here. I was blown away at the work done and a little bit jealous; adapting old print journalism to "new media" has proven to be a bit more clunky and less driven in the real world where making mistakes in order to learn has a bit of a stigma associated with it. I miss posting audio from live meetings and doing podcasts with James and Will, just like I miss trying to convince Kate that she needed to blog more often. 

So I sat down at my keyboard to bang out a quick e-mail to the desk editors, but a piece of inadvertent advice that Eric Athas gave me last year stopped me from going forward. 

To paraphrase an e-mail I got from him in October of 2007: It can be annoying when past editors try to advise you.

Which was never the case when it came to Athas' advice - he was usually right on the money about the things that needed improvement - but I can see how it could be that way.

So I shut my laptop and figured that the next time I'm out in Amherst I'll run into Will or Joe or Kate (maybe even King if he's not too busy) and congratulate them in person. In the meantime I'll leave this blogpost up as a heartily written "congrats" and a thanks for keeping the up the work that all of us put so much into last year.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A good old fashioned school scandal

Say what you will about "new media," but it takes a good old fashioned newspaper story properly convey this kind of a story.

I spent Friday bombing around Salem trying to get in touch with teachers, administrators, students and parents. 

My favorite quote came from senior leaving school early to beat the daily traffic out of Salem High's parking lot. 

"Most of us think it's funny," he said. He laughed and then took off. 

It brought back some memories of my own high school experience that I had forgotten over the past couple of years. Several dozen students and athletes were suspended from their sports teams after photos of them drinking and smoking "illegal substances" turned up online. I don't remember if it was MySpace, but it probably was. 

I ended up getting interviewed by a young man hanging out across the street from the school. He was a reporter from the Brockton Enterprise (the local daily in southeastern Massachusetts). It reminded me a lot of what I was doing yesterday, trying to catch reactions from students as they tried to get out of the parking lot on a Friday afternoon. 

The reporter at that time was doubly happy to get a quote from me once he found out I had played football that fall. Six months earlier one of the fathers had arranged for a stripper to do a show at one of our night before the game fires/pasta dinners. 

After the team captains talked it over, they decided to thank the father and the stripper, but sent her home. 

That didn't stop Fox 25, CBS 4, NBC 7 and everybody else from showing up. On a national level, Howard Stern called us all "gay" on his radio show and during SNL's Weekend Update Jimmy Fallon mocked us after delivering the news by fist pumping.

"Goooooo Northeastern Gay Birds," he said. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

11:15 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 4, Election Day

Hey, it ended at a reasonable hour. 

Usually Monday Night Football lasts longer. 

Monday, October 27, 2008

Bringing Halloween home

Halloween is probably one of the more entertaining holidays to write about. It could just be me - I love all things creepy, from bad horror movies to haunted houses and ghost stories - but it seems like there is always something interesting to write about during the month of October. 

As a reporter who develops most of his own stories, Halloween gives me a chance to have some fun and write some articles that while not breaking-news caliber are very much enjoyable to report on. 

Some of the stories I've worked on for the Union Leader over the past month include: 

A look at haunted house security following an incident that occurred during a haunted hayride in Candia, NH where an exchange student from Venezuela punched a "scare-actor" in the face during the ride. 

Trying to dig up some old ghost stories in the Salem, NH area (not very successfully. The response from local librarians and historians could be summed up pretty much as "nope, no ghosts here." Which is weird for an area that has been settled for the past 300 years or so)

Looking at how local pumpkin farmers have been hit by the bad economy and a very rainy growing season. 

I've also begun looking into the past a little bit and trying to get local police chiefs to tell me their wackiest Halloween incidents. 

You can also definitely do easy articles on safety tips for young trick-or-treaters. I'm particularly interested to see what the police log yields on Nov. 1. Should be some good stories there as well. 

Monday, October 20, 2008

Out with the old, in with the new

An interesting side-story of sorts concerning local police departments developed from the economic crisis and the previous year's soaring fuel costs. With every municipality worried about their financial future, more and more town agencies and departments are taking steps to tighten their belts. 

video

One way this has manifested itself has been in the gradual shift away from the classic Ford Crown Victoria Interceptor model that so many police departments in the past have deployed. Disappearing are the iconic police cruisers of yesteryear, so well ingrained in the American imagination as the standard for a "cop car."

Police department's in my area, southern New Hampshire, are making the switch to alternative models and brands as they attempt to cut back on fuel and maintenance costs. In Pelham, NH the police chief is asking selectmen to give him permission to lease seven new Chevrolet Impalas. 

Nearby Windham began making the same transition a little under a year ago and now employs four marked Impalas and two more for administrative purposes. 

According to both of the police chiefs, John Roark and Gerald Lewis, the Impalas are a front wheel drive, six-cylinder vehicle with less cabin space than the older eight-cylinder, rear wheel drive Crown Vic models. 

The advantages include better braking, better handling in adverse weather and lower mileage. Lewis told me that it would take a few more months to determine if the vehicles could handle the full-time rigors of police work, but overall he has been pleased with their performances. 

They also use up less fuel than their eight-cylinder Ford counterparts. 

New Hampshire's State Police force has also begun switching over to the Dodge Charger model designed for police work. 

So far Salem has only begun to consider the option and still employes a sizable fleet of Crown Vics across a multitude of town departments. 

Still, from talking to Chief Roark, who went out to Milwaukee this past year for the annual police cruiser car show, it looks more and more like the classic "cop car" is on the way out in favor of smaller, more efficiently built vehicles. 

(video: Chief Gerald Lewis of the Windham Police Department explaining the advantages of employing the smaller Chevy Impala cruiser for routine police work)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Palin around

Yesterday I was on the front line of American journalism. Huddled in the trenches of the 2008 Presidential Election I stared discomfort in the face as I peered over the parapet into the heart of the fight for control of a New England battleground state. 

At least that's how I imagined it, covering Sarah Palin's rally in Salem yesterday. But, to be fair, it was not a war-zone, just cold. Really cold. And I forgot to bring a sweater. 

This wasn't my first brush with presidential politics, but it certainly was entertaining. One of the major advantages or reporting in New Hampshire - at least for now, though it could change in the future - is the state's position above the rest of the country. In a normal election cycle New Hampshire is routinely bombarded by presidential hopefuls to start off the primary race. For a couple of weeks you can spot the average Mr. and Mrs. New Hampshire informing the rest of the country why you should vote for one candidate or the other. 

This year, the fun has been two-fold. With New Hampshire playing the role of a battleground state suddenly candidates are taking a little bit more of an interest in America's northland. Obama will be speaking in Londonderry today (A five minute drive from my house) while Palin and Biden bumped around the state earlier this week. 


No, my name isn't on the byline. But if you scroll down to the bottom you'll find your evidence that I braved the nearly 55 degree weather with nary but a well pressed shirt and tie. You try writing on a deadline when you can't feel your fingers. 

(Video of Shonda Schilling - Curt Schillings wife - introducing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to a crowd of 4,000 in Salem)
video

Monday, October 6, 2008

Local news and localizing news

A criticism I hear often of media, press and television both, is the push for local fluff over real news. For example: "There might be a major economic meltdown right now, but all Channel X is showing is a piece on a cat-fashion show."

There has been a noticeable trend towards local news over national news in the mainstream media and whether this is a good trend or a bad trend is still up to debate. Local, local, local has been the mantra of every newspaper and television station other than the New York Times and a few other outlets of note. The economics behind that push are easy to see: A) people are at least interested in learning about things that are happening in their own communities because they can't find out about them anywhere else and B) you can get national news and analysis on the Internet for free, so why pay 75 cents for a newspaper with the same information?

The pitfalls of too much local, local, local have come into focus as a result. While people don't want to read about the underpinnings of the national credit crisis (when they can get it on www.wsj.com for free), they'll be more dismissive of your credibility as a news source if you run an article or piece on the cat-fashion show instead of the same AP story they can find on Yahoo.com. 

We saw this a lot at the collegian where people did not want to read about national issues, but still faulted us for not running them on the front page. "Why do you have a story about a fraternity as the A-1 story when people are dying in Iraq," was a common complaint. 

The answer from our perspective: "Because you can pick that story up in the NY Times, USA Today, or Boston Globe. But you won't find the story about the fraternity in any of those."

The same sort of complaints come up across newspaper Web site comment sections all the time: "Why are you covering this when there are so many important things across the world to report on."

Clearly, what the public expects of their news source is completely different from what the news source thinks its public needs. 

Localization is the flip side and while you won't see it on those national outlets like the Times or USA Today, you ought to be seeing it with more frequency in your local newspapers. Figuring out a way to find a local angle on a big story is often the best way to keep your readers attracted while also making them look at the community around them. 

Russia invades Georgia? Are there any Georgian or Russian expatriates around? What is there opinion? What is their take, their view and most important: what is their story?

Market crashes? How does it affect local investors? Find out by talking to small investment firms, tax companies, and financial advisors. 

Taking the national and making it local can at times be daunting and require a stretch of the imagination from time to time, but it remains an effective package for bringing together all of the interests of your audience. They can still get that article on the massive funding cut for federally sponsored highway work on Yahoo.com, but they won't get the article on how that is going to delay the completion of the local interstate for another five years.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A little advice for a cub reporter

My second note on yesterday's activities is a little less optimistic about the shape of journalism - particularly print - in the world today. 

I don't look very old at all. In fact most people are not surprised to hear that I am A) a cub reporter B) fresh out of college. 

Still, this endeared me somewhat to the two reporters covering the Sledge arraignment from the Eagle-Tribune based out of Lawrence. One of them, Jim Patten, is a veteran police/crime reporter in the area. He's well known and well respected and his son is the press liaison over in Salem, N.H. The other was a photographer attached to the Patten and ended up being our pool photographer (meaning he was the only one allowed into the courthouse and the subsequent AP photos you can find online are all his). 

They were talking about how the arraignment was already more than an hour late and commenting on how they (particularly the photographer) had had to bounce around southern New Hampshire on a wild goose chase of sorts before finding out that the court appearance would be in Derry. 

"There just isn't any fun in it anymore," the photographer said as he sat next to me. 

"As a recent college grad, that's sort of down turning to hear," I said after butting in on the conversation. 

"I'll tell you what I tell all the other kids around the newsroom," Patten said to me after a short conversation about the state of things in print media. "Have a fall back career. Find something else you like doing that you can get paid for."

He related a story about a young woman who had just been let go and told me that she had been making more money at her side job, waitressing, then as a journalist. 

"They tell you, 'you're not doing this for the money, are you?' Well, it shouldn't be a vow of poverty either," he said. 

Wise words. 

Perp walks and mainstream competitiveness


Two notes on yesterday's media circus outside the District Courthouse in Derry, New Hampshire.

The first is that jockeying for position is still alive and well in main-stream journalism. Maybe not as much as in the glory days of the great competing newspaper editors like Hearst and Pulitzer, but as much as can be expected in the age of the Internet, mass media and "ethical" journalism. 

Some background: A Lawrence police officer, accused of kidnapping, raping and sexually assault a woman while on his shift and in uniform last Saturday morning, was informed by the LPD that a warrant for his arrest had been issued. 

Kevin Sledge, 45, of Salem, N.H., upon being informed of his imminent arrest left his home in such a way that his family requested the Salem police do a wellness check for him. Jim Patten at the Eagle-Tribune reported that the family was concerned that he might commit suicide. 

Salem police tracked him into Pelham, N.H., where local police located Sledge near a Pentecostal church on Route 38. Upon finding out about the warrant for his arrest Sledge was placed into custody on fugitive from justice charges. His arraignment - where he would ultimately waive his extradition rights and climb into the back of a Lawrence PD cruiser for a return trip to Massachusetts - at 2 p.m. at the Derry District Courthouse proved to draw media from across state lines. 

All of the major network affiliated stations were on hand, channels 4, 5, 7 and 25 as well as myself and the AP photographer. Jim Patten, from the Eagle-Tribune, was also on hand with a photographer. 

You can imagine the commotion when a police cruiser and an official government car rolled up into the courthouse parking lot. The journalist swarmed forward, cameras clicking, live video feed streaming from the television folks, notepads out and pencils sharpened. 

Of course, Sledge was still in the custody of the Pelham police department. 

But that didn't stop one fellow from ABC's Channel 5 from walking over to the journalist pool and saying: "what, you didn't see him get out? He was ducked down in the backseat the entire time. They just took him inside."

This led to a few profanities and shocked expressions. We had not seen him in the vehicle and we had certainly not seen him leave either vehicle. For a few moments the area was a fervor of journalistic outrage...until one of the court officials informed us that he would be arriving with the Pelham police officers in five or six minutes. 

The ABC 5 guy chuckled to himself. 

"They told me to tell you guys that he had already been taken inside. Wanted to see what would happen," he said. 

We were not amused. 

But had the rouse worked, had I and some of the other reporters there not thought carefully and clearly about the situation, I would have been inside the courthouse while the Pelham police brought Sledge in for his arraignment. 

It was a tricky, mischievous, competitive, selfish move on the part of ABC. But had it worked they would have had an exclusive shot of Sledge. 

Can't blame them for trying. 

(photo of the Pelham police bringing Kevin Sledge into the back of the Derry District Courthouse)

Friday, September 26, 2008

School daze

It's been a busy couple of weeks. 

Not in Salem, however, where it's been the usual weird crimes, political infighting and general citizen apathy. 

Windham's been where its at, all thanks to the new high school. What once was a town without a center, without a heart and without an identity, has suddenly emerged as a rollicking hotbed of partisan politics. 

It can be surprising what gets people motivated to speak out and to take an active role in government, especially town government. For the residents of Windham - a bedroom community known for its upscale residents more than anything - a multimillion dollar high school that may not even open on time has galvanized the public. 

As one elderly man said pointing a finger at selectmen during a debate over the possible construction of a second access road required by the fire department in order for the school to open: "We don't trust you anymore."

Voters rejected that proposition to take an extra $1.25 million out of taxpayer pockets for an already over budget $55 million project by a wide margin only a few weeks later. 

More so than anything else, the new high school has given this once docile (and no community likes to think of itself as "docile") town and inspired it. No matter how it plays out - odds are the town or school board will get its hands on the money to meet the fire department regulations one way or the other - it'll be interesting. 

Friday, September 12, 2008

Quote of the day

There is a certain joy in hearing outside perspectives on U.S. politics and policy. Europeans offer some of the sharpest, most biting, and strangely accurate assessments of the modern American landscape. Gerard Baker, of the Times Online, offers a compelling analysis of the closeness of this year's presidential election today along with this great description of the Republican Party:

"Democrats," he writes, "are more eager than ever to align the US with the rest of the Western world, especially Europe. This is true not just in terms of a commitment to multilateral diplomacy that would restore the United Nations to its rightful place as arbiter of international justice. It is also reflected in the type of place they'd like America to be - a country with higher taxes, more business regulation, a much larger welfare safety net and universal health insurance."

As for the Republicans:
The Republicans, who still believe America should follow the beat of its own drum, are pretty much against all of that.
Read the rest of the article here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Big Something...

Found this today on Slate.com. Might be a bit outlandish as far as analysis goes, but the commentary and supporting arguments are priceless. Read the last paragraph and play the thirty second bit from the movie and try not to laugh out loud. 

I couldn't. 

The Dude speaketh. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Notes from abroad: Ghost Recon revisited


Certainly, the old communist fears have been on the backburner for a few - maybe ten or so - years now. For anyone born after 1979, the fears of nuclear war, Soviet aggression and socialist revolutions in Iowa were replaced with fears of nuclear meltdowns, rogue nations and terrorist attacks by the mid-90's. While for that epic greatest generation of Tom Brokaw fame viewed the threat of the Soviet Union, and international communism, as paramount in the years after the end of the second world war, their children and grandchildren are more concerned with the state of major league baseball.

That all changed - or at least shifted slightly - with the Russian invasion of Georgia. With the subsequent (and probably permanent) annexation of two rebelling provinces and the beginnings of what looks to be a Russian Anschluss the old geopolitics of the Cold War seemingly reemerged, coming full bore from the woodwork. 

Prague remains a symbol of Soviet - and Russian - aggression in the post World War II world. No where else were the aims and tactics that embodied the Soviet Union during that period of world history better displayed. 

Marking the height of the Prague Spring in 1968, Russian tanks allied with their Warsaw Pact partners put an end to burgeoning political freedoms in the Czechoslovakia. Though there was no military resistance to the occupation, 1968 marked a low point for the West, which watched on earnestly as one of the earliest attempts to shrug off the stranglehold of Stalinism failed spectacularly. 

With the current Russian invasion of Georgia still fresh in the mind, the site of the beginning of the end of the Prague Spring takes on special importance, as does the city of Prague itself. Here is a place that for the past four hundred plus years has served largely as a political football for the larger European powers, who suffered under Austrian, Nazi, and then Soviet control for decades and faced defeat and failure at every attempt to pull itself back together until 1993. 

Now, a bustling tourist city, opened to the west fully for the first time since the interwar years, Prague stands as one of the most poignant symbols of rejection of Marxist-Leninism. A single tank still stands outside of the National Museum, along with a bent cross consisting of warped and shredded wood to commemorate the victims of communism. Around these two symbols - and the grossly commercialized American owned "communist museum" down the street - a bustling, democratic, free market city has emerged. 

You might miss it for the discotheques, designer clothing stores and street vendors if you're not careful. Fitting, I think. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Notes from abroad: The Czech connection



Rarely in my life have I been in a place where I could not understand one word of the language, not even to make out the meaning of a road sign or decipher a menu. Prague (Praha), the capital of the Czech Republic is one of those places.

Saying "thank you" or "you're welcome" became a herculean task of flipping through guide books and attempting to sound out what must have come as pure gibberish to the poor Czechs watching me with flabbergasted expressions (Dekuji vam - pronounced "dyek-ooee vahm" - means 'Thank you' while the slightly easier Prosim - pronounced "proh-seem"- means 'You're welcome' and 'Please'). 

Only Paris and Rome, with my unbelievably limited knowledge of the French and Italian languages, came close to baffling me as much. 

Truly, it is a unique experience, one that I imagine many foreign correspondents around the world must enjoy on a daily basis. Certainly, this must be true with American reporters, who - if they speak a second or third language - are most likely to have a romantic European language under their belt as opposed to the currently much more valuable Arabic or Urdu. 

From the perspective of a tourist, you depend on the good will of the people you meet and the hope that because it is a city full of vacationing Germans, Brits and even the occasional American they might understand english. 

I would hope that as a journalist you might be better prepared and equipped with a translator or guide. In some cases I know this to be true, judging from the stories I have heard Charlie Sennott tell of reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan for the Globe. 

Entering into a new, foreign environment, getting a handle on everything that has and will happen while not losing the subtleties in the meanwhile, must be a remarkable challenge. Shifting from state to state, market to market, in American may proof difficult enough, but can you imagine making the same leap to the lesser known points on the map? Places like Somalia, Lebanon or Thailand? 

It must be unbelievable. 


Photos: Street life in Praha (Prague) outside one of the larger underground stations (top). A jazz band plays for the throngs of tourists crossing the Charles Bridge under the backdrop of the Prague Castle complex (bottom). 

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Notes from abroad: Army life


Dropping my brother off at his office so he could finish up the paperwork he had to get to after spending the last couple of weeks out in the field training - after he had bought beer and other much needed supplies for us at the PX - it struck me that his base in Grafenwoehr, Bavaria looked a lot like a college campus.

Just with a lot more discipline. 

Perspective seems to be something a lot of people are missing these days. The ability to take something and place it into a context, to analyze it based on past events or behaviors is a basic part of human nature. Without perspective we would be unable to process the incredible amount of information we receive each day - a quantity that has exploded with the Internet. 

Which makes a distinct lack of perspective all the more curious. More and more members of the media, politicians, pundits, bloggers and even your average civic citizen seem to be taking things out of context. Perspective, it would seem, has been thrown out the window.

Maybe this is a result of the Internet, a backlash against the inundation of ideas, news, opinions, commentary. Maybe the Internet fundamentally impairs our ability to imagine anything happening outside of "now." 

Perspective, it must be hypothesized, comes with experience. Whether that experience stems from years of studying or from hands-on application does not seem to matter. What does matter is the ability to use that experience to filter out bad information, link good information and arrive at a conclusion that is both aware of the past and weary of the future. 


What does that have to do with an Army post in Germany? Not much on face value, I suppose, but it was a chance to expand horizons. Having met and interviewed soldiers throughout my short career as a journalist it was always interesting to listen to them draw parallels and comparisons to life as a university student. Now I can see all of those similarities and differences up close. 

Photos from the top: My brother chatting it up at his barracks as we get ready to go out to a beer garden for dinner in town. The overlooking tower at the Gofenwoehr base.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Ambulance chasing


I have been on the job since mid-way through June and I have yet to see a body. 

My landlord, Carl, was a correspondent in the same territory I have maybe ten years ago now. Driving back from a charity softball game in Manchester a couple of weeks ago we got to talking about the ins and outs of the job. 

"Have you seen a body yet?" he asked. 

"No," I said. "Been to a couple of accidents, a house fire and a home declared unsanitary, but I haven't seen a body."

"You will," he said. 

He has tossed me a couple of war stories from his days before he moved over to the Internet and working on print journalism from the other side. He said he once stood out in the cold during the middle of winter to take photographs of police carting off a homicide victim. Before that he helped EMT's work around a car accident, setting up a stretcher for them to haul a victim away from the scene. 

Today I ended up on Interstate 93 northbound, just before the Cluff Crossing bridge and before Exit 1 in New Hampshire. A van had rear ended a truck hard enough that the emergency responders had to use the Jaws of Life. I got there just as the helicopter was lifting off, bound for a hospital some eighty miles south in Boston.

 If you've never seen a helicopter take off from a highway with the sun setting behind, the red and blue lights of emergency vehicles flashing behind it, kicking up the dirt and dust nearby roadwork...it's a sight. 

I still haven't seen a body yet and I know it's only a matter of time, really. I'm not quite sure how I'll react. There are times when I worry I'll get freaked out or end up vomiting on myself, but more often than not I'm afraid it won't do anything for me. It'll just be another story rolling past in a body bag. 

Journalism on the march

Check out this cool new feature from the National Review Online. You may not agree with the politics, you may hate the analysis, but the concept is A-1 (as in the steak sauce). 

The only downside I can see, is that print journalists still need to work on getting comfortable on camera. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ghost Recon's silver lining

I've been caught up with the coverage of the Olympics, the Georgian Crisis and all the other excitement that seems to have propelled the generally boring dog days of summer into high gear. After four years of studying both history and political science, including one entire class that revolved largely around Soviet politics and the "new" Russia's role in a world of international institutions, you can forgive me for watching way too many reports coming out of the Caucuses instead of updating the blog. 

Watching Operation International Handwringing these past few weeks has been a bit depressing and the lack of good concrete coverage of the initial struggle over South Ossetia and then into the heart of Georgia has been downright upsetting in this day and age of technology. Still, that seems to have stabilized in recent days, though the best coverage of the international political cage-match has come out of the BBC. 

Here is something of a silver lining - of which there don't seem to be many coming out of that region of the world - for both the United States and the rest of the NATO allies:

What a difference a short war can make. By sending its 58th Army through the Roki tunnel into South Ossetia, Moscow hoped at the very least to deepen Nato divisions. 

The opposite has happened. Instead of arguing that the crisis proved her point about the need for restraint, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has explicitly endorsed Georgia's bid for membership. France may still have its doubts. if so, they remain private. There are two main reasons for Nato's newfound unity. First, there is a strengthening consensus that Moscow would have acted with more restraint had Georgia already been in Nato, protected by its principle of collective security. 

As one expert with long experience of the region put it yesterday: "The thought of the US Air Force on its way would have deterred even Vladimir Putin."

Read the rest of the Times Online here.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The story least taken


Stories have a lot in common with bad pennies. They always turn up and often in the places you least expect them. 

It's something I've known for a while, but never put any proper thought into. Covering the Fourth of July celebration in Salem I found out that most of the proceeds were going to the town's Special Olympics team. A better example would come from a recent trip I took down to the Salem Senior Center.

I originally wanted to do a story on computer lab the center had for seniors - five motley looking machines that were outdated by at least five years or so. The Council on Aging had donated three new computers to replace the center's existing administrative computers. In return those would replace some of the older models in the lab. 

On a nice Wednesday morning I made my way over to the senior center and wandered up to the second floor to take a look at the lab and meet some of the kindly senior citizens checking their e-mail and doing their banking online. 

What I found was an empty computer lab. And a room full of guys staring at me. 

"Are you from the newspaper?" one of them asked. "They said someone from the newspaper was going to come today."

When I nodded they lit up. 

What ensued was an hour long conversation with constant interrupts, interjections, and rude jokes about male anatomy. These guys got together three times a week to shoot the shit and then some pool. Retirees for the most part, they enjoyed spending their time with each other rather than wasting away alone at home.

"Look at'im write," said another as I scrawled half remembered quotes onto a notepad. "He's gonna have a novel."

Afterwards they clapped me on the back, telling me what a great paper the Union Leader was (much better than that rag the Eagle-Tribune) and thanked me for stopping by. When I left they were arguing over whose turn it was to shoot. 

"We talk for 15 minutes and then no one can remember whose supposed to shoot, who's high and who's low," said a third. "We spend most of our time arguing about it."

It wasn't the story I was looking for, but it was a good story. 

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Blogging political

As I recall, blogging as a journalistic tool was just coming into being during the last presidential election. At the time many were unsure of how to properly utilize the power of the blogosphere or what the role of new media would and should become in American politics. 

Four years later there are still no concrete answers to those issues and despite this the unregulated, shapeless and uncontrollable power of the blogosphere has taken a prime spot in how the news - especially politics - is reported. 

Blogs are no longer the mouthpieces of the fringes, the soapboxes of cyberspace, but a collective that has come to represent the underlying subconscious of the American people. Where, in 2004, bloggers were still struggling to break out of the "nut wandering up and down Mass Ave with a sandwich board sign proclaiming the coming of the end and handing out pamphlets on Jesus Christ" mold, now they command the healthy respect of both journalists and the informed public. 

The role of blogs in the 2005 "National Guard papers" debacle at CBS that led to Dan Rather's early retirement certainly had something to do with it. 

Only a few years later, with Internet access available to almost anyone who wants it in the continental United States, the long decline of print media and the seemingly general malaise towards the accepted establishment and authority of this country by the public, bloggers have become everything from a source of the news, commentary on current events and a weather gauge for the American people.

Just look at this story on the rapidly expanding "race" controversy that has both presidential candidates shadow boxing with one another: 

"As Mr. Obama carefully addressed the issue on Friday, his campaign's formidable network of grass-roots activists, and the Web sites crafted to give them "talking points" to carry into battle against republicans, remained uncharacteristically quiet on the matter, even though the issue dominated political blogs for the second straight day." - Michael Powell, NY times.

While it has not yet become apparent whether mainstream media has fully come to an understanding about blogs and their role in reporting, the paladins of new media have begun to grasp their role in shaping the political world and how journalists report it. 

Sidebar

Blogs of Note:

While the wide world of the blogosphere can sometimes seem beyond comprehension, there are few "truck stops" for the political junkie to get a quick slice of pie and a good cup of coffee.

Metaphorically, that is. 

Here's a few that seem to do well for themselves:

  1. Huffington Post
  2. The Daily Kos
  3. The Blog (weeklystandard.com)
  4. The Corner (nationalreview.com)
As always, take them with a grain of salt...and maybe an aspirin. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Happy Daze

I don't know how the market works, but after hearing that oil prices have begun dropping again simply because they could not sustain their high commodity price I've decided that I really don't know how the market works. 

Regardless, those happy days are here again.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Kitten corner


I did a follow up on a heartwarming story coming out of Salem's Animal Rescue League today. Turns out their first ever "kitten shower" - an ingenious sort of idea designed to help alleviate the overcrowded conditions for the unusually high number of cats at their shelter - worked remarkably well. 

A little over 50 animals were adopted, including several dogs, but mostly kittens. The ratio of kittens to older cats adopted was roughly equal, which Valorie Hayes, the community relations director at SARL, called "wonderful."

It was a fun story to work on. I got to talk to a few people I hadn't met before, learn about a new issue (more abandoned cats and dogs, in large part due to the downturn in the economy) and pet some kittens. 

Thursday, July 24, 2008

An aside

I don't like to get into politics, especially not on the world wide web where punditry has run amok in the same sort of sense that an alien species introduced into a fertile environment runs amok. 

Still, as it so often crosses with journalism, it's hard to stay above the fray.

Or to use another bad analogy, when the weeds finally overrun the garden what choice do you have?

Anyway, what has finally ensnared my limited attention span is the explosion of Obamania in the media. Right now three major network news anchors are following Obama on his grand tour of the Old World reporting live wherever Obama touches down like the charismatic tornado he is, while press on both sides of the atlantic sit spellbound as they wait for his latest "John F. Kennedy-esque" speech. 

Not that I plan on ranting and raving about that damned liberal media. If you're interested in that, I can direct you to the National Review Online. Still, the situation lends itself to a proper media critique. 

Let's conduct a simple and completely unscientific experiment, shall we? On my Google homepage I have RSS feeds to several different new sources, including the Union Leader, Boston Globe, CNN, Google News, and the BBC. At one glance Obama's name lends itself to...4 headlines.

McCain? Just one: "For McCain, Net deficient with young" from today's Boston Globe. 

Doesn't quite match up with "Obama calls for world to stand as one" at CNN.com.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The things you learn


When I was interning with the Newton TAB one of the other reporters took me out for a quick lunch at the eatery/bistro just over the Needham line. While we were eating $8.00 gourmet sandwiches she asked me how I liked being a real reporter. 
 
"I like it a lot," I said. "It gives me a chance to go out and experience stuff."

"Good," she said. "You know, one of my professors once told me that journalism is a license to explore your interests."

I return to that sentence whenever I'm digging up story ideas, whether it was back in the basement newsroom of the Collegian or sitting in the downstairs living room/converted office I use in Windham, New Hampshire. When I'm not busy chasing down ambulances, calling police officers to get the official report on some bit of crime here or there, or rewriting press releases into briefs, exploring my interests is exactly what I'm doing. 

And the fun part is the learning. 

When I was in college I enjoyed reporting on various issues and subjects because it gave me a chance to learn outside of the classroom - among other things. Now, as a graduate, it gives me the opportunity to learn even beyond college. 

Which was why today I headed down to Route 28 in Salem (the same 28 that runs through Bridgewater, Brockton and Boston, for those of you keeping score at home) to find out if local mechanics had seen a rise in the number of customers coming in to find ways to increase their fuel efficiency. 

Turns out that quite the opposite was happening, but that's the subject for another blog update on assumptions based on logic that are wrong. 

I did learn an incredible amount of how to keep my car in tip-top shape. Turns out there are literally dozens of factors that contribute to either higher or lower gas mileage in a vehicle, from wheel alignment to spark plugs. From Jeff Husson, owner of Husson's Motors, I learned that the best thing to do was get the air filter changed regularly and to keep an eye on my tires. The manager at Meineke stressed proper tire pressure, telling me that softer tires increase friction with the road and can wreak havoc on your gas consumption. 

Down at Midas they told me about a number of different avenues I could take to keep a lean gasoline diet. Among them were replacing the spark plugs, regular oil changes and tune-ups. 

At the Jiffy Lube I heard a rumor that fully synthetic oils did a better job than the regular refined stuff. I can't vouch for it, Tim Bergeron - the mechanic on duty - told me that he had heard about a couple of major companies doing research into the matter had arrived at that conclusion. 

When all was said and done I learned that basically, the best way to keep your car efficient was to change the oil and air filters regularly and keep an eye on the tire pressure. After that the cost of keeping your car well maintained on a regular basis rose from $50 a trip to $500. 

Well out of my price range unfortunately, but good to know. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

NC State

North Carolina - where I spent several days earlier this week - and specifically Topsail Island is one of those odd conglomerations of modern Americana that you can't do anything but appreciate. 

Like parts of Cape Cod or Hampton Beach, Topsail island is a hodgepodge of lifestyles, culture and contemporary American society. From the local fried seafood place to the overpriced beach store, you can find a Topsail Island just about anywhere in the country. But of course, then it wouldn't be Topsail Island anymore. 

You can hear the nasal Yankee twang as often as you pick up the southern drawl in a conversation. Everybody drives a truck, though only the locals have the American made pickups. License plates vary not only in number combination, but in origination. They range all across the eastern seaboard, from Connecticut and Massachusetts to Florida. 

By and large the houses are owned locally and many are rented to northerners - who aren't given the ignominious distinction of carpet-baggers, though I did hear a couple folks talking about Bill Belicheck and the "Cheaters" - or other out-of-towners. 

Like the Cape, Topsail Island has a transient feel to it, at least while I was there during what was presumably the height of the tourist season. Every Saturday the new group of renters sits in traffic to cross the bridge onto the island while last week's renters wait in equally awful traffic on the other side of the road. 

Still, the local flavor stimulates the palate. A roller-rink, open nightly, sits above the town's post office which one person described to me "could have come straight out of Mayberry."

I didn't get a chance to sample Topsail's townie-bar (and restaurant and pub), but after getting turned away at the door by a lanky looking fellow standing next to one of the town cops having his evening beer in uniform I had my fill. I did get a chance to sample the fair at the local crab shack and sucked down fried scallop, french fries and onion rings along with a couple of Coronas. 

So while the view might have been the same as you could get somewhere on Cape Cod, and the restaurants and nightlife could have been found anywhere along the boardwalk at Hampton Beach, Topsail Island deftly maneuvered between the crass empty over-commercialization of a place like Daytona Beach and the almost oppressive tightly-woven fiber of a Nantucket town.

The perfect get-away.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Meet and greet


There are many things I enjoy about my job. 

One of which is exploring new areas, issues or ideas and meeting new people every day. Fostering some of those relationships and making new contacts, be it within city hall, the police station, amongst the selectmen, is extremely enjoyable. One of the things I have missed about reporting on UMass was the ability to know offhand who I needed to get hold of for any situation. 

Crime? Deputy Chief Pat Archbald down at Dickinson Hall. Student Government? Aaron Buford (depending on whether he was answering his cell phone that day or not) or Sean down at Student Affairs. Some sensitive issue you knew the University wasn't going to talk to you about? Ed Blaguszewski at the News and Information office. 

I knew I was going to eventually get back to that point no matter where I ended up, but the process of rebuilding those contacts has been unbelievably enjoyable. 

I've established a good report with the Salem PD lt in charge of dealing with the press (he was "just busting my balls" last week when he chewed me out in a friendly sort of way for misspelling his name). I'm also in good favor with many of the officials in town hall - especially after that feature on the son of the director of Public Works' return from Afghanistan. I've also written a couple of articles on the various fire department's in the area and they no longer just consider me a voice on the telephone. 

A big part of this job appears to be establishing those contacts early on and doing a good job of nurturing those relationships as they grow. Sure, I could end up burning bridges here or there down the road, but only if necessary, and as a last possible move. 

Oh, and the other thing I love about my job? I sat out on the back porch this afternoon sipping ice coffee and working shirtless to keep up on my tan. 

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Lost in translation

I stumbled across this very interesting analysis of a heart-wrenching international story spun out of proportion across the global media all throughout this week. It raises some pretty interesting ethical questions that a journalist at any level would be fain to find clear-cut questions to. 

I think the first, and probably the foremost, would have to be trust. How much trust can you place in the information given to you by a source? And since every story, no matter how big or how small is derived from various sources of even more varying credibility, how much can a reporter, a newspaper, or a media outlet put into corroborating information? 

It's a question I can't answer. 

Though I do believe the New York Times did the best it could with what it had. While the old standard of American journalism may have become tarnished in recent years, this isn't a case of sensationalization or a false report (*cough* Jason Blair *cough*), but a story that editors evaluated fully.

The Times did the right thing by saying "hey, we didn't get this completely wrong, but we didn't get it all right either. And for that we apologize."

In a situation where editors could have easily made a number of excuses for the problems with the mother's account of her tribulations, approaching deadlines, corroborating evidence, the credibility of the photojournalist, etc., they took the higher road. In a time where every mistake, every missed fact, every poorly chosen adjective chips away a little bit more at the public trust of newspapers, editors, reporters and photographers alike, the Times may have made a step in the right direction. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Headliner


The "House of Filth" story (as it has been dubbed by at least one of my editors) did make the front page today. I thought the layout was pretty nice...made me miss the nights spent swearing under my breath while trying to make a story wrap around a headline and a photo in InDesign.

Only a little though.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Legwork, legwork, legwork


Nothing beats doing a story in-person. 

What I mean by that is pretty simple. With all the tools given to the modern journalist it has become increasingly possible for the reporter to never have to leave his or her desk. If some news breaks call the parties involved and get a statement. Need background information? Just a quick Google search away. 

I can't remember the last time I actually used a phonebook to find a phone number. Hell, if you're lucky, you can get most of an individuals background information straight off the Internet. 

Of course, the downside could mean missing the real story. 

Earlier today I received a press release detailing the closure of a split-level house in a nice neighborhood of the Salem suburbs. A 2-year old girl was found wandering down the street naked by a neighbor - who called the police. After they returned the child to her parents, about 1/8 a mile down the road, police noticed the smell of rotten food and trash coming from the house. Inside they found raw sewage backed up in the upstairs toilets and sink, rotten food and trash throughout the house, as well as feces and dirty diapers on the carpet. Town officials quickly closed the house due to the unsanitary condition of the home. 

Now, I could have written up the story pretty quickly with only a call to the police department and another to the Health Department. Would have been all I'd have to do to get the story filed by tonight. 

I actually did all of the above. And then I drove down from Windham to the house. Which is where I ran into a couple of cops, a detective and the health inspector. It made the whole story for me. Not only was I able to get photos of the investigation team as they went into the house (which was later called "unfit for human habitation), but I got a heads up on where the investigation was going and the ability to describe the house and yard in my article.

I put a link to it up here tomorrow when it runs (rumor has it front page material, but we'll see).

The lesson is, as always, to do the legwork. I was given a lesson (thankfully a happy one) in doing the extra work and going the full nine yards over just mailing it in from behind my desk. 

Friday, July 4, 2008

"Today, we celebrate our independence"

"[The British] came over with about a million men and we had a bunch of farmers with pitch forks and we beat'em like a drum."
-Roy O'Bannon, Shanghai Knights. 

Happy Independence Day!

I'm off to cover the celebrations in Salem. Barring any rain tonight, it will include a DJ, vendors and fireworks just after dark. Windham and Pelham were scheduled to have their festivities last night, but severe thunderstorm warnings and torrential downpours throughout the early evening, left both postponed. 

Pelham expects to celebrate Sunday evening instead. Windham is rescheduling for Labor Day. Who ever heard of Labor Day fireworks?

Need help getting into the spirit of things today? Look no further:








Thursday, July 3, 2008

Training day

I got this handy journalism training video passed on to me earlier this week. It made up for not having taken more than a single journalism-related class during my entire college experience. 

And when I say class, I don't mean a course...I mean literally that one literary journalism lecture I audited during the last week of the semester. 

Checklist for entrepreneurial young journalist:

Reporters notepads (check)
Camera (check)
Fedora
Pens/pencils (check)
Press card
Laptop/typewriter (check)
Fake mustache 


Please plan your shopping trips for my birthday accordingly.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

It's always sunny in Windham


I got to be the bad guy the other day when I arrived at the scene of two homes damaged during last weekend's severe thunderstorms. Nobody likes talking to a reporter, I have found, and especially not when you have a tree lodged through the second story of your house. 

The best way to get someone who has no interest in talking to you, who is in fact insulted that you're stepping on their property to ask them what sound like inane questions about their home, their life or their loved ones is to empathize with them. Doesn't always work, but if you get lucky they'll bring down the barriers and treat you as if you weren't a member of the paparazzi. 

This time I got lucky. "I'm sorry for your loss," I told the two women I found sitting in lawn chairs and staring at the mess that once served as a focal point in their lives. 
"I can understand what you're going through," I say, after initially being brushed off. "My family cabin up in the Lakes Region was destroyed last year. Couple of trees took most of the porch and a portion of the house out. Same situation as this."
"Thank you," says one and the other nods slowly. 
We begin talking about the homes and the amount of damage and I don't come off as much as a walking turd with neither the sense nor the etiquette to let them mourn in peace. Often times, if you show a little respect and good manners, and display a certain amount of patience by not giving into the pressures placed on you by the editors waiting on the story, you can get the full story. 

The best example I can think of off the top of my head would be the death, allegedly by suicide, of a UMass student last year. Under the pressure of trying to get the news out, both myself and Eric Athas posted immediate stories on our respective online media outlets. Since the family wasn't talking and friends were being asked not to talk to members of the press both of us borrowed - in varying degrees - information from her facebook page. 

Both members of her family and her friends criticized our decision to do so. 

Which I don't question. Journalism is a double-edged sword that way. You do what you have to do to get the story out and ask questions later. 

Still, Will McGuinness found that middle road and resisting pressure from me to get a story on her life, alleged suicide, and mourning friends out as soon as possible he contacted the family and stood back, waiting for them to decide the appropriate time to speak out. 

What he got was a great story and a personal connection to the family that exceeded anything the other newspapers - competing to get her tragic, paper-selling story out - had. 

Sometimes a little patience, and a little deference, can go a long way. 

Friday, June 27, 2008

Failure to launch

I've spent much of the day trying in earnest to upload two videos I took of the Fire Explorers learning how to tap a fire hydrant properly without much success. For some reason blogger keeps refusing the two 3 minute videos; I hope it's a temporary problem. 

In the meantime, I'd like to express my newfound devotion to the Old Spice corporation. For years and years I was a Right Guard type of guy, with the occasional dabble into Gillette brand deodorant. I can't honestly say that I've ever own anything made by Old Spice until this past year. 

What did it for me? The commercials. 

I think I'm like most Americans when I say that the most annoying by-product of living in a highly commercialized, disposable economy are the ads. You can't go anywhere without seeing them, billboards, newspapers, books, athletic fields and arenas, Web sites, etc. It has reached the point, I believe, that the average American is completely saturated with advertising. 

Which has the dark-humor sort of effect by canceling itself out. When was the last time you honestly went out and purchased something because of an ad (I'm discounting movie ads here, because that's just not fair)? You buy things because they're recommended to you, by a friend, a relative or a teacher/boss, not because you saw a billboard on I-95 strongly urging you to get that new Mach Turbo 9000 with 16 blades for the smoothest shave in your life. 

So when a company actually goes out and does some original marketing, not a dance mascot, or a series of shots of satisfied customers, but a real inventive line of advertising, I'm sold. Hell, I started buying Old Spice brand products just out of appreciation. 

This spot, which I believe came in the middle of a Super Bowl, was confusing, but had potential nonetheless. I was intrigued, but not yet sold. In fact, it probably wasn't until I saw this that I began to truly understand what it meant to be an Old Spice kind of man. Still, I didn't buy my first stick of Old Spice deodorant until they began running this already classic spot. Now I can happily say I not only own Old Spice deodorant, but Head and Body wash as well!

Ahoy!