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. 

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)

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 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 

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, 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)