Monday, August 19, 2013

On anniversary of Carl Drega rampage, thoughts turn to how world of journalism has changed.

 Aug. 19, 1997, was a beautiful summer day in northern New Hampshire. Like many days when the world changes forever, there was no hint that something was going to happen.

Lorna Colquhoun, at the time a reporter covering the North Country for the New Hampshire Union Leader, got a call from her editor in Manchester early that afternoon. She had to get up to Colebrook — two state troopers were dead.

By the time the day ended, two others — a judge and a newspaper editor — would be dead and several more in both New Hampshire and Vermont would be injured at the hands of Carl Drega, who also didn’t live to see the end of the day.

There was no Twitter feed, no websites to check, no emailed press releases. Cellphones were an ungainly novelty. This weekend Colquhoun reflected how that hot August afternoon she drove into Colebrook — eerily empty and quiet — prepared for anything, knowing nothing.

She settled in at an ice cream shop across the street from the office of the Colebrook News and Sentinel, the local newspaper. Vickie Bunnell, a judge and Colebrook selectwoman she knew well, had been shot outside that office, which was next door to her office. Dennis Joos, the editor of the newspaper, was also shot and had been taken to the hospital. Colquhoun was in the shop when someone called from the hospital to tell the owner Joos had died.

She called her boss to tell him what she knew, and he asked her if she could keep the phone line open. The owner of the shop told her the line was hers. Later, as more reporters descended on the area and wanted to use the phone, the owner told them, “Sorry, we have to leave it open for the Union Leader.”

It was 16 years ago, but Colquhoun remembers the details like they were yesterday — someone from a nearby store that sold sporting goods put a camouflage-print sleeping bag over Bunnell’s body. When Colquhoun was let into the newspaper office — at the insistence of an acquaintance who told the cop guarding the door that she was OK, she was a reporter — Joos’ computer screen still showed the story he’d been working on.

Drega, of Bow, N.H., was pulled over by New Hampshire State Trooper Scott Phillips in an IGA parking lot earlier that day. Drega shot Phillips, then chased him into a field and shot him again, killing him, before shooting Trooper Les Lord, who didn't even have time to get out of his cruiser. Drega stole one of the cruisers and drove to Bunnell’s office. She was involved in a years-long local dispute over a shack he owned on the Connecticut River.

Bunnell saw him coming through the front window and alerted the next-door newspaper office, “It’s Drega, and he’s got a gun.”

Joos — an unarmed, mild-mannered pacifist, Colquhoun said — tackled Drega in an attempt to stop him or at least slow him. He was no match. Both Joos and Bunnell were fatally shot before Drega took off across the Vermont border, eventually dying in a rain of gunfire, but not before wounding several other officers.

The story lasted for days. Colquhoun can remember what certain reporters were wearing — most of them were staying at local hotels and didn’t have a change of clothes.

If you Google Carl Drega you’ll find a partially inaccurate 1997 New York Times article, the inevitable Wikipedia entry, a Time magazine story that will cost you money to read and some blogs that have various takes on what happened, depending on the writer’s agenda. When the shootings happened, newspapers weren’t online, so the Union Leader’s extensive and thorough coverage won’t be found there.

Colquhoun said everything changed after the Drega story. Most journalists who were around then will agree.

We didn’t recognize it at the time, but changes in technology became changes in relationships. Changes in relationships became changes in how information is not only gathered, but seen.

In an era when reporters couldn’t do email “interviews,” they had to talk to people person-to-person. They knew people in the community and the people knew them. Because people had to connect on a personal level, it was normal for a reporter to ask strangers if they could use their telephone, to engage them in conversation.

Information came from talking to people, finding things out and digging for it, which gave stories detail and variety that the other guy wasn’t getting if it was done right. It also meant reporters and editors had that personal stake that can only come from really working it, figuring it out, asking questions.

Reporters would gather at the scene of a big story and become a brother and sisterhood, trying to outwork and outscoop each other, but united in the heady knowledge that they were on the front line, that they were doing something big and special and the whole wide world was watching.

When good storytellers had to work the story, it gave them an ownership, a visceral association with the events. Most reporters from that era and before can tell you every detail of the biggest stories they covered, because they were there and held those details in their hands.

There have been lazy reporters who weren’t that good at their jobs since newsprint first rolled off a press. Today, there are many kickass reporters who go after stories with passion, knowledge and ferocity. It’s what keeps journalism alive.

But there’s been a slow erosion of the foundation that made covering the big stories so, well, big.

Newspapers, as well as other news organizations, were slow to recognize what was happening as the news business began to change in the late 1990s.

When we did, the response was panic that sent many organizations down dead ends while everyone ignored the little things that were eating away at the business.

The panic led to staffs being decimated and some of the best journalists leaving the business. Smaller staffs made it harder for journalists to get to stories, harder for organizations to cover them. Good thing it became so easy to “cover” stories from a chair at a desk.

The easier it got to gather information, the less in touch we became with our sources. The sources changed, too. They didn’t have to talk to us, either.

Everyone shrugged and said, “What are you gonna do?”

Less was expected of overworked, skeleton staffs because what are you gonna do?

Less is expected of young journalists today, many of whom are no longer schooled in how to work a story, because, you know, what are you gonna do?

When something horrific happens, good journalists feel the horror, too. But the best ones know that the story needs to be told and they’re the person to tell it. They HAVE to be the one to tell it.

The best news organizations know it’s about the content. Reporters and editors who have that passion to tell the story and tell it right are going to produce content that people will read. Put it on paper, put it in cyberspace, etch it on a cave wall, doesn’t matter, people are going to want to read it.

Still, those of us who were around for Drega and all the little and big stories that came before can’t help but mourn a time when that passion was the norm and when news broke, things went into high gear and the world stopped while we went after it.

Of all the things we didn’t know yet in 1997, one of the biggest is that we didn’t know we were the lucky ones. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Won't get fooled again? Yes we will.

We've been paying a lot of attention in the news this week to liars. I know, I know, that's nothing new. The difference is the lying is the story.
First, let's look at Manti Te'o, the star Notre Dame football player who got a lot of mileage out of the "death" of his fake girlfriend this fall before it was revealed to be a hoax this week.
Some believe he was the unwitting victim of the hoax -- something that's hard to believe. I'm in the group that believes he knew exactly what he's doing, that everyone loves a sob story and being a haunted hero would do a lot to enhance his press in his push toward the Heisman and an NFL career, not to mention that golden goose -- endorsement contracts.
Hard to believe a kid that age would be satisfied with a "virtual" relationship. Also hard to believe that the fact this relationship was online and he never saw or felt the flesh-and-blood woman never came up in all his tearful interviews.
The hardest thing to believe, though, is the press itself.
Did not one reporter covering this sob story from September through the Heisman ceremony in December look for her obit? Just to enhance the story, not even to catch him out. Did not one reporter try to find her family? Call Stanford, the university she "attended," to get some quotes? Find her friends?
Apparently not. Or if they did, when they couldn't dig anything up, they just gave up rather than wonder why.
Maybe every reporter out there -- yes even sports journalists -- need to rent a copy of "Shattered Glass." But I digress.
Part of the problem with Te'o's story is the same one we saw when Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs shot his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, before killing himself in the NFL team's parking lot in December.
There were stories that never mentioned Perkins' name, much less sought out information about her or talked to her family until days later, when some people began calling the media out on it.
This is the byproduct of our sports culture -- Kasandra Perkins was just a detail in the Jovan Belcher story.
This myopic view was in full play in the Manti Te'o story, too. The pretend girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was only a vehicle for his story as far as reporters were concerned. So no one bothered to flesh out their story by finding out who Lennay Kekua was. Mind-boggling in this Internet world, where instead of calling funeral homes and newspapers, like we would have back in the dark pre-internet age, all someone would have had to do was google her name to find her obit. And if they didn't find it, it should have raised some questions.
Hell, we even knew what day she was buried, since Te'o made a point to let people know that he played that day instead of attending her funeral, because that's what she would have wanted. She told him so (so...he wasn't part of the hoax? C'mon). Would have been nice to get some quotes from her family on that, right?
In a world in which the press is struggling to stay relevant, it's hard to make a case for ourselves when we're so easily fooled. One reason we're here is to report, not what people tell us, but what we find out.
Sports writers are journalists, too. The five Ws -- remember them? who, what, where, when and why -- apply as much to sports reporting as any other kind of journalists. If we're not asking questions, we're just PR people.
On that note, the world's biggest liar, Lance Armstrong, also continued his manipulation of the press with his "stunning confession" to Oprah this week about his doping.
Anyone who hasn't been aware for years this man was lying was living in a cage. Yet almost everyone bought into it.
I don't get OWN, so I'm at the mercy of others reporting what Armstrong said.
Here's hoping Oprah asked him how he could live with himself after suing news organizations for libel for reporting the truth. Here's hoping she asks him if he's going to give the money back that he won in those cases now that he's admitting he lied.
Because one of the biggest issues with Armstrong is the vitriol he rained on those who tried to shine the light on his lies. His self-righteous crapping all over on people who tried to bring the facts to light.
Some say all he's done for cancer survivors with LiveStrong cancels out the lies. That's pathetic. Nothing cancels out the lies or the attacks on those who tried to reveal them.
LiveStrong has done a lot of good in the world, but it's not instant penance for the bad Armstrong did and the lives he destroyed, the people he dragged down with him.
A cynic may say a lot of the "good" he's done was a smokescreen to keep people from focusing too much on the bad. If it was, it will continue to work that way for him.
Te'o and Armstrong. Two lying liars who managed to bamboozle a lot of people, including the journalists.
You know the old saying, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me"?
These aren't the only two guys who have pulled the wool over the eyes of the easy-to-manipulate-with-a-moving-story news media. They're only the two guys who did it who are making headlines this week.
Fool me twice? Hell, fool me a zillion times.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

I'm in love with Dennis Lehane. And I know he loves me back.

As a reader, I’ve been around the block many, many times. Kind of the Wilt Chamberlain of reading relationships, if you get my drift. I’ve been in love, out of love. Done a lot of one-nighters.
Sometimes you want to love them, but you just can’t. Sometimes you don’t even like them, but endure because you paid the $25 for the book, or the overdue fees are piling up at the library.
Sometimes you think you’re in love, but when the honeymoon is over it’s U-G-L-Y.
I recently ended a relationship because she kept using purposefully when she meant purposely. Drove me nuts. Sure, the relationship was already on the rocks. All the annoyances were piling up the way they do when it's not true love. Bad subject-verb agreement, inconsistent characters, hitting me in the face with descriptions every time someone new walked onto a page (Ouch! Hurts every time).
Being too obvious, too trite, too bland. She did this thing – oh, I know it’s a little thing and my friends said I was being too picky – where all the names in her book were run-of-the-mill WASP-type names. Think of everyone you know -- how many of them have generic names? I know, I know. A little thing, but it was hard to take, even when I was still in like.
And she over-explained, like I’m stupid. If she really cared about me, she’d know I wasn’t, right?
But she is very popular, and it’s so hard to leave them when they’re popular. You keep going back, even though they hurt you over and over again, because you want to be part of the popular crowd.
The purposefully-purposely thing finally made me see our relationship through clear eyes, though. It finally made me realize how little she cared.
And that’s why I love Dennis. You know him, right? Dennis Lehane. I fell in love a decade ago – goofy, head-over-heels, stay-up-all-night love -- and have never fallen out.
It took a little while to remember. I’ve been too pissed off, too jaded lately. You get hurt too many times and you almost want to stop trying, right? Even when there’s love, it just seems so hard. It’s just so much work. Especially when they don’t love you back.
Then I remembered Dennis. Remembered how our love doesn’t get stale, just better with each year.
First of all, he does all those little things that mean so much --  dialogue that rings true, sentences that flow so easily you forget they’re there, descriptions that are feather-light.
He does the big things, too. He’s funny without resorting to that action-movie faux-cool dialogue that so many writers mistake for funny. His plots make sense without being too easy to figure out. And his characters – few do it like Dennis does. He’s got insight and heart. He even gets the women right without making them a bunch of clichés the way most male writers do. (Sorry guys, I know we’re hard to understand, wink wink.)
Dennis loves me back. All those things tell me he does. He cares enough to make his books not just good enough – good enough to be published, good enough for people to buy, good enough to be popular – but better. I’m not talking about super flowery literary writing, the English major stuff. I’m talking about the kind of writing where I forget I’m reading. I’m just there.
Anyone who tries to write knows it’s not easy. It’s hard work. And that’s one of the really beautiful things about Dennis. He’s probably a natural talent. Just like Larry Bird. Only like Larry, he doesn’t fall back on that. You know he works at it, works to make it right. Shooting foul shot after foul shot, even after the janitors have turned off the lights. Too many writers make me feel like they’re just not working hard enough. They’ve got me already, why work at it? I’ll keep coming back.
But the really good ones – like Dennis – you know they care enough about the relationship to shoot those foul shots, no matter how good they are. They want to get it right. They care about our love.
I know I’m not his only reader. Guy like him? He has millions. And, let’s face it, I’ve got a few writers in my stable. Sometimes I go months and months without even thinking of him. But when we get together, it’s even better than before and I wonder why I stayed away so long.
I was reminded of that this weekend when – pissed off, remember? -- I finally read the copy of Moonlight Mile that’s been on my shelf for a while. No surprise, Dennis, you kept me up all night.
If it wasn’t special enough, one thing made it really special. Really, really special. Special enough to finally go public with our love.
He had something in there just for me.
I’ve read five books in a row this summer where the media were “vultures.” Among all the other things that are pissing me off, that really pissed me off. As though those of us in the news biz haven't taken enough hits lately, once again we’re the trite plot device. Those writers didn’t reach down and figure out how they felt about journalists, they just needed an easy cliché to make their characters feel more pitiful and victimized.  I know they didn’t mean it, but yeah, I took it personally. That’s how it is when a relationship is on the rocks and you want to know they care. It wasn't even so much the negative portrayal -- it was the obviousness of it all, the fact they didn't even try to be fresh.
Not Dennis. In Moonlight Mile he had a character, a newspaper reporter, who was funny, smart and did his job. The protagonist, Patrick, even liked the guy. Sure, it was only a tiny part of the book – one page I think -- but I knew Dennis was thinking of me.
Later in the book, someone asked Patrick where he got his news. “I read it,” he said. Oh my love.
That would have been enough, but he didn't stop there. During a crucial scene, Patrick gets annoyed that he can’t find a newspaper at a small town diner. Why did he want a newspaper? It's the best way to get the local layout. 
Oh my love, my love. To those of us in newspaper journalism -- pulling the gravel out of our torn knees as we stumble down the road away from the smoldering wreck that’s been our business the past few years -- that was a love letter.
Dennis gets me. He really gets me.
This year, Dennis and I celebrate our 10th anniversary – I picked up Mystic River in 2002 and it was love at first page. I know the traditional gift is tin or aluminum, but Dennis and I, we don’t bow to tradition.
He’s given me a paper gift every year – usually around 300 pieces. And I can’t wait to get it.

Monday, June 25, 2012

We were told the world was now ours. Little did we know.

This originally appeared in the Kennebec Journal as a column on June 22, 2012. That's me in the picture, at 16, second from the left in the top row.

The front page of Sunday's Kennebec Journal had a sweet coincidence: Right above a story about the 40th anniversary of Title IX was a photo of the Cony High School softball team celebrating its state championship.
Sweet, indeed.
(The story, without a photo, was on page C1 of Sunday's Morning Sentinel.)
I played softball for Cony, too, on the junior varsity team my sophomore year. But the gap between me and those girls is way more than the 34 years between us.
A picture in the 1977 Cony yearbook says it all: We're not in uniform -- not because we didn't know it was picture day, but because we didn't have uniforms. The ill-fitting polyester blouses and trousers we're wearing are what we played in, topped by ancient knit field hockey vests too rank for even the field hockey team to use and too ugly for us to model for the photo.
Our names aren't listed; instead there's a caption: "It was a year of experience for the JV softball team being its first year in existence. This team, coached by Miss Choate, was young and all are looking forward to a rewarding season next year."
I don't remember our record, but I know it was short on wins. We rarely had even one spectator. We played on rocky, unkempt fields that often didn't have baselines, or sometimes even bases. I played second base and remember charging a grounder, a sure out -- until the ball got stuck in a patch of muddy snow. An easy single.
That 1977 yearbook describes many of the girls' teams as "young." I'm guessing the sudden bloom of girls' teams was a result of Title IX, but I don't know if I even knew it existed. I was just happy to be there. Most of the other girls in the picture look like they are, too. Why not? We finally had a team to play on and the future could only get better -- looking forward to decades of rewarding seasons to come.
Title IX came crashing into my consciousness the fall of 1978, when I was visiting my sister, a freshman at Holy Cross, and tagged along as she did interviews for a school magazine on the state of Crusader sports.
The one clear memory I have of that weekend is the captain of the volleyball team crouched against the wall in the hallway of her dormitory, talking with an intensity I can still feel across the decades. She was passionate, angry and proud, and I realized that the unfairness I'd felt for years had a voice much stronger than my own.
That voice came to mind frequently when I was sports editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader from the mid-1990s and on and off until 2011. The conversation about Title IX had stalled and every time a woman filed a lawsuit or a college dropped its baseball team, wrestling team, or -- God forbid -- football team, someone would say, "blame Title IX."
I can't count the times I defended it over the decades. Don't blame Title IX, I'd tell the guys, blame the school's priorities. But that's a tough leap of logic, even in 2012, for people to make.
When I was a kid and wanted to do something "girls didn't do," I was sometimes asked, "Why do you want to be a boy?"
I hope that question isn't asked much anymore, but the argument whenever there's a Title IX complaint is philosophically the same:
Women's sports don't make as much money for the schools. Scholarships going to girls who aren't that good mean there are fewer for boys who are. Men's sports are harder and take more effort, so deserve more compensation. When a men's team is cut, talented men can't play sports they've been playing all their lives.
I wish every 17-year-old girl in 2012 could have a moment like I did in that beer-soaked, noisy Holy Cross hallway and hear that volleyball captain pour out her frustration, but with a determination and passion that still makes it a vivid memory 34 years later. It makes a lie out of all those arguments for rolling back women's opportunities.
It's a far different world for today's young women, but many of the challenges of getting fair treatment, or even the basics, still exist.
My generation is luckier in some ways. We got to be part of the fight, and we have the strength that comes from having to struggle for something and defend it. There's a special knowledge that comes with that.
Let's hope the girls celebrating on the front page of last Sunday's KJ, with a lifetime of rewarding seasons unfolding ahead of them, can hear what those ragtag girls in the polyester shirts have spent decades getting the world to know.

Maureen Milliken of Belgrade Lakes is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.