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.