MANCHESTER, NH — Once every generation or so, a new journalism arises. But with the advent of the Internet, the evolution may be accelerating. An assemblage of online journalists descended on the Derryfield Restaurant in Manchester on Tuesday evening, November 12, to discuss the future of journalism and why it matters. The event, drawing more than 100 interested publishers, editors, writers, politicians and ordinary citizens, was hosted and sponsored by InDepth NH, one of the online publications that are finding stories and demanding answers to questions underreported by much of the print and broadcast media.
Nancy West, founder and publisher of IndepthNH.org, spoke of the need for more journalists to enter the wide-open field of online journalism and seek the truth about many of the issues that get swept under the proverbial rug, especially on matters of crime and law enforcement.
“We need a couple of full-time reporters just on the criminal justice system,” West said. “We need more boots on the ground, talented hardworking reporters.” Transparency, or the lack of it, in government is a concern often expressed by several participants in the evening’s discussions, with Executive Councilor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andru Volinsky of Concord joining legal affairs director Gilles Bissonnette of the American Civil Liberties Union-NH in knocking the common practice of citing the “internal personnel practices exemption” by officials eager to avoid “fessing up to their own behavior.” Among the offenses against “transparency” cited were the alleged concealment of the findings of an internal audit of the Salem Police Department and withholding of information about alleged cover-up activity at the Manchester Police Department. Bissonnette cited three cases on alleged withholding of information that will be heard by the New Hampshire Supreme Court on November 20.
West said people want to know about more than yesterday’s celebrity scandals or tomorrow’s weather. “If you write about topics that matter, people will find it and read it,” she said.
Featured speaker Gloria Norris, a Manchester native now living in California, described her life growing up in the Queen City’s Elmwood Gardens project in the south end of Elm Street, which formed the narrative of her bestselling book, Kookooland. The narrative includes a couple of fatal episodes of domestic violence, including the killing of a friend’s mother by the friend’s father, Doris and Hank Piasecny. Echoing the call for more reporting on crimes that go undetected, underreported and sometimes unpunished, Norris said: “I support the news so people don’t get away with murder.”
Domestic violence by police officers was among the topics discussed, along with statistics cited that claimed New Hampshire has the third fastest-growing rate of suicide and the third fastest-growing rate of teen suicide. Volinsky, a veteran attorney suggested police are distracted from serious violent crime by an excess of laws criminalizing nonviolent behavior.
“We can’t criminalize everything and ask the police to sort it out,” he said, adding, “The war on drugs is a failure.”
Many of the journalists present might have held their own New Hampshire Union Leader alumni reunion, with West, Manchester Ink Link publisher Carol Robidoux, Paula Tracy, Gary Rayno, Bob Charest, photographer Bob Lapree and others, all having worked at one time or another for the Manchester daily.
“Sometimes I have to ask myself, ‘What was I thinking?’’” said West who put in 25 years as a UL reporter and left that job security behind to start Indepth NH. Robidoux praised West for her investigative reporting and told her the Union Leader “should have given you wings.”
“And a lot of money,” West added.
Pat Grossmith, whose Union Leader reporter days go back to the 1970s and who now covers the city for the Inklink, recalled reporting former Vice President Al Gore’s claim that he invented the Internet.
“I didn’t even know what the Internet was,” Grossmith joked.
Robidoux said truth-telling in the public media need not be polarizing and said that while covering the recent elections, she found herself in a social setting with often contentious Manchester Alderman-at-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur. In the midst of what started as a heated discussion about their differences, Robidoux asked for and received a hug from the controversial alderman. That seemed to amuse the crowd, which was left to decide whether that constituted an act of bravery or reckless endangerment.
“We have to put the past behind us if we’re going to move forward as a city,” Robidoux said of hugging it out with Levasseur.
Gary Rayno, whose years at the Union Leader were preceded by a long tenure with Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, said he retired in 2015. “I looked at the (presidential) election coming up and I said, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with this,’” he said.
Volinsky, one of two Statehouse Democrats present, each of whom hopes to unseat Republican Gov. Chris Sununu in 2020, advised journalists to avoid focusing on the horse race (who’s ahead in the polls, who’s raised the most money) in covering election campaigns and to avoid “caricature.” Candidates, he said, “are desperate to get your attention,” and he criticized Gov. Sununu’s auctioning of one of his vetoes as an example of attention-getting gimmickry.
The other gubernatorial hopeful, Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes of Concord cited his loyalty to the Democratic party by stating that his happy home consists of not only his wife Erin, but also a pair of dogs named Franklin and Roosevelt. (“No Delano yet,” he admitted when asked about the omission.) Feltes joined the call for transparency in government, while stressing the importance of independent media in bringing that about. If the gathering and the speeches seemed a little short on Republicans, it was not because of partisan leanings by the non-profit news agencies, West said. Gov. Sununu was invited, she said, but he cited a scheduling conflict.
“That did not stop us from inviting him every 15 minutes,” West said.