Sunday, February 14, 2010

A reader's report to the Concord Monitor

On Saturday, Concord Monitor Executive Editor Felice Belman wrote a lengthy and compelling Report to Readers about its story on Steve Duprey's latest development: ["City government made this story hard to tell"].
Since I have a background in media myself, I think it was good to give readers a bit of the skinny. It tells them a lot more about what was going on and why we should really worry about those people who work for the city and whether or not they have our best intentions at heart.
I have always liked columns like this. I like being able to know how reporters got from one point to another, especially on big stories. I’m sure other readers enjoy the inside baseball too. I have had bosses in previous jobs who hated it when I wrote these kinds of pieces or even took a few spare sentences to rah-rah the staff for doing a stellar job. But, at the same time, if you don’t congratulate yourself every once in a while, who is going to do it for you? Readers deserve to know. It’s that simple.
At the same time, it would be nice to see the Monitor really delve into some of the other things going on in our city in the way they did with this story. I won’t question what the motives in going after the Duprey story were: It could be because Duprey is a powerful developer or a big name Republican in our city. It could be the fact that Walsh comes across as a complete jackass and the Monitor staffers were sensing dirt. It could be that these deals are increasingly and seemingly not the best deals the city can come up with. The motives though aren’t really the point. Getting at the heart of the matter and fighting those people in power who keep information from the public and the press are the points.
And yet, on at least two different occasions that I can think of in the not too distant past (and who knows how many more) the Monitor has done the exact opposite on major stories our city has faced. To the point that it begs the simple question: Why? Why did this story get such play and so many others didn’t? Let me talk about the two examples for a moment.

Dropping the ball on elementary school consolidation
First, the Monitor totally dropped the ball on the elementary school consolidation plan. One can only suspect it was because the editorial board has always been a champion of the consolidation plan, even before there was a plan, a price, or anything else. Over and over and over again, people in this community revealed so many damn story angles that could have been looked at (It was downright embarrassing and let me tell you, if the people in the town I cover did this to me, I would be ashamed to call myself a journalist).
There were so many things, so many problems, and for whatever reason, the Monitor chose not to look. For months on end, reporters were quoting the wrong financial figures for the project, low-balling the costs, ignoring the tax rate issue that only took me 15 minutes talking to a couple of town treasurers and time with a calculator to figure out. In the entire time the issue was being covered no one ever once wrote that the school board’s own reports showed the buildings to be structurally sound. No staff time was put into looking at the reams of studies and documentation that show that big schools produce inferior educational results compared to small, intimate schools or that showed preservation is the way most communities across the country are tackling these problems or that showed that these buildings aren’t really green when all is said and done. It was all ignored.
Instead, the news organization and editorial board seemed to have allowed themselves to get sucked in and dazzled by false arguments about whether or not classrooms that are 200 square feet bigger are better than the classrooms our children are in. They never looked at the fact that the special education rooms are not much bigger than the current special education rooms. They didn't look at alternative plans. They never looked at population growth studies out there that show that the schools will be obsolete 10 years after they are finished. They didn't look at the fact that there will not be any money to do any capital projects or repairs for more than 20 years. They didn't look into the numerous alternative siting options. They didn't look at the fact that the middle school has issues which are coming down the road. Repeatedly, the Monitor championed the cause and took everything school officials said as gospel when there were many unanswered questions.
All we can ask is this: Why? Was it the cozy relationship that some of them have with school board members and administration? Was it that the Monitor will only look at some things but not other things? While it is great that a reporter went after city officials over the Duprey project why didn’t anyone do even a cursory amount of work on the consolidation project which will actually harm taxpayers much more, for many years more, than Duprey’s deal ever would?

Ignoring just as big Right-to-Know fights
The second huge lapse in coverage was the CCTV crap that has been going on for years. Again, many members of the community, not a large news staff like the Monitor’s, have been exposing all kinds of problems there to the point that at least one person went to court in an attempt to get access to pertinent documents. Instead of championing his Right-to-Know effort, the Monitor's coverage was a mockery. When a sitting city councilor (who is now the Merrimack County Attorney, gasp!) targeted a person in our community with a police investigation for having a public document, staffers ignored the story. When some of us brought up the issue in a public forum, to the point of embarrassing the then-police chief publicly, an event that would have been front page news in any other newspaper in the country, the exchange was ignored by the reporter. Instead, they wrote about some silly question concerning the senior center. Was it the heavy hand of editing or was the reporter just clueless? The juicy story was handed to them on a platter. And even when the person tried to get the facts into the newspaper in an opinion column, Belman protected the sitting city councilor from criticism. Belman's boss then stood by her in that decision. These actions alone were journalistic malfeasance. Lastly, when reporters finally looked at any of the stuff going on, it was twisted to the point of non-recognition. The coverage made people look horrendous instead of the champions of the Right-to-Know Law that they are.
Thankfully, the main person in this issue is now a state representative trying to change the laws to make them better for all of us who care about compliance, accountability, how taxpayer dollars are spent, and the need to contain waste, fraud, and abuse.
But again, the question begs to be asked: Why? Did it have anything to do with the fact that CCTV was paying the Monitor for Web hosting services at the time? Or, was it because of a certain long-time advertiser? If Duprey was running big legal or public service ads about his project, would the Monitor have ignored this story too?

Why is this important?
What is so shocking about both these instances I mentioned is that ordinary people – not the largest press organization in our community – took on the powerful to get answers via the Right-to-Know Law. The Monitor's news organization, probably at the behest of either ownership or the editorial board, dropped the ball. The Monitor is, in many ways, selective champions of the Right-to-Know Law. It seems, only when it suits the editorial board’s predetermined conclusion or interest do they bother to utilize it. It seems that only when they agree with its use does the Monitor commend its use. When they don’t agree with its use, the editorial board and staffers use their power as communicators with the community to malign, ridicule or ignore others. While the Monitor is within its right as a private organization to handle issues this way, these are dangerous stances for a news organization to take because they limit the information given to others and they have effectively silenced critics from coming forward to try and improve our community.
Look at the disgraceful state of our city. No one bothers. No one bothers to run. No one bothers to debate the issues. We all go about our lives. How much of this behavior is prompted by our local newspaper not doing the best job it can do?
What makes this so worrisome and dangerous is that the Monitor is essentially the sole source of real news in our community. Let's be honest. They are. WMUR-TV covers some crime. Big deal. WKXL does news but it is for radio. It's quick snippets and the owner a long time ago took off programs that could actually delve into serious issues for an entire hour because he found them boring. The Hippo might have a story or two but that's not enough. And yes, I don’t have the time to turn my blog,, into more than a blog at this time. The Monitor is it.
This means though that they have a responsibility not to ignore some of these issues and, instead, give 110 percent on every level and not just when it suits them. We deserve better than what they have sometimes offered.
Many of us feel a deep connection to this newspaper. I’m a newspaper person and yet I often fight with my checkbook over whether I want to continue financial support of the newspaper. If I feel that way, imagine how others feel. I know they feel the same way which is why many folks have walked away from this newspaper. Instead, we should be championing them with our dollars and not just because of the Duprey story but because of all the things a newspaper is supposed to do.

A call to action
Moving forward, all I and others can do is simply request that the Monitor not make these mistakes again. So, let it be known: Take the words within the "Report to Readers" seriously and utilize what is probably one of the most thoroughly staffed small family owned dailies in the country to the best of its ability.
If the editorial board and ownership of the newspaper are too close to those in power in our community, make sure that there is enough of a separation between the editorial staff and the news staff to guarantee that the community is not harmed by your previously negligent coverage.
Make sure there is at least one overseer of the news department that is not taking walks with public officials or going to cocktail parties to make sure that every whistle blower and every controversial issue in Concord is treated equally. The responsibility to the community is of greater importance than personal friendships.
Every once in a while, re-think your coverage and how you are doing; ask yourself, Are we doing all we can to cover this issue evenly and fairly or is it in the tank? Does this measure up to the effort we made exposing the Duprey project and the other big things we’ve done?
Think about how you expand coverage and put more energy into the hundreds of Duprey stories that are not being told instead of distracting people with silly stuff (Suggestion: The city is facing a $3 million budget deficit. Do more than just mimic what the city manager says. Go through each department and tell people what they do. Does each department really need all the staffers it has? There are news templates available to deliver this content to readers).
I would bet that if and when the Monitor takes the time to look inward and change the way it delivers the news, it will no longer fail the community and we might have a better city too.


Anonymous said...

One wonders if the only time the Monitor cares about the right to know is when the Monitor's right to know is denied. When the city stonewalls average citizens, they could care less. Too bad.

Jeremy said...

The city has a moral and legal obligation not to getting the best deal for the tax payers through secrecy, but to being completely open in it's dealings. No one should have to beg, cajole, or hope that the city will be open. They're required to by the supreme law of the land.

NH Bill of rights, Article 7 says:
All power residing originally in, and being derived from, the people, all the magistrates and officers of government are their substitutes and agents, and at all times accountable to them. Government, therefore, should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive. To that end, the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.

Jeremy said...

Sorry, that's Article 8. Article 7 states that NH is a free, independant and sovereign state that retains the right to govern itself. Now we just need to convince (or remind) the federal gov't of that.