Charlie Arlinghaus

August 20, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Though we all pretend to care about state and local affairs, few of us actually can be bothered to pay attention. A tiny sliver of the population votes, participates, or even seems to care. Despite that epidemic of apathy, people can always be counted on to be annoyed by changes they themselves helped cause. Changes to journalism are one example of this trend.

There has been a great deal of angst lately as the Nashua Telegraph closed their State House bureau and released veteran reporter Kevin Landrigan. Following the retirement of longtime Associated Press reporter Norma Love, observers worried that no one in an increasingly lonely press room had any historical knowledge and that the public would be poorer because of it. The concern is real but exaggerated and sometimes expressed by people who helped cause it.

In a small press corps, losing two reporters who have witnessed so much definitely lessens the knowledge base but they weren’t the only veterans around. The Union Leader has a strong presence at the State House with Gary Rayno, a veteran of three decades and multiple newspapers, whose knowledge of the inner workings of the State House is equal to that of any current or former reporters.

Though a paper or two no longer has a full-time reporter, few of them will stop covering the State House. The Associated Press made a strong move by hiring the well regarded Kathleen Ronayne to replace Norma Love. In addition, the much lamented Mr. Landrigan didn’t miss a step as he was picked up immediately by a broadcast and internet concern.

Without question though, there is less coverage of everything local than there once was. A decade ago, the State House considered doubling the size of an overcrowded press room. More recently, they removed unused desks from a less utilized room. There are fewer newspaper reporters. That fact is often lamented by people who can’t be bothered to subscribe to newspapers themselves. It is a little disingenuous to complain about coverage while refusing to help pay the salaries of the reporters who provide said coverage.

The decline is not limited to print. Veteran radio man Ken Cail told me that when he first came to New Hampshire radio in the 1970s, a large Manchester station had a six person news room. Into the 1980s and 1990s multiple radio stations had news staffs of various sizes. Today, I’m not aware of any commercial station with dedicated news staff. Dedicated reporters exist at New Hampshire Public Radio but not elsewhere on the radio dial.

We all know some blowhard or another who insists to us that he only gets his news “from twitter and the internet.” Somehow, a friend of yours making a smart aleck comment in the 15 words twitter allows counts as news. A Facebook link to a newspaper story or a blog which recasts information gathered by a reporter grants the feeble minded the illusion that somehow the nebulous monolith of the internet created news from ether.

The truth is that fewer people care anymore. Things like the internet have disassociated us from each other. We are less likely to know our neighbors, participate in anything like a community, or have a social network that includes living beings. A sociological analysis our growing independence from human contact was called “Bowling Alone.” Bridge clubs, bowling leagues, discussion groups, church suppers and the like decline in favor of social media memes and something called “tweet-ups.”

The result in a civic sense is that we don’t care. New Hampshire’s noble and Norman Rockwellish institution of town meeting is a museum piece rolled out for people from away to see. The truth is that 90% of the people aren’t there. Controversies increase turnout but otherwise most of us stay home. Local elections are not much better. State primary elections next month will see between 10 and 15% of the population of the state actually cast a ballot. For the vast overwhelming majority, elections and public policy are just a nuisance or a slightly annoying background noise.

Most of us are less engaged in our geographic community or other communities of interest. As our civic engagement declines so too does our interest in local affairs. A decline in local news coverage – or at least our interest in it – is a reflection of that decline not a cause of it.

Charlie Arlinghaus

July 23 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Newspapers and publishers are rarely themselves the subject of newspaper articles. However, today I want to take the opportunity to write about Joe McQuaid, publisher of this newspaper, and the importance of newspapers in general to a healthy public life and discussion. Newspapers at their core are the foundation of all the other freedoms we have the luxury of taking for granted in a society so open and free that we don’t seem to notice anymore.

Tonight, my organization, the Josiah Bartlett Center will honor Joe McQuaid with its annual Libertas Award. The award is meant to symbolize the inseparable link between individual and economic freedom. None of those freedoms is possible without the unfettered gathering and distribution of information that defines newspapers.

Newspapers are often said to compose a first, rough draft of history. Tyrants, petty and grandiose, seek to influence or control the drafting of their own history. Chiseling away at the independence of the story can take many forms. Controlling what information is revealed to the public, which documents are released, and what the public can be permitted to see are all soft forms of control and censorship.

The more extreme forms of control are the subject of a fascinating discussion in journalist Anne Applebaum’s history of the crushing of Eastern Europe. Totalitarians – seeking total control – first limited free presses (only the newspapers we like receive paper rations) then abolished open information entirely because of the extraordinary threat it poses to control.

We honor Joe McQuaid tonight because he represents the opposite impulse and one that defines the American newspaper industry he grew up in. Because he’s such a familiar part of the community, we forget the history that Joe brings with him. He describes himself as the third of four generations of a New Hampshire newspapering family.

True to the roots of that history, Joe McQuaid’s work has been dedicated to ensuring the first draft and later drafts of history are both accurate and independent. In an era of changing newspaper economics, it can be difficult for newspapers to remain local and distinctive avoiding the pitfalls of generic and distant management.

Joe’s own description of his work to secure the perpetual independence of the paper was cited in an award from the New England Press Association and leaves no doubt about the mission and importance of independent watchdogs: “cookie-cutter homogenization may be fine for widgets and fast foods and price-to-earnings ratios, but I don’t think it is likely to inspire many publishers to follow Chicago Times’ founder Wilbur Story’s dictum of 140 years ago: ‘it is a newspaper’s duty to print the news, and raise hell.’”

But Joe’s efforts at securing a free and independent future isn’t just about one newspaper. Through his work at the Nackey Loeb School of Communications, Joe has supported and honored the work of competing newspapers and helped to train future journalists in good writing and reporting, elements that shouldn’t be lost to the fashions of aggregators and tweeters.

In his work as a publisher and editor, he has been a strong editorial voice for market solutions to problems and judging public policy independent of partisan politics. As important as his editorials have been to economic and individual freedom, his work has made clear that reporting the first draft of history can be independent of and uncompromised by other considerations.

Too many people presume that ideas must be subsumed to the political needs of individuals. No one reading any publication Joe is involved with is under any such illusion.

I have had the privilege of a regular platform in these pages for the better part of a decade. I know first hand about the independence of information. In ten years and hundreds of individual columns, not once has anyone ever suggested I rewrite anything, tone down anything, suggested a topic, encouraged or discouraged a subject no matter how annoying the resulting opinion or prose might be.

If I can close on a personal note, I first met Joe not as a newspaperman but as the husband of a friend of mine. I’ve known him as a devoted and caring husband, a very proud father and grandfather, and an interested member of his community. Beneath a quiet, taciturn exterior lurks a soft and sentimental heart that is really not hidden very well at all.

Joe is being honored tonight for his work opening government to the people, promoting the independence of information, and supporting the economic freedom at the heart of our system but also for just being an all around good egg.