AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 2003

A Special Place   

New Hampshire’s 22,000-circulation Concord Monitor is a rarity, a small, independently owned newspaper that encourages its reporters and photographers to think big. It has earned a reputation for producing first-rate journalism--and lots of talent for larger papers.

By Susan Q. Stranahan
Susan Q. Stranahan is a freelance journalist in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. For 28 years, she wrote about environmental issues for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her stories were a major component in the Inquirer's coverage of the Three Mile Island accident, which won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for general local reporting.     

Imagine a newspaper where editors are admired; where management's highest priority is serving readers, not shareholders; where reporters are constantly encouraged to think big; and where photographers often put glossy magazines to shame.

This is the Concord Monitor, a New Hampshire daily with a circulation of 22,000.

"It is a special place," says John Fensterwald, who spent 13 years as an editor at the Monitor, leaving in 1998 for the San Jose Mercury News. "It's pure journalism."

In bygone years, newspapers like the Monitor were unusual; in today's business climate, they're practically extinct. For more than two decades, the Monitor quietly has built a reputation for excellence, and for serving as a training ground for young journalists, many of whom move on to larger papers--but never forget the lessons they learned in the tight-knit newsroom.

"I'm now at my sixth news organization, and to this day, the Monitor editors remain some of the best I've encountered anywhere," says Ceci Connolly, who covers health policy for the Washington Post. (The Monitor job, from 1985 to 1988, was her first.)

Those who have watched the Monitor from afar see a newspaper with a clear vision of its mission and a strong commitment from the top to produce quality work. Los Angeles Times Editor John Carroll previously held the editorship at the Baltimore Sun, a paper known for mining the staff at the Monitor for new talent. "The paper is ambitious," says Carroll. "It doesn't narrow reporters' sights; it widens them."

Uniformly, the person credited with elevating the Monitor newsroom to this rarefied atmosphere is Mike Pride, editor for the past quarter-century. "There's no way around it," says Fensterwald. "Mike has created this." Others agree. Says William K. Marimow, the Sun's editor: "Mike Pride embodies the highest standards of reporting, of writing, of public service and integrity."

Midmorning on a brilliant winter day. The New Hampshire sky is azure, and the view outside Mike Pride's window is a tantalizing expanse of snow, with the icy Merrimack River sparkling among the trees--at least what you can see of it over the clutter on the windowsill. This is the office of a newspaper editor who actively practices the craft of writing. (In addition to his Monitor column, Pride recently coauthored a book on the Civil War and wrote a column for the now-defunct Brill's Content.) "I don't think there are too many editorships where you can do so much journalism," he says.

Pride, 56, is at his computer, answering e-mails and assessing the day's news prospects.

From age 13 or 14, Pride knew that he wanted to be a newsman. (It's a trait he looks for in job applicants.) As a kid in Florida, he'd tag along with a cousin who was a desk editor for the Tampa Tribune; in high school, Pride became a Tribune sports stringer. After a stint in the Army, he went to work for the Tribune and then was hired as the sports editor at Florida's Clearwater Sun. Soon he was offered the job as the Sun's city editor.

"I didn't know what a city editor did, but I took it," he says. He discovered his niche. "I still think that's the best job in journalism." In 1977, when Knight Ridder was looking for a city editor at the Tallahassee Democrat, Pride accepted. Within a few months, however, the Monitor hired him to become managing editor, the handpicked choice of Publisher George Wilson, whose family owns the paper. (Wilson had heard of Pride from the former managing editor of the Clearwater Sun.) Wilson made Pride three promises: a 33 percent budget increase, full autonomy and--important to Pride-- a long-term commitment.

Wilson says his "bait" was this: "Mike, you are leaving a very good organization. The one thing I can tell you, you will not be invisible in this job; you can do everything you could do at Tallahassee or Charlotte." And Wilson urged Pride to "put your stamp" on the paper.

After about five years, Pride became editor. His mission for the Monitor is clear and simple--and he is achieving it. "We want to be a reliable and comprehensive source of good information in our circulation area," he says. "We see ourselves as a local paper, deeply rooted in this community. Even though we're small, we don't think that way."

If the Monitor seems a throwback to another era, so does Concord, a city whose population of 41,000 nearly doubles each day when state employees--and those doing business with the state--stream in to the historic stone and frame offices surrounding the gold-domed Statehouse. Main Street merchants thrive. The public school system is first-rate, as are medical facilities. Cultural events are well attended, and scholastic sports games draw large crowds.

"Concord is inhabited by people who have chosen to live here for the quality of life," says Anthony F. Hartigan, an investment adviser who moved to Concord from Boston 26 years ago. For many, including Hartigan, an integral part of that daily life is their local morning paper. "The Monitor is a moderate, thinking paper," he says. "Its editorial page is read by everybody."

The Monitor's ties to Concord are strong. "Any paper this size rises and falls on the success of the community," says current Publisher Tom C. Brown, who came to the Monitor from Montana's Missoulian in 1987. "Communities prosper by having newspapers that pay attention."

Brown credits Pride with doing a "brilliant" job of engaging readers in the Monitor. Fifteen years ago, Pride created a "board of contributors," a dozen local residents he selects annually to write for the paper's Sunday Viewpoint or daily op-ed sections. Among the contributors was convicted murderer Ray Barham, serving a life sentence in the New Hampshire state prison. Barham wrote regularly for the paper from his jail cell for about 14 years, and in 1996, he was named the New Hampshire Press Association's columnist of the year. He died last year.

The Monitor also devotes a respectable portion of its newshole to national and international news, taken from the wires. "That's a traditional function of a daily newspaper, to give readers a sense that they're part of a larger world," Pride says. "If you only read about North Korea after an attack, we wouldn't have been doing our jobs."

Monitor readers expect such in-depth coverage. They may live in a small, out-of-the-way state (former Boston Globe columnist David M. Shribman, now executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, once described New Hampshire as "a barnacle on the coast of America"), but don't be fooled. The somnolent populace of the Granite State is merely biding its time, awaiting its quadrennial moment in the national high-beams--the presidential primaries.

Then, says Monitor editorial page writer Ralph Jimenez, "this place becomes the center of the universe."

Mike Pride walks into the newsroom to confer with City Editor Hans Schulz, who, at 46, is one of the old hands. With the exception of a two-and-a-half-year stint at the Providence Journal, Schulz has been at the Monitor since 1982, holding a variety of jobs. "Mike has always been my mentor," he says.

Already on the budget for the next day (a Thursday in mid-January) are two strong pieces: Newly elected Gov. Craig Benson's nomination of a controversial outsider to head the Department of Health and Human Services, and the hit-and-run deaths of two 18-year-olds and the arrest of the suspected driver.

Schulz is one of several editors and staffers that Pride jokingly calls "the recidivists." The reigning recidivist at the moment is Sunday Editor Felice Belman, who is back at the Monitor (her fourth stint) after working two years as an editor at the Washington Post.

"You can tell your grandmother that you work at the Post," says Belman, conceding that she fell for the draw of a national paper. And while the Post reporters were more sophisticated and the salary "much better," she says, the rewards of working for the Monitor more than compensate. At the Post, Belman was one of a long string of editors handling copy. At the Monitor, she is the front line. "Here, I feel that my impact is noticeable," she says. "There is exponentially more freedom and a willingness to do things differently. It's really fun to come to work every day."

Editors at the Monitor get involved in stories from the very beginning. "Most of their 'editing' occurs in early conversations with the reporter, not with them sitting at the keyboard typing over the final product," says Ceci Connolly. "And that's the way you learn."

Some of the camaraderie that prevails in the newsroom can be attributed to its size--45 people, including 14 city-side reporters and a six-person sports department. Other factors are equally important.

"There's no room for not mattering in a newsroom like the Monitor," says Senior Editor Mark Travis, currently a Nieman Fellow and coauthor with Pride of the Civil War history "My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth."

Pride, who had a Nieman Fellowship in 1985, briefly flirted with leaving the Monitor in the mid-'80s and interviewed elsewhere. "I was usually disappointed," he says. "I kept asking: 'Why is that better than what I'm doing now? I want to stay at the top of my game. Where can I make this kind of difference?' "

It is Pride's confidence in his editors and his willingness to let them experiment that make their jobs rewarding, according to Photo Editor Dan Habib. "Mike gives people freedom to take risks, and if you fail, it's not that big a deal."

Habib arrived at the Monitor from the University of Michigan 15 years ago, expecting to stay two years. Today, he oversees a photo staff of three plus an intern, who routinely produce stunning work. (A $3.5 million Flexographic press, installed in 1990, reproduces incredibly clear color photos. So good art gets lots of space.)

The photographers are the source of many story ideas. "Producing stories is built into their jobs," says Habib, who often handles daily assignments to allow his shooters time to pursue projects. Habib recently teamed up with reporter Sarah Earle in a continuing series documenting the lives of immigrants settling in New Hampshire. Earle and photographer Elaine Skylar followed a high school cheerleading squad as it battled to win a state championship. And photographer Ben Garvin compiled a photo-essay about 16 high school dropouts.

"There is a real commitment here to photojournalism," Habib says. The paper offers four three-month photo internships annually. The interns earn minimum wage, but Habib tells them "it will pay off down the line."

Indeed, that may be the greatest psychic reward for editors at the Monitor, according to Felice Belman. "It's fun to watch your reporters go on and become big stars and know you've played a role."

When asked how long reporters stay at the paper, Pride has a stock answer: "A year longer than [at] other papers our size." Tenure at the Monitor is usually three or four years.

Two factors produce this mobility: paychecks and presidential politics. A beginning reporter at the Monitor makes just under $25,000. "It's difficult to live on that in Concord," says Pride. "But people don't come here to make a great living. They come because this is a paper with a good reputation where they can get help with their journalism skills." It's a given many will eventually move on.

Among young reporters, low salaries were "pretty much a daily bitch," recalls Stephanie Hanes, who after almost two years at the Monitor left last fall to cover county courts for the Baltimore Sun. "But when you start to gripe about it, it doesn't take much to step back and say, 'That's not why I'm here. If I stay it's going to be worth it, even if I don't want to see macaroni and cheese ever again in my life!' "

Hanes is something of a legend among Monitor editors. "She's the kind of reporter we want to grow at this paper," says Pride. A short time after arriving in the fall of 2000 just out of Yale, she was assigned the cops-and-courts beat, and soon began proposing major enterprise projects. Travis, then city editor, was willing to let her try.

Hanes wrote a story about the fate of men released from prison after serving maximum sentences; she investigated prison conditions and eventually stumbled across a story she initially pitched as a short feature about alternative sentencing in New Hampshire.

What evolved was a haunting three-part series, "In Sorrow's Grip," detailing the anguish of a young man named Jim Dozois, whose speeding car crashed into a telephone pole, killing his best friend. In an unusual sentencing agreement, Dozois, who pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, was required to make 16 speeches to high school students about the perils of reckless driving and the pain of living with the realization that you have taken a life. Hanes wrote a powerful account of the struggle of the victim's family and lawyers to find a just solution. (The series is online at www.cmonitor.com/sorrow/.)

Although Travis had worked closely with Hanes on the project, he departed for his Nieman weeks before the series ran last August. Pride stepped in to do the final editing. "He's an amazing editor," says Hanes, 24. "He is able to make copy so clean, in a way that doesn't mess up the writer's style. He doesn't try to change it and make it sound like Mike Pride writing, but the best way the reporter could do it."

Amanda Parry has been at the Monitor for two years, not long enough to qualify as one of the newsroom dinosaurs, but getting there, she says. A graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, she taught in Japan and then worked as a reporter at a small Pennsylvania paper, a job she didn't enjoy. Persuaded by a family friend to give journalism another chance, she applied to the Monitor. Now the lone business reporter, Parry, 26, knows she won't stay at the paper. "They should call New Hampshire the graveyard of ambition," she says, smiling. "It's so hard to leave."

She plans to work through the 2004 primary. "I have no interest in politics, but this is a tremendous opportunity to learn. I'm a history major; I'm not trained to do anything. I should be asking people if they want fries with that, and here I am, about to cover a presidential primary."

Annmarie Timmins is a dinosaur--there's one sitting on her desk, in fact. She's also one of Pride's "recidivists." A 1990 graduate of the University of New Hampshire, Timmins worked at two small New England papers before being hired as assistant city editor at the Monitor. Almost immediately she knew it was a mistake. "I couldn't handle being stuck in the office," she remembers. When Felice Belman returned (for her second tour of duty), she took Timmins' place on the desk, and Timmins went back to reporting. Her first story: A giant python in the sewers. "I knew I was back where I should be."

Timmins left after two years, but returned to the Monitor in 1995. She inherited her dinosaur (a small toy) when its owner, senior staff writer and environmental reporter Jim Graham, left the paper--and journalism--late last year. For Graham, 43 and a new father, the decision to leave after 13 years was wrenching.

"In terms of being a reporter there, it was hard to maintain my professional life and do all the things that a married person hopes to do: buy a house, have a more predictable schedule, make the kind of salary that could supply the bulk of the family's income," he says.

The size of the Monitor's staff also played a role. "Every reporter who shows up there will soon sink their talents into big projects," says Graham. "That's the good side. But because the Monitor is small, everybody's also expected to pitch in even for the tiniest thing. That can keep you on your toes and keep you fresh, but there is a time when you say, 'I've been in this business for 20 years. Do I want to rush out to cover a fire late at night?' "

"I still loved my job the day I left. I'd go back in a heartbeat if I could make it livable for me and my family, but the newsroom is just not set up that way." Although the Monitor offered Graham a pay raise, it was not enough to keep him. He currently earns $52,000 a year at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, a statewide conservation organization.

Everyone is quick to acknowledge that the high rate of turnover at the Monitor--as at other small papers--creates problems (see "Vacancies in Vacaville," March). "You feel like you're always starting over," says Travis, who describes himself as a "journalism teacher without summers off."

While the Monitor boasts a small core of talented, veteran reporters--"the rocks on which the staff is built," according to Travis--the newsroom is a transient place. "When people's skills rise to a level that the quality of work they can do is exciting, you are often having their goodbye parties," he says.

There's another downside. "A community newspaper's quality depends on how well its reporters understand the community," Travis explains. "There's only so much you can understand in two or three years."

Fresh out of Harvard, George Wilson arrived in Concord in June 1962 and knew he wanted to stay. He had worked for free for the Aiken Standard and Review while in high school in South Carolina. After two years at Harvard, he dropped out to earn money to finish his education, eventually landing a job as a copy boy for the Washington Post.

He also met his future wife, Marily Dwight, whose New England family, owners of the Monitor, had been in the newspaper business since 1882. Wilson returned to Harvard, married in 1961 and graduated the next year.

The Dwight family asked him to sell ads for the Monitor, which they had acquired the previous year. Wilson's salary: $85 a week. On the side, he did some reporting, and occasionally filled in for the sports editor and editorial writer. In 1972, he became publisher, and six years later, head of the newly formed corporate parent, Newspapers of New England Inc.

Over the years, Wilson watched what was happening to many family-owned newspapers around the country. "One of my early questions to my wife's family was, 'Are you going to sell these newspapers or continue to run them? Am I here for the short-term or the long haul?' " Their answer: long haul.

Wilson concentrated ownership of Newspapers of New England in the hands of family members who possessed a commitment to journalism, buying back stock from those not directly involved in the company. "I didn't want anybody who needed big dividends so they could surf in Hawaii," he says. The remaining shareholders, says Wilson, "are not a bunch of investors in it for the financial play."

For Publisher Tom Brown the result of that strategy is simple: "We have no concern about showing a down year. Our goal is to grow our newspaper franchise long-term."

The Monitor spends about 18 percent of its revenue on news, compared with an industry average of about 12 percent for papers of comparable size, according to Pride. And what does that investment produce? "A lot of gratification, better work and better people than if we didn't spend it," says Wilson. Over the last 10 years, both profit margins and cash flow--which Wilson says is a better measurement of financial health--have been above 20 percent (of revenues).

Wilson, 66, followed the lead of the Washington Post Co., on whose board of directors he serves, and laid the groundwork for establishing in 2005 a trust that will own Newspapers of New England. Currently, shareholders consist of family members and publishers of the Monitor and the three other papers the company owns, the Valley News, in West Lebanon, New Hampshire; the Greenfield, Massachusetts, Recorder; and the Monadnock Ledger, a weekly in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Will that ensure that the commitment to journalism continues? Wilson believes so, but quickly adds, "It's strictly up to those who come behind."

One need look no further than the once-proud Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to see the alternative. The Eagle, a small, ambitious daily, produced great writing and high-caliber journalists in the 1970s. In 1995, the family owners sold the paper to William Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group. The exodus from the Eagle began. Among those leaving was Don MacGillis, longtime editorial page editor and executive editor, who's now at the Boston Globe.

When MacGillis' son Alec was looking for a newspaper like the old Eagle where he could hone his skills, he headed to Concord. Which explains what he was doing a year later in the back of an SUV with a worried Al Gore.

About 1.3 million people live in New Hampshire. By the end of each primary season, a goodly number of them expect to have schmoozed with the next president of the United States. According to local legend, there's a woman in Concord who won't vote for a candidate she hasn't danced with.

Access is the name of the game, and as the candidates work to get their messages across to the state's voters, the media become their closest friends. For the young reporters at the Monitor, these are heady days.

"It is thrilling and terrifying at the same time," recalls Craig Timberg, who covered the 1996 primary for the Monitor and now works at the Washington Post. At 24, Timberg appeared on a CNN talk show; his fellow panelist was veteran Post political columnist David Broder.

By the time the national media descend on New Hampshire, the Monitor reporters have spent months with their candidates and often are privy to things the Big Names are not.

Alec MacGillis covered Gore in 2000. "I remember press conferences or staged events when the national press corps was there screaming questions. He'd pass right by them, and Gore's aides would point me to the back room or to his car for my private meeting."

One night, MacGillis, who now covers higher education for the Baltimore Sun, was riding with Gore. The campaign was faltering and the vice president was concerned. "We were in the back of the car and he asked me what I thought he was doing wrong," remembers MacGillis, who greeted the question with disbelief, and tactfully tried to explain Bill Bradley's popularity among New Hampshire voters because he was a fresh face.

The 2004 primary is less than a year away. "The newsroom now is very green," says Belman. "But in a year, they'll be much more talented. It happens quickly because it has to. You can see people becoming journalists."

At the Monitor, they speak of primary "cycles": the build-up, the frenzied pace of intensive coverage of candidates and issues, the vote, and then, the finale--a flurry of résumés exiting the newspaper.

"After a primary, we can lose people in a wave," says Pride. The clips are impressive; confidence levels are high; and Monitor reporters figure they've earned their spurs.

"Clearly, when they come from the Monitor, they're on their way," says Bill Stevens of the St. Petersburg Times, who has hired a few recent departures.

Baltimore Sun Editor Bill Marimow and his predecessor John Carroll have been so hungry for Monitor talent that Mike Pride took to calling them "the raptors."

Even though new jobs usually mean a larger stage and different challenges, saying goodbye often proves difficult.

"I remember the day that I finally called Baltimore and told them I was coming," says MacGillis. "I felt none of the elation you should feel when you've accepted a job at a big paper.... It meant you were leaving this building."

It also means bidding farewell to Mike Pride. "Working for him makes you realize what a great profession this is, if it includes someone as cool as Mike."

Although he's engrossed in his job at the Sun, MacGillis hasn't forgotten his two years in Concord. "I sometimes daydream about going back."