Saturday, October 11, 2008

So long to the Pine Tree State

This morning I am no longer editor of the Franklin Journal and am a little less bound to play my cards close to my vest, though there is little point in providing a lot of unnecessary details. What happened was that I began the job in January of 2007 and, in June, the publisher who had hired me decided to head back to his native Oklahoma.

He had functioned not only as publisher (ie, CEO) but as editor of a biweekly paper and he also did much of the work on the frequent advertising supplements plus generally pitching in whenever things got busy. I was named interim publisher and gained those additional editing tasks, plus editing of a weekly paper when the editor there was fired by our publisher on his way out the door. It took about four months to replace that editor.

In the meantime, the owner decided to sell out and the company that purchased the paper did not replace the publisher position, using a group publisher instead. Nor did they hire an additional editor to handle the biweekly and the special publications. This left me with all those new tasks and no backup -- now the only other person in the organization who knew how to edit was the new editor of the weekly, who was 20 miles south of us and had her hands full with that task. Hence the 60-hour, six-day weeks that expanded to seven days often enough.

And so I am going to Lebanon, NH, to edit the Connecticut Valley Spectator, a weekly community paper. I will have more backup and less work and hope to return to a five-day, 40 hour week. My charge there will be to mentor a young staff, tighten up the editing and add more substantial news coverage, but not to wreck something that is essentially working. My new boss also owns a pair of Rhodesian ridgebacks, which was not the deciding factor but doesn't hurt. I had applied for the job back in June but they had already filled it. A few weeks ago, I got an email from the owner/publisher saying that hire had not worked out and asking if I were still interested. That was more or less my job interview: I threw a figure at him, he agreed to it and then I drove down there, we had lunch and I met the staff and we talked a little more and the deal was made. And, as a bonus, one of my favorite little people in the world lives there.

The past year and a half has involved an awful lot of work, but it has not been without joy, as I hope has been clear. Before signing out, I went through the picture files and pulled out a few favorites.

Senator Susan Collins is running for re-election and was in town two weeks ago. I caught up with her at a grade school where she took questions from the kids before going to the teachers' lounge for a more intense grilling from a high school class. This was the third time we'd met -- fourth if you count being at an event I wasn't covering at the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan -- and we'd built up a good relationship. I think she knows we don't see eye-to-eye politically, but that she'll get accurate coverage, and we laugh a lot, too. She was quite dismayed to learn I was leaving and that was a very nice compliment.

Her Senate colleague, Olympia Snowe, only came to town once during my time here, though I also met her briefly at Skowhegan. I wish we had run into each other more often because, while I'm not easily intimidated, I was blown away by the intensity of her intellect and wit during a three-hour visit to downtown Farmington last month. Here she's looking over a map the downtown merchants had put together, with a state senator who is also a tree farmer and Maine Guide, and the head of the industrial development commission, who is laughing over something Walter has just said. Snowe strolled the shops, talking to whoever she ran into about whatever was on their minds and pulling facts and insights out of nowhere with an ease that was stunning. And in between that, she was cracking dry little jokes and laughing over other people's comments, which is the real mark of intellect -- she's smart enough that she has no issue with acknowledging someone else's wit and I don't think it would even occur to her to do so. Classy and magnetic.

Meanwhile, on the local level, this is a picture I got at the annual Blueberry Festival Parade in Wilton. The driver is Tom Saviello, a state rep with a deserved reputation for being everywhere. He gets his face in the paper often enough that it is a running joke, but it's because he will go cook at a charity barbecue or help out at a town meeting or show up for a tribute to some local hero and his involvement is genuine. In this case, he was using this golf cart to run people back to their cars or wherever they needed to be after the parade, and I happened to catch him with another state rep who is, in fact, a political rival, hence the hilarity. And you bet I ran it!

I'm going to go have a beer with Tom on Monday, and Walter, the state senator with Olympia Snowe, dropped by the office yesterday just to say goodbye. It's good to have made a mark.

But it's not all fun and games. The fellow in the red cap at the center of this picture, and the woman next to him in the white sweater, have just seen their tool shed burn to the ground. Now, "tool shed" is a relative term. It was the size of a good sized garage or a small house, and, for a dairy farmer, a tool shed doesn't just contain tools. It's full of odds and ends, in this case about three generations worth, of washers and bits of wire and odd-sized screws and nails and other things that you can't put a name on, but when you need to fix something are just what you need. You can replace the tools, but what they lost was the equivalent of a third-generation college professor's library, including clippings and magazine articles and odd letters. But he's got a smile because, well, what are you going to do? And besides, the barn was only about 25 feet away, and aside from some melted and scorched siding was undamaged. The nearest firefighters had just come back from a training and were cleaning up when the alarm went, which brought them to the farm in time to set up a defense for the barn. Meanwhile, all the other people in this picture are farmers who scrambled when they heard the scanner, got out there and got the cows out of the barn and pitched in to minimize what could have been a horrific disaster. It is a fraternity of colleagues not to be despised and that was what I covered, rather than a routine story about some guy's tool shed burning down.

Speaking of fires, here's a scary picture for those of you with small children. The night before this was taken, two things happened: The father of a four-year-old set his new sneakers, the ones with the cool blinking lights, on the kitchen table, as part of gathering the kid up for bed. The grandfather came home with some Dunkin' Donuts coffee, which he planned to microwave in the morning, and set that on the kitchen table. That was lucky, because when the shoes burst into fire, they melted the plastic coffeecups and put themselves out -- you can see some coffee around the edge of their soles. Neither the people at Wal-Mart headquarters nor the state fire marshall had ever heard of this happening, but, if the shoes had been halfway under the couch or in a closet, or if the entire kitchen had gone up in flames, who would have thought to trace the fire to them? (As it was, the house was full of some pretty nasty smoke and one family member was hospitalized briefly with respiratory problems.)

Part of the job involves recognizing an opportunity for a story in the mundane. Much has been made here, by me and in comments, of the problems I have had each winter with snow sliding off my roof. So during last winter, which was particularly snowy, when we got a routine press release from the power company asking people to shovel out their meters, it occurred to me that, yeah, that could be a hassle. So I went around with a meter reader and got this shot of her scaling a small mountain to read the meter, which is enough under the eaves that, once she got up there, she could read it. But she was awfully grateful when the people at the next house had used the snowblower to carve her a path.

And I would be remiss if I didn't include the occasional news tip, such as the fellow who emailed to tell me he had seen evidence of wiretapping on a road leading into town.

I would also draw your attention to the work of Jason Togyer, who commented in the last entry here and is a friend from r.a.c.s. Before I became too overwhelmed to be able to think of such things, I would send Jason an idea for a political cartoon and he would draw it up and send it back. These were extremely popular and had reach well after the coffee grounds and fish bones had been encased in the rest of the day's paper.

This one in particular struck a responsive chord. Our governor hatched a plan to save money by consolidating school districts, but he hatched it fully-formed and sprung it on the state with the help of a willing legislature which his party controlled. It has been a complete disaster and, in our area, turned two districts who had already been cooperating, including sharing music teachers, technical staff and a business manager, into bitter rivals who are barely speaking. I expect that the resulting plan will be voted down in November -- both school boards voted (as required by law) to submit the plan, but then voted in straw polls to oppose it by a combined margin of, IIRC, 19 to three.

Fairly early in the process, Jason did this cartoon, working from photos and physical descriptions I sent him of the school superintendants in our area. Somebody in a statewide group of some sort took it upon herself not only to copy the cartoon but to color it, frame it and send copies to the fellows depicted. I have seen it on the walls of the superintendents of the two districts mentioned above; this is the desktop of a third of the crew. I would bet money it's on display in the other offices as well, but I haven't been there to see. I would also bet money that it is not hanging in Governor Baldacci's office.

And I hope I have this much fun at the next place, from which I will report faithfully once settled.


Sandra said...

Good luck with the move, Mike! A house by the lake sounds wonderful...water and trees are the two things in nature that give me the most peace.

Brian Fies said...

Sounds like a good, necessary, but bittersweet change. Best of luck.

richardcthompson said...

Good luck from me too, Mike. Hope your new staff appreciates what they're getting with you. And hope the new place has a comics section.

Dann said...

best of luck with the new posting, Mike.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the job, Mike. I can relate to every word of what you said and can understand and appreciate what prompted you to make your decision.

If you figure out a way to get Gifford's ice cream shipped out-of-state, let me know.

Drop me an email from your new digs. Sorry I'm not there to help you unload the U-Haul this time.

-the CEO

ronnie said...

Congratulations and best of luck Mike. I can't pretend I'm happy you're moving a state over, when we never managed to follow up on our half-formed plans to visit when you lived next door, but you're still in the neighbourhood. And it sounds like a move that'll be good for you professionally and personally. Go for it!