It was a store-bought cake with a row of candles and a message in sugary script. Excited young voices filled the room in a third-floor apartment at the crest of the hill that rises behind New Hampshire’s statehouse. As the candles were lit, one of the party’s hosts quieted the crowd and said it was obvious who should have the honor: me.
Blushing and beaming, I stepped forward and blew out the candles. Then, rather than make a speech, I simply recited the message on the cake: “It’s Over, Bitches.” Why the expletive was necessary, and why this particular expletive, I didn’t exactly get. But everyone else seemed to get it, which was good enough for me.
Of course, I knew what was over. It was the New Hampshire presidential primary, my eighth and last as the editor of the Concord Monitor, the twenty-thousand-circulation daily in the state capital. The party celebrated the Monitor staff’s work on a story that had consumed our time and energy for weeks, rising to a crescendo and a surprise ending in the first days of 2008.
I had witnessed plenty of campaigns and surprises in thirty years at the paper. What was different this time was that rather than run the show, I had left the corner office in the Monitor newsroom to become a reporter, columnist, and writer. The idea came to me last spring. I had decided to retire in June 2008, a decision that focused my thinking. More than forty-five years ago, I got into journalism to write, but I had run the Monitor’s newsroom for nearly thirty of those years and been editor of some kind for thirty-five. Having moved from sportswriter to sports editor to city editor to managing editor to editor, I had never been a daily city-side reporter. If I were ever going to have the chance, this was it.
I also viewed my switch as being in the Monitor’s interest. Like all newspapers, we are struggling to thrive in a rapidly changing media world. Decisions about how the paper should proceed, I reasoned, should be made by the editors who will have to live with those decisions. Felice Belman, the managing editor, was my heir apparent as editor, and Geordie Wilson, the publisher, promoted Felice to executive editor. At my request, he allowed me to keep the title “editor,” but my job became to provide content.
So one day late last May, I came to work as a writer. I say writer rather than reporter because that is how I viewed myself. I reported a few breaking stories, but as a beat reporter, I couldn’t hold a candle to the reporters on our staff. This fact was confirmed for me in just a few days of eavesdropping on my new pod-mate, Sarah Liebowitz. Sarah is a political reporter who, at that moment, was winding up her work on the New Hampshire legislative session and beginning in earnest her coverage of Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. Her telephone was an extension of her senses. This constant working of the phone, and other gadgets I knew less about, gave Sarah and the other reporters command of the beats they covered. I didn’t have time to develop such savvy.
I did have the sense to turn to other reporters for help. One of my first stories was about a girl who was graduating from a local high school whose parents had been killed two and a half years earlier by an arsonist. The girl’s grandparents had taken her in, nurtured her through her grief, and helped her succeed as a student. For the story, I needed to know what had become of the arsonist, who had never gone to trial after the court accepted his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. I turned to Annmarie Timmins, our police and court reporter. Within minutes she pointed me to the records and gave me the names and numbers I needed.