Friday, August 2, 2002

Features

Panel talks about Mosquito's history, future, content . . . accuracy, influence and role in the community

Is the reporting accurate in fact and tone? Does the paper focus too much on the schools and conservation? Do editorials influence anyone? Should the Mosquito run "gossip?" Is the paper "too nice?"

Kicking off the Mosquito's thirtieth anniversary year, at the annual meeting on May 16 of Carlisle Communications, Inc. (CCI), a panel of five long-time residents of the town with varied connections to the newspaper assembled to reminisce and to comment on the role of the newspaper as it and as the town have changed.

Most of the panelists have been active in town government as well. John Ballantine is a selectman and former member of the town finance committee, and served as CCI president for about ten years. Kathy Coyle has helped the paper in many ways. Besides suggesting the paper's name ("because mosquitoes have the best circulation in town"), she has been a Forum writer, and she currently covers the Carlisle Police and Fire departments. Tom Raftery, the Mosquito cartoonist, has served on the planning board and board of selectmen. Sandy Scott was a Mosquito founder and still helps the paper by compiling real estate transfers. She has also been an assistant town moderator and a member of the board of appeals. Roberta Spang worked as editor on both the Carlisle Gazette and the Mosquito. She also served on the town finance committee.

Moderator and panelists include (left to right) Bob Rothenberg, Kathy Coyle, Tom Raftery, John Ballantine, Sandy Scott and Roberta Spang. (Photo by Rik Pierce)
The panel was moderated by Forum editor Bob Rothenberg, who is also the chairman of the CCI board. The moderator posed a number of questions which the panelists had seen prior to the session. The questions and excerpts of their answers are printed below.

Q. Some of you have worked as Mosquito staffers and then served as town officials or on town boards. Can you tell us how your perception of the paper changed?

Scott: After reporting on the selectmen, the planning board, and the board of appeals, I became a member of the board of appeals. I don't think my perception of the paper changed. I thought I would find myself in a sort of adversarial role with the paper, but I didn't. I must
"I must admit there were some times when I thought, 'Oh, gosh, I hope the Mosquito doesn't report what I said.' "

—Sandy Scott
admit there were some times when I thought, "Oh, gosh, I hope the Mosquito doesn't report what I said." I certainly found, on the other hand, that working for such a long time on the Mosquito and covering town government helped me when I became a town official, because I felt I had a much better knowledge of the town government and of the town. I recommend to anybody that working on the paper is a big help if you do become a town official.

Raftery: I thought about the Mosquito from the days when it merged with the Gazette, and it seems to me that it has come forward like a child growing up. It is a much more mature paper now; it is a much more objective paper now.

I think when I was a selectman, the Mosquito had a slightly adversarial relationship with a number of boards in town because the paper had an agenda at that point. I wasn't the only one to perceive this. I think a number of boards perceived the Mosquito's agenda at that point as being somewhat anti-government, almost suspecting that anything that any town official did had a motive behind it. What I have seen since I've been a selectman is that the Mosquito has gone in another direction. I think it is a newspaper today rather than a forum for somebody's opinion. I think the paper has come a long way.

Spang: I was editor from 1976 to 1982, a reporter, then an editor of the Carlisle Gazette and then a co-editor in the merged paper, so that was a six-year period, and as Sandy said, at that time I covered the finance committee and you almost become an ad hoc member of the committees. So I joined the finance committee and served six years on that from 1982 to 1988. It did give me a very interesting perspective to have those two lenses, to look at the news writing as being the reporter who had written it, and then to look at it as the person being reported upon. From that perspective I learned to have a lot more empathy for how hard it is to get your reporting 100% accurate in details and tone and context. I always marvel at what the Boston Globe can come out with every day — how they do it with the least amount of mistakes (or the ones that are called to their attention). But even though you learn that perhaps there was a difference in the way people perceived the truth or the discussion, I haven't ever doubted the sincerity of the effort of the people that have been doing the newswriting for the paper.

Ballantine: A number of [town officials] when they read the Mosquito sometimes

"A number of [town officials] when they read the Mosquito sometimes get upset about accuracy of issues, and not everybody loves the Mosquito."
—John Ballantine
get upset about accuracy of issues, and not everybody loves the Mosquito. What I found instead is that you really have to have a tough skin, but not to read it too carefully and not to get upset and say "that's not what really happened at the meeting." I know you think about what people do in politics and the press, they worry about spinning everything and my approach has been not to get too wrapped up in the FinCom or the selectmen articles because most people really don't read it that carefully and totally understand what's going on and the process. You have to step back or remove yourself from it and not worry about the impression.

Raftery: I'm not convinced that's the case. I think what it does to you, though, if you run a board, you realize that basically anything you say is going to be in the paper. You're sitting there and you're thinking, "Geez, am I going to make a really stupid comment and have it come out in the paper?" We've all done that, I'm sure. But you do think about it. How am I going to put this out with the most information in the best way I can. And you know that a reporter is going to form some opinion as a story.

Scott: I take issue with the Mosquito having an agenda. One of the things I was thinking about with this was the question of a sort of unconscious bias. We tried very hard at the beginning to avoid an unconscious bias. Nancy Garden read every issue of the paper and discussed with every writer where bias was sort of creeping in. I think there is a difference between an agenda and an opinion that you got because you're a person but you try not to get it into the paper. I don't think the Mosquito had an agenda.

Q: What was the most controversial story or town issue during the period you were associated with the Mosquito?

Spang: Certainly the most dramatic was the passage of Proposition 2 1/2 in 1980, because it changed dramatically the whole local budget-making process and created a much more arduous political process for securing the support of the town. It was a tremendous change in a lot of ways. But it was interesting because it forced the town leadership and the town committees to work together and try to reach consensus decisions that would then help to get the positive funding decisions from the town voters and the Town Meeting.

I always thought it was amazing that Carlisle had three newspapers at one point with the Mosquito, the Gazette, and then the Concord Journal. Certainly both local newspapers took on a very intense educational role with the passage of 2 1/2 to fully inform the residents about the importance and the impact of the budget and override.

It's sort of ironic today, but Carlisle was one of the very, very few towns in the state to pass an override that first year to fund the operating budgets. I attribute that to the work of the newspapers and the town committees all working together for that by educative purpose. To me that stands out dramatically in my recollection.

Ballantine: One issue which started as a letter to the editor about 7 or 8 years ago, I think, was the abortion and right-to-life issue. That was a real firestorm for a while. Then the neighbor disputes and the Hinchcliffes.

I think often the letters to the editors, the ones that aren't just the thank you letters, are very important. Most people read the letters. It underlines an area where there is a weakness to the Mosquito, to be a little bit provocative. Sometimes we're too nice, we're too fair, we're too progressive and we miss stuff. The letters come out with the feelings and anger and that's what catches people's attention.

Q: The Mosquito has received criticism from some who feel we have focused too much on the schools and conservation. How do you feel about that criticism?

Ballantine: I think that is true but it's also the values of the town.

Scott: - I think those are the two most important issues the town has faced over

the years especially if you broaden it to conservation versus development and the schools versus tax increases. I think that's what people are most interested in, but looking over some of the past issues there have been a lot of other issues that I think have been focused on as well. I don't think it's an unnatural emphasis there.

Raftery: I've given it a little thought and I talked to Jan about it. It was really the schools that brought a lot of us together. Our kids were in the schools and you have an interest in the schools. You pick up the newspaper and especially if you're a young parent and have children, you want to know what is going on in the schools. Conservation on the other hand, I think it's an interest but I think the schools are why you look at the newspaper in the first place. After your children go off, I think you drift apart a little bit on that. But nevertheless, yes, there is a concentration on schools and conservation but I don't find that as particularly disturbing. I think it's natural for a newspaper in a town like this.

Spang: I think the news articles again seem well distributed. In a small town you really want to showcase people as much as possible in your paper. I think that's what we remember. You want to get as many faces in, as many names in and even news reporting where you "attribute it to people" gives more dimension and it does, in an indirect kind of way, present tone and ideas and personalities.

"the notion was that what was going on in town was not really reflected in the Concord Journal"

—Roberta Spang


When we started in the early conversations actually before we got going, the notion was that what was going on in town was not really reflected in the Concord Journal because there wasn't enough space and the focus might be spotty. Initially it was an effort to help the fellow residents see what might be the issues behind the school committee request or a FinCom decision. I think in my experience at least we've tried to do that. Remember our motto is "All the news to fit, we print." And we did it.

Q: Do you feel that the editorials take a strong enough position - and do you feel they influence town citizens, town authorities? Should they?

Spang: I don't think so much the power of the editorial is actually in the opinion or the point of view. I really think it's in the educative role. Editorials provide a way to digest, organize and summarize what the impacts of committee meetings are and certainly make sense of confusing issues. I think Maya's [news editor Maya Liteplo] recent editorial was just an extremely lucid explanation of the three very confusing CPA articles that were going to be presented at Town Meeting. That to me is where it is its strong suit. The Mosquito is a community newspaper and I think it should take a stand on important issues that have community impact. But the educative role, helping people just quickly pull together the main points that takes a lot of thinking.

Ballantine: I don't think they are strong enough and they probably don't influence people that much. The only time I remember the editorials being kind of distinctive, [former editor] Jackie Frey had a period where she had a very distinctive editorial voice and

"I don't think [editorials] are strong enough and they probably don't influence people that much."

—John Ballantine


people would listen or not listen. But that's not been the tendency of our editorial page, even though various people write, we tended not to say "here's what we think and here's how we think the issue should be shaped."

Scott: But I think they are stronger thanthey were way in the past. I felt if I read one more editorial about how it's our duty as citizens to get out and vote that I would scream. I think they are strong enough. People who work on the Mosquito are also citizens of the town. We live here. That may be somewhat of an inhibitor as to how strong a position you want to take. I was thinking of the criticism of the Boston Globe that people take strong positions with the Boston Globe about the city of Boston and then go back to their homes in Sudbury. We have to live here.

Q.To what degree should the Mosquito function as a "fourth estate" in terms of government oversight and aggressive news reporting?

Scott: I remember one of the first real issues that we had was a suicide. The board discussed whether we should first of all say it was a suicide and secondly say the person's name, and it was decided not to. The same with the fire accident. That is not a fourth estate in terms of coverage, but are there some restraints again because we are members of a civilized society here and don't want to hurt people's feelings?

Another issue I was remembering with this was back when it was known that Farnham Smith was looking to sell his land. We found out from a good source that he was negotiating with the state and it eventually became the state park, but we were asked not to report on it right away because it might squelch the negotiations, it might result in the state backing off. This was another thing the board had to discuss. As I remember we did hold back but we wanted the first scoop.

Spang: I strongly believe in the fourth estate role. The newspaper is important to keep the local governing process open and to analyze the process and the impacts. It is a tough call when you have to make those decisions. You make a decision and you go with it.

 

Raftery: Well, there's a current example. I don't know how many belong to City in the Woods, the list serve that's here in Carlisle, but for months there has been a raging debate there on cable modems and DSL here in Carlisle. It's amazing just how many people, engineers in this town, have been running around investigating Verizon and the setups and everything else. That's the type of undercurrent that's going on that you don't see that much of in the newspaper. Messages have been sent about attending meetings. But to stay on top of an issue like that is just immense because most people are not going to get their news through the list serve, most people are going to get their news through the hard-copy paper. It's got to be there and you have to have investigative reporting, I think.

Sometimes I think when you go on a board such as a planning board or you're a selectman, you can get very myopic. You don't see the forest because of the trees. And what opens it up, quite frankly, is the newspaper. You know the newspaper's going to be there asking questions.

Q. What one thing should the Mosquito be sure to preserve over the next ten years? Or, what should we consider changing?

Spang: I would certainly maintain the every household delivery. I think that's a core value and a core need for communication with the town.

Coyle: We are increasingly affected by regional issues, such as transportation, the increased population in the area between Routes 128 and495, and outside of it. We're probably looking at more collaboration between towns and more events happening that are going to involve more than one town, so we're going to be, I think, less of a local paper than we originally started out to be just because we are a part of all these forces.

Ballantine: The thirty-year history of the Mosquito is just wonderful in [providing historical perspective]. It's really critical. I think you have to keep retelling and reinventing what is happening. You know we've had overrides fail — go back to what happened 10 or 12 years ago and kind of re-educating people. This is not a new phenomenon. We've gone through open space reports and things like that. A lot of people move into town and they don't know this. Those of us that have been here 10, 15, 20, 30 years have already got this residue of knowledge and we begin to mistakenly assume that other people know that and they don't. Those are the stories that every newspaper reruns periodically in one form or another. And those are important.

Raftery: To pick up on that theme, explaining what boards do is important. What is the role of the FinCom? What is the role of the planning board? What is the role of selectmen? When I was a selectman people used to think we could walk on water, and we realized we had no power whatsoever. When I was on the planning board people thought that we could shut down building in town and wanted us to do so several times. You know the planning board has no power like that whatsoever. But just to explain what boards do from time to time doesn't hurt because people move into a community and, as John says, have no clue as to what is going on.

A little anecdote: our town clerk Sarah Andreassen called me one day and said "I've got somebody here who wants to pay their water bill." It's surprising, but there are people who move here and have no clue that they are on a well and a septic system

Scott: I'd like to see more maps. I don't always know where this subdivision is going from the description in the article. Perhaps diagrams as well. If I don't know and I've been here for 30 years, people who've just moved in don't know where these new subdivisions are.

The other thing is I was in the library today and looking through the first couple of years of the Mosquito and I realized that except for Tom's cartoons, there's not much humor in the paper. We've lost the humor or the occasional sense of whimsy that, rough as that first paper was, we had. I read an article on the selectmen's meeting and it was signed "Sandra Scott and Bonnie Miskolczy (with a little help from their friends)." We wouldn't do that now.

Ballantine: I've been periodically nudging that you should have a kind of gossip column and maybe don't ever call it "gossip". That's why people read the police blotter. You know, turtles being moved by people. Things like that.

Raftery: You know, when I open the Concord Journal, that's the first thing I go to is the police blotter. Willoughby writes a great column. It's just great. You're right, there should be a little bit more humor.

Q. Those of you who have personally been involved as Mosquito staffers, how has your participation affected your personal attachments and perceptions of our town?

Spang: For me it created a tremendous bond with the real Carlisle. It was a result of direct experience and understanding of our amazing, albeit not always flawless, process of local governing. But it's also the hard work of the town employees and the volunteers that make this community work. When you're knee deep in all this stuff, you see what goes on. The good intentions are just everywhere. I think that's the part that makes me the saddest, when people don't have that opportunity to participate or get to see that process up close to understand what a really altruistic effort it is and the wonderful sense of community that it creates. It's a very emotional, tremendous bond that has been given me in my participation.

John Ballantine: Certainly for me, not having children, the two ways I connected to town was through the Mosquito and my volunteer activity on town boards to the extent that I feel I have constituency connections through the Mosquito.

Tom Raftery: You get to know a lot of people too. I now have the luxury of a Tuesday morning phone call from Marilyn [feature editor Marilyn Harte] but I used to have to go out in the streets before to look for humor. Now I have the luxury of a phone call and a brief on what the editorial will be that day so the cartoon matches.

Sandy Scott: - I made a lot of good friends with this and as Roberta said, I came to realize then what the town was about because I was sort of plunged right into the Mosquito about two years after I came to town. I learned what Carlisle was and what a nice community it was and how hard working the town boards and committees are.

Raftery: I think the newspaper is really the heart of the town.

Ballantine: You know there are the churches and the school but this continues the kind of connection and creates the sense of the town and it goes on for everybody.

Spang: You feel the pulse of the town. I've covered a good many of the committees and [have seen] the tremendous amount of effort, of which you are a little tiny part, that keeps the town moving forward. Feeling a part of that is really a wonderful feeling. And being able to report it clearly is an opportunity.

Scott: It is very important that it remains going out to everybody in town. Everybody may not read it. I look at the headlines and then Tom's cartoon and then read the rest of the paper, but it is there for everybody here in town. I think that is also important for the people moving into town to get an ideawhat this community is about.

Q. You've already talked about the old mimeograph days, but in what other ways has the production of the Mosquito and the operation of this enterprise changed from the early days?

Scott: No photographs. We had kids' drawings. But certainly the addition of photographs is, I think, a big plus.

Ballantine: Remember the days before you could bring in a disk. Typesetting the title and cutting it and then having it sort of askew. And the people whose handwriting was atrocious.

Coyle: It was a sense of adventure in the early days. We got the paper out. We would meet and people would bring their kids and we would fold it - none of this mechanical folding. We did folding by kids. But when it was done, it was done and somebody took a pile to distribute. None of this disk stuff, sit at home and send it in. It seems to me we were all in it.

Spang: I think the Mosquito started in '72 and the Gazette in '74. I started working on it in '76. At that point Martha Nestor was the founding editor of the Carlisle Gazette. Marty would take our copy to the Harvard Post office that was in Harvard, Mass. It was not an office, it was as the Gazette was, in a residence. In the dark snowy nights Marty would take our copy and trudge down this long, dark driveway and then typeset. They had a primitive typesetter and she would typeset all the copy and lay it out there. And, she was pregnant. I still think it was that sense of mission that you had to get this out. Then Marty at that point sold the newspaper to Althea Kern. But, we thought that typeset machine was great. It had a single line display.

Ballantine: Think of the physical office space when you were in Mary Diment's area and then when you expanded from the one car garage.

Coyle: Skip Anderegg's kitchen, and then Carol Presberg's kitchen and the Miskolczy's living room.

Scott: You talked about the adventure. I was reminiscing about how Peter Snyder and I had to break into Assurance Technology in order to run the paper off. It was supposed to be unlocked and we got there and it wasn't. So we had to go around the building and finally found an open window so we could get in.

Audience question: Has any technical problem come up that caused you to miss an issue?

Marilyn Harte: It was an election year and there were two men running for a county office, one black and one white. When we got the newspaper back from the printer, they had reversed the photos.

Bob Rothenberg: You held the presses?

Marilyn Harte: No, we called [the printer] up. They reprinted it in time.

Susan Emmons: They reprinted the paper once before. When it came back, Mary Diment opened it and it was half the Harvard Post and half the Mosquito. There were a few back and forth trips to the printer in the middle of the night.

Hal Sauer: I remember when we didn't have a copy machine. Every time we wanted to get a smaller or larger graphic we had to send it over to the copy center.

Sylvia Willard: I've been in town for 25 years and I think the paper has made this town. This paper is the envy of many of the communities around us. I'm sure there are many townspeople in other towns that would love to have a paper like this in their town. But I was wondering what you panelists that have been involved with the paper, and some still are involved, would like to see the paper do better in the future?

Ballantine: I know one of the issues when I was on the CCI Board is I think there is always a self-selection process that goes on and you kind of self-select the people you work with and everything else. For instance on the Forum we try to make sure we have more of a diversity of opinion. I think you always have to be careful that you don't self-select and are missing something critical about the town. Do you have enough new people being represented? Do you have enough people who've been here 30 years or 40 years?

Mosquito staffer: We do now actually have a nice mix of new people who say, "oh, but I've never heard of that." I think you're right about the self-selection part. But I think we do have a great mix now of ages and backgrounds of people doing different things.

Scott: Somebody came up to me and asked me, and it's not the first time I've been asked, why is there the corporation? Dave Presberg and I wrote the original bylaws that set up the corporation, and one of the reasons we did this was because, as you said, it was a small group that was the staff and that group was also the board of directors although we tried to get other citizens onto the board. But we wanted a larger group that would reflect the opinions of a greater and more diverse group of people in town. That was why the corporation came into being to hold annual meetings to which the Mosquitocould get the feedback of others than themselves. I hope that would continue.

Rothenberg: I think any anniversary is a very appropriate occasion for a love fest. Certainly to a great extent that's what our 30th anniversary is. But I think it is important that all of us who love the Mosquito and love the town think about these issues and look critically at what we do and ask what we could do better.

Those are good questions and I think we should always be thinking along those lines and talking to our neighbors and colleagues on the boards we serve with. That's the only way the Mosquito will continue to get better and continue to reflect the community that we all feel so strongly about.

Compiled and edited by Marilyn Harte, Marjorie Johnson, Ellen Miller, and Maya Liteplo. The Mosquito thanks Paul Gill for recording the session.


2002 The Carlisle Mosquito