After this week, I won’t be writing stories in the New Haven Independent. I’ll be up in Boston, telling our New Haven story to a crew of journalists from around the world.
After eight-and-a-half joyful years at the Independent, I’m moving to Massachusetts to do a yearlong Nieman journalism fellowship at Harvard. I’ll be hanging out with 23 other journalists from print, radio, TV and online outlets as far away as Cuba, Serbia and Korea, taking classes and brainstorming together about the future of the news.
As I pack up my Winfred Rembert calendar and New Haven Road Race T-shirts, I’m flooded with great memories: Hopping aboard a 5-ton National Guard truck and plowing through flooded Morris Cove streets during Superstorm Sandy. Watching a pig farmer pick a president in a 17-person Democratic caucus in New Haven, Iowa. Witnessing the great joy and despair of the 2008 Kentucky Derby from within the howling vortex of Sports Haven (and its secret rooftop garden with tender tomato plants).
Eating coco ice at the Catch The Flava cart. Skiing up East Rock to behold the city covered in snow. Riding the “party bus” all the way from West Rock to Atlantic City to sit ringside with Big Steve the bail-bondsman and watch our hometown boxing hero regain his championship belt.
I’m so used to writing for an audience that knows New Haven that I find it hard to describe this city I love, and the journalistic experiment I’ve taken part in, to an outside audience—especially one in Cambridge, Mass.
Here’s what I said about you behind your backs in my application essay to Harvard:
“The first newspaper for which I worked full-time had been sold to a large media conglomerate that gutted the news-gathering staff. The paper was heading downhill. One by one, the florescent lights in the newsroom started burning out, and no one would come to replace them. I brought in a lamp from home to illuminate my keyboard – and started looking for a workplace with a more robust commitment to local news.
“In 2006, I landed my dream job at a startup called the New Haven Independent. The founder, veteran investigative reporter Paul Bass, had become disillusioned with the state of journalism in town. No one was covering the schools, watching City Hall, or paying attention to urban neighborhoods. Bass founded a not-for-profit, online-only news site with a goal to restore news coverage and civic debate to New Haven. I was Bass’s first full-time hire. Traveling to stories by bicycle, we set about reviving grassroots, community journalism with stories on slumlords, neighborhood political battles, and the lives of everyday people.
“The site quickly grew larger than we had imagined. That summer, stray bullets killed two young kids. Amid the citywide grief, something amazing began to take place in the comments section of our website: Family members of the victims, from poor neighborhoods, began to discuss solutions to violent crime with people they would never otherwise meet from the Yale side of town. Policymakers weighed in – and paid attention. We discovered we had created not just a source of information, but also a forum that was bringing people together in a powerful new way.
“Over the past nine years, the Independent has grown from an under-the-radar blog to a national leader in local journalism. The Independent was among the first wave of professionally run community news websites that emerged due to cutbacks at print publications. Now it’s one of the strongest survivors. It’s the main focus of The Wired City, a new book by media critic Dan Kennedy, who spent two years shadowing our operation and called it a beacon of hope for the future of quality local journalism.
“I’m proud of the national attention we’ve received. But I’m most proud of how our work has strengthened the sense of community here. I was riding my bike on Grand Avenue recently when I ran into one of our regular commenters, a retired nurse. She insisted I follow her Jeep Wrangler home to her locked safe, where she handed me a hundred-dollar bill. The money was for a first-generation college student I had written about who had fallen on bad luck. It felt good to know the story not only helped that student– but also helped someone feel enough empathy for a stranger to invest in her future.”
I went on to brag about people who added dissertation-worthy urban planning commentary to our routine zoning-board stories. People who wrote illuminating diaries about school and waxed poetic about loosies. People who connected across difference to create a new kind of raw democratic debate that’s redefining journalism. And an indefatigably enthusiastic editor who’s never afraid to scrap convention and embrace the radical notion that everything that happens in the city—every hair cut and squashed raccoon and park-bench serenade—matters.
Those people I bragged about: That’s you. You made us think, and laugh, and groan in the comments section. You bravely told your stories. You threw us a dollar to keep the lights on. You let us know if we got a story wrong and pushed us to do better.
I’m so grateful to all of you – readers, newsmakers, donors, coworkers, and most of all, to visionary Paul – for letting me take part in this community.
You’ve let me into your lives during so many important and difficult moments. Into your living room in a superstorm. Into your workshop where the magic happens. Into the ICU to the bedside of a dying 13-year-old boy. Into the kitchen, where Mama Lue brewed goat’s head soup to mourn a special man.
I’ve learned so much on this job: What it means to buy a “Maybach” or a “Vick.” How to rip off mortgage lenders with doctored photographs. How hard it is to clean up after a homicide. What to do when you see a robber. (Look at his shoes.) How to spot a “gentrification vampire.” (They’re everywhere.)
It’s hard for me to step away from this place where I feel deeply rooted, that I’ve called home for 14 years. I’ll head to Boston with your voices in my ear: Kesa Whitaker empowering a complainer to “be a problem-solver”; Leo from Rudy’s calling every stranger “buddy”; Joey Marini refusing to let setbacks “stop me from being who I am.”
As I try to make sense of our impassioned, enduring community and what it can teach us about the future of journalism, I’ll let these voices guide me. And I’ll do my best to get our story right.
That’s the best way I can think of to say thank you.