[00:00:00] Speaker A: Interestingly. The model for daybreak was the New York Times cooking newsletter that Sam Sifton put together. So the big questions at the time were, would people read it? Was there enough local news that you could actually put a newsletter together?
And, you know, could I make a go of it?
[00:00:22] Speaker B: Hi, everyone. This is your town manager, Alex Torby. In this Spotlight episode, I take a walk through Pine Park in Hanover with Rob Gerwitt, publisher of the daily email newsletter that many of us in the Upper Valley know and love. Daybreak to the sweet sound of gravel footsteps and late summer insects. Rob and I cover a wide range of extremely important topics, not just to us in Hanover town government, but in our community in the Upper Valley and in the broader world. This includes topics like the value of trust in how people find and consume information, especially during and post COVID, how information flows into and creates community or doesn't, and how that impacts local decision making, especially as journalism and news has changed a lot over the last decade or so. The differences between economic and community development, how Daybreak works behind the scenes and its interesting history. What lessons can be reflected on from trying to engage a politically diverse audience leadership values that can be learned from journalism unique requirements and dynamics about involvement in democracy, specifically in New England and what the heck happened in Tupelo, Mississippi in the 1940s? These are all not only really important topics to me, but, as I mentioned, really important topics for all of us to reflect on and discuss in our community.
[00:01:49] Speaker C: If you don't if you somehow live.
[00:01:51] Speaker B: In the Upper Valley and don't already receive the Daybreak email newsletter, there is a sign up link in the show notes, as well as a link to the governing magazine article that Rob wrote many years ago about Tupalo, Mississippi. I really enjoyed this conversation with Rob, and I hope you do as well.
[00:02:10] Speaker C: All right, folks, so this is Alex Torpe, your town manager here, and I am with Rob Gerwit of Daybreak, and we are walking in Pine Park right now, so you might hear some footsteps in the background. But Rob, this is a pretty nice day for us to take a walk.
[00:02:23] Speaker A: It's a stunning day and I feel like we deserve it after the last few months.
[00:02:28] Speaker C: I think so too. I think so too.
So I'm going to ask about a place that is very far away from Hanover, New Hampshire, to kick this conversation off, but tell us a little bit about a town called Tupelo, Mississippi.
[00:02:47] Speaker A: Yeah, well, Tupelo's got an extremely interesting story that back in my days as a magazine journalist, I stumbled on because I got to know a sociologist, a guy named Von Grisham, who taught at Ole Miss at the University of Mississippi.
And I'm going to stop for a moment as we let these joggers go past.
Vaughn had made a specialty of studying Tupelo because it had gone from being one of the poorest communities in Mississippi back in the 1930s, which you can imagine was really saying something to one of the small cities in the vanguard of the New South in terms of both economic and community development.
And the thing that had struck me most was basically Vaughn, who is one of the most gifted storytellers I've ever run across.
Basically sort of told the story of the development of of this town, essentially because of the newspaper publisher who had come to understand, essentially, that the downtown business establishment back in the 1930s was unable to grow because all the people who fed it, the farmers and others who lived around, didn't have enough money to keep things prosperous. And so the strategy that he hit upon was essentially to buy a good stud bull because this was dairy country at the time.
And then to essentially raise the quality of the cows that were around so that they became better dairy cows, which in turn brought the local farmers more income, which in turn brought downtown merchants more income.
[00:05:16] Speaker C: Right.
[00:05:17] Speaker A: And he essentially institutionalized this into a community foundation that over the years became a really key piece of helping to steer Tupelo's development. So that's what interested me about it. And I wrote about Vaughn, but then also the story of how all this happened, which was really intriguing.
[00:05:40] Speaker C: And this came up I forget exactly what triggered this. Maybe it was discussing some of our upcoming plans last year with some of our business owners. And you sent that article over, and it was interesting because if I'm saying this the right way, but there was an interest among business owners in the community before this sort of initiative to improve the downtown and improve the business. The business is but they were sort of going at it from maybe not the right angle. And this was this sort of more community focused effort that if people prosper, then businesses prosper.
[00:06:18] Speaker A: Exactly right.
[00:06:19] Speaker C: Just very interesting. And a little bit of the difference between the phrase like economic development versus community development.
[00:06:27] Speaker A: Sure, economic development, you can interpret those two phrases in multiple different ways.
But the notion ideally, good economic development also feeds community development.
It benefits the schools, it benefits the human capital of the community.
It kind of lifts everything around it. But it's not just about developing the economy and local businesses and industries and other things.
[00:07:06] Speaker C: Well, and it's one of the things that I think people are talking about more and more, especially in kind of city or community planning circles. All these fields are continuously evolving and thinking about how we tend to measure sort of quote unquote, economic health. Well, the GDP growth rate or we've got these kind of numbers like that. But at the end of the day, I think there's probably a lot of people out there, whether you're looking at the national level or state level or local level, that there's something missing in some of those numbers and trying to think about ways, well, what are the goals of the community? The people who live there, who work there, who study there, who visit all these different stakeholder groups? And how do we create metrics or initiatives that I don't know, that touch all of those different pieces, not just sort know, well, we earned X amount of money pre well, what did that money right mean? Because you could know, we see this all across New Hampshire and Vermont, especially with short term rentals, there's a difference. Know a homeowner renting out an in law suite to help earn income so they can pay their taxes or afford to send their kid to college or something like that. Versus a company out of state buying up a bunch of properties and just renting it out and all the money basically leaving the community.
[00:08:37] Speaker A: Right.
[00:08:37] Speaker C: Even though those might be looked at similarly with some of those kind of metrics.
[00:08:40] Speaker A: Sure, exactly right.
That's actually a really good example because the metrics also don't capture the impact on the community itself from having a bunch of short term rentals around. So what happens if as in at least one town around here something, I don't remember the exact figure, but it's a substantial portion, a third maybe of the housing is short term rental.
That affects the schools, that affect who's going to be there to patronize a hardware store.
It essentially shifts the nature of the economy that's possible in a community.
The metrics can't capture is this the kind of town we actually want to be?
[00:09:34] Speaker C: Right?
And those things might change unintentionally. Sure, right. A town that's slowly moving towards, let's say more short term rentals that are owned by out of state kind of things. And the money's like the people staying there, yeah, they're probably not going to the hardware store, but there's other things they might do. And I don't know if the things are good or bad necessarily on their own, but what are the goals of the community and do these align?
[00:09:59] Speaker A: Right, and that's a discussion and sometimes a heated discussion that the people who live in the town and the people who own property in the town need to have on an ongoing basis.
And you're right, in many cases this stuff just happens and it happens sort of slowly over time until suddenly you're grappling with a whole set of issues that five years ago you weren't even aware might be a problem.
[00:10:29] Speaker C: Right now it sounds like you might be an advocate for people in communities having access to more information.
Am I reading between the lines there correctly?
[00:10:40] Speaker A: Gives you that infection?
[00:10:41] Speaker C: I don't know. People tell me I'm great at picking up on those things.
So tell us a little bit about I mean, hopefully probably most people that are listening to this probably are familiar with Daybreak. I got introduced to it through one of the select board members in Hanover after I accepted the job here. And I was living in New Jersey, and it was a couple months before I was starting, and I asked them, what are some of the best ways that I can kind of get up to speed on what's happening in the community? And they said, Sign up for Daybreak, and I write it every morning. And I started to feel like I mean, obviously now, especially now, a year later, I can appreciate how little I knew coming up here, but also how much more I knew than I could have known. So probably a lot of people are familiar with it, but tell us a little bit about it. What was the genesis? And give us a little kind of synopsis.
[00:11:39] Speaker A: Sure. Well, it began, or I began it back in 2019, early in the year. I'd been working for a local startup that was based in White River Junction that some people may remember called Daily UV. And it was really sort of an attempt to think about and then create a product that answered this how do you reinvent local news for the digital age? And it lasted about somewhat over five years.
There were lots of things that were interesting and perceptive about it, and I think there were lots of things that were just sort of misguided about it. And ultimately it folded. I actually left it before that happened, but as part of that work, a couple of my colleagues and I had been tossing around the question of whether a local newsletter landing in people's email inboxes was a good idea or not. And we it was it was one of these cases where we simply did not know.
And I suspected it would work because there were already models out there that were not unlike what Daybreak became. There was a really popular national newsletter called The Skim, and Quartz had launched its newsletter. And in some ways the model interestingly. The model for Daybreak was the New York Times cooking newsletter that Sam Sifton put together, not so much, obviously, for the content, but because he's just an amazing writer and had this still has this conversational tone that makes what can sometimes be an esoteric subject interesting and you just want to keep reading.
At a certain point, as it became clear that I was going to be leaving that job, I decided it would be kind of cool to try to launch something like this and see if it went anywhere. So the big questions at the time were, would people read it? Was there enough local news that you could actually put a newsletter together?
And could I make a go of it?
I had to have other income, so it was of necessity.
It was something that I did basically between 430 and 630 in the morning, and then I'd launch into the rest of my day. I worked as a freelance editor and copy editor and other things like that.
It was a very stripped down thing in the early days.
And as time went on, it became somewhat more complicated, basically because the audience wanted that.
It started with 25 people who were all people I knew, friends and acquaintances in the community.
And it grew pretty quickly up to I still remember when it hit about 1000 subscribers, I stopped promoting it because I figured it's not going to get much better than this. Right.
[00:15:31] Speaker C: And where are you at now?
[00:15:32] Speaker A: It's at 13,000 now and so I was just, I was content at a thousand, but at the same time, you know, certain sections of it that what is now the heads up section, it was essentially an event section, had grown a little more ambitious as time went on. I started putting that together the day before, but then I still could put most of it together and each individual item was pretty short.
There was a sea change when the pandemic hit and it was really interesting. I still remember that weekend in mid March 2020 when everything shut down and I realized I'm going to have to change the complete nature of what this is about and, and the issues it tackles. I, I reached out to a friend of mine who, who was an occupational medicine specialist, who was really good at just sort of understanding medical journals and statistics and all sorts of other things that we just needed to know in order to be reliable.
So he became a kind of informal advisor and you could feel in the emails that people sent and watching the growth of subscribership that there was this incredible hunger for reliable information in the midst of this thing none of us had ever dealt with before.
[00:17:20] Speaker C: Right.
[00:17:23] Speaker A: So daybreak at that point grew from, I think it was from 3000 subscribers to probably 7000 by the end of the year.
In my little newsletter world terms, that was rapid growth. I have to tell you that to me, 13,000 subscribers seems like a lot of people. But in the national newsletter world it's a tiny little pond, right?
[00:17:49] Speaker C: Yeah, but I mean, when we think about audience saturation in given communities, I think that I remember doing a lot of social media and analytics stuff with my company back in the day and people would often look at their number of followers on social media and well, we have to get to 1000. We're like, but what is your audience? And also, then what's the percent of people that are engaging with your content?
[00:18:13] Speaker A: Exactly.
[00:18:14] Speaker C: And my guess is that you have a pretty high open rate and click rate on a lot of your content. That people are signed up and they're not throwing away the email every morning, but they're actually reading it.
[00:18:24] Speaker A: Right.
We can get as deep into the online newsletter world weeds as you'd like, but in general, in the local news world, something on the order of a 20% to 30% open rate is considered good. And just to clarify for people listening, there's a difference between sending a newsletter out that's the number of subscribers. So every morning right now, Daybreak goes out to about 13,300 or so subscribers, but not all those people open it.
Open rate is a metric that can be useful for getting a sense of how people engage with it.
And Daybreak pretty much from the beginning had something on the order of a 70% open rate.
Now, I should also say that these days it's impossible. Not impossible, but it's extremely difficult to measure the open rate because about somewhat over a year and a half ago, apple instituted new privacy features. And the impact of those was essentially to make the open rate unreliable. Because anybody who gets email through Apple, their email automatically registers as opened, whether or not they actually opened it.
Similarly, there's some issues with the Microsoft emails that underlie Dartmouth.edu addresses.
It's harder now for me to really know what's going on, but I think it's safe to figure somewhere between 65 and 72% on any given day.
[00:20:20] Speaker C: Yeah, that is pretty high. Yeah, that's great. I would imagine especially the timing of everything just getting set up kind of not it sounded like about a year before COVID kind of really took off, that it's interesting to think about. I mean, had you gotten started with that a little later or timing been off a little bit, but to have a little bit of a baseline and then people probably just searching for places of not just because one of the things that I think finding more and more online is. I don't think that we fully appreciate how much content online is written by bots these days. And especially it Seems especially I Don't Know If This Is True Or Not, and It's Totally Non Scientific, but In, Like, DIY home Repair, off Grid, kind of all this homesteading, kind of All These Websites, and It's Very become Very Sensitive To The Language where It Becomes Very Obvious that Something Is Getting Collected, collated and put out. But I think that people are looking for personalized human touch things. Even as we're hugely advancing all this kind of AI technology. There's still something very different about reading Daybreak, for example, where your tone very clearly comes through and is very engaging and it feels like a conversation with you to some degree and that you know that somebody's reviewed it.
There's not stuff going in there that's totally made up. Or that there is a person who's actually kind of coordinating all of this, and that the person is trusted and trust with information. Obviously today such a high kind of priority.
[00:22:16] Speaker A: Yes, I should interject that. I make mistakes.
And so I try really hard to have everything in there be accurate and trustworthy. But like any journalist, I blow it sometimes.
[00:22:41] Speaker C: Then you correct it like the next day.
[00:22:45] Speaker A: But unless you're a journalist, you don't know this sinking feeling like even Mr.
[00:22:50] Speaker C: Oh my God after you hit the send button.
[00:22:54] Speaker A: Right. Which is one of the unforgiving things about that's true about an email newsletter is once you hit send, it's out there, you can't call.
[00:23:01] Speaker C: But it's not a website where you.
[00:23:02] Speaker A: Can sort of on a website, you can make a change. Responsible news organizations note that they've made the change.
[00:23:09] Speaker C: Right.
[00:23:14] Speaker A: But I have mixed feelings about that. I don't think it's absolutely necessary.
But yeah, with a newsletter, there's nothing you can do. It's gone.
[00:23:23] Speaker C: Right.
[00:23:25] Speaker A: But yes, I think especially in this day and age, the need for information that's not just accurate, but that's actually rooted in facts and in a reporter's best effort to understand, synthesize, and get at something resembling the truth.
As I'm talking, I'm realizing everything I say can be picked apart by somebody who wants to argue over what are facts, what's truth can journalism be objective? All of these are live and interesting issues, but nonetheless, I think most people who are interested in their communities want to know what's going on around them.
They want to be able to understand it and they want to be able to rely on sources of information that they know have done their best to get it right. And that's one of the key values that training in newspapering and in journalism and in news gathering in general.
Those are really key pieces of that kind of training.
Even though there are plenty of publications out there that have an axe to grind or where a particular writer has a point of view that they're trying to get across, I hew to the older value that you should not be doing that.
[00:25:17] Speaker C: Right.
[00:25:22] Speaker A: I think about this in particular in personal terms about Daybreak, which has a fairly politically diverse readership and I learned early on not to make any assumptions about what that readership looks like or what they believe. And so in the end, I want a reader coming from anywhere on the ideological spectrum or in their own personal experiences to feel comfortable reading it.
It's not something that says this is not for you.
[00:26:02] Speaker C: Right. Well, what's interesting too, I mean, let's spend a moment to linger on truth and this is so interesting and so difficult and I would think that there's not some sort of answer to any of this. These are all, I don't think judgment calls and ideas and opinions, because I think what's interesting is that a lot of things today the trust is created. And trust may not actually be the right word, but I'll say trust in air quotes is created by the provider of the information or policy or whatever thing having such a specialized audience that they can just say exactly what people agree with or want to hear. So that you're creating maybe loyalty is better than trust almost, but that person is not going to be able to get that diverse audience. It's going to be super specific. And it sounds like what you're saying is that part of what you're trying to do is build trust with the diverse audience that you mentioned, but not doing it that way, where you're not just telling people what they want to hear or doing something that they would agree with and say, yeah, I'm with Rob, and then they get fired up. And then that's kind of the thing. But that there's some other mechanism of getting people to kind of buy in to what you're providing as being trustworthy. And what are some of those things? What is the thing that gets people interested even if they don't agree necessarily?
[00:27:51] Speaker A: That's a thought provoking question.
My answer, I think, actually lies in the nature of the Upper Valley, which is in lots of ways a remarkably diverse, interesting place with a lot of different kinds of people who live here and who have lots of different kinds of interests, right? And so if you're trying to reflect that, it feels to me like it's incumbent on you to do your best. I think I said this before, not to make assumptions about what will interest people or what they will or won't accept, other than getting things right. I did something in today's newsletter that was just plain out, flat wrong. I'll run a correction tomorrow, that kind of thing. People are right to jump all over it, right?
[00:29:05] Speaker C: And I bet they do.
[00:29:06] Speaker A: And they do, yeah, which is great.
One of the things I also learned really early on was that there are a lot of, you know, the Upper Valley is filled with people who know a lot more about their communities and about particular issues and everything else than I do. So being able to have that kind of feedback is just gold to somebody who cares about this place.
So people do correct me and I have a kind of not very clearly delineated threshold for when it needs a correction, when it doesn't.
But it's just part and parcel of doing this, I think.
You know, the one of the things that I well, to go back to what I was saying about the very early days, I learned really quickly also that in fact, there is enough news going on in the Upper Valley if you define news. Now I'm doing air quotes broadly.
So yes, there are the stories that appear in the Valley news, which I still consider an invaluable presence for this region, but the moose in somebody's backyard is also kind of news.
And so that photograph that somebody sends me, or the video clip I also think of as news. And I wish there were more newsletters, blogs like Susanaples Artful, which covers culture and arts in the region.
She's just done great work and I think in opening people's eyes to what's going on around, just as Alex Hansen at the Valley News in the culture of the Upper Valley and those are.
[00:31:17] Speaker C: Very specific kind of niches, I guess, is that part of the value there.
[00:31:23] Speaker A: I think Thetford's got side note, which Lee Shen and Nick Clark work on, they've got often a point of view on things, but it nonetheless is opening up interesting topics and providing really good insights into what's going on in that particular town, which often those are issues that also resonate in other towns. And so it's also a valuable source of information.
In the end, I think there is more than enough going on in publication terms to do something like what daybreak does, which is bring them together into a single place so that on any given day you can get a sense of what's going on in the Upper Valley.
[00:32:18] Speaker C: Right.
[00:32:21] Speaker A: Morning.
We're standing down by the river in Pine Park and the trees go up kind of forever above us. And of course, it's late summer, so they're still fully leafed out, but you can see little bits of change a little bit.
[00:32:40] Speaker C: Yeah, it's just beginning. But I'm also I'm a huge pine tree fan and so I love it out here. It's like this is the sort of favorite, the kind of pine needle ground. Pine needle ground, yeah. I spent a lot of time in the Adirondacks as a kid throughout my whole life. And where my family is at, over there is all these huge white pines.
[00:33:03] Speaker A: Oh my God.
[00:33:04] Speaker C: And so it's just all you get a lot of SAP in the summer on stuck on things, but you don't have to mow your lawn because it's all pine needles and it smells good and it's soft.
[00:33:15] Speaker A: Those have been falling for a year, right. Several inches deep.
[00:33:25] Speaker C: Thinking about actually there's one thread here that I want to see if I might be connecting dots that are too far apart, but there's a conversation we haven't put out on the podcast yet, but it's with a professor at Dartmouth who actually I learned about from Reading Daybreak. It was a study done a couple months ago where they used fMRI brain imaging scans to look at what was happening to people's brains when they were building consensus around different topics. And part of what came out from that was that sort of looking at what leadership means as far as they were given kind of ambiguous material to, as a group try to build a common understanding around. And that the sort of leader in the group was not someone who comes in and pushes a narrative or an idea, but is actually someone who's fleshing out things from other people they can see. I mean, it's amazing because you're looking at the activity happening in people's brains, it's not just surveys being filled out and that people are aligning around the people who ask questions, help other people, share, restate things and things of that nature.
And I think about that a lot as far as my role as a manager in the town organization or the town in the community or any sort of series of things like that. And I'm kind of getting some of those vibes in thinking about what you're doing with Daybreak and maybe even journalism more broadly. And I'm sure there's different opinions on this, but that in part, what Daybreak is doing is facilitating.
You're getting things from others and gathering. And there's kind of a two way there's definitely a two way kind of communication there, but it's not coming all from Daybreak or from Rob kind of top down. It's being sourced from others. But that by doing that consistently along sort of a set of values that that's going to build trust in Daybreak, right?
[00:35:49] Speaker A: Yeah, I'd like to think that's the case in a lot of ways.
In part, I think of what I'm doing each day because my background is in magazine journalism as putting out a little tiny magazine that you can read in five to eight minutes and at the same time doing it. In a way that essentially says to the reader, look, you're interested in where you live, and you should be able to know about what's happening here. So here's news, but also here's some other interesting stuff that just like it's gone on around you and you might resonate to.
So in my head, the readers of the Upper Valley are curious, smart, and engaged with all the communities and issues around them.
This says here's some stuff you shouldn't know about that you can make part of your day or you can talk about it with your friends or family or your colleagues.
And if there's a guiding ethic to it, that's it.
[00:37:34] Speaker C: And so it sounds like as far as values are concerned, truth, which is we could probably spend 12 hours talking about what that means and not get anywhere.
But it sounds like there's other things too. Like, I don't know if relevance is that the right word? So it's not just things that are true because you could point out things that are true that people aren't going to be interested in reading or that aren't related to their lives or community or anything, or things that are true, but they're all negative things.
But that's not what no journalism and it's about Daybreak. But also, I think, more broadly, what's the sort of editorial decision making, not only about what to include, but how to frame what you're including and what's the goal, what's the ultimate purpose, what's the impact that you want Daybreak to have in the Upper Valley, or the impact that it's already having? But what's the ultimate purpose?
Boy, five words or less. I don't know.
[00:38:47] Speaker A: Well, let's see.
Choosing items is I hate to be this off the cuff about it, but in the. End, it really kind of comes down to, does this interest me or not?
And then next to that is also, okay, this doesn't totally interest me, but I think it's important. And so one of the nice things about the format that I kind of stumbled on and then use in Daybreak is there's no real it's not like a reader is committing to an 8000 word story any given topic. It's usually at most 80 to 90 words. And you can skim it. You can usually tell not always, but often tell from the headline whether it's something you're interested in or not. And so it's not like you're making a big commitment to learning about something.
[00:39:49] Speaker C: Right?
[00:39:50] Speaker A: And so the gift of that is that you can read an item, never click on the link that it takes you to, but learn something that's valuable, or in plenty of cases, it's a story that is actually interesting to somebody, and then they do click on it and then they get the full piece.
[00:40:19] Speaker C: Um, you can just read Daybreak every day and be more and have more of an idea of what was happening, certainly, than if you didn't.
[00:40:30] Speaker A: Right? Exactly.
In the end, that's really kind of enough for me. I mean, I have this I have this sense of I think there are two big things that local information and news and media are really important for.
One is that we live in these communities. It's up to us to make them work.
[00:41:06] Speaker C: Right?
[00:41:13] Speaker A: Not to get all missy eyed about it, but I think please do.
I think that democracy really depends on not just a well informed population, electorate and population of people, but democracy is sort of a practice.
It's not something that you come out of the womb knowing how to.
And I really believe, to my core, that good, responsible local media plays a role in helping to in helping people become good citizens. It helps you distinguish between truth and fiction. And I think, more important than anything else, it helps you understand that there are multiple points of view out there, right. That there are multiple issues you may never have thought were important, but it turns out they are.
And it helps you sort of understand the things that you, as somebody living in the community, should know about. If you're going to be engaged in helping make the place you live a better place.
That's sort of one big bucket. And the other, which I think is equally important, is that it it can play a role in helping people connect to one another, to develop sympathy for the plight, the challenges that somebody is facing, or to even just have some common piece of, oh, that's really interesting to talk about with other people. I mean, you know, connection as part of community life doesn't get talked about much, right?
But it's part and parcel of what being part of a community is.
And so providing a way for people to find points of connection, whatever it is that they choose to have it be I think is a vital role for local news organizations to play.
The Valley news does it in its own way. Daybreak does it in its own way but if they're working well, I believe make community life both better and stronger.
[00:44:08] Speaker C: Yeah, that's very interesting. I mean I think it is possible for people to think about news, quote unquote and put that in a bucket and sort of put it aside. I'm going to look at the news, I'm going to know the news and then I'm going to turn the news off and kind of go back to life. But what you're describing is a much more integrated I don't know, ecosystem of stuff happening.
And the piece that is I mean all the pieces I think are interesting but the one that is of special importance from my perspective is how it relates to how people engage with decision making in their communities.
And there's so many more layers to this. I mean especially in places like the Upper Valley where it's more rural and creating connections between people can be challenging just because of geographic distance. Like there's so much value, especially these days, I feel like, to all of that. But in thinking about how people show up or if they even show up which is a topic that I'm starting to try and explore a little bit here is talking about how town meetings work or don't work in different communities. I go to a lot of these actually going to one later this afternoon town manager meetings in Vermont and New Hampshire of these groups, and we kind of a lot of good moral support for each other. But also a lot of interesting similarities and challenges of what's happening in different communities, especially around really big, long term stuff that has decades of consequences isn't particularly interesting. Often infrastructure. I think it's put in this bucket.
But I think there's a lot more related to that.
And some of that might be this sort of prosperity. Sounds a little too I don't know, in my mind, and maybe this is my own bias, it's a little too, like, wealth oriented in something. But maybe that's not right. But something about community success or sustainability more broadly than environmental and understanding ten years out and being able to engage in thoughtful, nuanced, constructive conversations with other people who you might live around the corner from and have wildly different ideas about what the future should hold and what mechanisms do we have out there to help people have those conversations? And I think we do this kind of weird thing a little bit where we have some of the institutions that especially here are very old. We've been doing democracy in most of New England a similar way in a very specific way for a couple centuries now but it feels a little bit like, to some degree, it's like a set it and forget it. Well, we have the town meeting, and that's where people show up and they make decisions. But it's so much more complex than that and how people are engaging these issues throughout the year in other communities on similar issues. I mean, there's so much there that is important, but there's not really like a coordinating stakeholder.
But Daybreak is kind of that a little bit, to some degree, is sort of connecting a lot of different pieces.
[00:47:28] Speaker A: I mean, to some degree. And yes. But I think inevitably, I think being in the position I'm in, I see what's missing often more than I see what's there to speak to? What you were just talking about.
One of the you know, one of the big issues as newspapers have struggled over the last couple of decades, one of the things that's happened is that newsrooms shrank and their ability to give coverage to municipal affairs or to a committee meeting or a commission meeting or the planning board meeting or the school board meeting has diminished.
They could never cover it all anyway.
There are something on the order of 42 towns and a couple of cities in what you think of as the Upper Valley and the Valley news's ability to cover all 42.
[00:48:32] Speaker C: Right. It's an impossible multiple town meetings a night exactly right.
[00:48:39] Speaker A: In this region.
In fact, most of those town meetings are done by volunteers. It's just people in town giving, you know, doing their best to help the places they live. Right.
So the way that ordinary residents of a town have to engage with that is either to show up to the meeting itself, which rarely happens unless they're sort of perennial participants, or it's a specific or it's a specific hot button issue that's got people riled up, or they can read the minutes, but the minutes are often really hard to parse.
[00:49:26] Speaker C: Yeah.
[00:49:29] Speaker A: And so most people don't bother. And so the sort of value that news coverage adds is it can put things in context. It can help you understand what was actually important. It can tell you what happened without having to wade through what the minutes were like.
From my point of view, there's not enough of that. There aren't enough ways for people to engage with what's been happening in their town that make it really easy for them to get there and to understand what's been going on. And I've been really quite taken with an effort that originated in Chicago with a nonprofit there called Citibure, which developed a project called the Documentaries Project.
Initially in Chicago, it's now expanded to a bunch of other cities, and it essentially trains and pays ordinary people to go to public committee meetings. The school board, the sanitation district, I mean, whatever it is, take notes and then put them up on a website so that anybody who's interested can find out what happened.
[00:50:56] Speaker C: Right?
[00:50:57] Speaker A: That's a really good thing. And the guy who runs it, who lives in Brooklyn is actually from Burlington, Vermont. He's really interested in expanding into rural areas. And at the moment they're talking, in fact, with some news people on the western side of Vermont about it about sort of starting stuff like this up there. At the same time, the New Hampshire News Collaborative, which brings together news organizations from around New Hampshire, has just launched a pilot project down in the southwest corner of the state that is essentially modeled on that project.
I think they call it the Civic Documentaries Project, and it's being done with the Keen Sentinel, which is blanking on the other newspaper.
But the paper is actually part of the same newspaper family as the Valley News, part of Newspapers of New England.
And so it'll be really interesting to see what happens.
A before that project sort of hit the news, I began trying to organize with some of the newspapers in this area, the Valley News, the Standard in Woodstock, the White River Valley Herald in Randolph, and the Journal Opinion in Bradford, just to talk over whether this is something we might collectively want to happen. And we're still in the middle of those discussions. So we were talking to Melanie Planter, who runs the New Hampshire News Collaborative, and one of the key things she said that really jumped out at me was that they've done the initial sort of request for interest to see if they could find people who would be willing to become documentaries. They had room for ten people, 15 of five. And the thing that she thought was most remarkable, and I did too, is that they were fully expecting that basically the gadflies in town around Keen and would be the ones who signed up to do this.
[00:53:43] Speaker C: Not the case.
[00:53:44] Speaker A: That was not the case.
[00:53:44] Speaker C: Interesting.
[00:53:46] Speaker A: Instead, it was people who said, I want to help out my local newspaper, or it was people who said, I think it's really valuable for my fellow townspeople and my neighbors to understand what's going on, and I want to be able to help make that happen. And they're going to get five weeks of training from news organizations and others. It'll be really intriguing to see what happens. But that fact that and I think this is probably true in every community, there are people who do not have an axe to grind but do want to make sure that the process of democracy works well, and that solid information about what's going on is a key part of that. There are people like that in every community, and so being able to find them and harness that goodwill to keep the rest of us better informed is valuable and noble work. But it takes work and it takes money to make it happen. And so there are lots of things that make it hard. I'm going to stop talking.
[00:54:59] Speaker C: We really were like, we were like in the wilderness. I don't know, the science quiet of nature and now we've like, this is what it felt like a few years ago. I did some section hiking on the Appalachian Trail for a couple of days. One of my friends, you pop back out onto a road and you're like, whoa, had forgotten all that was there.
All this is sorry. Okay.
It's interesting because one of the things that I think there's so many, so many interesting things from that and one is I think a lot of communities are struggling with engaging people in a volunteer capacity in meaningful ways.
And I think we're seeing a shift of the kinds of things that people want to do. And now I might be biased because I've spent a lot of time on our rescue squad in South Orange and I'm a big fan of people being volunteer firefighters and EMS and all that. And I do think there's ways that we can get more people engaged. And actually some models that some places have experimented with which would be very valuable in the Upper Valley is providing housing in exchange for volunteer time.
But I think that I've gone to a million conferences and things where people talk about the difficulty of engaging volunteers and they'll say you can't ask too much and be really careful because people are donating their time, but you can't really rely on them to do kind of mission critical stuff. And I've been on panels before where people are saying that I'm like, I'm sorry, I got to have a different perspective here. Volunteer, especially when I was in office, volunteer mayor or volunteer EMT. We do 1509 one one calls a year and never miss one. That's a lot for volunteers. 100% volunteer run organization and that's like that across the country. There's so many places that do that. So I think volunteers can be expected to do very important kind of intense things, but it's finding something that they feel like is a meaningful contribution.
[00:57:11] Speaker A: Exactly.
[00:57:11] Speaker C: And there are some committees and we've got a couple in Hanover that are like doing, you think about sustainable Hanover and the amount of work that has been done, especially over the last few years, that's meaningful. And people are very engaged there. But I think you go to a lot of towns and some of these committees, you're kind of sitting around it's not a whole lot going on, chatting a little bit, doesn't feel like you're really advancing things in the community. But what you're describing, I mean, it's like that there are people sort of waiting in the wings, but that person who jumps at that opportunity, there is no opportunity like that before. That right. That person is totally untapped right now. And what's so interesting is that governments, I think some governments put in some effort at trying to do things like be transparent. And often what that means is putting many hour long meetings online and creating minutes and producing a lot of documentation that sometimes is very valuable and important to do. But also I think about our budget process and we want to engage people in multiple kind of layers.
Not everybody's going to go into every cell on the spreadsheet. We want to provide it to the people who do. But how do you get someone who's not going to spend 10 hours doing that engaged in that process so that they know a little bit more when they come to vote a town meeting the following year?
What you're talking about? Like those programs feel like they're sort of bridging some things a little bit because they're taking I mean, the meetings are happening currently, but a lot of people don't go to them. And even if they put minutes out or put the two hour video online, who's going to watch that two hour thing as here I am recording a long podcast?
[00:58:59] Speaker A: Anybody's still listening?
[00:59:00] Speaker C: Yeah, right. Exactly.
And so this is sort of taking that. It's connecting. You've got people in the community who want to find ways to add value to their community and in almost a sort of meta sense, this value add is finding ways to get more people plugged into the information and what's happening in the community. They're sort of taking the information. They're taking people in the community. And again, I really could be connecting dots here that aren't but it feels like facilitating.
Yeah, it's not pushing. Which I just think there's whether it's people who are frustrated with journalism or politics, there's a lot of frustration about agendas being driven really hard in that way.
[00:59:42] Speaker A: Exactly. And you know what, just to return to the original, why don't we do.
[00:59:47] Speaker C: A loop down the original.
[00:59:52] Speaker A: Topic of this?
I'll talk about something I actually know about, which is, you know, there's there's this sort of strand within mostly the the legacy journalism, local news world in particular that essentially says, look, it is your civic duty to read the paper and to understand what's going on.
And you know what? Yeah, it is.
[01:00:26] Speaker C: Right.
[01:00:26] Speaker A: But that's not what's going to convince people.
[01:00:29] Speaker C: No. Right. That's right.
[01:00:30] Speaker A: And so that notion that you can push people by either shaming them or taking some other approach to do something that just does not hold in this world anymore. Right.
So the challenge is always how do you entice people?
How do you shape something so that it responds to something that they feel themselves feel a need for or that intrigues them or that interests them or surprises and delights them. I mean, there are lots of ways of slicing that, but in the end what you're doing is trying to appeal to people where they are and draw them into something that is civically valuable.
And so in the case of what you're talking about, that's been a challenge for local government for decades and it will continue to be one.
But the notion that you can put everything out in minutes or in video of a three hour meeting and have people engaged by that, that's just not going to work.
The question is how do you I'm actually a big fan of town finance committees, which in some towns have just completely fallen by the wayside.
But I like them because at least in the ones I was most familiar with, the people on them saw it as their responsibility and also their challenge to take the fairly abstruse and difficult stuff of town budgets and school budgets and other things and translate it into words and presentations that ordinary people in their town could understand and then make decisions on that kind of mindset that says, I know this stuff is tough, but I'm going to help you understand it. That's really what you want. And there are people in every town who can do that.
[01:02:48] Speaker C: Yeah. And I think that's such a good model to replicate into other policy areas too, because I think that kind of coming to the governing body meeting, for example, and kind of going through all the there's a lot of formality even in informal places like Hanover. There's just a lot of sort of stuff you got to do. And not all of it is interesting, but some of it is. And I think for some people, you can lose the important stuff in everything. And so what you're saying is you have the group of people that are distilling down and kind of connecting those dots a little bit in that way too. And we're thinking about we're trying to brainstorm ways to create more opportunities for people to do that in Hanover on different issues that are important.
And we have a couple that are very active right now, but there's also a couple areas that don't have quite as much of yeah, it's just interesting. All the kind of pieces here are connected and especially in New England where it really is people's responsibility, you really can't just not participate and if you do, the ODS are that there's going to be decisions made that may not really reflect what you're if your voice isn't there. Your voice really isn't there.
[01:04:06] Speaker A: Exactly.
Yeah, no, I mean we're all we've got right, right.
[01:04:14] Speaker C: That's a good bumper sticker or like town meeting tagline. We're all we've got. Yeah.
So tell us a little bit about life outside of daybreak.
Is there a life outside of daybreak?
What are some of your kind of favorite things about the upper valley and what do you do outside of this? And yeah, give us a little bit of flavor.
[01:04:45] Speaker A: Know, there are lots of things that I think are just fantastic about the know, you have to start with the natural setting that we're in which is just not just beautiful but I think for a lot of us it's kind of the landscape of our soul.
There's something about us that we respond to and the ability to get out and get to hiking, for example, that people often come across the country to be able to do.
[01:05:27] Speaker C: Right.
[01:05:29] Speaker A: I'm going to read all those.
So I like to spend time outdoors in different ways, cross country skiing or kayaking or biking or whatever. But and then I think that we are, at the moment, we're sort of walking through the Dartmouth campus and it is one of the well, not the campus itself, but the resources that Dartmouth brings in particular for the creative And Performing Arts brings Lots To The Region, but So Do The Institutions In Lebanon. The Lebanon Opera House and Ava Gallery and the little galleries in White River Junction. And there's this thriving and vibrant cultural scene in the Upper Valley and beyond that also makes living here really just a true pleasure.
There are, you know, there's and I wouldn't say I wouldn't say you move to the Upper valley because of the restaurant scene, but for where we are, I think it's pretty good.
[01:06:53] Speaker C: Yeah.
[01:06:54] Speaker A: And there's a fair amount of diversity to it.
I like that part of it, too. But in the end, what I come down to is just I think there's a there's a is that I really like the people who live here. There are all sorts of people who either are I don't know I don't even know how to describe it. It's people from all walks of life with lots of different kinds of knowledge about the natural world or about carpentry or about how to be out in the wilderness and either adopt I'm going to leave it untouched and wander around, but I know my way around it. Or who come from generations of hunting families and treasure the natural landscape, as well as have deep knowledge about the woods and animal behavior in it.
There's so much kind of knowledge you can tap out there.
And so I just find it kind of endlessly fascinating. It's a really interesting place to live.
Every town is different in its own way, and there are so many towns around here that the history of each town, the way the culture and the way people think about their town.
You just have to go over to the next town and you're in a completely different place.
[01:08:56] Speaker C: Right.
[01:08:56] Speaker A: And so that's also really kind of a gift, I think.
[01:09:02] Speaker C: Yeah. There's interesting sort of diversity, but with common threads in a lot of ways.
[01:09:07] Speaker A: Exactly.
We all identify ourselves as part of the Upper Valley. I think one of the other really valuable things about living here that I suspected before I started daybreak, but it's really come through to me is there is really a sense here that I think that I don't think you necessarily see replicated. I mean, yes, there are lots of different communities where there's a real communal spirit, but it's very strong in the Upper valley.
[01:09:35] Speaker C: Yes, it is.
[01:09:38] Speaker A: There are other parts of both Vermont and New Hampshire where that's not the case.
And so that's really a pretty remarkable thing about being here to see that in.
[01:09:52] Speaker C: Yeah, yeah. And it's not just the sort of storms and emergencies where people come out and do that, but it's proactive. It's all the time.
[01:09:59] Speaker A: It's all the time. And it's not just often, it's usually unsung, it's often behind the scenes.
We don't know half of what goes on in terms of people helping out other people, but it's all around us and it's every day.
[01:10:21] Speaker C: So I'm going to include some links for folks that if they're not subscribed to Daybreak somehow, and maybe some of the other news organizations in the Upper Valley and things like that. But is there anything else that you want to share here?
Anything we didn't get to touch on? Although we covered some pretty good ground both literally and figuratively.
Anything else that you want to?
[01:10:47] Speaker A: The only thing I would say is, if you live in a place and you want to know what's going on around you, and you want to sort of take part in community life, find a news organization that speaks to you and then support it, and it could be the Valley News. It could be Vermont Digger. It could be NHPR. It could be WMUR.
These are people whose job it is to help you understand the world better, of the world where you live better.
They need your support.
That's what I would say.
[01:11:41] Speaker C: That's great. Well, that's good advice and a good place to leave off and appreciate everything you do at Daybreak makes a really positive impact in a lot of people's lives and a lot of the communities here. And thanks for sharing a little bit about the behind the scenes work and jumping into some of these existential rabbit holes for a little bit. So thank you.
[01:12:01] Speaker A: One of these days I'll dig my way out.
[01:12:03] Speaker C: Good luck.
Hey everyone, and thanks for checking out this special Spotlight episode of Hanover Happenings. If you'd like to find all of the episodes of our Hanover Happenings podcast and prior updates, you can do [email protected]
[01:12:20] Speaker B: Or on wherever you listen to podcasts.
[01:12:23] Speaker C: If you'd like more information about other things happening in town, such as monthly.
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