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Tom Fahey's State House Dome: A loving farewell to journalism

State House Bureau Chief

November 19. 2011 10:16PM

This is my last State House Dome column. In fact, it's my last story. I've been in the news business since it was put out with typewriters and ink that stuck to readers' fingers. Increasingly, it comes from smartphones, virtual keyboards and Wi-Fi connections.

And I'm leaving the whole thing behind me next week and moving to a new career. Over 35 years, I've gone from a part-time weekly reporter in the Upper Valley to handling daily coverage of the state capital. I've helped cover nine presidential primaries, starting with a 1979 campaign stop by George H.W. Bush in Candia, and during the terms of eight governors.

But my career has not always been about politics. I've seen mothers crying over kids who've gone missing, been taken by estranged husbands or killed in fires and car wrecks. I've seen handcuffs snapped on the wrists of killers, thieving investment advisers and crooked lawyers.

I've dealt with politicians who are as honest and dedicated as the day is long, and those who'd say almost anything, or say nothing at all, to protect their careers.

In the past 10 years as State House bureau chief, I've seen elected officials literally get on their knees outside the New Hampshire Supreme Court, armed men shout at House members in front of children, and people break into tears asking the Legislature for help.

I've seen a Senate president forced to resign, a House speaker resign under pressure and an attorney general quit in embarrassment.

Like every American, I remember exactly where I was on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 - at the State House. A few people gathered around the TV in Speaker of the House Gene Chandler's office. As we watched, I thought the camera tripod was slipping as the sky came into view above the first tower. It hadn't slipped. The tower had fallen.

I felt the same disorientation then as I had in January 1986, near a TV in the Union Leader newsroom, as Christa McAuliffe's space flight turned to spiraling plumes of rocket exhaust and broken pieces.

In the news business, you get about one minute to feel the shock, or pain. Then it's time to get to work and cover the story.

Lately, I've watched in dismay as the appetite for in-depth news coverage has been changed to a fast-food information diet. USA Today, once mocked as the 'McPaper,' now resembles the old-fashioned newspaper it was not supposed to be.

Internet access has gone from the desktop to our pockets. We get a Cliff Notes look at world events with news shrunken to smartphone size.

For more detail, folks move to their favorite website. Too often there, they find all of one side of the story, stripped of those annoying voices with which they disagree. We need to hear those voices, and I think a newspaper is still the best place to find them.

Anyway, I figured this was a good time to list the 10 things I remember most clearly from my time at the State House.

Nothing will knock the Twin Towers out of my mind. That's at the top of the list, always will be.

In 2002, the state Supreme Court redrew Senate districts throughout the state. Senators spread the map on the courthouse stairs and knelt and bent over it to see what towns they would represent.

In 2005, Senate President Tom Eaton resigned his post to avoid being removed by members of his own party. Ted Gatsas, who took his place, had been consigned to the lowest, farthest corner of the State House from Eaton's office. I guess that proves the axiom, 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.'

Eaton's wasn't the only ungraceful exit. Speaker Chandler stepped aside in 2004 and was censured by the House for ethical lapses in his fundraising. Chandler took his punishment, rode out the storm and missed being elected speaker by nine votes last year.

Former Attorney General Peter Heed got caught up in the music and a dirty dancing mess in 2004. Safety Commissioner Dick Flynn persuaded him to resign. Heed then tried to rescind the letter, but Gov. Craig Benson said 'too late,'' and he was out. Enter Kelly Ayotte.

In 2009, a gay marriage bill was stuck. It failed to pass, and a move to kill it failed. House members usually arrive with their minds made up on most issues. This time, House members were persuaded to change their minds on the spot, in corners and anterooms, out of the reach of special interests, and they passed the bill.

In 2000, GOP gubernatorial candidate Gordon Humphrey started showing up at Gov. Jeanne Shaheen's campaign events. One day, he 'stepped in it,' as Rick Perry would say. He told a group of disabled voters worried about state services that he and his wife were blessed because their kids had no disabilities. After a collective gasp, the crowd surrounded him, one woman scolding him in sign language, and others shouting and crying. He talked his way to the exit and later persuaded the GOP to install a wheelchair ramp at party headquarters.

In 2006 on election night, Gov. John Lynch was crushing Republican Jim Coburn. The Union Leader's vice president for news at the time, Charlie Perkins, came to my desk at close to midnight. He talked pretty fast most of the time, and at deadline time he talked faster. I thought he asked me how many Democrats were in the House, and I told him. He said, no, Democrats had taken the House. It was historic, ending more than a century of Republican domination.

Fast forward to 2010, Republicans return in spades, taking three of four seats in the House and all but five Senate seats.

The impeachment trial of Chief Justice David Brock shook the establishment in 2000. Brock was found not guilty at a Senate trial at which U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who negotiated peace in Northern Ireland, served as legal and procedural adviser.

I've loved journalism from the day I sweated out my first school board story at the weekly. I love newspapers. People tell me all the time that they want to hold the paper in their hands every day as they read the news. But I get the feeling that 100 years from now, the news-gathering business will be dominated by an entirely different medium.

I don't know how the need for facts and unbiased information will be fulfilled by then.

But the answer can't be in speeding things up and shrinking them down any more.

However it evolves, I'll always miss the news business and the people in it.

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