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In this episode of The Granite Beat, hosts Adam Drapcho and Julie Hart speak with Manchester Ink Link founder Carol Robidoux, a veteran journalist who left behind the legacy outlets to create her hyperlocal news website to supply residents with local, reliable, and community-driven stories in a central hub. They discuss some of her recent stories, such as the Harmony Montgomery case, the affordable housing crisis and community-centered reporting.
This transcript has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
How did Ink Link come to be, and why did you think it was worth pursuing?
I’ve been in this business for a few decades and watched all the changes of technology, particularly the rapid changes in the early-to-mid-2010s, and one of those was online news. When Patch came along, that was a realization that a single editor or publisher in one city could produce news and be responsive to the community. The individual could leverage their experience and their ability to understand news, and deliver it in a way that can be received electronically. So I just thought, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and give it a shot. And here we are – it worked somehow. It’ll be nine years coming up.
What’s the news philosophy behind the Ink Link? How would you say it’s different from a conventional or legacy outlet?
The slogan I came up with initially was “where all things Manchester collide,” but I changed it to “where all things Manchester connect” because I felt like what was missing for me as a consumer, was having a place to find out what was happening in my community, to get reliable news, to participate if I wanted to participate, and to feel like there was a conversation with the people who were covering my community.
In my experience, news has always been this estate, so to speak, that dictates to the people what’s newsworthy. The editorial side will decide what the day’s news is going to be, they dispatch reporters to bring back the news, and then people open up their paper and they’re told what is newsworthy. I think that should be shifted, I think we should be following our community to report on what’s actually happening. I don’t think that’s so different from what’s happening with legacy news today, but I think editorially, I still want it to feel like the people’s publication. I invite people to write and participate in The Soapbox, which is sort of like a letter to the editor. It gives people voices. We’ve had everybody from U.S. senators to homeless people contribute their opinions about things that are happening through that vehicle.
We have a membership program and do fun things together once a month so people can hang out with the publisher and tell me what they think about the news. It’s accessibility, it’s transparency, it’s really being part of the community. It grew out of this community’s need to have a sense of what’s happening from different points of view, and following their lead.
The issue of the residents experiencing homelessness in Manchester is a story that’s currently developing as the city is taking some extreme measures? What’s it been like for you to cover this?
We started in June of 2014 in the midst of when the opioid crisis was becoming publicized. They were shutting down parks and closing down stores that were selling spice, and so we had overdose calls throughout the entire day where ambulances were being dispatched, so much so that they had to rely on other towns and cities to meet the need because there were so many people dropping from drug overdoses. That was the rise of Safe Station, where we thought, let’s create a way for people to come for help before they’re overdosing.
And so in the context of addiction and the number of people whose lives were affected by that, we’ve seen this other thing happening around the country – we know now that the entire country was hit hard by the opioid crisis and the heroin crisis that followed and the Fentanyl crisis that has followed that – so it shouldn’t surprise us that we’re now facing an issue that involves people with addiction and mental health and homelessness. But it also coincides with housing issues, the rising cost of housing, the rise in Airbnbs and vacation rentals, young property bros buying up properties and creating a way to make money off of them. So there’s not straight-up housing anymore – there’s so many layers, and so much of it that coincides.
And then it brings us to this moment where, for the last three or four years we’ve reported that shelters are past capacity, they’re not really building new capacity because the money that the state is pouring into the shelter system is not to extend capacity but just to help them meet the current need. Our shelter here in Manchester, the Families in Transition Emergency Adult Shelter, has said that they are getting a fraction of what it costs per bed from the state to operate. So there’s many things at play.
And now we have finally, after months of seeing the homeless create encampments all throughout the city, there’s a small faction of them who’ve created an encampment right around the perimeter of the shelter on a public sidewalk, that has created a whole new layer of issues for our city and resulted in a ACLU lawsuit that was filed. They filed for an injunction to stop the city from evicting people, which they were going to do as of today. We just found out this morning that the judge ruled in favor of the city and did not find that the ACLU had made its case to prove that evicting people from the sidewalk would do them harm. And that’s a big oversimplification of the ruling, partly because I haven’t had the time to read it yet, but ultimately we’re working right to see, what is the city’s plan? Because that’s been the question all along – you can tell people to move, but where shall they go?
We have created an emergency overnight sleeping shelter for them at the senior center and we do have a daytime warming shelter where they can go. And the city is working on a couple of other places, transforming the former bus depot into a shelter, taking over a state-owned property that was a sober house for men into a shelter for women. So there’s a lot suddenly happening in a space that was kind of stagnant, partly because of COVID. But I think there’s resolve here in Manchester and in other parts of the state right now to take bigger actions to get past the sheltering part of it and expand that to meeting people’s needs to get them back to life, if you will.
Hearing you talk about this has brought to mind a sort of tension I feel within my own work, which is the traditional role of a journalist to just present information to the audience, versus being more of an advocate through the way the industry has evolved in recent years. Do you feel as though journalists fail their readers by not giving them enough insight into the human condition of a story?
Anybody that’s been a reporter knows that reporting means doing your due diligence to figure out all the pieces of a story – talk to all the people involved, go look at something for yourself, read documents, ask questions, clarify rumors or misinformation – and in the end, you know a lot more about any given topic than the average reader. So how do you pull in the kind of information that’ll show people there’s much more to a story than what’s on the face of it, or what they’re saying at a meeting – that there’s many more layers.
For example, in New Hampshire, 211 is the number you’re supposed to call if you need something like help with addiction, you’re losing your lease on your apartment, etc. I’ve twice gone through the process of calling 211 to see where it leads me, because it’s not enough to hear statistics from the state. The reality of that system is that it may be more flawed than anybody knows. Because who’s checking? Yes it’s in place, and it had a large price tag attached to it, but everyone I speak to, from people who try to use it to people who are in the trenches, they say it’s not really effective at doing what it’s supposed to do, so we’re lacking the systems that are supposed to be in place. It’s my job to check into things, try to make sense of it all, and connect the dots for readers with my particular skill set.
Is there someone or something helping the homeless situation in Manchester that you think is really encouraging?
We’ve hired a new director of homeless initiatives, a social worker by trade and speaks the language of recovery and mental health, and she’s jumped in with both feet. At the same time the city just hired its first director of overdose prevention, another first for our city, and he will be working closely with police, fire, and the health department with a strike team; if there are a bunch of overdoses happening he can get the word out to people, and also he can do outreach around recovery and connecting individuals to services that will come out of some of the initiatives happening right now. I think the city is doing a lot of interesting things. I see a positive direction right now in Manchester with these new hires, the health department, our police chief, and our relatively new but very dedicated and enthusiastic fire chief. These departments are all working together and I think it is a good step for our city.
Do you think the Ink Link model as you’ve created it could be replicated in other markets?
So the happy accident was, when I started this journey, I found there is an organization called LION Publishers for Local Independent Online News Publishers. There are hundreds of Carol Robidouxs all over the country with publications similar to mine in terms of their independence, and their sort of small operation budget. They do a lot with a lot less than a legacy paper might do. And that’s also changed a lot in these last eight or nine years, there’s a lot more young, more diverse journalists getting in on hyperlocal publications that fit some aspect of the community that isn’t being heard or being addressed.
So like with the disruptors of all technology and other industries, there’s been a disruption in journalism and it continues to evolve. For right now we’re doing our thing, and I think the community is embracing it. I don’t know what the future looks like for any of us, but I think it’s encouraging as I see young people more and more interested in news journalism, civic engagement, truthful reporting, objective reporting, all of those things. Now, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to get them prepared and get them into the industry to make some money at it.
This article is part of The Granite Beat, a project by The Laconia Daily Sun and The Granite State News Collaborative, of which Laconia is a partner. Each week Adam Drapcho and Julie Hart, will explore with local reporters how they got some of the most impactful stories in our state and why they matter. This project is being shared with partners in The Granite State News Collaborative.