Dynamite in the Rock Pasture
The nation's "oldest newspaper"
Steve Fowle thinks he is the editor of "The Nation's Oldest Newspaper," and perhaps he is. He got the phrase trademarked just in case. The paper is the New Hampshire Gazette, first published in Portsmouth on October 7, 1756. Steve is a collateral descendant (third cousin eight times removed) of the Gazette's original founder Daniel Fowle.
"He was a patriot, not a revolutionary," the modern Fowle says of his forebear who started his print shop when Portsmouth was a bustling city in a British province.
Fowle reclaimed the name of the family paper from under the nose of the Portsmouth Herald, he proudly says. For decades the Herald had run the phrase "Continuing the New Hampshire Gazette" in its masthead. Fowle checked with the Secretary of State and learned that the name had not been officially renewed, so for $40, he stole it back. In the grand tradition of his ancestor, Fowle, a Vietnam veteran, journalist and photographer, began sending out the Gazette to a small circle of subscribers. Today the magnificent obsession has a firm fix on his psyche.
"I am its slave," Fowle says of his occasional paper. "I've got no money, no tools, no staff and I'm going out there to compete for people's attention. Must sound crazy. Now I have to consume myself in the effort to give the public what it wants."
The public wants the Gazette, Fowle believes, because the public is weary of the current media, stuffed, he says, with misinformation and disinformation. He rails against profit-centered, chain-owned publications. He is disgusted with the state of modern journalism. Newspapers, he says, have become "advertising-addicted," filling half their pages with products for sale. Because they can offend no one without jeopardizing their revenue, he theorizes, they cannot delve deeply into the news. They have lost their heart and soul, churning out a bland porridge of facts, unmindful of the truth.
Ol' Daniel Fowle didn't mince words either. For his honesty, he served time in a Boston jail, continuing to write from prison. For three decades in Portsmouth, exploiting the skill and muscle of his elderly slave Primus, the printer hand-set each letter into a weekly publication that combined news, gossip, bias, even character assassination into a flowing language that his descendant works to emulate. Today, working from one room, Steven Fowle, his cantankerous computer and inkjet printer (dubbed Primus II) follow suit.
"People are mistaking what they find on the newsstand for newspapers," he quips. "Newspapers have no flavor anymore. They're boring. Everybody knows what's in them. Each day they just take out one set of names and put in new ones."
Like its predecessor, the NH Gazette is a flea-sized publication with jaws that can raise a nasty welt. It arrives unbidden, shape-shifting from six pages to four, even a one-page broadside, changing paper stock and format, then vanishing for weeks. It hovers on the Internet, too, a glowing web-site-in-progress (www.nhgazette.com). After more than two centuries, only the masthead and the mission remain the same.
Fowle makes no claim to matching the accomplishments of his late cousin. He is on his own trajectory, working without the aid of a net, he says. But Fowle takes exception to the criticism that his form of guerilla publishing is less legitimate than what appears in the local dailies.
"They maintain that they are journalistically objective. I make no such claim. I believe journalistic objectivity is an abstract thing. Like a perfect vacuum, it's just not going to happen."
Fowle is a scholar of newspapers past. As part of a project for the Portsmouth Athenaeum, where he is a proprietor, he has tracked the rise and demise of dozens of local newspapers. From his research comes his claim that the New Hampshire Gazette is, not the first, but the longest continuously-running paper in the country.
This fall, with historian Joe Frost (cousin to NH's crusty poet laureate Robert Frost), Fowle will lecture on Portsmouth newspaper history. He hopes to spearhead an archeological dig at the site of Daniel Fowle's print shop on Pleasant Street. In his spare time, Fowle is searching for the long lost wooden printing press of Daniel Fowle, last seen in Chicago in 1893. Constantly researching, he talks of editors two centuries dead as if they had all just come from dinner.
So far Fowle's paper contains no ads and precious few articles. The paper "adopted him", he insists, and he rises each day wondering where it will take him next. His editorial "rants" can go off in any direction, then turn sharply, wax sublime or spin hopelessly out of control. His uncanny command of language and unswervingly eccentric views are all that keep the Gazette from the embalming table. He yearns as much as his readers, he says, for a day when the NH Gazette is more clearly defined, with income from somewhere and maybe even a staff.
"Eventually what I envision for myself," he says, "is the role of the mythical psychotic relative of Ross Perot chained up in the attic just wailing."
But for now he has to play it somewhat straight. He is compelled by the sorry state of journalism to go where others fear to tread.
Take the story of the Rock Pasture, for instance.
Steve Fowle is on a tirade over it. Self-appointed defender of the weak and downtrodden, the micro-editor has focused this issue's pale spotlight on a few streets along Portsmouth's North Pond. One of downtown's last low rent areas, the "Rock Pasture" was quietly zoned for commercial development in 1995, he says. Fowle smells conspiracy, abuse of power and oppression of the masses under every rock. A hundred residents, he says, may be gentrified out of their homes and no one wants to tell the story. No one but the Gazette, that is.
Fowle was stunned to find himself the only reporter at a recent hearing. He has drawn color charts of the zoning change, taken photographs of every home in the neighborhood, passed out free editions of the Gazette and posted all the data on the Internet. He compares the potential cultural devastation to urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s when Portsmouth's Italian North End was literally bulldozed to the ground in the name of progress. His current campaign is to personalize the news, to put faces on the people who he believes are being zoned out of town.
But is anyone listening? "Does a tree fall in the woods if it doesn't send a press release?" he says, as if the answer is painfully evident. From his corner, the quiet construction of this first commercial building in a formerly residential zone seems equivalent to watching Cuban burglars taping a door lock at the Watergate Hotel. He finds himself powerless to avert his eyes.
"One percent of the housing in town is being zoned out of existence. Do they want me to write about Beanie Babies?" he says.
Daniel Fowle owned the only press in town. He was, for colonial Portsmouth -- their Turner, Hearst, Murdoch, CNN, Public Radio, Imus, Stern, Cronkite, Gallup and Sony -- all rolled into one. Although he wryly calls the modern Gazette the region's "senior" newspaper, Steve Fowle cherishes the irony of being the teeniest tab in town.
"By your lights, I don't even exist," he says, laughing. But there is growing evidence that this new Fowle is becoming more than a legend in his own mind. The "advertising-addicted press" has suddenly begun paying attention to the Rock Pasture. His web site is attracting readers and his broadsides are raising eyebrows.
Fowle appears both bemused and disconcerted by the slow attention being paid to his "scratchings" in the Gazette. He wonders out loud what it might be like to have other writers, perhaps even a little of the dreaded advertising -- just to cover rising expenses. He worries where the lines get drawn between selling and selling out. He rejects the notion that being read is more important than being right.
He rejects, as well, the notion that he now has some responsibility to turn his journalistic hobby into a "real" newspaper. If he has plans to expand his circle of subscribers and Internet readers, he keeps them closely held.
"You're asking -- how are you going to make this succeed? And I'm saying, I'm not approaching it that way. I don't have some brilliant plan. I'm just some organism that's struggling quietly along," Fowle says. "If I wanted to make money, I'd hire some consultant and turn this thing into another advertising sheet."
Diogenes? Don Quixote? Dante? Fowle laughs off attempts to define him, preferring the role of innocent eccentric. "There are people who build models of the Brooklyn Bridge out of toothpicks, and no one worries about them too much. So, I'm sorry if the public is offended by my lack of transparency. Meanwhile, I've got a 242-year-old institution to run here."
Fowle turns back to his computer, curses it into submission, and begins another editorial. His hands are clearly moving across the keyboard, but there is the genuine possibility that a long dead Daniel Fowle still pulls the strings at The New Hampshire Gazette.
© 1998 SeacoastNH.com
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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