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Newspapers and History are Siamese Twins


Leaders of the local history community were chewing nails recently over a couple of Portsmouth Herald editorials. One editorial implied that the city has “plenty of historic organizations with staff and myriad supporters” who should step up and help maintain the city’s ancient graveyards. Maybe not. (Continued below)


Another Herald editorial questioned the use of funds already allocated by federal mandate to preserve and restore the original bronze plaques and artifacts from the old Memorial Bridge. Most debates over historic preservation are ultimately about money. What can we afford to save and what can we live without?

As a history writer I often get caught in the crossfire, defending journalism practices to historians and vice-versa. In a town where history often dominates the front page of the newspaper, I’ve taken a lot of shrapnel. Sometimes the newspaper editorials champion historic preservation, but sometimes they just turn molehills into mountains.

Few towns expend more newspaper ink debating the value of its history than Portsmouth. It’s been that way since the economy went south in the War of 1812 and locals put on their rose-colored glasses and gazed jealously into the city’s glorious past. Since the 1823 celebration of our first European settlers, Portsmouth merchants discovered that history attracts visitors and visitors bring cash. Today that is truer than ever. The fact that the first 10 fishermen settled at what is now Rye in 1623 (there was as yet no Portsmouth) and then quickly disbursed has done nothing to diminish our claim to antiquity.

Predicting future Portsmouth

FW Hartford, Portsmouth Herald editor / Portsmouth AthenaeumNewspaper editors have long been among the city’s biggest cheerleaders. Editor Charles W. Brewster of the Portsmouth Journal and Ray Brighton and FW Hartford of the Portsmouth Herald frequently waxed rhapsodic about our glorious ancestors. But when it comes to predicting the future, editors seem no more clairvoyant than the man on the street.

Early in 1918, for example, Fernando W. Hartford predicted that Portsmouth was about to double its population. “Portsmouth, with its ancient buildings, rich in history, will remain,” Hartford wrote in the Granite Monthly, but the “New Portsmouth” will become the manufacturing capital of New Hampshire.

Portsmouth will not be happy until it attains its deserved title of being the metropolis of the State,” Hartford wrote.

The nation was at the peak of World War I when Hartford made these predictions. The navy yard was building twelve submarines. The Atlantic Corporation at Freeman’s Point had a contract to build 10 steel cargo ships, a sweet deal that led to the federally-funded construction of the Atlantic Heights neighborhood the following year.

Portsmouth of the old days is now a thing of the past,” Hartford wrote, contradicting his previous statement, “and while we like to revel in its history, it is the history-making of the future that is of more interest just now.”

“Unless all signals fail,” he continued, “we shall have a city of 25,000 within a year or two.”

But the war ended quickly and with it went the Portsmouth boom. The shipyard slowed and the Atlantic Corporation went belly up. Hartford’s predictions of a gigantic industrialize Portsmouth thankfully fizzled. Today the population hovers at around 21,000, making us only the tenth largest city in the state. But to the city’s credit, every single building pictured in Hartford’s rousing nine-page article is still standing almost a century later.



A tiny but dedicated core

The editorial wrestling match between preservation and profit defines this city. But behind the scenes, journalists and historians have a lot in common. Both belong to small beleaguered communities that do the best they can with shrinking resources. This newspaper (I called to check) currently has 32 full time news staffers. Still, that figure is just shy of the total number of fulltime employees in all the key nonprofit historic house venues in the city combined.

North_ChurchThe Portsmouth Athenaeum, for example, runs with five part-time and no full-time employees. Historic New England has three full-timers in this region covering seven Seacoast properties. Portsmouth Historical Society has two full-time staffers while Strawberry Banke Museum, with 38 properties to maintain, has 25 year-round full-timers. Some historic houses have no paid employees at all, while others depend on unpaid volunteers and part-timers who often work at rates close to minimum wage.

That comes, according to one estimate, to roughly 4/10ths of a full-time employee per historic property among our house museums. The return on that investment to the local economy is not easy to measure, but it is certainly money well spent. A new study by Americans for the Arts (AFTA) suggests that the cultural community generates $41 million annually for Portsmouth. Real estate rates remain stable, in part, because studies show that wealthy and middle-class Americans prefer to live and work near locations rich with culture. If you don’t believe me, ask your new neighbors why they chose to move here.

A darn good ROI

Channeling the late historian Dorothy Vaughan, I’ve often suggested that, without the ambiance of the city’s historic sites, Portsmouth would quickly become Anywhere, USA.  Tourism would shrink and our economy would suffer. It’s only a theory, but it makes sense. Portsmouth’s current and remarkably stable economic renaissance is directly tied to the cultural revolution of the 1970s and 80s when Baby Boomers began settling in Portsmouth. They followed in the wake of the historic preservation movement that began early in the 20th century and peaked with the opening of the 10-acre Strawbery Banke Museum in 1965.

We are now enjoying the fruits of a 400-year economic evolution. The once abundant natural resources of the Piscataqua region, mostly tall pine trees and fish, drew the early merchants who struck it rich. They died off or moved away leaving their gorgeous mansions behind. Those architectural resources survived, partly because Portsmouth became too poor to tear them down and the city did not, as FW Harford hoped, become an industrial success. The crumbling buildings attracted preservationists and architectural historians. Their work drew the artists, performers, and craftspeople. The artist drew the tourists who, in turn, drew in the restaurateurs, shop owners, and hospitality people.

Portsmouth is aged to perfection. But it is maintained by a delicate balance, as the Gundalow Company and environmentalists keep telling us. Pollution threatens. If the river goes sour, the whole thing might dissolve away.



Codependent and synergistic

History and news are irrevocably linked, separated only by time. In his recently published autobiography Mark Twain notes that “news is history in its first and best form, its vivid and fascinating form.”

Mark_Twain_on_newspapersNewspapers need a constant flow of local content, and Portsmouth history and the arts offer a bottomless repeatable source of material. Newspapers also need an equally endless supply of advertising revenue, but historic venues are poor customers. They barely, if rarely, make ends meet. They survive on a trickle of visitor income, their nonprofit tax status, the kindness of benefactors, and the unpaid ours of volunteers to keep the exhibits changing and the walls standing.

The perception that this city has an abundance of exquisite heritage sites is true. But the assumption that there are “myriad supporters” is not. Portsmouth’s little secret is that a very small number of people actually visit, join, volunteer, or donate to these institutions. The list of supporters from one historic house looks very much like the list from the next. Our museums are served by an even smaller number of dedicated board members who rotate from one organization to another.

American newspapers too are living on the edge. As a journalist, I do my utmost to get all the facts, to dig for primary sources, and to explore an issue from many angles. But journalism by definition is “writing in a hurry” and deadlines can trump details. With fewer reporters, fewer editors, and a 24-hour news cycle, there is not always time or money enough to dig deep.

When I’m wearing my historian hat, I often use old newspapers in my research or I quote historians who got their data from newspapers. The Internet has given me instant access to a previously unimaginable array of printed sources. The problem is that old newspapers are frequently biased or just plain wrong.

“If you don't read the newspaper,” to quote Mark Twain again, “you are uninformed, If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”

Case in point, the first newspaper report of the 1873 ax murders on Smuttynose Island was packed with errors. The names of both murdered women were wrong. A large sumn of money was reported stolen, but was not. The surviving woman, Maren Hontvet, was reported as Mrs. Huntress.

Newspapers print corrections. But the original errors remain in the public record for historians to stumble over. We often miss the updates buried in later issues. In May 17, 1876, for example, a Concord newspaper reported that Maren Hontvet, the lone survivor of the Smuttynose murders, had returned to her homeland of Norway and confessed on her deathbed to the killing of her sister and sister-in-law. That story inspired a century of controversy, not to mention a bestselling novel and a Hollywood film. A day later, however, on May 18, 1876, the confession was revealed as a hoax. At the time, Maren was still living in the Portsmouth area and raising her daughter. A retraction appeared, but the fake news story still lives on, despite the facts.

History and news, flawed as they may be, are linked like Siamese twins. They may not always get along, but they are much the same at heart.


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His latest books are America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812 and Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at Smuttynose Island.

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