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A small-town tale
When community journalism meets an aggressive reporter, sometimes it can get ugly
BY MARK JURKOWITZ

Margaret Menge has had her moments in some of the mediaís higher-rent districts.

During a stint as a New YorkĖbased researcher and contributor for U.S. News & World Report, she wrote items for the magazineís signature "Washington Whispers" column. She authored a story for the New York Press wondering whether Hillary Clintonís hefty $8 million book advance was connected to Simon & Schusterís layoff of 75 employees that attracted attention from the New York Postís "Page Six" and the Fox News Channel. She even played a role in the notorious Jayson Blair scandal, tipping the Washington Post to her discovery that the disgraced New York Times reporter had borrowed liberally from a Post story during a stint at the Boston Globe.

This past September, the native of Madison, Wisconsin, with a masters in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, landed in Londonderry, New Hampshire ó a placid bedroom community of about 25,000 ó as a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, in Manchester, a paper once known as the ferociously conservative media cudgel of its late publisher William Loeb. (It was during a 1972 Manchester speech defending his wife against Union Leader attacks that Democratic presidential candidate Ed Muskie had what was reported to be the ill-fated crying jag that helped doom his campaign.) You could say, then, that Mengeís newspaper career began in earnest just 10 weeks ago, when she tried to put down roots in daily journalism.

Eight weeks later, Menge was asked to resign from the paper. The reporter, who ruffled a few feathers at the local police department, says she had no real inkling she was in trouble until she was suddenly summoned to that fateful termination meeting. She recalls Ed Domaingue, managing editor for news, telling her that she came to the paper "with a New York attitude. We do community journalism here."

The intriguing story of Mengeís brief but noteworthy Union Leader career is likely a cautionary tale. Perhaps Menge was a fish out of water, too aggressive and pushy for her environment ó even if those same traits would allow her to flourish elsewhere. She comes across as a serious, committed, and ambitious reporter, who at the not-so-tender age of 34 was eager to start a steady career in journalism. For his part, Domaingue sounds reasonable in his account of what went wrong and regretful that Mengeís employment didnít work out. Menge is "convinced that something happened, and more specifically that someone reamed Ed Domaingue about me." But police officials insist that they never complained about Menge. And the Union Leader insists that the publication did not cave to outside pressure against an inquisitive reporter.

In the end, what her case may illustrate is just how hit-or-miss a journalism career can be, one filled with potholes and pitfalls that can either derail oneís ambitions entirely or set a course for bigger and better things.

LIFE IN LONDONDERRY

Menge doesnít have a traditional journalistís background. A self-described pro-life Catholic who "is repulsed by political correctness," she spent time working for Republican Indiana congressman Mark Souder and was employed as a lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers. At one point, she tended bar in Miamiís über-trendy South Beach. But she insists that "journalism is something that I always wanted to do." What started as a 2002 internship at U.S. News & World Report led to work as an assistant for columnist John Leo and ultimately to a freelancing contract in which she was able to write features for the magazine.

"Everything about her was positive," recalls Leo. "She was efficient, loyal. She was as good as anybody Iíve had."

Mengeís résumé includes freelance work at such outlets as the New York Press, the New York Observer, the Columbia Journalism Review, and Surface magazine. But when she started looking seriously for a career in newspaper journalism, she found it to be a "frustrating experience." As she says, "I was kind of caught." Large publications told her she didnít have enough experience. Smaller places, she said, were somewhat intimidated by her magazine background in New York. This past summer, she applied for a Union Leader job, even though the paperís conservative image was "somewhat of a deterrent."

"I didnít want to get stuck working in the conservative media," says Menge, calling herself more libertarian than conservative and declaring, "Iím no Bush lover."

On September 12 she started as the Londonderry correspondent, covering all aspects of the town other than the schools. Two weeks later, Menge published a piece stating that the town "may not have been on solid legal ground" when the council voted to reduce the speed limit to 30 miles an hour. The piece cited a safety engineer with the Federal Highway Administrationís New Hampshire office who said the police study bolstering the lowered speed limit had serious problems.

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Issue Date: November 25 - December 1, 2005
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