Editor: Open access to government 'keeps us free'
MANCHESTER — While New Hampshire's right-to-know law is spelled out in state statutes, accessing public records and information from government agencies can be an arduous process.
The Telegraph of Nashua was honored Tuesday with the Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award for its Open Government Project, which the newspaper describes as “committed to improving citizens' access to public records through right-to-know law requests, news coverage and education.”
The First Amendment Award is given annually to a New Hampshire person or entity that has worked to protect the rights of free speech and freedom of the press.
"Right-to-know gives us the opportunity to cut through the lies and get to the truth. The right-to-know reveals to us wrongs we never even knew existed. The right-to-know keeps us free," Telegraph editor Phil Kincade said. "This is why we at The Telegraph are so appreciative of this award. It's something very special to us. It enlivens us. It encourages us. It invigorates us."
Kincade also quoted a passage from the very law that led the newspaper to its Open Government Project.
"Openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society. That is the opening sentence of the preamble of New Hampshire's right-to-know law," he said. "There is no more succinct way to say it."
Kincade and other representatives of the newspaper received the award at the end of a luncheon banquet at the Executive Court Conference Center.
The keynote speaker for the event was ABC-TV anchor George Stephanopoulos, a political veteran who as an analyst and advisor is quite familiar with the Granite State and its first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
"It's hard to find a state that takes liberty as seriously as all of you do. Every four years, you take out that First Amendment and you put it to the test. You put politicians to the test in town meeting after town meeting," Stephanopoulos said in his opening remarks. "And that is our democracy in action."
The Loeb School was founded in 1999 by Nackey S. Loeb, the longtime publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, as a nonprofit resource for the public to learn and appreciate the First Amendment as well as study journalism and other forms of communication. The school is also the majority stockholder in the ownership group that includes the New Hampshire Union Leader.
A panel of judges selects the First Amendment Award winner, choosing The Telegraph this year as the 11th as the recipient.
The paper's right-to-know campaign has brought about several changes within Nashua city government. Among them was the police commission changing its meeting times from early morning to evening, providing more citizens the opportunity to attend. The commission is also publicizing agendas and minutes from its meetings for the first time, Kincade said.
Another request exposed thousands of dollars in public funds used to feed public-works employees.
Jonathan Van Fleet, managing editor for content, said many right-to-know requests don't lead to significant revelations or major headlines. But the effort itself is a tool the public must continue to utilize to ensure transparency within government.
"On one hand it is gratifying to be recognized by our peers in the state," Van Fleet said after the banquet. "But really this is one of those things that recognizes the fundamentals of journalism and what we do and why we show up to the newsroom every day. It means a lot and is validating to our efforts."