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Yankee spunk reborn

By ROBYN E. BLUMNER
Published August 24, 2003

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - Who would have thought that a small giveaway newspaper, offered on the windowsills of upscale design shops and organic cafes dotting this historic downtown, would be a voice of dissent as cage-rattling as the great pamphleteers of old? The New Hampshire Gazette is a paper with a point of view and a New England pedigree older than the Revolution. Its subhead boasts: The Nation's Oldest Newspaper, and upon perusing its pages, one regains hope that the Spirit of '76 is alive and well.

The periodical is published "fortnightly," and is usually about 16 pages. In the July 18 edition I picked up, writers and cartoonists deliciously dissect the bungling war in Iraq, taking acute aim at the "chicken hawks" of the Bush administration. And don't miss the regular "flag police" feature - a send-up of the notion that the American flag needs protection from firebugs when its real enemies are car dealerships and commercial exploiters.

Under an editorial titled "Shocked and Awed," the paper declares, "They promised us shock and awe. We were skeptical. We didn't get the picture - until now. . . . We didn't think it was possible, but sure enough, the neo-con cabal that snuck into office on Bush's coattails is turning Iraq into Vietnam."

This freewheeling riposte, like the rest of the content, was cooked up under the direction of editor and publisher Steven Fowle, a self-described "disgruntled Vietnam Vet," disabled by post-traumatic stress disorder, who was fired from his first newspaper job for being "unmanageable." Fowle, 55, is heir to a remarkable newspaper legacy, a story so full of irony and prescience that it raises doubts even in this skeptic's mind about the coincidences of history.

The Gazette was founded in 1756 by Daniel Fowle, a printer, who moved to Portsmouth from Boston after being arbitrarily imprisoned. Steven Fowle is his third cousin eight times removed.

Daniel's ordeal began in October 1754 when he was accused by the Massachusetts House of Representatives of publishing a seditious pamphlet, the Monster of Monsters. The pamphlet, written under the pseudonym Tom Thumb, was a tirade against a new tax on spirits and the corruption of the legislators who passed it. House leaders, ignoring formal process, brought Daniel before them and interrogated him over several days as to the work's origins. At night, he was locked in a stone gaol.

Upon leaving prison, Daniel wrote A Total Eclipse of Liberty, an indignant account of his ordeal. It rings with denouncements of arbitrary power and the denial of due process.

History records that Daniel was not the printer of the work. His brother, Zechariah, had printed it, but Daniel had lent his slave, Primus Fowle, to assist in its publication. (Sadly, Daniel belongs to the pantheon of men of the Enlightenment who demanded their own liberty while enslaving others.)

Over the centuries, the paper kept publishing under different permutations. In 1960 it became a weekly supplement to the daily Portsmouth Herald and was later subsumed within its weekend edition. "Clearly a low ebb for the Gazette," Steven Fowle says.

Steven grew up not knowing much about his famous ancestor. All his father told him was "there was a printer in the family and he was stuck in jail for it." It wasn't until the mid-1980s, when he was taking classes at the University of New Hampshire, "as part of a lack of a career," that he looked up Daniel Fowle in the text of publishing historian Isaiah Thomas and learned of his relation to the Gazette.

This would have been nothing more than an interesting personal footnote had Steven also not discovered that the Herald owners had allowed the registration on the Gazette's trade name to lapse. In 1989, Steven paid $40 to the secretary of state and became the proud owner of certainly one of the nation's oldest newspapers, which he continued to publish "episodically" until a more regular schedule was established in 1999. (The Hartford Courant, founded in 1764, claims to be the country's oldest "continuously" published newspaper.)

Today, the spunky Gazette distributes 6,500 copies and has 900 paid subscribers. Steven hopes that a soon-to-be-launched redesign of the paper's Web site (www.nhgazette.com) will spark a run of subscriptions. Eventually, Steven hopes to publish two editions, one for each of New Hampshire's congressional districts. "We should be on that congressperson like a cheap suit," Steven says.

His philosophy is simple: "All you need to do to keep the politicians in line is to tell the reader the truth." Steven does this with quirky irreverence and informed outrage.

Daniel would be proud.

[Last modified August 24, 2003, 01:47:21]


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