Friday, December 24, 2010

Hometown Holiday celebrated Pottstown

Choirs singing, dancers dancing, shoppers browsing, music in the air; flowers, lights and costumes everywhere.

Could this be Pottstown?

This year in December, I enjoyed every weekend downtown.

In Pottstown.

I shopped here, dined out here, went to a ball and a musical, toured houses, looked at the lights, and went out for drinks. I bought gifts, listened to music, went to church, saw friends and laughed with family.

It was truly a "Hometown Holiday Celebration."

On the first weekend of December, my daughter and I met for a Friday night appetizer and drink at the Brick House and included in the outing a High Street stroll, listening to caroling in Smith Family Plaza by the Pine Forge Academy choir and checking out the gingerbread houses in the window at Ranieri's and an array of pastries on display in Churchill's.

The next weekend, my husband and I dodged raindrops on the Historic Pottstown by Candlelight holiday house tour. I have served as a hostess on the tour at Zion's United Church of Christ several times, but never before invested the time to go enjoy the hospitality and see the sights.

What a discovery! From the stained glass windows on staircase landings to the delightful gent telling stories of when his mother was housekeeper for Dr. Roebuck in his home and office on Hanover Street, the afternoon was entertaining and eye-opening.

On the third weekend, we capped off the downtown Hometown Holiday by attending the Holiday Costume Ball at the Elks on Friday, and then on Saturday, we enjoyed an early dinner at Juan Carlos followed by "Christmas Carol: The Musical" at Tri-PAC.

The ball was a holiday dance event of the type we had enjoyed at Sunnybrook in years gone by. The dressing up, the dancing, the camaraderie brought back warm memories. We didn't know many of the people attending — that was itself a revelation, considering the years we've spent around Pottstown. It means there are newcomers and different people coming into the limelight — a definite prerequisite for revitalization.

The Elks upstairs ballroom was decorated in elegant simplicity — red poinsettias, white linens, green garlands. The crowd danced all night to the sounds of a first-class dance band and had the added treat on stage of Eric Bazilian, former lead singer of The Hooters, who has adopted an interest in Pottstown through his friend Leighton Wildrick, Pottstown's Main Street manager.

Wildrick is responsible for putting together the Hometown Holiday events downtown and for orchestrating the visit by Bazilian, who described Pottstown as a "a slice of American life."

Not a bad message from a Grammy-winning songwriter and performer to this small town.

The ball and Bazilian's appearance was a reminder that sometimes you have to try something, go a bit beyond the comfort zone and reach up in order to attract and inspire enthusiasm and investment.

The atmosphere at the ball Friday was in contrast to the minor sniping that went on earlier in the week about paying for the band in part with money in the borough's transit promotion budget.

The disconnect serves as a reminder to town leaders and residents that sometimes we have to pay for quality to get quality in return, that we will go nowhere if we are not willing to invest in ourselves, and that sometimes the investment in entertainment can build a momentum that pays back.

Our stop at Tri-PAC was the ultimate example. To anyone who has not yet taken in a show in the theatre referred to by us old-timers as the "former Newberry's," do it. The experience of the transformed space, the actors, the music, the children will restore faith in Pottstown more than any debate over taxes, spending, and what High Street needs.

Pottstown has so much to offer, but for those who live here or work here every day, it is easy to forget. This December, I enjoyed Pottstown as an outsider would, and it was transforming.

Downtown has several first-class places for dinner — Juan Carlos, Funky Lil' Kitchen, Henry's, Brick House — all within easy walking distance of remarkable theatre at Tri-PAC.

There are shops with quality items to purchase — a bike at Tri-County Bicycles, a painting at The Gallery on High, furniture at Lastick's, clothing at Weitzenkorn's. You can bank here, utilize investment services, shop for collectibles, see a dentist, doctor or lawyer, buy a house, take a yoga or karate class — even purchase an ad or subscribe to The Mercury.

The December events this year were dubbed "Hometown Holiday Celebration," and perhaps the best reflection of celebrating this hometown for the holidays is the Pottstown Christmas CD of songs and readings produced and performed by local talent.

The music and poetry portray a quality and sophistication that we often fail to acknowledge in our neighbors. Who would think there is so much talent, so much to enjoy — so much to celebrate — here in this hometown?

This was the December to remember — and rediscover — Pottstown.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Pottstown shines

“You just want to sell papers.”
“You never print anything positive.”
”The front page is nothing but car crashes and drug arrests.”

Of the complaints we hear in this building, those three are among the tops. We are a business, and our business is selling newspapers. Thus, it is true that the size of a photo, the wording of a headline or the placement of a news story is often intended to catch the eye of potential customers and get them to buy our newspaper.

But, the twin notions that we never print anything positive or that the front page is filled with car crashes and drug arrests could not be further from the truth. During the past two weeks, The Mercury front page has featured the opening of a new Catholic high school, groundbreaking for a renovation at Ringing Rocks Elementary School, visit from the governor to promote open space in North Coventry, and proposals to build senior housing and expand rail service in Pottstown. And, every day for a week, the front page included stories promoting the Open Doors events in Pottstown scheduled last Saturday.

Over at the Pottstown School District office, where much of the planning was going on, John Armato, director of communications, said every day a story appeared on Open Doors in The Mercury, more people called with ideas and offers to help.

Saturday arrived, and the doors opened, and the crowds came. Downtown was filled with people eating, browsing, dancing, singing, skateboarding … enjoying a glorious event-filled time in both the downtown and the schools. Open Doors was a rousing success on many fronts, not the least of which was the partnership and community confidence-building reinforced by things coming together so quickly and with so much enthusiasm.

But also on Saturday, the police and Montgomery County District Attorney’s office raided several homes in the borough, confiscating drugs, guns and cash in a move to disband a ring of people suspected in recent borough shootings. The headline “Guns, drugs, cash seized” reflected that dark side of humanity that many blame for Pottstown’s woes.

The phone call came to me from the office while I was downtown having lunch and getting ready to take a loaner bike out on the Schuylkill trail – enjoying what’s positive about Pottstown. The question: What do we do with the front page when we have a drugs-and-guns raid along with Sept. 11 tributes and the success of Open Doors?

The answer did not come easily. I am first and always a newsperson. A raid of the magnitude of the one in town early Saturday morning has news value. Bannering that headline across the top of the front page would sell more papers in the boxes around town than pictures of kids skateboarding. Reporting news is the business we’re in; it’s what we do; it’s who we are.

But, The Mercury is a community force as well. Following Armato’s observation that our promotion of Open Doors made a difference, it stands to reason that our play of the event would affect how people feel about the success afterward – what they take from it, how they build on it. Did we want to overshadow that success with a reminder that drug-related crime exists a few blocks away?

Evan Brandt, always Pottstown’s watchdog, argued strenuously to hold the story a day. I was reluctant, because sitting on news is counter to the pace at which we work on every story every day. However, I wasn’t comfortable with deflating the balloon of newly-found energy either. We compromised.

The raid story ran Sunday, but we put it on page A3. Open Doors and a patriotic remembrance of Sept. 11, 2001 got the front page to themselves. The raid was no less a part of our news coverage, but it was not the first thing readers saw.

This decision was counter to our business priorities, and. I suspect we sold a few less papers on Sunday because of it. But it solidified our priorities as a part and partner to this community. The decision was later reinforced by town leaders and even the police chief, who called to suggest we hold the story a day in the interests of Open Doors.

True: We just want to sell papers. We also want to be part of a viable community that grows along with us. When Pottstown throws a party like the one on Saturday, drugs and guns can take a back seat, or in this case, an inside page.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Website commenting

Website commenting at its best engages readers in dialogue, brings information into the reporting of news stories, and adds perspective to opinions.
At its worst, it ridicules the subjects of our news stories, attacks other commenters, and abandons civility to prejudice and hate.
I am not the only editor astounded by how mean-spirited people can become when hiding behind a keyboard pseudonym.

Thus, it is easy to understand the recent decision by The Reading Eagle to ban all commenting on their website. It would certainly be easier and less time consuming than wading through comments at all hours of day and night to weed out the nasties.
I'm a glass half-full person, however, and I cannot condone cutting off the good comments to avoid policing the bad. Commenting is not going away from our website, and Sound-Off is not going to become letters to the editor.
Both are forums that let people ask questions that they might feel foolish about if their names were attached or offer opinions that they might not have the courage to voice if everyone knew who was talking.
The opportunity that both forums provide -- where else can you discover how to get weeds out of the driveway, borrow a wheelchair, get the name of a forgotten song from the lyrics you remember, or vent about the driver who cut you off on 422 -- is valuable.
When the content drifts into irrelevance, irresponsible attacks and foolishnesss, it becomes our jobs as editors, I believe, to find a way to keep the good and weed out the bad.
The particular difficulty with website comments is that they become live with a keystroke or a click. Sound-Off involves speaking into a phone, and from our end, it involves listening to what people say and they typing into our computer system the comments to be published. If messages are lengthy, inappropriate, mean-spirited, or libelous, they're easily ignored with a delete button and a move onto the next waiting in line.
With website comments, they already exist when we look at them for pre-approval so the watchfulness must be heightened. Some expressions mean one thing to an editor but something else to the audience; some comments would be appropriate by themselves but in context of the story, the words are an attack.
The web is a habit that depends on instantaneous feedback and input. Commenters and readers of comments do not want to wait for us to approve a compilation. Everything is fast, and approving comments if done thoughtfully takes time. The Sound-Off audience is not looking for more than one dose a day; the web audience comes back several times and expects new stuff.
It's difficult -- but it's important.
What is also important is that people feel safe being interviewed for a story or posting a comment on our website. Our goal a year ago when we started pre-approval of comments was to foster a safe online environment for dialogue. Some people have pushed the limits of "good dialogue," and so we are now tightening our rules.
A specific set of guidelines for commenting will be posted on our website for commenters to see, and we will enforce those guidelines in reviewing comments.
They are not too difficult to adhere to -- no attacks, no defamation, no inciting of violence, no racism, no screaming. Commenters must register -- that is not new -- and understand that we reserve the right not to publish a comment.
Last week, we hosted a Community Media Lab with some of the bloggers in the Pottstown area, some of whom are part of our TownSquare network and some who are not. We talked for an hour and a half about website commenting -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- and pretty much agreed that as publishers, whether of a news website or a blog we have the right to decide what words we want to allow on our domain.
You can hear what some of the bloggers had to say on the topic on the video that appears here. The importance of maintaining a healthy dialogue on our website through the reactions and comments of readers was reinforced by our blogging network. The individuals in our Media Lab are among intelligent and committed people who are passionate about their community. And their views reminded me of the value in differing opinions, in debate, in the enlightenment of contributing information and ideas to those of others on the web.
Beginning today, our rules on commenting will be more specific and will be policed with more vigilance. The goal is not to limit or restrict but rather to free up the space to have more meaningful conversations.
Sign on. Say what you think. We aim to make the experience of talking with us and your community a rewarding one. Like I said, I see the glass half full.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Saving Pottstown

Our followers at SavePottstown have suggested we eliminate commenting on our website to avoid a potential for intimidation. We certainly agree with the premise that commenting should never be a forum for intimidation, and we struggle as many news sites are these days with this dilemma.
The Washington Post ombudsman wrote recently about commenting categories being considered for their website. The article noted that reporters were encountering people reluctant to be quoted in website articles for fear of the personal attacks that get rolling in the free-for-all of anonymous website commenting.
The Reading Eagle has chosen to eliminate all commenting on their website, and certainly, that would be easier for us to do than monitoring the process with pre-approval, abuse reports, complaint reviews and reader concerns.
However, that route eliminates the potential for benefit from commenting.
Pointing again to the Owen J. Roberts saga and hundred of comments those stories generated last summer, I believe that some people were spurred to become more involved in school decisions as a result of that dialogue.
Some of it was difficult to bear, to be sure, but within that heated community debate grew seeds of earnest involvement that benefited the school community in the end.
As part of our digital-first initiatives here, we now look to comments for ways to improve our reporting. And it happens. By posting stories as they begin to develop, we - and readers - benefit from commenters pointing us to an approach or a source of information we may not have considered. The end result is a better story.
Commenting at its best is a way for the reader to become involved in the writing; the dialogue in some cases becomes as insightful as the story itself, as I am sure the followers of the SavePottstown site would be the first to admit.
But there are problems, and there is a potential for harm in commenting. A news story today and a letter to the editor appearing this weekend in The Mercury voices that concern. The subject of the article and writers of the letter, Katy and David Jackson, were concerned that their home was recently vandalized in part because of comments made on our website.
Their words: "the increasingly angry point of view of this emboldened landlord has contributed to our uncertainty and a sense of vulnerability that we have not felt in our community until now."
While police say evidence points to the vandalism being random, that does not erase the larger concern that people may refrain from speaking out or acting upon community improvement because of bullies on our website or other online forums.
We don't want that to happen, and we are working to implement stronger and more specific guidelines for ourselves as website managers to avoid it. Our online editor Eileen Faust is also developing a process for those who challenge our commenting policy so that the debate is not going on on the website about "my comment" versus yours.
The goal is to continue commenting as a community forum, not as a dart board to lob sniping remarks at others.
The commenting debate has another downside of diverting attention from the more important issues being written about.
I wonder how many people following the name games and who-said-what-about-whom this week also followed Evan Brandt's insightful reporting on the Building One Pennsylvania summit -- a series of articles appearing every day since Tuesday in The Mercury and at
I wonder if those who accuse us of promoting negativity take note of the calls to action and reinforcement of involvement that we write as our Opinions, as opposed to the negative reactions about our opinions.
We're all on the same side in the effort to promote and rehabilitate Pottstown and to improve the quality of life throughout the region served by The Mercury. Tax reform, property values, quality of education, business development are causes we all embrace.
Imagine what could happen if everyone who has a comment turned their words into action.
Pottstown just might be saved.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The tangled web of online comments

Today I am being taken to task by anonymous bloggers at Save Pottstown for comments made on The Mercury website.
The blog draws a line from a comment made on a Pottstown Borough Council story at to reports of vandalism at the home of a local citizen and community activist and somehow ends up with a conclusion that "The Mercury promotes hate and violence" under my direction.
About the only thing known to be factual in that rant is that as editor, I have the responsibility for what we print online and in the paper -- a responsibility that those who know me understand I consider sacred.
This insinuation is just the latest in our continuing struggle with web commenting. About a year ago, we were among the first websites in our company to change to pre-approval of comments. At the time, online editor Eileen Faust wrote a front-page story about the decision, posted rules, and began vigorously enforcing them.
Other media websites have been reluctant to get into approving comments because it goes against the spontaneous, free and open environment of the web. But we believe that there is no justification for allowing hate and threats to poison the dialogue that we are trying to promote.
Last year's commenting on the Myra Forrest firing and Owen J. Roberts School Board attracted a lot of "trolls" from outside the area and inspired a volume of commenting on our website that went off in areas completely irrelevant to the local topic being discussed.
We know that some people comment on every story posted on a given day, whether they have any interest or relevant observation to make. It's just an opportunity to espouse opinions, some of which serve no purpose other than inciting anger or hate. The volume of troll postings and the obvious intention of inciting reaction with nastiness caused us to go to pre-approval.
But that creates its own set of problems. Comments are approved by a number of people here because it's a 24/7 chore -- we get complaints on comments not approved, complaints on comments that are approved, complaints that we're not fast enough in getting them approved, and complaints that we're too slow or too fast in taking down comments after someone reports abuse.
Some stories we don't even allow comments because they have the potential for so much nastiness, we can't keep up with it. When someone reports abuse of a comment that is already posted, we usually take it down (unless their reason is something silly) because if even one person is offended and expresses that to us, we believe we should take it down.
We are also receiving complaints about how we handle complaints about the approval process. We're working on more specific guidelines and creating a method for objecting when we take down or don't approve a comment.
We are not the only media company struggling with the work of engaging people without crossing the lines of libel and without promoting attitudes that we believe are detrimental to our readers.
Harry Dietz, the editor of The Reading Eagle, recently wrote a column announcing that the Eagle website would no longer permit commenting on stories. He said the decision was made after much discussion and many complaints.
In the past year since we started pre-approval of comments, other major media websites have instituted a similar practice. There are now full-time jobs being advertised for journalists to monitor commenting.
Why, some may ask, do we allow it to continue?
The web in the age of Google and Facebook is an environment that shuns control of information and promotes openness and sharing. At our website, we embrace that philosophy -- opening our newsgathering processes to the public, inviting input on everything from stories we're planning to spot news as it develops to the streets in your neighborhood that need to be fixed.
At its best, the web and the dialogue it invites is a better place than the staid media of the past. But monitoring the abusers who defend themselves as holding truth in their hands becomes increasingly difficult.
At, they've closed the door on web commenting. We're trying to keep it open with an eye on what's crossing the threshold. It's becoming more difficult every day.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Ben Franklin WHAT?

When asked in an online reader poll, "What did you think of the Ben Franklin Project?", 50 percent of those responding said "The WHAT project?"
I can't say I'm surprised. The Ben Franklin Project was a media experiment conducted by Journal Register Company, parent company of The Mercury to produce the July 4th edition using free Web-based tools. We also produced a separate website on that day using a free WordPress site.
The fact that the change went unnoticed by many of our readers points to the project's success. If we had failed to publish, that would have certainly caught everyone's attention.
But for some readers, who were following our buildup to Ben Franklin and who may have read the editorial or news stories about it last Sunday, we appreciate your interest in our changing media world.
"Pottstownguy" asked the following questions:
"Overall, how did the experiment go with the 4th issue? Did using all free on-line web-based tools make it easier or more difficult to get the paper out? Was there a cost savings using these methods? Did the community provide enough input in the process? Are you finding crowdsourcing an effective tool in the delivery of news for the Pottstown area? "
My answer:
"Using free Web-based tools for our production of the July 4th issue was successful because it challenged old habits and practices we automatically move toward rather than exploring new ways of doing things. It was not 'easier,' but it wasn't really more difficult either. The gain was not in money or time saved; it was in giving ourselves permission to experiment. We are moving very quickly in new directions of news delivery on more digital platforms, and we won't be able to make these transitions unless we embrace innovation.
"What this project did for us as a newspaper was give us courage. As for community input and crowdsourcing, we are finding people still look to us as a news gatherer and provider, not just a platform for sharing.
"The Mercury has always been close to its community -- love us or hate us, few people ignore us -- so crowdsourcing to us is a new name for what we do best, which is interact with our readers.
"Personally, I like the new ways of engaging readers that we are using these days, particularly with this July 4th edition. A reporter tells a bystander at the parade to email a photo to my desk, and I get it Saturday night and turn it around to a copy editor to get in the paper the next day. Pretty cool. Not every story works that way, but I think Pottstown's input enhanced our coverage of the July 4th-on-the-3rd festivities. Hope that answers your questions. You can email or call at or 610-970-4470. "
I suspect people noticed the number of photos sent by readers that we used on July 4, and I would wager the stories with readers' comments on road rage were pretty well read.
More important to me than recognizing the name of our project was the fact that several hundred people tuned in to our livestreaming of the parade and dozens sent us photos of how they were celebrating independence.
Doesn't matter what we call it; change to a new future is happening.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Participate in reporting on the 4th

We're opening up our Independence Day coverage this year to readers.
On July 4, we will publish an edition of the newspaper produced with free online tools. The paper will still be printed on our press and some pages by necessity will be prepared with our standard operating systems. But for the most part, we will use new tools and different practices to declare our independence from the past and establish our newspaper and our parent company Journal Register as innovators.
This experiment is called The Ben Franklin Project and is the reason for the likenesses of dear Ben cropping up in the pages of the paper and on our website.
But, what does that mean to you?
Well, here's the deal: We are also using this project to begin a transformation of our reporting -- reporting that involves the audience in the creation of stories, not just in reaction.
Consider it participation theater: We invite you to come on stage and bring your insights and creativity into our production while it's still playing, not after we've finished.
You have likely seen our projects and our invitations on First Suburbs, road rage, and protests of the BP oil spill asking for readers' involvement.
And now there's the Independence Day story we're working on. The coverage of Pottstown's July 4th celebration is always front and center in our reporting on Independence Day. It's always the best story in town.
What's different this year is that we are reporting on how you celebrate Independence Day in your own eyes, not just how we see you celebrating.
We want your reflections on what independence on this day means to you -- tell us your patriotic philosophy or your rebellious protest or share a favorite family memory.
What do you think about independence? How do you celebrate it?
In addition to the pictures and video our staff captures each year, we want to include what you have taken with your cameras and smart phones. Send us pictures of past July 4th celebrations, your kids and pets in patriotic gear, the best picnic food you've ever made, your favorite parade or fireworks shot, your Little Leaguer's winning catch.
(You can see my personal favorite from the 2008 parade right here!)
We're accepting pictures and reflections now and will print them leading up to the Fourth, as well as on the Fourth. Some will be included in print editions; all will be shared online.
Get your cameras out on July 2 for the hot-air balloon extravaganza and on July 3 for the 5K race and the parade.
Look around town and share with us what the Fourth festivities look like to you.
We'll be here Saturday afternoon and evening July 3 and if you get pictures to us from that morning's parade, we'll use 'em.
We'll also be livestreaming parade coverage Saturday July 3, so if you can't get out to High Street, you can watch some of the parade and hear what people are saying about it online.
July 4th is a day of many traditions in Pottstown. This year we're starting a few new ones. Please join us in the fun.

Visit our Facebook page or send us an email.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Editorial: First Suburbs brings powerful voice to Pottstown

An air of “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” pervaded at Montgomery County Community College Thursday night in a public meeting of the First Suburbs project.
Three hundred people representing communities from Yeadon, Delaware County, to Coatesville to Norristown to Pottstown filled the community college meeting room with presence and a sense of purpose.
Speaker after speaker described the hardships their towns are facing as the “first suburbs” -- the oldest, most deteriorating, economically distressed and poorest of the towns and townships surrounding cities.
First Suburbs is an advocacy coalition that brings together representatives of civic, faith, community and education organizations seeking a higher notch in government spending priorities.
The group gathered Thursday was made up of church leaders, local officials, Hispanics, African-Americans, school leaders and civic organizers. All demanded that the problems in America’s towns be addressed, especially here in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Those addressing the group highlighted the inequities that grew when “our towns and old-fashioned designs fell out of favor,” as the Rev. Ed Crenshaw of Victory Christian Fellowship in Norristown described it.
“We screwed up a good thing,” echoed North Coventry Supervisors Chairman Andy Paravis.
Crenshaw added: “We are here to demand that our communities become a priority.”
Like a lion waking from a deep sleep, the group displayed an unmistakable power in the face of government policy and priority.
The number of people -- 300 on a pleasant June evening, some traveling an hour to get here -- and the power of their voices demonstrated a force to be reckoned with.
It is no wonder. The Brookings Institution national think tank estimates that fully one fifth of the U.S. population lives in first suburbs. They represent a population fed up with high taxes and deteriorating neighborhoods that give them an unfair advantage next to wealthier neighborhoods nearby.
Education spending offers one example. In the established communities which are the “first suburbs” of Pennsylvania’s major cities, “the cost of funding education through property taxes continues to put an increasing burden on those least able to pay,” testified Reed Lindley, who next month will take the helm as superintendent of the Pottstown School District.
In this cycle, which requires cost-conscious school boards to cut spending, programs will suffer and educational quality will diminish. People will pay more and get less, leaving them behind as others move ahead.
One fifth of the nation is simply too much to leave behind.
County, state and federal elected officials -- even representatives of both candidates for governor -- were asked to stand at the meeting in response to the group’s call for action.
They were asked to stand in accountability and answer with votes, not just words, on the three fronts where First Suburbs is seeking change: equity in education funding, aid in bringing infrastructure up to date and fairer distribution of housing diversity.
Now all that remains is to hold those in power accountable, a Norristown councilman noted Thursday.
If the spirit of challenge and involvement in the room Thursday was any indication, First Suburbs is on the way to getting results and refusing to be left behind.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Crowding the newsroom

On July 4th, The Mercury will declare independence from old ways of doing things as part of a brave experiment, The Ben Franklin Project.
The Ben Franklin Project involves all daily newspapers of The Journal Register Co. publishing the July 4th edition with free online tools from the Internet.
In addition to changing the tools we use to publish, we are also expanding our reporting methods, involving the audience in the reporting method known as crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing -- like tweeting and friending -- is a new verb in our world of reporting news.
It means involving the universe of readers, audience, community as a "crowd" of sources to provide information and help shape the stories we write. A crowd can change the direction a story is going or add information or even send us off on a different story.
Media expert Jay Rosen, who is an advisor to The Mercury parent company Journal Register Co., in writing about crowdsourcing points to an experiment that had people from various neighborhoods buy the same brand six-pack of beer at local establishments and then report the prices they paid. The effort used the crowd as feet on the street to report neighborhood differences in pricing, a story with strong consumer potential.
One of our sister papers in the JRC chain, The Lake County News-Herald outside Cleveland, Ohio, did a crowdsourcing project on dangerous intersections. The observations gathered differed from the trouble spots identified by state and county agencies, proving personal experience can be more insightful than statistics.
Another of our advisors, Jeff Jarvis, author of "What Would Google Do?", describes involving the readers in the reporting process as preferable to getting their feedback after the story has been printed.
We can paint a mural and wait for the graffiti artists to leave their mark after we are finished, or we can invite them to join us in the creation. Their talent and perspective becomes a part of the finished work of art.
It is this last analogy that I find most helpful in understanding crowdsourcing in a journalist's day's work.
Although the one-day Ben Franklin publishing project is more than three weeks away, we have already begun changing our ways to involve readers in the process of reporting at the start instead of reacting at the finish.

On Tuesday, we received about a half-dozen phone messages, e-mails or news tips left on our Web site about a Pottstown High School senior who was being denied the chance to walk with her classmates at graduation because of a school policy on commencement practice. The tips from family and friends of student Shawn Szydlowski represent the old-school crowdsourcing that The Mercury has been encouraging for decades.
Call 323-3000 and win $25 for news tips? ... Tell us what you're thinking in Sound-Off! ... Leave your news on our tipline. We've been soliciting reader involvement on a small scale for years.
But, here's what we did differently on Tuesday. After reporter Evan Brandt had interviewed Shawn about her predicament and Pottstown school officials about their decision to stick to their policy, we posted on Facebook a brief description of the story we were pursuing.
Within hours, more than 20 people wrote comments. As Evan followed up through the day with school officials, he told them what people were saying. And, as we posted a video of Shawn talking about her plight on our Web site, more people commented.
By the end of the day, our story had changed from the telling of a young woman's wish to walk with her students at graduation to the story of a community frustrated with their local school officials.
By the time the story was in print the next morning, school officials were already reversing the decision.
The difference in this particular reporting situation was that readers joined in the painting instead of drawing the graffiti afterward. Their anger became part of the story -- a part that was integral.
In the same edition of the paper and on the Web site, we asked readers to send us the issues they think are most important to be brought to a public meeting of First Suburbs Project, a regional coalition aimed at addressing issues faced by towns surrounding cities.
Again, we are asking people to help shape this story by telling us what they believe is important.
In the coming days and weeks as we head closer to "independence," watch for more examples of crowdsourcing in The Mercury.
Newspapers are said to be in a fight for their lives; we believe we're all on the same side.

Monday, June 7, 2010

'Amazing People' Monday

The Monday after Relay, and my inbox has a stream of flowing correspondence that begins with this message titled: "Amazing people."

"To all of you who gave of your time, your heart, your hands, your spirit,

"I just wanted to send a heartfelt thanks to all of you who helped in so many different ways to make this year's Relay such an amazing successful one. This was a year with many exciting events happening at once and none of it could have happened without all of you. I wish I could point out everything every one of you did that made this event so awe inspiring, but the list would go on and on. ...

"I am proud to have been able to be part of this amazing year and I am truly a better person for having met all of you. As a survivor and a co-chair this year, I thank you and honor you from the bottom of my heart.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

That message was sent to Relay team captains and organizers and supporters by Cindy Dawson, one of this year's co-chairs.

Year after year, the organizing committee of the Pottstown Relay for Life treats me and staff writer Brandie Kessler as celebrities for The Mercury coverage of this event. But as I tell them -- year after year -- we're just doing our jobs reporting on the most incredible event in the Pottstown area.

This year was special in several ways. The first is that this year we live-streamed the event, sending video to our Web site at several intervals throughout the day.
Donned in our matching Mercury News Team shirts created by photo supervisor John Strickler, Brandie and I along with John and online editor Eileen Faust comprised a video team reporting on events.

I had the privilege of interviewing Geoff Manthorne from Ace of Cakes alongside the track and then later learned we didn't have the microphone plugged in properly and the words didn't take! That's how we learn.

These are the new directions our business is headed into -- we're a media company now, not a newspaper -- and the experience of live-streaming Relay and capturing the excitement in voice and movement proved the excitement.

But back to what made this Relay special ...

There was something palpable in the air this year that was all about the community of cancer survivors, caregivers, and supporters.

Maybe it was the lines of volunteers signing up to give their time (and their blood!) so that scientists can study what causes cancer.

Maybe it was the Ace of Cakes bringing some glitz to Relay that got people more excitable than usual.

Maybe it was the tears that opened the event and the smiles that prolonged it.

Maybe it was the love on the faces of Grand Marshal Bonnie Goodhart's husband and children as they watched her talk about what Relay means.

Maybe the reason is in that message line in my Monday morning inbox: "Amazing people."

The Pottstown Relay for Life is all about people -- and they truly are amazing.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ben Franklin and us

Journal Register Company, which owns The Mercury, made headlines last week in every media trade journal with the successful completion of The Ben Franklin Project.
The project was the printing of two newspapers – a daily outside Cleveland, Ohio, and a weekly in nearby Perkasie, Pa. – using only free online tools for gathering information and producing pages. The experiment emphasized the involvement of the community in determining and pushing forward story content.
The Ben Franklin Project began as a challenge from company CEO John Paton to these two papers and to every employee of Journal Register to rethink the way we produce newspapers and Web sites.
By meeting the challenge before the 30-day deadline, staffs of the Perkasie News-Herald and the Lake County News-Herald created a new brand of journalism. Their successes and their mistakes will be shared with other papers in the company, including The Mercury, and we are pretty certain it won’t be long before “Ben Franklin” will be showing up in Pottstown.
The project is part of a larger sea-change that has already begun at The Mercury -- a change that is necessary for our survival and critical to our success. In the past, Journal Register and The Mercury remained a few steps behind other media companies in investing in technology and embracing the online universe. But, under the company’s new leadership, the catch-up is happening at lightning speed (Ben Franklin pun intended).
In February, we announced that every reporter was now equipped with a FlipCam videorecorder. Instantly, writers became multimedia journalists, and the metamorphosis was under way. That one step jumpstarted our newsrooms to presenting the news with immediacy, putting words and action online straight from the source.
We no longer wait to the end of the day to report what’s happening and then gather reaction. Our goal is to start with you, our readers, instead of end with you. The Ben Franklin Project pushes that goal into reality. Journalists discover ways to have readers inform their reporting instead of the other way around. And, what we are learning – what we must learn – is how to utilize technology to make that happen.
The staffs in the Ben Franklin Project used tools to harness community engagement. What does that mean? Well, it means that technology can enable us to involve readers in asking the questions when we interview public officials or put them in the room when we report on meetings or press conferences. It means that as news is happening, readers are pointing us in the directions to make our coverage more relevant to their lives.
A simple example is a news tip left on our Web site several days ago asking us to find out more about the value and criteria for classroom aides in schools. Aides’ positions are being cut in one district after another in this school budget cycle, and parents and taxpayers would like to better understand the ramifications. With the tools being tested in experiments like Ben Franklin, good questions like that one can reach us as part of reporting, not as part of reaction.
Paton said in a recent interview with Poynter Online that involving users in providing content “is not a replacement for journalists; it’s a new pipeline for information that journalists have to use.”
The key is “have to.”
In a business environment changing as rapidly as ours, we have to adapt and experiment and learn new methods and better ways of involving our readers in the process.
A little more than a year ago, I wrote a column about the demise of a newspaper, and I said that telling your stories is our privilege, and that will not change. Ironically, the path that will keep us alive is seen as the one that not only tells your stories but involves you in shaping them.
Another irony is that Ben Franklin as a journalist of colonial times contributed to a publication, “American Mercury,” and turned it inside out to make it better.
History may be repeating itself.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bloggers night out: An invitation

To current and future TownSquare participants:

We will be hosting our second Community Media Lab on Wednesday evening May 19 in the offices of The Mercury to discuss and introduce blogging techniques. Anyone with an idea for a blog is welcome. All current bloggers appearing on TownSquare are encouraged to attend.

The lab will begin at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday -- use the door marked Community Media Lab on the Hanover Street side of the building (The Mercury is located on the corner of King and Hanover streets in Pottstown).

Come prepared with ideas and questions. We will be discussing future opportunities for bloggers to make some money on their blogs, as well as some of the ideas we have at The Mercury to better promote your blogs (and hope you promote us as well!)

Mercury city editor Tony Phyrillas whose four political blogs have attracted more than 400,000 unique visitors since he began blogging will offer a brief presentation on blogging tips to grow audience.

We'll have coffee and light snacks.

Please plan to attend.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Mother's Day message about my son

Rather fitting with Mother's Day on Sunday that I write today about the last day of work at The Mercury for our promotions director. Fitting, because he is my son.
Chris March is leaving Pottstown, moving up to a job as online promotions/advertising at The New Haven Register, the largest newspaper in the Journal Register Company, parent company of The Mercury. He has earned the promotion after two and a half years working as a liaison here between the advertising and circulation departments and the commmunity.
His involvement on behalf of The Mercury with the Schuylkill Riverfest, Fourth of July committee, Montgomery County Community College, Healthy Lifestyles Expo and Relay for Life has enhanced the newspaper's role in the community.
His creativity in promoting our products both in print and online has given us a fresh approach among newspapers our size, and his professionalism has earned him respect of his colleagues and the community at large.
That said, it can't be easy being the editor's son.
Chris learned a long time ago that the newspaper business has both rewards and drawbacks.
When he was 2, his grandmother would bring him in here in the evenings to visit his parents when they worked and share a Coke with his Dad.
When he was 5, he would fidget in an office chair during late-afternoon Page One meetings while his parents planned the next day's paper. There was the one-hour overlap between my day shift and my husband's night shift.
Also when he was 5, he joined photo supervisor John Strickler riding in a golf cart on a "bear hunt," chasing down a wandering black bear on the grounds of Brookside Country Club for front-page pictures.
When he was 7, he made the front page after finding a lost boy who had wandered onto our property and fallen asleep in the woods near the bus stop where Chris and his friend Donnie embarked.
When he was 15, he wrote a column for the editorial page after a high school teacher wrongly ridiculed the spelling of a word in a Mercury headline.
When he was 17, he wrote a piece for the Daniel Boone high school newspaper about the emotional aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The reaction from his classmates to his writing sealed his future: He was a journalist.
When he was 19 and studying journalism at Penn State, he wrote music reviews as a free-lancer for TimeOut.
And, when he was 23 and looking for a job to use his degree in journalism and internship in marketing, publisher Tom Abbott gave him an opportunity to fill a vacancy and shape a new position here in advertising promotions.
Now, he's moving on.
It is a privilege as a parent to witness your child exhibit at work the qualities you hope you have helped instill. I have enjoyed that privilege the past two and a half years.
Chris is professional, easygoing, creative, helpful and conscientious. I'll share credit for some of his qualities, as one of two parents who demonstrate a solid work ethic and who taught respect for others. Some of it, I'll chalk up to good genes.
Mostly, the respect I hold for my son professionally is all his own doing.
Today is Chris' last day at The Mercury.
It's Mother's Day for me.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Teen driving laws: Demand action TODAY

Today is the last day the Pennsylvania Senate will be in session until May 24.
Today is the last day until after the primary election for state senators to vote on a law that can save the lives of teenagers.
Today is the last day before another three weeks go by for Pottsgrove mothers Karen Cantamaglia and Marlene Case to convince legislators that not another teen should die in a car crash.
Today is the last day before the campaign break to tell every state senator in Pennsylvania to join the cause of saving teenagers’ lives.
House Bill 67 is at the top of the calendar list of bills awaiting state Senate action for today. Sadly, it’s at the top not because it is the most important to legislators but because it’s on its third go-round without yet becoming law.
The bill, known as Lacey’s Law, proposes teen driving in honor of Lacey Gallagher, who was killed in a crash on the way to a post-prom party in 2007. Lacey was riding in a carload of teens when the vehicle crashed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Like Lacey Gallagher, Michael Cantamaglia and Andrew Case were riding in vehicles of six or more teens, as were Breanne Brothers and Andrea Antonio-Harris of Pottstown, whose crash deaths occurred just 20 days after Case and Cantamaglia.
Karen Cantamaglia and Marlene Case went to Harrisburg Monday to plead for passage of House Bill 67. They asked the state Senate to pass the bill now, before another teen dies.
Amendments have been proposed for House Bill 67 that go beyond what safe-driving advocates believe is necessary. Legislators in more rural areas of Pennsylvania want amendments put into the bill that ease passenger restrictions.
This legislation is too important to be delayed any further, and teens’ lives are too important to see the restrictions watered down. Pennsylvania is among the most lax states in the nation for teen driving laws, and teens are paying the price.
House Bill 67 should come to the Senate floor for a vote without amendment to weaken the provisions. It should come to a vote today.
Email every state senator today:
“As a constituent of Pennsylvania, I demand that House Bill 67 become law and that it limit to one the number of non-family passengers in a car driven by a teen.
“This law is critical to the well-being of our young drivers and their passengers. It is critical to parents, teachers, police, and every citizen of Pennsylvania.”
Send this message this morning to every state senator and tell them saving lives is more important than carpooling convenience. Tell them this cause is too important to delay.
The tragic circumstances that took the lives of Lacey Gallagher, Michael Cantamaglia, Andrew Case, Breanne Brothers and Andrea Antonio-Harris should be forbidden by law.
We demand action now.
Copy this message and email to every state senator.

For more information, read our series, "Tragedy in Numbers."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Thank goodness it's not Friday

"Thank goodness it's not Friday" is my new motto.
Fridays in the newspaper business were busy; Fridays in the new news ecology business are over the top. In the newspaper business, reporters spend Friday putting the finishing touches on stories due for the weekend editions. But, when weeks are busy which is all the time, that means starting to write their weekend stories on Friday. Those stories need to be edited.
In addition, editorials have to be written or selected from The Associated Press or Journal Register News Service.
Page editors have extra pages to do -- Sunday advance, three Opinion pages, Art Matters, church for Saturday -- with a reduced staff. In a seven-day operation on a five-day schedule, some people are off on Fridays, others on Mondays.
These factors add up to busy Fridays --- add in a road rage incident, arson at a local armory, follow to the police search and suicide of road-rage suspect, car into the Rocket Car Wash, press conference for motel murders -- and you see what the past few Fridays have been like at my desk.
For all these news events, we have been posting news online as quickly as we can, including Facebook and Twitter alerts.
Now, I have a question: What do you think of how we're doing, and can we do it better?
Call this Monday morning feedback after crazy Fridays.
How do you use our Twitter alerts and our Facebook postings? What times of day do you check How do you find out about breaking news?
Please comment and tell me how you use The Mercury's online tools.
Especially on Fridays.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Of Woodward, Bernstein and Ben Franklin

I started working as a reporter in the era of Woodward and Bernstein, All the President's Men, Watergate and Deep Throat ... entry-level reporting jobs were hard to get because lots of people wanted to be reporters. To change the world, uncover corruption, meet secretly with sources in parking garages.
The terrible hours and bad pay didn't matter so much in the '70s.
In the years that have passed, other professions (teaching) have greatly increased in salary and benefits compared to reporting. Journalism's star has fallen, and it has not been the romantic exciting profession it once was.
Until recently.
The online world that we once feared would be our demise has become our new frontier. Here's what I wrote about a recent day in the life of The Mercury:

And, here's what happened just last night in nearby Sellersville. Check out this story from The Reporter in Lansdale writing about The Ben Franklin Project, an initiatve involving Journal Register Co., which owns The Mercury.

Might not be Watergate, but we're going somewhere.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

News a new way

Choices and opportunities are in no short supply these days, and we are working not only to present them to our readers, but to offer them on whatever screen or piece of paper that comes into view. These options are changing dramatically the way we work in journalism.
Consider Friday April 9: The day began with the report of a road-rage shooting on Route 422 near Oaks. The news of the shooting was immediately posted to and simultaneously to our Facebook page at PottstownMercury and sent to those following MercuryX on Twitter.
The importance of this immediacy went beyond grabbing audience attention; it also served a purpose to broadcast for police the description and license number of the car and driver they were seeking as a suspect in the shooting.
As the day wore on, 422 commuters became a reporting force, alerting others to the whereabouts of this suspected errant driver and sharing information. John Yannarell went to a lawyer and turned himself in within hours because he learned that his license number was being broadcast throughout the greater Philadelphia area.
A byproduct of these immediate news blasts and the all-inclusive nature of online reporting is that the readers become a part of the story. By day’s end on April 9, we learned through our readers’ reporting that this was not the first time a car fitting the description’s of Yannarell’s was seen involved in highway games of cat-and-mouse.
When I began my career as a reporter here, we drove to reporting assignments in company-owned cars that invited “Call The Mercury at 323-3000 with News Tips!” Today, we invite readers to let us know what’s going on around them by telling us on Facebook or our Web site or on Twitter. We still answer the phones, but more and more, we find people sharing news with us online.
The See-Click-Fix partnership on our Web site is one example. Readers report what they see wrong in their communities that needs fixing -- unmowed grass, potholes, unplowed streets, signs down, abandoned properties -- and the site maps the location. We are already seeing results as municipalities respond to the reports on our Web site.
The ability of many people to report on what’s going on around them is bringing the outside in to our newsroom. In years past, newspapers may have fought this trend, defending our turf holding shields of Fourth Estate importance to ward off the masses. But if the tough times our industry has endured in recent years have taught us anything, it is to embrace the online world, not fight it.
Last week we began the next phase of our program to involve readers as writers and let the audience help write the play. Our first Community Media Lab was launched, forging a partnership with bloggers on Town Square at
The Community Media Lab is a community-focused program that partners Pottstown tri-county area residents with The Mercury’s reporters and editors. All we ask is that you have an interest in improving your community, be willing to dedicate time to reporting on the issues you feel are important to area residents, and participate in our training program.
We will give you access to our staff and our newsroom, provide you with training, give you a larger audience and a stronger voice. We invite bloggers to write about their interests and their towns, to tell us and their readers who they are in the interests of transparency. In turn, we will spotlight those community blogs and promote them as a Town Square of resources for the Pottstown area.
The initiative is part of a larger grand plan of Journal Register Company to transform the media business. Also last week, Journal Register CEO John Paton has challenged two publications in the company to gather and produce a news product using only the tools available online to anyone for free.
The experiment, known as The Ben Franklin Project, is unfolding right in Montgomery County, where the staff of the small weekly Perkasie News-Herald, Tuesday night hosted residents in the Sellersville Theater at a town meeting on producing a news product from the ground up.
The Ben Franklin Project is already being watched and reported on – tweeted and linked – among media watchers throughout the world. Media watchers just like you – our audience of readers online, on mobile, on 3G networks, in voice, print and video.
We invite you to join us in watching the progress of this experiment as our company helps redefine media and join us at a Community Media Lab as we work to make the Pottstown tri-county area a better place to live.

You can watch the progress of Montgomery County of the The Ben Franklin Project at
Join our Community Media Lab by contacting Nancy March at or 610-970-4470. Follow me on Twitter at merceditor