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.