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.