Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 was a year to forget

In many ways, 2012 is a year we would like to forget.
It was a year of too much horror and heartache, a year that saw the legends of a generation pass and that left us reeling with questions about random violence rocking our sense of security.
Not since 2001 and the terror of 9/11 have we felt so hopelessly victimized as we did twice in 2012.
The world didn't come to an end on Dec. 21, as the Mayans predicted.
Instead it came to an end a week earlier on Dec. 14 for 26 families who lost their children in the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn.
The massacre was the second mass shooting of horrendous proportion, coming five months after a deranged lone gunman killed 12 people and injured dozens at a Colorado movie premiere.
We saw the venerable educational institution of Penn State University rocked by scandal that began in 2011, resulting in 2012 in the trial of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on charges of sexally abusing and raping young boys.
Again, the horror in headlines. 
The scandal included a sad chapter, as legendary Coach Joe Paterno died of cancer early in the year.
JoePa, Whitney Houston, Nora Ephron, Etta James, Dick Clark -- all legends to different groups for different reasons -- all giants in someone's world, now gone.
Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on New York City and the Jersey shore, leaving in its wake death and destruction, forever altering shore towns that for many held their fondest memories of summers gone by.
Part of the sadness of 2012 is that the things destroyed were the very things we held dear in our hearts  -- a Jersey shore memory, a first grade class, a night at the movies.
I am a Penn State alum so I add the happiness of Nittany Valley to that list.
In the December buildup to the Mayan calendar tale, there was a lot of talk that it didn't mean the end of the world, it meant a change in the world.
2012 was a year that turned upside-down many things we believed were stable and safe.
In so doing, many of our fears were laid bare.
As we head toward 2013, the hope is that we have a place to start.
Perhaps the awful events of 2012 were a way to turn the directions of violence and hatred in a different direction.
A local leader who I respect said to me recently: "All our agendas have been exposed. Maybe that's the first step to figuring out how to change society and make it truly about goodwill toward others."
That seems at least a way to look at the year past beyond just regret.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Successful show of support for literacy

About one in six adults in the U.S. is not literate, as defined by reading and writing above a fifth grade level.
Low literacy costs the nation more than $200 billion a year in lost productivity.
More than four million Pennsylvania adults lack the basic literacy skills needed for gainful employment.
Those statistics are listed by the Pottstown Adult Literacy Center among "Literary Fast Facts" to highlight the need in Pennsylvania and in the Pottstown tri-county area for support of adult literacy programs.
The center, part of the Pottstown YWCA but located in its own offices in the lower level of 1830 E. High St., offers classes and tutoring for adults and students in reading, writing, citizenship and math.
The center has a small staff, using resources of volunteers and materials bought through grants and limited funding.
Like most service agencies, the center has experienced cuts in funding and grants from county and state government due to budget constraints.
Despite the cuts, the need for training is increasing. The center served more than 400 adults last year and expects to see that number go higher this year. Many are English as Second Language students who need help mastering English to continue education, workforce training, or to get jobs.
Others are students who need extra help to master college courses or pass tests necessary for education or work.
Some in the program are older adults who never learned to read well enough to read to their grandchildren.
Increasing literacy in our local adult population is important to the community and to our nation's economy. It is certainly important to the newspaper industry which depends on people reading.
Those are among the reasons our staff and our TownSquare network of bloggers joined forces with the literacy center to raise money and awareness about the need for adult literacy training. Tuesday marked the wrapup of a monthlong campaign in which an anonymous donor gave $1 for every name of a person who signed on to support literacy programs.
The effort raised more than $900 for the tri-county center.
Literacy support does not stop here. The program needs volunteers and continued sources of funding to buy materials.
For those who read and write every day, it's easy to take literacy for granted.
Such is not the case for everyone.
Helping our community raise the level of literacy is a goal in which we are proud to take part.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Children's story hour (with cookies!)

I was just sitting down to write a blog about our story hour at The Mercury Community Media Lab Friday night, but I see Business Editor Michelle Karas at Balancing the Books has beat me to it.

Below is her blog post; as a note from me, please join us for homemade cookies and story hour with our Mercury and TownSquare readers.

The Mercury is hosting a free story time for kids this Friday as part of the holiday events happening throughout the month of December in downtown Pottstown.

The Mercury's holiday story hour will be from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Community Media Lab, located adjacent to our main entrance at 24 N. Hanover St. in Pottstown.

Special guest readers Mercury Editor Nancy March, who writes The Editor's Desk blog; Reporter Evan Brandt, who pens the Digital Notebook blog; TownSquare blogger Mandy March from So Much To Do, So Little Time; and Community Engagement Editor Diane Hoffman, author of the Lessons in Triathlon blog, will read selected holiday-themed books to children and their families during the hour.

The book selections include "The Polar Express," by Chris Van Allsburg, which will be read by the beguiling Mandy March.

Fresh, home-made cookies and hot chocolate will be available for all children in attendance. (I'm hoping there will be some free cookies and hot chocolate for random adult book bloggers who also plan to visit the story hour.) There will also be a holiday coloring activity for children.

If you can't make it to story hour, be sure to stop back and visit The Mercury's Community Media Lab during its regular hours. The lab is free and open to the public Monday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is located inside The Mercury at 24 N. Hanover St. With three computers, a microfilm machine in which to look up archives of The Mercury that go back to 1933 and free WIFI for those with their own lab top, the lab is a great place to sit and relax. There's also a free lending library that includes all kinds of books, from "Into the Wild" by Jon Krakauer to a vast collection of Anita Shreve novels, available for borrowing. Coffee and water are also available for $1. The Media Lab is also available to community groups looking for a free space to use.

For more information about the holiday story hour or The Mercury's Community Media Lab, call Diane Hoffman at 610-323-3000, ext. 156, or email

Friday, November 30, 2012

Teaching offers lessons in literacy

The Reading and Writing for Literacy project we are taking part in at The Mercury and with our TownSquare network of bloggers has meaning beyond raising funds for the Pottstown Adult Literacy Center.
The project, in which bloggers are writing about what literacy means to them, also raises awareness to the difficulties our newer citizens have in becoming skilled at the quirky language they must master to succeed in schools and in jobs in this country.
The majority of us for whom English is our first language tend to forget that it isn't for everyone. We are in many ways English-language snobs.
Read Sound-Off on a regular basis and sooner or later you'll detect the resentment at having to "press one" for English in a phone menu.
Some believe English should always be the default language, no others allowed, everyone else get in line to learn it.
But we're not that nation anymore. According to Census statistics, 8.3 percent of American households speak a language other than English at home. Many citizens in our region were born in places or in households where English was acquired, not native, as a language.
When we speak of literacy in our town and our nation, we're talking about the ability to read and write in English. That's what's needed in schools and workplaces in the U.S.
Many immigrants or children of immigrants can speak articulately but have not been afforded the learning necessary for mastery of reading and writing in English.
The difficulty, particularly in writing, can plague an adult taking college courses or applying for jobs.
I witness this firsthand, as I teach writing at Reading Area Community College to adult learners who do not test high enough for freshman English. Many of them are ESL students.
Three years ago I started teaching at RACC as an adjunct two nights a week, initially to help pay the bills for my own children in college and to explore teaching as a possible second career if I ever retire from the media business.
My classes are made up of high school dropouts coming back after getting a GED to give college a try, adult learners changing careers, parents who work in service industries or manual labor and want to improve their future job opportunities. Some are recovering addicts or ex-prisoners on parole living in halfway houses.
Ages range from 18 to adults in their 40s; some are parents of infants, and some are grandparents of teenagers.
What they have in common is a desire to improve their ability to read and write so they can succeed in college. I help with the writing part.
Their patterns of errors map the path of difficulty in writing in English. I can follow the trail from pronoun antecedents to singular verbs that end in "s", to family becoming families and child becoming children to see the struggle.
I tell them to read aloud and listen for their mistakes, and they stare back at me. They don't read with the inconsistencies that our language of exceptions provides.
Working with my students is among the most rewarding tasks I accomplish. I tell them there are two things I want them to achieve in my class: the first is to find their voice in writing and express themselves in a way that gives them confidence; the second is to learn the rules and basics of grammar and spelling so they can write effectively.
The second frequently interferes with the first.
My students are an inspiration to me as they work to learn to read and write at a level that allows them to be successful in their lives. Some of them want so badly to master the academics, while roadblocks like unfamiliarity with computers and poor training in the literacy basics get in their way.
They keep trying, and I smile at the unmasked honesty in their journals and their essays.
Without learning, they couldn't read or write their stories. That's why I teach.
The Mercury and TownSquare Reading and Writing for Literacy project is raising funds for the Pottstown Adult Literacy Center.
We are asking our readers to simply add your name to those who support the Adult Literacy Program.
A donor will give $1 for every signature as submitted on the following form.
The project, which lasts until Dec. 11, has thus far collected 721 signatures which translates to $721 to help fund literacy efforts in Pottstown.
Help us reach $1,000 by signing the form.
These dollars will go a long way to buy materials and help people learning to read.
Sign on to support our program: Pottstown reads.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A really cool idea, or two

"Do you know what would be really cool?"
These words from Mercury reporter Brandie Kessler were usually followed by:
"I know you probably don't want to do this, and you can say this is a dumb idea -- you're the boss, you do what you want, but I was just thinking wouldn't it be cool if ..."
A soliloquy along those lines preceded a number of really cool ideas that we have embraced at The Mercury and turned to successes for this newspaper and the community of the Pottstown area.
We collected more than 16,000 food items for area food pantries and nearly 1,000 containers of laundry detergent by joining efforts with TownSquare bloggers to spread the word about dwindling food supplies last winter.
Cool idea.
We created a Pinterest board of Most Wanted criminals in area police departments, getting pictures out to the public on a platform they use. Tips have led to arrests, which make police happy and make us proud.
Cool idea.
We are posting cards with donors' names to Operation Holiday on the window of The Mercury Community Media Lab as a colorful display and a thank you to the readers who send us thousands of dollars for our holiday giving program.
Another cool idea.
Brandie's coolest idea, at least in her mind, was raising money for the Pottstown Relay for Life by taking donations to pie a Mercury employee in the face at the Bark for Life event. The 2008 collection raised $2,700 and gave Brandie the opportunity to throw a banana cream pie in my face.

 I have had some cool ideas for Brandie, as well. One of them was sending her on the river with the Schuylkill River Sojourn last summer to live-blog four days of the river journey, traveling in her kayak, tweeting and taking video along the way.
Dedicated police reporter that she is, she fought me on leaving the office for a week to enjoy the outdoors.
I prevailed, and the blog was a gem.
Another idea I recently had was that she apply for a reporting job at our larger sister paper, the York Daily Record/Sunday News. I had learned about the job from colleagues at York, and I told her it was an opportunity she should not pass up. At least go for the interview, I insisted.
Again, the retorts that there are too many stories in Pottstown still to write, too much work still to be done.
But she went, and the rest, as they say, is history. Sunday was her last official day at The Mercury. She stopped in Monday though and I expect to see her again this week.
Brandie is one of a kind.
Her passion for reporting, her dedication to this craft, her persistence for excellence and her fearsome loyalty to her colleagues and others around her is unmatched.
That's why we already miss her.
There's a warning here, too, for our friends at YDR: Get ready for cool ideas.
And watch out.
You could end up with banana cream on your face. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Blessings of near-misses, minor crashes

I had a bad start to my day today, as this photo clearly shows.
Untreated roads were covered with an icy mix of rain and snow, and I headed out with an extra measure of care. My mistake, however, was wanting a second cup of morning coffee, taking Old Reading Pike to Dunkin' Donuts  instead of staying on the more heavily traveled business Route 422.
Snow was falling pretty steadily; the KYW traffic report was noting minor crashes in those ever-popular northern and western suburbs.
I was coasting along about 30 miles per hour on a straight level stretch of road when the car started skidding -- sideways, then the other way, then sideways again.
The car was on its own, me helpless as I experienced in slow motion my red convertible making its way off the road. 
Into a tree.
The front right corner hit the tree before the car slid sideways into a large bush. The air bags didn't go off; I wasn't jolted or hurt in any way.
We are firm believers in our household in the coincidence of threes, and indeed, this was our third car mishap in five days.
The first of those three bears retelling:
Four of the five members of our family were driving home together Thursday evening after a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at our son and his girlfriend's apartment in New York.
Our younger son was driving, his twin sister the front passenger,  my husband and I in the back seat.
Traffic was light, and we were two-thirds of the way home on I-78 approaching Allentown.
As we passed the Hellertown exit, the unthinkable happened. My son saw it first - a car coming the wrong way up the ramp onto the interstate, crossing lanes, and speeding toward us in the passing lane. 
The car was barreling full-on at us, both vehicles going at high speeds in the passing lane.
Scott swerved the car slightly to the right but couldn't get completely out of the way because of cars alongside us.
The approaching car also swerved and went partly onto the grass median, narrowly avoiding the head-on collision that would have killed us all.
We were shaken, to say the least, thankful for the blessings of quick reflexes and angels watching over us.
We later learned the driver was arrested for DUI after going five miles in the wrong direction on I-78. The news report said nothing of crashes or near-misses, so we can assume he avoided hitting anything.
Those who know me well know incidents with cars are my plague and probably my greatest annoyance.
But today I am thankful for the near-misses and skids that end slowly. They remind me of how close we come to tragedy and how remarkable the forces of fate are in sparing us.
Be careful out there. Always.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Learning value of education from those who missed out

I was raised with the importance of reading and writing drilled into my life by two people who learned the hard way.
My parents, both born in the middle of large families, had to quit school after the 8th grade. My dad had to work full-time on the family farm; my mom was needed at home to help care for younger siblings and to start earning a wage doing housework for others.
Both families were poor in dollars, rich in lessons that my parents passed on to me and my brothers.
Education was a privilege denied them, and that made its value so much greater. As parents, they never let us forget it.
I've seen the emphasis passed on among my cousins, a message strengthened through my parents' generation by the hardship it took to acquire it.
I didn't realize until much later in my life that my parents were fortunate in what they took from those eight years of schooling, in both cases taught in rural one-room schools of the early 1920s.
My dad had flawless spelling and could write a good letter when he needed to; he was quick and adept at math, and served as president and treasurer of nearly every group he joined, including being an elected school board president and the treasurer of the Boyertown Area School Board during the era of expansion that included building the junior high west center.
He was surrounded by people much more learned than he, and yet he was often at the head of the table in clubs, the church consistory and sports teams.
Although he worked at Doehler-Jarvis as his day job, he ran his own taxidermy business in our basement, having learned the trade through distance learning by mail.
My mom's lack of education showed in her spelling, but it didn't stop her from communicating well. She spelled things phonetically, a trait that brings a smile upon reading her handwritten recipes for "punkin" pie or "dumplins."
She had insights and an understanding of people and situations coupled with a desire to keep learning. When my brothers were in college, she borrowed some of their textbooks as leisure reading. She particularly liked psychology courses.
She emphasized always that we have books in our home and in our lives as children. But even more important to her were "educational" toys, as she called them. Of course I had my share of dolls and my brothers had plenty of sports gear, but she made a point of insisting that blocks, puzzles, word games, and books were more important.
We were raised knowing we would go to college. It was a rule that my mother enforced. Although I didn't know it until my parents were in their twilight years and I was settled into my adult life, my dad had at one time thought a college degree wasn't necessary for me because I would "just get married and have a family."
My mother prevailed with her philosophy: "You can lose the people around you; your job can end. But no one can take away your education."
Her strong stand molded my future.
My parents knew from experience that education does not come easily to everyone.That's what the Pottstown adult literacy program is about. It benefits people whose lives did not start easily, and it has the potential to further those opportunities we know come from education.
Pottstown's literacy effort needs your help.
With just a few minutes of your time, you can sign on to support the Adult Literacy Program. A donor will give $1 for every signature as submitted on the following form. 
Those dollars will go a long way to buy materials and help people learning to read. My mother would call this effort "educational;" I call it a second chance.
Sign on to support our program: Pottstown reads.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

From Agnes to Sandy: How we cover a hurricane

Our staff at a news site in Pottstown where the Philly suburbs complete their turn to rural Pennsylvania rarely covers a hurricane. We have our share of flooding on the Schuylkill River and large creeks -- Perkiomen, Manatawny, French Creek  -- and sometimes the effects of hurricanes have been involved.
Last year, Irene caused some evacuations and flooding of the Perkiomen at Collegeville and Graterford. We had some Floyd-aftermath flooding in 1999, and I remember writing headlines about the approach of Gloria some years back.
But for full-fledged hurricane reporting, we have to go back 40 years to Hurricane Agnes.
Until this week and Sandy.
Like Agnes in June, 1972, Sandy set her sights on New York and New Jersey, and slammed Pennsylvania in-between with gale-force winds and drenching rain.
The AP reported winds reached 81 miles per hour in Allentown; Hanover, Pa. got 8.15 inches of rain.
Twelve deaths were reported in Pennsylvania, several of them from carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.
In our area, a 62-year-old man was killed when a tree crashed through his porch roof while he was taking the dogs out.
The biggest difference between reporting a hurricane and reporting some after-effects like flooding is the breadth of the storm and the dangers to ourselves.
When I send reporters over to South Pottstown to report on damage to the homes along the Schuylkill River, I tell them to wear boots, protect cameras and stay out of deep water.
But on Monday with Sandy "looming large," the warnings were more stern. We put a plan in place to keep paginators and online producers at home, as long as their power lasted. We bought car chargers for laptops; put fresh batteries in flashlights; kept cell phones fully charged.

Reporters and photographers and two editors were in the office, coordinating coverage. We planned a front page by phone, brainstormed headlines like we always do, but in phone and email instead of in person. We kept website, Facebook, Twitter and mobile sites up to date.
By 8 p.m. Monday night, we closed up at the offices and drove home just as the wind speeds were picking up. Two people were on alert to go out overnight if they got word of a water rescue, fire or building collapse. The message was: Don't go out for flooding or wind damage. That can wait until daybreak. Don't risk going out in this wind unless it's a disaster that demands immediate reporting.
By Tuesday, many of us had lost power in our homes, but The Mercury did not. Neither did the offices of our sister sites in the Philly cluster, except Montgomery Media and a portion of the Delco Daily Times building.
To be sure, not all systems were working perfectly due to the devastation Sandy caused around us, in New York City and the Jersey shore. But for the most part, we could work.
The greatest damage here were giant trees uprooted, wires down and limbs everywhere. Fortunately, none of our staffers suffered damage to their homes except for some damaged gutters and broken tree limbs. The inconvenience of losing cable or Internet or lights and TV is minor compared to what we witnessed at the beach and in New York City.
Ironically, Sandy stormed our way the year of the 40th anniversary of Agnes and a recap of that coverage. There was no comparison to the devastation caused by Agnes, but the approach was the same.
When we pulled out the old Agnes papers for research last summer, we noticed there were no bylines in those editions, just a box that said everyone on staff contributed to everything they produced.
That's how The Mercury covered a hurricane 40 years ago.
With a bit of sarcasm and some silliness, our staffers like to say "there's no I in team." (I won't repeat the second half of their slogan about three "u"s.) 
That's how we covered Sandy, and why it was different than a normal storm. 
The bylines don't matter in a hurricane; the team effort does.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

Join us for literacy project

Our Community Media Lab went to the dogs last week.
The Pottstown Bark for Life planning committee became the first community group to take us up on the offer to use our space in The Mercury for a meeting. The meeting involved about 20 people, but the talk was all about the dogs -- and the plans for next spring's Bark for Life event that raises money for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life.
The group took advantage of our central location in town, our welcoming space, and free Wi-Fi for an organized committee meeting.
Their meeting was the first example of uses we hope to see in our newly created space at 24 N. Hanover St. in Pottstown.
Other news from our lab is that we're changing our hours to promote after-school use by students as a quiet study spot.  Currently, the lab has been attracting area residents who use the computers to look for jobs or learn about blogging from community engagement editor Diane Hoffman.

A recent field trip visit from Pottstown High School students reminded us that the mid-day hours are not as practical now that school has started. The local students told us our room looks like a good study spot if open after school.
As a result, we'll be changing in the next two weeks to open the room from 3 to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays and keep our mid-day hours on Mondays and Tuesdays.
There's more ...
This Tuesday, Oct. 9, The Mercury is hosting a Community Media Lab meeting for our Town Square bloggers and anyone else who wants to come out and learn about blogging, the media or just view our exhibit of Mercury news photos.
The goal of the meeting is to embark on a literacy project.
What form will that project take?
Well, that's up to you and those attending the meeting.
Our goal is to help people embrace reading and help those struggling with illiteracy learn how to read.
We might sponsor tutoring sessions in our lab, or conduct a book drive for children's books, or build a lending shelf of books for adult new readers.
We've invited the literacy volunteers from the Pottstown YWCA Adult Literacy Center as guests Tuesday night and are hoping to brainstorm ideas and come up with a project and plan to get Pottstown reading.
Promoting literacy promotes education, helps people find jobs, helps employers fulfill workforce needs, and thus, combats homelessness, poverty and hunger.
Promoting literacy helps people and helps our towns.
Come out Tuesday night to visit our Community Media Lab, learn what our community engagement outreach is all about, learn about blogging and join the conversation to build literacy.
We're meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the Community Media Lab entrance of The Mercury on Hanover Street.  See you there.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Sound-Off sandwich? Tell us what you think!

Fridays are special days at Grumpy's Hand-Carved Sandwiches.
 And, today is The Mercury's turn at inspiring their special, a Sound-Off wrap with an invitation to say what you think, just like our callers to Sound-Off.
We in the newsroom are regulars at Grumpy's, 137 High St., in downtown Pottstown.
We like the good coffee within walking distance of our office. We like the fresh baked goods from Company Cakes. We like Gene and Sheila Dugan, the owners.
 We love the homemade salads, soups and sandwiches. 
Gene will customize sandwiches or salads to suit our tastes and our commitments to healthy, vegetarian or pure chocolate-loving lifestyles.
Sheila, as Proudly Pottstown and the Main Street manager,  partners with our Community Media Lab on downtown initiatives. We fit a bit of community engagement business talk in with our orders. 

Every Friday, Gene likes to create a sandwich that reflects a downtown business. This week is our chance.
The Sound-Off wrap, Gene says, has a Greek influence because of The Mercury "messenger-god" symbolism.
The wrap includes roasted chicken slices, roasted peppers, spinach, feta, olive oil and black olives.
My Sound-Off comment: DELICIOUS!
Stop in and try one. Right now while the Friday specials last, open until 6 p.m.
We hope to be featured again soon.
Maybe a panini 'Stop the Press' sandwich? 
Shop local. Eat at Grumpy's. 


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

For better or worse, July 4th celebration defines Pottstown

I wrote this editorial about the Pottstown Fourth of July Homecoming celebration over the weekend but there was not enough space on the Opinion page for all I want to say about the event being in jeopardy because of lack of funds.
It's one of those things that I think defines Pottstown, both in its successes and shortcomings, and also one of those things that runs parallel to the path of this newspaper where I started working before there was a Homecoming celebration here.
Pottstown's Fourth of July celebration was started by my first boss, Bob Urban.
Bob and his family lived in town, and he was the kind of editor everybody in the neighborhood knew and liked. He helped his son deliver papers in the morning; he ghost-wrote an outdoors column under the pen name Rod N. Reel, and he led a newsroom that understood "hyperlocal" long before websites were vying for share of audience.
Bob started the Fourth of July celebration along with Gary Babin, who was head of the Pottstown Parks and Recreation Department at the time, because there was a gas crisis and they thought there should be something for local residents to enjoy on a holiday weekend without driving to the Poconos or the Jersey shore.
I was a reporter in 1978 when Bob came up with this brainstorm, and we had little choice but to rally round. We were assigned to write countless stories about the plans and typed in names and dollar amounts for the daily "honor roll" of contributors and the penny-a-vote queens contest.
I can remember Bob's enthusiasm at the fundraising success and reporters' sighs at the number of names we had to type as contributors sent in their checks. As I recall, the donations came into The Mercury to be counted, tabulated and deposited by employees here. We still do that with Operation Holiday, and the time of those tasks on top of regular work is no small feat in a news operation.
Bob's idea took off, and 34 years later, continues, albeit without the initial pouring in of funds or the townwide enthusiasm throughout the planning process.
In recent years, donations have dwindled to the point of endangering the celebration's future, and some on the planning committee have blamed The Mercury.
"It would be a shame that the organization which started the Fourth celebration in Pottstown will also be the one that ends it ..." is one of the comments we've heard repeated.
Those criticisms are fair in that we don't have the resources we had in 1978 to plan and execute a major fundraising campaign.
They are unfair in assuming that's why the balance sheet is turning red.
Even in the beginning, although begun by our leadership, the Fourth of July Homecoming committee was set up with people from all walks of life in town. We had just one seat at the table.
The stories we wrote reflected the energy and enthusiasm that was involved in planning a parade, a hot-air balloon launch, two to three days of activities at the park, a 10K race, food, Little League all-star games, music, rides and competitions.
In recent years, we have been criticized for not writing enough about the July 4th fundraising. But the stories are the same -- a plea that the committee needs money or the Fourth of July will end.
The 34 years since this newspaper was involved in starting the Fourth have coincided with 34 years of change in this industry, too. We can't afford to lament the loss of print readership and advertising; we have needed to forge ahead with a digital-first philosophy and change our ways to include social media, mobile apps, text messaging and blogs.
We try to extend the lessons of change to the community.
For several years, we hosted a Fourth of July committee blog which we helped set up with former committee member Chris Stafy. The blog is no longer updated but continues to attract traffic through Google searches.
Other bloggers -- the Sanatoga Post and Positively Pottstown -- have supported the Fourth. Even some downtown business owners this year conducted their own fundraisers to help out.
We don't want to see the local Fourth of July celebration in Pottstown end. It represents Pottstown's ability to come together as a community. Most of all, the events are just plain fun for families and friends to enjoy while celebrating the nation's birthday.
I have no magic bullet for the committee, just a lesson from the past.
As a newspaperman, Bob Urban knew the story had to be a good one to get attention. He led the effort to give us young reporters something to write about.
Now we're looking for news to tweet and post on Facebook and link to the web -- and still to write about.
The revival of a dying celebration in Pottstown by embracing new ideas? Now, that would be a headline we would love to share.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Free hot dogs!

The Mercury Community Media Lab is up and running and open for business, with regular hours four days a week and an open invitation to reserve it for community events.
Diane Hoffman, community engagement editor, has been assisting residents in using the computers for job searches, and some folks have stopped by to say hi and check out the newly remodeled space at 24 N. Hanover St.
But that's just the beginning.
Our current hours, 11 to 2, Monday through Thursday, are "summer hours," recognizing there is not as much demand for a cup of coffee and a lesson in blogging during a heat wave. We'll be expanding and offering more open hours going forward.
Next Tuesday evening, Aug. 7, 6 to 8 p.m., we will be hosting a meeting of our Town Square bloggers' network to introduce them to the potential uses of our Media Lab, and the public is invited.
Anyone with an interest in blogging or in learning what our Community Media Lab offers is welcome.
And since Tuesday happens to be the observance of National Night Out, we're also partnering with two of our Hanover Street neighbors to offer food, music, and exercise.
We will be grilling in the drive-through area of The Mercury with free hot dogs for anyone who visits, as long as supplies last.
Manning the grill will be Mercury staffer and Town Square blogger Evan Brandt, @PottstownNews.
Across the street, CrossFit Pottstown and owner Rob Matthews will offer free CrossFit classes during the hours of 6 to 8 p.m.
A DJ will be playing music on the sidewalk in front of the Community Media Lab, courtesy of Matthews and CrossFit Pottstown.
Also across the street, the Pottstown Downtown Improvement District Authority will have the Visitor's Center open with information about their new website, "Proudly Pottstown," and a display of old Pottstown photos.
In the Media Lab, bloggers will be sharing ideas on how to use the features of the lab for community outreach. Anyone who visits will be able to learn about the lab and about Town Square and how to start or network a blog.
Among the uses of the Media Lab are:
--readily available information about Pottstown, including maps of recreation areas and historic places to visit in the region,
--a Community Share bulletin board to post events, jobs, items for sale,
--gallery display of newspaper photos and front pages showcasing historic moments in Pottstown,
--lending library of books (we have some great summer reads!) with Mercury staff "picks",
--microfilm to research 85 years of issues of The Mercury,
--free Wi-Fi for your laptops or the use of three computers,
--Internet TV for small-group training purposes,
--coffee bar, and
--access to Mercury staff for assistance with computer searches.

The lab is available for use by community groups for forums or small meetings. We hope to see groups like SCORE use the space for a small-business workshop on social media, for example, or a neighborhood group invite school board candidates in for a Q&A.
We would like to see students from the Gallery on High or the Pottstown School District use our computers -- and start blogs to share with the community.
We're open for business and we want to show off what we have to offer.
Come by and visit: Tuesday night, Aug. 7, 6 to 8 p.m., 24 N. Hanover St., Pottstown.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Hands across Hanover Street

Next Friday, July 20, we are opening our remodeled Community Media Lab, one of a dozen or so open newsroom projects of Digital First Media, parent company of The Mercury.
The lab, once offices of The PennyPincher, has been remodeled and refurnished into a coffeehouse atmosphere. We're not quite finished but when we are, it will be equipped with computers, microfilm, Internet TV and free Wi-Fi.
The grand opening next Friday is being held simultaneously with the opening of a new Pottstown Visitor's Center across Hanover Street from our entrance.
Pottstown Borough Council approved our request to close the block of Hanover Street for part of the day so we can stretch a ribbon across the street between the two sites for a joint ribbon-cutting ceremony.
We'll have food donated by local restaurants at the visitor's center, which is home to the Pottstown Downtown Improvement District Authority and the Main Street manager, and more food (DESSERTS!) in our media lab.
The joint ribbon cutting will include speeches by Pottstown Mayor Bonnie Heath and Digital First Media Director of Community Engagement Steve Buttry, among others.
We learned in early spring that we were named as one of the sites for a DFM-sponsored community outreach project. The impetus for our selection was the success of our community food drive that collected more than 16,000 food items and nearly 700 bottles of laundry detergent in just five weeks. The food drive showcased the partnership of The Mercury and community bloggers with the greater Pottstown area community to accomplish a goal.

As we began working on our remodeling plans, we also learned that PDIDA and Main Street Manager Sheila Dugan were planning a similar remodeling across the street in the building that was the first home of this newspaper when it was founded in 1932 and was later site of Longacre's Jewelers and then a podiatrist's office. We decided to cross the street, bridge the divide and join forces with the downtown business group to reach out to our community.

"Someone had a vision of people working, collaborating and succeeding together in a place that promoted our community."

The theme of our joint ceremony is to reinforce old partnerships and introduce a new initiative in both community engagement and improvement.
Part of the emphasis in our grand opening is the "Buy Local" campaign growing in popularity in U.S. towns like this one.
The opening of our Community Media Lab is part of a two-day downtown Pottstown promotion focused on a Sidewalk Sale on Saturday, July 21. Our new site will be open to the public, and anyone who brings a receipt from shopping local that day will get a chance to win prizes in the downtown raffles being conducted throughout the sale event.
The Community Media Lab was designed to celebrate this newspaper's relationship with the town and surrounding area. We are opening our archives to visitors and making available microfilm of 80 years of publishing. On the walls is a photo display of some of our favorite newspaper photos over the years, reflecting life in the towns we cover. We will have free Wi-Fi, Internet TV, coffee and cold drinks available, a lending library of books (with recommendations for reading from our editors and bloggers) and computers for public use.
The space can be used to blog, work on a resume, research. You can ask us for help starting a blog, you can schedule a meeting of your writers group, you can knit, you can read, or you can just stop in to say hi, pick up a map of the Schuylkill River Trail or post a help-wanted notice on the Community Share bulletin board.
The Mercury has been a resource used in the lives of our readers for 80 years; this opening marks the start of a new era of engagement and working together.

"Hands were joined, ideas were shared and what started as an idea has become a partnership dedicated to a commonly held faith in new growth and new vitality for Pottstown."

Please join us. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Pedaling, paddling, Pottstown

Some things I learned last Saturday:
-- Paddling a kayak can be more difficult than it appears. Or, I'm just not coordinated.
-- The village of Douglassville, now a massive-area mailing address, was founded by an English Quaker George Douglass whose home in the 18th century is the mansion under restoration I pass every day on my bike ride to work.
-- George Washington stopped twice at the White Horse Inn in Morlatton Village for a meal or a drink. He didn't sleep there.
-- Bause-Landry Catering makes the best boxed lunch. (I already knew that; it was just re-learned.)
I learned these things while participating on the Pedal-Paddle event sponsored by the Schuylkill River Heritage Area. I also learned about some planned events the SRHA is working on, including a cycle and cemeteries tour for the Civil War 150th anniversary.
The Pedal-Paddle started with gathering at the Heritage Area headquarters at Riverfront Park to bike 4.5 miles on the Schuylkill River Trail to Morlatton Village. At the village, a guide from the Historic Preservation Trust of Berks County conducted a tour of the Mouns Jones House, White House Tavern, former Covered Bridge Keeper's House and an explanation of the Douglass mansion, though it was not open due to ongoing renovation.
Then, we biked to Ganshahawny Park where a boxed lunch was served, kayaking instructions were given, and we set out on the river to paddle back to Pottstown.
The cost of the day's events were $25 and included use of a Bike Pottstown yellow bike, lunch, kayaks provided by Kelly's Canoes and Kayaks -- and lots of free and useful information.
Special thanks to Chris from Kelly's who paddled alongside in an attempt to convince me I was not as woeful a kayaker as my wandering route indicated.
Calm and confidence is key to success in everything. I learned that, too.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Tale of two forest fires

It's been just two months since a forest fire in the French Creek State Park and Hopewell area gamelands caused an evacuation of homes along Sycamore Road in Union Township and St. Peters Road in North Coventry. At the time I told my brother who lives in the Black Forest area of Colorado that I thought forest fires were more a threat to his home than to mine.
This week, I recalled those words, as well as my own evacuation dilemmas, as I called him to check on his household amid the raging Waldo Canyon fires.

My brother, Jim Egolf and his wife JoAnne live on the north side of Colorado Springs in the middle of usually tranquil forest, Pike's Peak visible from their deck.
He assured me this fire is too far off to endanger their home, but they are concerned nonetheless. The entire state is like a tinderbox, he said, and the concern is that one lightning strike, one errant spark from a target shooter, one cigarette butt, one careless act of burning could consume their side of the city as well.
"It's not this fire we're worried about," he said. "It's fear of where the next one breaks out."
They spent Wednesday night mapping out an evacuation plan. JoAnne took photos of belongings -- furniture, appliances, china and keepsakes -- for insurance purposes should they be destroyed. They went room to room, deciding what to take and what could stay behind.
"She's like you and wants the sentimental things," he laughed. "I think of the practical stuff and want to make sure we have all the financial records."
The conversation was somewhat surreal: I talked about my experience April 10, hurriedly taking the computer tower, the dog and the lockbox. He talked about their plans to fill two cars with the necessities, (the dog) and if they had enough time, make a second trip for more possessions.
The situation in Colorado is more massive, encompassing and threatening than our stubborn woods fire in April, but the similarities are striking.
"The help people offer each other is amazing," he said. I recalled how a stranger reached out to me on Twitter the night of our evacuation offering to pet-sit Sydney.

In Colorado Springs, the food banks asked for help, and then asked people to stay away because the line of cars to donate food was creating a traffic jam. Here, St. Peters Road residents closest to the fire cooked meals for the volunteer firefighters to show their appreciation.
He told me friends visiting from back East last week took the train up to Pike's Peak, and from the summit saw a tiny plume of smoke in the area of Waldo Canyon. By the time they reached the bottom of the mountain, the black smoke was filling the sky.

Here, in April, the scanner report in the newsroom that a brush fire had broken out was followed about an hour later with calls that smoke was seen as far as Limerick.
In both cases, strong winds and the "tinderbox" conditions caused by severe drought combined to fuel a terrifying force of nature as flames moved quickly along ridges and through valleys.
Jim told me elderly people are having breathing problems. Someone he knows was coaching an adult softball game when one of the players had a heart attack. His golf league suspended play this week because of air quality.
He said his phone has been busy with friends and family back East calling to check on them.
His account matched the experiences other local transplants to Colorado Springs have posted to The Mercury Facebook page. Most people are in their homes, safe, just as most people in the Pottstown area were safe at home during the April fires here.
We're still affected though. The reality check of looking around your home to consider what you'll miss most should it go up in flames is an experience that stays with you. It's now an experience my brother and I share.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Telling veterans' stories: The least we can do

"Grant Cantrell is no longer in Afghanistan, but the peace and quiet of his North Coventry home is not enough to erase the horror he has seen, or the intense pain in legs doctors once wanted to remove."

Those words last Friday introduced a front-page story written by Brandie Kessler and photographed by John Strickler about a local war hero and his rehabilitation from injuries suffered in Afghanistan. It was not the first time the Purple Heart recipient was featured in The Mercury. We learned of Cantrell's return home when covering a welcome-home ceremony at Ludwig's Corner Horse Show grounds attended by a crowd who witnessed the emotional moment of this young Marine walking toward his mother, the first time since his injury she saw him walk unassisted.
Our staff, particularly Brandie and John, have written/photographed a number of homecoming ceremonies for returning soldiers, Marines and airmen. Our proximity to A Hero's Welcome, the organization started by Pottstown woman Sharon Hyland-Keyser and kept going by her mother Maria Hyland of Lower Frederick, and Brandie and John's sincere admiration for those who serve our country inspire many story pitches for coverage.
It's impossible to say no.
These stories and many others are also part of the American Homecomings website, a yearlong project of Digital First Media. Cantrell's story was the centerpiece of the website last week. Brandie's original feature on A Hero's Welcome remains one of the top-read stories on the national site, and a photo feature by John with another story by staff writer Frank Otto set the stage for the site's poignant coverage of Memorial Day across the U.S.

The stories of our returning servicemen and women are not always easy to read. And Brandie and John will tell you they are not always easy to report and photograph. These are stories of pain and readjustment, of futures shattered and dreams broken.
They are stories we need to hear, however.
As Americans, the least we can do for those who sacrifice for us is to take the time to learn about their struggles and honor their commitment. The least we can do is to take time to better understand what it means to leave here with a future intact and return to uncertainty.
The sacrifices are not only in physical injury but also in mental and emotional damage, in jobs put on hold, in education interrupted, in family moments missed and in experiences that alter a person's view of the world.
The least we can do for those who sacrificed is to seek understanding and to lend a helping hand.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Charging forward

I read this analysis of the changing newspaper industry recently after one of my Digital-First Media bosses Steve Buttry pointed to it in a blog post: This I Believe ... by Tim McGuire of the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

I also recently led a panel discussion at the Pennsylvania Press Conference sponsored by four state newspaper associations in Gettysburg on "Doing it All: Tips from old-school journalists in the digital age." The highlight was York Daily Record photojournalist Jason Plotkin, outfitted with bulletproof vest, hip waders, and an iPhone, reminding us that he is a pro who does not sacrifice quality in the name of a blogger with a Flipcam.

That evening (June 2) was the annual awards banquet sponsored by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association and Pennsylvania Newspaper Editors Association. Three hours of speeches more or less followed the theme: "Our business is struggling but thanks for this award that notices we're still trying." At the conclusion of the speeches -- yes, it really lasted three hours -- the Harrisburg Patriot-News and The Philadelphia Inquirer were honored as the two Pennsylvania media organizations that won Pulitzers this year for local reporting and public service. Their introduction and standing ovation was, as we say, a buried lead. The example of reporting excellence belongs front and center -- first, not last, in a year's retrospective of our profession.

These experiences got me thinking.

As I returned home that Sunday and to the office Monday, I was confronted by the mistakes an overworked copy desk misses on the front page, the bad headlines that get on to the web when the send button replaces a second read, and the uninspired content that comes from doing things the way we've always done them, even with new, faster digital tools and techniques.

But I also saw good work, much of it sadly taken for granted -- by us in our presentation and by our readers who are looking for something more immediate.

I decided it was time to stop talking about how change is pushing us, and instead, change how we're being pushed.

In the words of another media analysis, I don't want us to be "cranking out just enough rickety junk to keep words and pictures around the remaining ads" of a shrinking newspaper. ("Sustainable Quality" by Dan Conover)

Monday I wrote this staff memo:
"While I am forever encouraging people to think differently about how we do our jobs, I need to do some of that as well. After some discussion with others, it seems we cover high school graduations with story and photos just because that’s the way we’ve always done it. Starting now, we’re changing."

Tuesday I came into work earlier -- not to write another editorial or play on Twitter, but to sit still and plan how to best present to the readers of The Mercury and the audience at a meaningful look and analysis of the world in which they live.

I don't want us to crowdsource a reaction story to property tax reform on Facebook if we don't also provide a data analysis of how property tax has affected your households and your schools.

I believe we need to stop recounting the timelines of every crime and the events leading up to an arrest and start providing some perspective on the toll that crime takes on your neighborhoods.

I believe community engagement must go beyond being liked by a couple thousand people on Facebook. Being involved with the community means working together for good, not just sharing words and photos.

I want this newspaper and all its new and varied platforms to be an instrument for change in Pottstown and the surrounding area. I want people to discover in the print edition a reader's joy in experiencing a well-crafted story. I want the website to reflect the life of the towns we cover as vibrant, sometimes tragic, events and moments.

If we are to embrace change and grow, we can't be stuck trying to do things the way we've always done them and just add video. We can't write a slew of boring stories and pat ourselves on the back because we had a conversation with readers on Facebook or because we blogged a few times.

If I am going to ask others to look at their work as opportunity instead of burden, it starts with me. I believe that this newsroom is an amazing group of journalists who every day rise above the limitations of our industry. They report on this community with creativity, passion and accountability. What we need to do better is sharpen our presentation and follow with conviction our core values of telling the good story, fighting the important fight, and inspiring progress in the towns and schools we cover.

During the past two weeks, I've been busy writing memos, marking up papers and analyzing our work. If you read The Mercury in print, you may have noticed some bolder page designs, more colorful pictures, better packaging of news. If you follow online, you saw our photo galleries of high school graduations and our blog Schuylkill River Sojourn that traveled along with this year's 112-mile trek down the river.

I didn't give a speech at this year's awards banquet because we didn't win any major awards. If we had -- if I did -- it would be to say I believe in local journalism and this newsroom's ability to deliver it.

Keep an eye on us.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Read this, Mr. Governor

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett came to Montgomery County this week for an editorial board meeting with a group of editors from our Philadelphia area Journal Register Company newspaper group. Four of us -- me, Stan Huskey, editor of The Times Herald; Phil Heron, of Delaware County Daily Times, and Andy Hachadorian of the Daily Local News - alternated with questions to the governor in a videotaped, live-tweeted, photographed interview session. Reporters and other editors from our papers, plus The Trentonian and the York Daily Record/Sunday News joined the hour-plus session.
Corbett was more engaging, more personable than we expected from a governor who is being criticized within his own party for not working hard enough on relationships or getting out in front of people on issues.
He was also more evasive than we anticipated with actual answers to our questions. (News story is here)
But on one point, he was both personal and clear: In reply to a question about what he plans to do about the pension crisis in Pennsylvania, he suggested that the media should do more to highlight the problem and pressure legislators for action.
My reply: "We've all written those editorials."
His reply: "You and I read editorials; no one else does."
Though a surprise, considering the audience, and somewhat deflating, considering the speaker, Corbett's frank comment was not off-base.
Although I am a steadfast champion of the weight of an editorial voice to a daily newspaper, in recent years I have become less certain of the power of that voice to accomplish change.
People comment on editorials, it seems, when they support something they also support. But rarely if ever do I learn that an editorial changed opinion or reversed a course of action.
Corbett went on to say we should be writing news stories that explain the pension problem as opposed to editorials that advocate change.
Is the difference that news is on the front page versus the third-from-the-back-of-the-front section Opinion page? The Breaking News bar versus the Opinion dropdown on a website? Does a news story rank higher in a Google search than an Opinion piece?
When a newspaper writes a front-page editorial, as The Reading Eagle did on May 20, it gets attention, at least among other editors. The Eagle broke out of its consistent design to take over the front page on that Sunday with an editorial, "Take Charge," calling on the mayor and city leaders to address the problem of violent crime and its effect on the city and its reputation. Did it have an effect, inspire action?
The Harrisburg Patriot-News last year won nationwide acclaim for a full front-page editorial calling for Penn State Board of Trustees President Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno to resign for their roles in failing to address or to cover up the alleged sex abuse charges against former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Paterno and Spanier were both removed from their jobs the next day. Did the editorial influence those actions?
The Mercury has printed front-page editorials twice in the past decade, the first to call for public response in the wake of the 2005 late-night pay raise by Pennsylvania legislators. The second one was to push for change in teen driving laws to impose passenger limits after four local teens died in two crashes.
In the first case, the pay raise was repealed months later after an aggressive citizens campaign. The Legislature eventually passed teen driving laws more than a year after our editorial insistence they do so.
Are we, as the governor implied, voices in the wind?
The power of a newspaper editorial has changed, I believe, along with the changes in our industry. Opinion pieces don't go viral in the way a YouTube video of a baby in a washing machine might.
The measured words of a newspaper editorial are easily set aside and forgotten, while a blogger's rant is retweeted around the world.
Is the Opinion page of a newspaper falling by the wayside on the digital highway?
While the governor was talking with our group yesterday, at least five people in the room were tweeting quotes. The coverage was retweeted by online editors back in our newsrooms, collected with hashtags and gathered into a Storify stream. The audience for those tweets easily reached into the hundreds of thousands.
Video cameras captured the action for at least five websites with a total potential audience of nearly 15 million people a month.
You're right, Mr. Corbett, fewer people are reading the editorials. More, however, are getting our message.
That's why I wrote this blog.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cleaning up what others leave behind

Mother's Day morning turned out to be a beautiful day to spend two hours cleaning up the riverfront park, Ganshahawny -- that's Lenape for Tumbling Waters -- Park along Old Reading Pike in Douglass (Berks) Township. Fifteen volunteers including three people joining The Mercury newsroom crowd after reading about our community engagement effort gathered at 8 a.m. to clean trash out of the park. The effort was put together by Diane Hoffman, Mercury community engagement editor, and the site was chosen by readers' suggestions.
We donned our orange vests, put on work gloves, and with trash bags in hand, fanned out around the park.
Cleaning up in a public area like this one teaches a lot about human habits.
People don't like to pay the fee charged by disposal companies to get rid of tires. They prefer to throw them in the river, in the woods, or in swampy areas where flooding can cause them to be buried in mud.
People driving on Route 422 eat and drink while driving, and they get rid of their trash on the spot. McDonald's bags, Starbucks and Wawa and Dunkin' Donuts cups were everywhere. We found beer bottles, plastic soda bottles, candy wrappers and articles of clothing.
I cannot understand how anyone driving along the highway, surrounded by green hillside and woodland, can toss trash out the car window as if nature is a garbage bin.
In my Mother's Day frame of mind, I can only surmise they weren't raised right.
(Later in the day I asked my younger son, who has a penchant for Starbucks drive-throughs, if he would ever throw a coffee cup out the car window while driving, but even as I was saying the words I pictured the interior of his car. I know he doesn't litter coffee cups, water bottles or protein bar wrappers -- he collects them on the floor of the backseat. That's OK; he's not violating anyone else's space.)
Come to think of it, we didn't find much litter to match a healthy lifestyle. The wrappers were for Kit-Kats, not protein bars; bottles were Coke, not water; fast-food containers were fries, not salads.
Food waste wasn't all we found.
People treat the outdoors as a disposal site for large pieces of plastic, water softener salt bags, broken wheelbarrows, and bags of unwanted clothes.
There's a fair amount of hanky-panky going on in those speeding cars, judging by the beer bottles, condoms, underwear and even a wine carafe along the 422 bank.
Not raised right, indeed.
The group of newsroom volunteers cleaning up the park Sunday did a tremendous job of cleanup, working hard under the sun and ignoring the distraction of poison ivy and the discovery of two snakes, one of them a suspected poisonous copperhead.
Among the group were moms who could have been sleeping in, dads and sons and daughters who could have been taking their wives/mothers out to brunch, young people who could have been enjoying the beautiful day in sports, hiking, motorcycle riding or any activity certainly more enjoyable than picking up after others.
Working alongside my newsroom crew made me proud.
A word to all their mothers: You raised them right.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sharing mothers' smiles

When holidays like Mother's Day are approaching, we typically brainstorm ideas for stories, features and photos that will involve our readers and provide something interesting for both print and online editions. We're particularly conscious of our readers' engagement with social media, and we look to how people are using Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for ideas.

This year, online editor Eileen Faust noted that one of her sisters often posts a picture of their Mom as her Facebook status picture on Mother's Day. Following that idea, we decided to ask readers to send us pictures of their moms. We're compiling them for a full page in print on Sunday; we've created a Pinterest board, and they're also appearing on our Facebook page.

I was immediately jealous of the pictures my co-workers were able to share of themselves with their mothers. First of all, it will be 10 years in August since my mother died, and I miss her every day. Seeing photos of daughters and moms laughing together -- at family picnics, a Phillies game, children's birthday parties, dinners together -- just makes me miss her more.

It's not that I was robbed of a full life with my mother; she was 86, and I was 48 when she died. But there's never a milestone in life or a precious moment that I don't want to share with my Mom. That's just the way it is.

And if seeing my younger co-workers with their mothers wasn't enough age-envy, there's the technology gap. I don't have any digital photos of my Mom, and I don't have many print photos of just the two of us. Once I was married and a mother, it seems all the pictures we took were my Mom and the kids.

So I ended up with these two pictures. One is a Mother's Day photo of me and my mother, circa 1980. It wouldn't require time-advancing photo techniques to illustrate how much I would age in resemblance of her. Any current photo of me will prove the truth of what so many people who knew her tell me.

The other photo of my Mom was taken at a birthday party for her at my brother's house -- it is a picture of my mother laughing. It satisfies the other longing because it brings her to life.

Sunday's Living front will feature the photos of many moms submitted by our readers. When we brainstormed how to feature Mother's Day, we settled on inviting readers to share their mothers' smiles. Because these are the images that live forever, even when mothers are gone.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Making a difference on Mothers Day

The card companies, florists and restaurants will have you believe Mother's Day is just for gifts and pampering. The tributes and thanks are important, and don't get me wrong, this is not a pass for my children to forget to call, write or send flowers on Sunday, May 13. But Mother's Day can be more than being pampered -- for some, it's a chance to celebrate and champion what mothers do best -- care, nurture, effect change, and make a difference. I have for many Mother's Days run in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure 5K in Philadelphia. Getting up at 5:30 a.m., driving to Philly to participate with more than 100,000 people running through the streets may not sound like fun to everyone, but it is a treasured tradition for me. I can think of no better way to celebrate Mother's Day than to spend a few hours outdoors with families honoring the women in their lives, or like me, remembering one who lost a battle with breast cancer. Two years ago, I spent Mother's Day moving our eldest child to a new life in New Haven, Ct. Nothing like celebrating motherhood by pushing a child out of the nest. And, last year, I ran the Race for the Cure with my daughter six days before witnessing her graduation at Ursinus College. This year proves to be another adventure in nurturing: the Mother's Day cleanup by The Mercury and friends to protect Mother Earth. The Mercury staff, under the coordination of Community Engagement Editor Diane Hoffman, is embarking on a spring cleanup of Ganshahawny Park in Douglass (Berks) Township. The cleanup area was found with the help of the Schuylkill Action Network and the votes of our readers on Facebook. The Schuylkill Scrub organization is providing trash bags and reflector vests, and several people have volunteered to help. We had some concerns about scheduling the cleanup on Mother's Day, but the timing from 8 to 10 a.m. shouldn't interfere too much with anyone's brunch plans. Getting muddy and picking up trash may not seem to some like a good way to spend Mother's Day. I think it's perfect: playing in the dirt with kids and doing something to make the world a cleaner, more cared-for place. Isn't that the best part of being a Mom? To volunteer to help The Mercury make our “Mother Earth” a little brighter this Mother’s Day, contact Diane Hoffman at or call 610-323-3000 ext. 156. Or show up. These are directions from The Mercury to the park (B):
View Larger Map

Friday, May 4, 2012

Filling the lab with opportunity

The call to #fillthelab takes on new meaning for The Mercury audience and residents of the Pottstown tri-county area, with the announcement today that our Community Media Lab was selected as one of 10 newspapers throughout Digital First Media to get funding for a community room project. Our proposal, sent in January to DFM head of community engagement Steve Buttry, was among dozens vying for selection as a corporate-sponsored project The competition for the honor -- and dollars -- to remodel or create new facilities for community outreach was fierce. Digital First Media includes more than 70 properties and more than 150 websites throughout the country, including properties as large as The Denver Post, San Jose Mercury News, and St. Paul Pioneer Press. Some of the proposals included vans, pop-up mobile labs and an extension of already successful and honored community newsroom projects. Ours was modest by comparison. (You can read our proposal here.) Then came the Fill the Community Media Lab food drive. As we wrote about the success of the drive, as Community Media Lab bloggers solicited and collected food, as the community room -- our lab -- filled with canned goods and boxes of oatmeal, our modest proposal took on new meaning. A town that engages that much with its newspaper deserves a community room, our corporate leadership team determined. And so today, the announcement by DFM of community rooms and mobile labs includes The Mercury. In coming weeks, we will work on a remodeling of our media lab to make it more inviting for the community use. We'll be setting up some computer stations for blogging, access to our archives with a refurbished microfilm machine, a more open space for meetings and workshops. We'll host some guest speakers, showcase local student art, and partner on events and open house activities with other organizations, including the Pottstown Downtown Improvement District Authority and the Pottstown Arts and Cultural Alliance. This is an exciting opportunity for our staff at The Mercury, but it is even more an opportunity for the bloggers in our Town Square network and for the community as a whole. And that makes sense because it was the people of Pottstown who made this happen. By filling the lab in a spirit of fighting hunger in our towns, our readers have given us a chance to fill the lab with more opportunities to make a difference.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Forest fire evacuation: The day after

I think I was in a state of some shock and disbelief yesterday.
First, the order to evacuate. Then, the sight of a sky filling with dark smoke just over the ridge that rises from our backyard.
After leaving our dog Sydney with my daughter, I came back to work. Throughout the evening, I edited and directed the news coverage of the Berks forest fire that threatened our family home. At the same time, in this news family of which I am part, my husband Bill March directed fire coverage at The Daily Local News in West Chester, where he is managing editor. We traded information as professionals, barely discussing our concerns as homeowners.
A little bit of shock, a little bit of denial.
As the evening wore on, we learned from our reporter and photographers on scene that the fire danger had passed by our home and was bearing down on St. Peters and Cold Springs roads, about a mile east of us on the top of the ridge.
Other media, particularly Philly TV stations, continued to focus on the fireworks plant next door to us. Here's where the denial was important: I chose not to dwell on sentences like "we don't know what would happen if fire spread to the plant," and "it's unknown how many tons of black powder are stored there..."
I was more worried about flames rolling through the woods to engulf our house than I was about being leveled by an explosion. I was more afraid of what I could see in the near-distance than of what was believed to be underground.
At 9:30 p.m., we got a call that Berks emergency management officials were holding a press conference at the township building. Reporter Frank Otto was about to go home when I nixed that idea and sent him off with videocamera in hand.
About 11, after an update from Frank and from Evan Brandt who was also still here posting updates on Facebook, I decided to head home with my daughter and the dog. Bill had already gone home from West Chester and reported the barricades were passable, and most of our neighbors appeared to be in their houses. There was no smoke visible -- not even the odor.
As I drove, I smelled the acrid odor so familiar from being a reporter at fires and an editor greeting photographers who come back into the newsroom afterward. I saw an ominous red glowing smoke plume in the sky, and I almost turned back.
This morning, there was just a faint smell of smoke in the backyard. The barricades were gone; the noises of the neighborhood -- school buses braking, machinery humming, muffled voices talking, Sydney barking -- were back. There was no visible smoke.
Looking back, I am second-guessing those "what to take?" moments yesterday.
What would happen if what I took was all we had?
If my kitchen, filled with parts of my life, went up in smoke, the one thing I could not replace is the recipe box with my mother's handwriting on index cards. I should have taken that.
Although the computer holds photo memories of the past few years, the albums with pictures of my children would be gone. I would never get over losing them.
My husband might want his collection of albums and CDs, but the music and images I would regret losing is the lone video copy of 18-month-old twins dancing crazily with their older brother to "New Kids on the Block."
I own little jewelry of value, but I have two cameo rings -- one, the first gift my Dad gave my mother, and the other, the first gift my husband gave me. If I lost them, I would be heartbroken.
The possessions to save are not the things we spent the most buying, they are the things we spent the most time living -- the keepsakes of those we love, much more than of things we accumulate.
Yesterday was a day of some shock and denial; today is a reminder of what matters most, and how fragile and dear are the pieces of our lives. If the fire turned and threatened our house today, I would make some different choices. But I would still take the dog.