Monday, February 27, 2012

'Fill the Media Lab:' A local effort to fight hunger

Last Thursday night a group of bloggers for Town Square, the network we feature as part of The Mercury website, joined us in a Community Media Lab event here. We had about 15 people, about half of them interested in learning about blogging and the others current bloggers with us.
The meeting turned to discussion of a community service project, suggested to me by our police reporter Brandie Kessler, to involve bloggers in collecting food for struggling food pantries in the area.
The inspiration for this idea was a news story and editorial two weeks ago highlighting shortages in food pantries as a result of high food prices driving up demand and pulling down donations.
Since our bloggers represent the individual communities we cover -- Royersford, Boyertown, North Coventry, Birdsboro, Phoenixville -- and since they have networks and followers throughout the region, we thought "Why not leverage those connections and pool resources into public service?"
Why not "fill the media lab" with enough food to feed area families? According to some food pantry managers we consulted, 20,000 items would provide food for about 200 families for a month, or 100 families over two months.
The goal is to collect for the 40 days of Lent and reach 20,000 by April 7-8, the weekend of Passover and Easter. We don't want to hold on to the food we collect and give it all at once -- that would hurt the pantries between now and then -- but rather "count" items and "pin" pictures of them to a board on Pinterest.
We want to fill the digital media lab while stocking the pantries of our towns.
The bloggers at the meeting were enthusiastic and anxious to get going so we launched the plan today in the print and online versions of The Mercury. Already, Joe Zlomek, our friend at The Sanatoga Post, has come on board.
We're getting suggestions by email for collection sites, including fitness centers and college dining halls. With this post, we're pinning the first food donations to the board. And the count is on ... eight items in, 19,942 to go!
As a sidebar, we are collecting laundry detergent for the pantries as well. Our goal is 1,000 containers of laundry detergent.
Please join us in this effort. You can bring non-perishable food items to The Mercury at Hanover and King streets in Pottstown, or you can send us a photo and a count and take the items directly to an area food pantry. Check out the blogs on Town Square and find the one that serves your community to participate at a collection site named on the blog.
Keep following us from now until Passover and Easter as we work together to fight hunger in our towns.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Time to make the doughnuts

These are what my mother called "Drop Cruellers," or "Sweet Milk Doughnut Holes". We make them on Donut Day/Fat Tuesday/Fasnacht Day and eat them warm. They're delicious no matter what you call them.

2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
5 teaspoons butter, melted
4 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
7-8 cups oil
confectioners sugar

Pour the oil (seven to eight cups) in deep fryer and preheat to 370.
Beat the eggs with paddle beater in large mixing bowl of electric mixer. Add sugar, beating slowly. Add milk and melted butter. Add in the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Mix thoroughly.
Roll dough into small balls, coating hands with flour as you work. Drop with spoon into oil. Fry for about 5 minutes or until firm and golden brown. Remove with slotted spoon onto paper towels, roll immediately in bowl of confectioners sugar to coat.
Makes about three dozen small doughnut holes.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Join us for a night of bloggers' inspiration

We held our first Community Media Lab at The Mercury two years ago, inviting people to come out, call, email, or write to join a new blogging venture we called "Town Square."
The first meeting was an introduction to blogging for The Mercury with me and online editor Eileen Faust doing most of the talking.
In the months following, we had forums about online commenting, monetizing blogs, growing traffic, getting out of writing slumps, and using social media to promote your blog. We did more listening than talking.
Last June, Town Square blogger Sue Repko held a Positively Pottstown Happy Hour in our Community Media Lab, turning our Lab into a lively networking event. (In some circles, they call that a party.)
Town Square and our Community Media Lab are examples of ways in which our industry -- and particularly our company -- are changing, throwing open doors to the community and sharing the joys and concerns of writing about the towns we cover with a whole new group of folks.
The blogging network has grown to nearly 50 bloggers on community or individual interests. Some, like Joe Zlomek's "Sanatoga Post" report similarly to The Mercury with news coverage of the region, sometimes complimenting our stories, sometimes scooping us, sometimes sitting side by side at a school board meeting and just taking a different tack in reporting the news.
Others like Sue Repko's "Positively Pottstown" or "Roots of Revitalization" by Teri Jensen Sellers and friends are true community blogs that celebrate and advocate for the neighborhoods.
We have foodies, Moms' blogs, coupon savers, pet lovers, and several Dads like "Troutrageous," "Founding a Father" and "Dad in the Kitchen." One especially popular blog at this time in the TV cycle of "American Idol" is "Eddie's Idol," with all the gossip and predictions that Idol lovers crave.
We have a bicycling blog, yoga blog and Mercury columnist Laura Catalano's slices of life in "52 Ways to Wake Up a Week." Mercury staffers Evan Brandt, Diane Hoffman, John Strickler and Tony Phyrillas are represented in Town Square with "Digital Notebook," "Lessons in Triathlon," "Strick's Pics" and "Film Fanatic."
The bloggers in our Community Media Lab and on Town Square offer a wealth of variety to our reporting in the Pottstown tri-county area.
We'd like to add even more.
We're looking for churches to write about the events in their congregations and the outreach on which they're embarking.
We want to hear from clubs and civic groups -- Kiwanis, Rotary, Relay for Life teams -- about the activities and fundraisers you're planning.
We would love to see more blogs from the towns and townships in the region: What's happening in Phoenixville, Boyertown, Spring-Ford, Daniel Boone schools?
We would like student blogs from area high schools: Why not put what used to be a student newspaper or the school yearbook online?
Blogging has the reward of saying what you want to say in your own way. Blogging on Town Square has the reward of being featured and highlighted on our website.
We can offer you help to get started, ideas along the way. All we ask is that blogs are identified with some transparency and that you link back to The Mercury website in exchange for us linking to you.
This Thursday we will host another open Community Media Lab for current and future bloggers. The theme is "Inspiration." We hope to inspire some new bloggers to join Town Square and infuse some new ideas into current blogs.
You can come to the Lab on Thursday evening, Feb. 23, between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. for this informal get-together. The entrance is on the Hanover Street side of The Mercury building at King and Hanover streets in Pottstown, alongside the main entrance.
Come out to learn about blogging or just to share some ideas with us.

Friday, February 10, 2012

BREAKING: News in real time

There's no better intro to a speaking engagement on ways in which the news business is changing than to arrive in a conference room 5 minutes after the SWAT van drives by, sirens wailing.
Members of the Leadership Tri-County class at the local chamber of commerce were anxious for my Thursday morning presentation for one reason: "What's going on in town? Do you know who it is? Do you know what he did?"
Well ...
"If you follow @MercuryX on Twitter, you would have been seeing updates since 7 a.m. of the police standoff happening in the North End ... if you subscribe to our SMS alerts, you would have gotten a message to your phone.
"If you're a friend or fan on Facebook, you can see our posts and join the conversation of eyewitnesses and others' reaction.
"Check our website and you'll see photos and video, some of it provided from tenants who are being kept by police in their apartments for their safety. And tomorrow morning, you can see it all again in The Mercury."
The unfolding of yesterday's 12-hour drama at Logan Court Apartments in Pottstown provided a real-time example of how our business has changed in a fast-paced two years.
I described to the Leadership class the ways in which we now cover a breaking news event. Not only are we pushing news out in real time on a variety of platforms -- to phones, to laptops, to desktops -- as it happens, but we are also pulling photos, eyewitness accounts, video in from sources on Facebook and Twitter.
The first minutes of the standoff yesterday were relayed to us by a woman on Facebook. Scared, rushed, confused and locked inside her apartment with her 8-year-old son, she reached out to find out what we knew through Facebook. She told us what she had heard from police and her landlady, giving our reporters some information to start our reporting.
As the day wound on, people sent us pictures taken from apartment windows, and our photo chief John Strickler kept us apprised of everything going on at the scene. He was soon joined by police reporter Brandie Kessler. The pair tweeted @mercphotog and @I_M_BrandieK, giving us a live play-by-play account at the same time their followers on Twitter saw it.
Online editor Eileen Faust and then staff writer Frank Otto retweeted, repurposed and rewrote throughout the day.
I described in my 45-minute presentation to the Leadership Class how this changing dynamic is evolving our business and making us more relevant to our community.
I also told them that we still have a devoted print readership in this town -- people who prefer to hold the paper in their hands and absorb the words and images of this saga after the fact. We don't shortchange them. After all, I'm at heart a "newspaperman" and nothing makes me more proud than today's print edition of The Mercury.
Days like yesterday prove the value of the ways in which our business is changing beyond any speech I could have given to the Leadership Class. As I talked, several in the group pulled out their phones and subscribed to our SMS alerts and started following us on Twitter. By the end of my presentation, they were bringing me up to date on what Brandie and John were witnessing across town.
I could say more about the standoff and the outstanding, professional work of Mercury staffers throughout the tense day and evening yesterday, but today's news beckons.
Brandie and John are in Berks County this morning, covering the arrests of two people connected with an early morning murder today in Alsace Township. You can be there too: Follow @MercuryX, PottstownMercury on Facebook, and our website.