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.