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.