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Friday, September 25, 2009

The Mercury makeover

We’ve been working on some changes here at The Mercury — a redesign planned to be unwrapped to readers on Wednesday.
Some months ago we decided we were about due for an upgraded look. Like a person wearing a hairstyle that went out of vogue in the ’70s, a newspaper can find itself showing age instead of style. We decided it was time to try on a new look and update our appearance.
Call it a makeover.
The process became a collaborative effort of editors, photographers, artists and circulation managers. Our goal was to create a new look that was clean, appealing, and up to date. We also wanted to better showcase what we offer every morning to our readers -- the news, sports and opinions of your community that you can’t get anywhere else.
Readers tell us that The Mercury is an important part of their lives. We’re not a national news Web site or a field of commentators that reflect one ideology or another. We provide those services, but our greatest role — our reason to be — is to connect with the community of readers throughout the tri-county area.
In embarking on a redesign, our goal was to display and demonstrate this connection, highlighting the local coverage of news and sports that no one else can provide.
Our redesign features a new nameplate on the front page, variations in typeface in some headlines, and some content changes, including the addition of more coverage of the growing performing and fine arts venues in the region, more pictures of people at social and cultural gatherings, and more local news in the Business section.
During the past week, we offered a sneak preview to several groups both within and beyond The Mercury, and they liked what they saw.
We also learned a few things about ourselves.
“I like to see a preview of what’s going to be inside,” said one reader. So, we’re adding a photo each day into our front-page index.
“Too much color before, but now it’s too plain,” said an inside observer. We put our Mercury brand symbol back in blue and gold.
“A calendar would help me know what’s coming up next,” said a group member, reacting to the new Social Connections picture page of events. We’ll get working on compiling a list of dates for social and club functions.
“You can do away with stocks altogether; I want to read news about local businesses,” said a former borough official. We are scaling our stocks listings to an abbreviated format with graphics reporting to allow more columns of local Business news.
“I like to have a place to go to see what sports are on the air today and what’s coming up for the rest of the week,” another reader told us. We’re putting together a graphic listing to highlight that information on page 2 of Sports each day.
Our Focus groups of invited readers, advertisers and community leaders provided some lively discourse on topics that we discuss internally, too.
The value of Sound-Off versus the risk, the eye appeal of photos, the importance of local voices, and the watchdog role of a local newspaper were among the topics addressed along with color and content critiques.
One of our visitors reminded us that The Mercury was founded and has followed in a tradition of crusading local journalism.
This is the newspaper that headlined “Nixon carries Pottstown” though John Kennedy won the election, that cleaned up fire codes, streamlined government, rallied support for flood and fire victims and sent a message to Harrisburg, all in the interests and for the betterment of the communities we serve.
In addition to unwrapping a new look to The Mercury on Wednesday, we are printing a special section of front pages through the years.
This 32-page section, “Mercury Milestones,” will be included in Wednesday’s editions showing the evolution of our front page with history-making headlines from 1931 to the present.
We have been your newspaper since Sept. 29, 1931. That hasn’t changed. We’ve just dressed up a bit for the 21st century.
Change isn’t once and done, it’s an ongoing process. So, let us know what you think. We welcome your suggestions to better serve you.
Be sure to pick up Wednesday’s paper and check it out.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

You spoke, we listened: The TV book is back

Notice something different with The Sunday Mercury delivered to your doorstep or driveway today?
Or, perhaps we should say something familiar that’s returned after an absence?
Today’s home-delivered editions of The Sunday Mercury include “TV Book Plus,” a complete section of TV program listings, games and features to replace the former TV book, “Channels,” that was phased out of publication last year.
The new book will be offered to home subscribers today and next Sunday as a trial and will then be available to purchase as part of the home-delivery package each week. The book is making its return just in time for the season of fall premieres.
We’ve been in business here at the corner of Hanover and King streets for 78 years since the publication of our first edition on Sept. 29, 1931. I’ve worked here for almost half that number of years, and I’ve been involved in a number of changes both in content and emphasis during that time.
Whenever we change, there is always something that some readers miss. I have learned over the years, for example, that fiddling with the comics selection is not to be treated lightly - for many people, it’s like removing a family member from the kitchen table.
A redesign to upgrade the look of the paper can be a disaster if people find the typeface more difficult to read. And, taking away a favorite feature is viewed by some readers as a plot to take happiness out of their lives.
As a newsperson, I need to be reminded from time to time that many people buy a newspaper for the comics, the puzzles, obituaries, advertising inserts and SoundOff -- all things that have little to do with the energy and effort we put into news and sports coverage of the community.
But, that’s okay. The more time a reader spends with our paper, as in doing a puzzle or combing store specials listings, and the more smiles we bring through a favorite comic or local witticisms, the more important we are in your household.
That daily connection is what matters.
The other downfall surrounding change is knowing when it’s time to reevaluate and freshen up. As we celebrate our 78th year this month, we are looking at ways to become more relevant, more appealing and more useful to you, our readers.
The return of the TV book to The Sunday Mercury is just one of many changes we’re planning this fall to update and improve your community newspaper.
Many readers have told us they missed having a TV book, even though we expanded our daily listings. The listings were not all that was missed, you told us. The TV crossword and TV trivia were important and entertaining, too.
You spoke up, and we listened. The newly designed TV Book Plus includes not only a crossword but sudoku puzzles. The book features a celebrity Q&A, extensive movie and sports highlights, and soap opera updates.
The grids are easy to read and include day, night and late-night listings.
The book is back. We hope it finds a home with you.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Thank you, Spring-Ford newspaper club

A belated thank you to the fifth and sixth grade students in the newspaper club at Spring-Ford High School.
During a week when I endured a more-than-usual share of criticism and complaint in the editing of this fine newspaper, these students reminded me of the joy in writing and planning community news coverage.
I was invited to join their end-of-year pizza party and discovered through their enthusiasm that newspapers matter more than many of us acknowledge. Their questions and their insights -- "Do you put out a newspaper EVERY day?" "Does anyone ever say something you wrote made a difference in their life?" "What do you do when nothing's going on, how do you find news?" "Do you ever get to have a party?" -- were amazing to me.
I wish I could bottle their enthusiasm for my work and store it for a rainy day.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Politics by attack

Results in the Pottstown primary election Tuesday held some surprises as well as some expected results. But one of the expectations -- that candidates and their supporters behave with respect and maturity -- left us wanting.
Politics in this town is becoming increasingly personal and divisive. The factions no longer fall strictly along party lines. On Election Night, there were at least five different alliances gathering separately -- three groups of Republicans and two of Democrats.
In some cases, individuals who worked together on campaigns in the past this time attacked each other in published comments, conversation and at the polls.
The rhetoric became so severe at one polling place that first a sheriff’s representative was called and then the local police department to warn a former public official that her strongly worded opinions were getting close to voter intimidation.
The attacks were often not sanctioned by a candidate or a party, but were lodged on a battlefield of personalities. On Election Eve, campaign signs for both Pottstown Democratic mayoral candidates were shredded, apparently by supporters acting without the candidates’ knowledge.
In another case, signs with one person’s name and a hash mark through it appeared overnight throughout town in what can only be characterized as a personal smear campaign.
More than one faction tried to use this newspaper as a battleground as well, dropping off photocopies of old news articles, calling with tips, and emailing messages about candidates’ relatives, business dealings and suspected motives.
“You owe it to Pottstown to report on this ...’’ or “You need to look into this ...” were then followed by innuendo that we were choosing sides by not reporting on unsubstantiated rumor or half-truths.
Even news photos taken at a borough council meeting or the recent neighborhood cleanup were seen as favoring one side or another.
Some of this was not new. Hard-fought local elections are bound to result in disagreement about the handling of a campaign by supporters, candidates and the press.
But, a difference this year -- and a signal of a disturbing trend -- is the increasing willingness to hide behind anonymity, to act under the cover of night instead of speaking opening and acting in daylight.
Enter digital communication, and the ripples threaten to become a tidal wave.
The Mercury Web site,, is intended to be a place where readers can interact electronically and add their feedback to the news online.
What we witnessed in this election is that some people found a way to take advantage of that opportunity by posting comments that would otherwise never pass a newspaper litmus test of legitimacy.
The commenting function of the Web site became a spot to park candidate endorsements on every local news story, regardless of topic. A clever way to get a message out there, but a little conniving as well.
Sound Off is the print version of Web comments, also unsigned and also inherently susceptible to being abused.
Both features, as well as letters to the editor and our ongoing news coverage of local issues, are intended to spur public debate, to involve citizens, and ultimately result in people working together toward better communities. The ability to have an opinion printed or posted online is a right of free speech that we uphold as critical both to this democracy and to the sharing of ideas within our community.
But when those voices become mean-spirited against other individuals, when the forum is about personalities instead of issues, when debate becomes attack, the community as a whole suffers instead of prospers.
This is not a new message, but it bears repeating: Pottstown does not do itself any favors by continuing down a path of divisiveness and attack. In an election, it’s bad politics. In a community, it’s bad form.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pottstown is music to my ears

The past four weeks I have enjoyed different but equally delightful events right here in Pottstown -- all of them noteworthy and exemplary in a town that bemoans its fate more often than it celebrates.
The discovery that there is much to enjoy here is not new, nor do I claim credit for it. And, it is sad that every time we find ourselves enjoying life in our town, we feel compelled to note it as a wildly counter-intuitive proclamation.
"Pottstown IS a nice place"
"Pottstown DOES have a lot going for it."
"I wasn't AFRAID or BORED here."
When the time comes that the "discovery" appears foolish because of course this is a wonderful place with a lot going on and no good reason to be bored or afraid ... that's when Pottstown will have overcome many of its shortcomings.
Until then, I must tell you about Saturday night at Sunnybrook, my second Saturday night at Sunnybrook in a month, as a matter of fact. My husband and I attended the Spring Pops Concert of the Pottstown Symphony Orchestra, a tribute to the music of the big bands.
We first had dinner at That's Italian, the charming and popular BYOB at the site of the former Blossom restaurant on North Charlotte Street, where I had Chicken Francese with homemade linguini and the best red sauce I have ever enjoyed in a restaurant. I tried, for once, not to eat more than a loaf of their homemade bread before we headed to Sunnybrook for the concert.
The dance hall at Sunnybrook became a concert hall for the symphony, which delivered under guest conductor Jack Moore a musically entertaining and elevating experience.
At intermission, the ever-enthusiastic Bill and Sue Krause took us on a tour of some of the renovated corners of Sunnybrook we had not yet seen. Like most longtime area residents, we walk into the entrance remembering proms, weddings, holiday dances, class reunions, Bobby Rydell and Brenda Lee, family brunches, and afternoons at the pool, but even a newcomer to the region with no history here would have to be impressed by the ballroom and grounds.
Several weeks ago, we spent a Saturday night with family and friends dancing to the Fabulous Greaseband at Sunnybrook. And, on a Saturday night in between, we enjoyed a downtown dinner at Henry's on Charlotte Street just off High.
Henry's, as its loyal following of regulars are quick to attest, is a find among restaurant lovers. We were not disappointed. The food and the atmosphere are out of the pages of a guide to restaurant gems in any city -- but it's right here.
Lots of things are right here, and they're well worth staying in town to enjoy.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

The risk of helping others hits close to home

My first front-page byline as a Mercury reporter was a story about a boy named Bobby Cook. Bobby Cook was a 4-year-old local boy battling leukemia. I was assigned to write about his illness, the difficulties of his family to pay medical expenses and his desire to vacation in Disney World.
Bobby’s grandmother owned a Pottstown luncheonette, and she had started a fund among her customers to send Bobby on the trip of his dreams. The cause came to the Mercury editor’s attention, and he assigned me the job of writing stories and inviting readers to send in money for the Bobby Cook Fund.
We collected checks and cash, turned it over to the family, and I chronicled for the front page Bobby’s departure from the Reading airport to Florida. The tale was one of those heartwarming stories that instill some humanity into the pages of our newspaper.
During those same early reporting years, The Mercury published another series of stories about the plight of a local family whose mother was suffering from a serious illness. We chronicled the father’s efforts to provide for his ailing wife and take care of their children. It was a poignant and sad tale of struggle, misfortune and the devastating effects on a family wrought by illness.
We started a newspaper fund to help the family, and donations poured in. Each day, a reporter was assigned to write an update about the fund and remind our readers of this family’s need.
But then we learned the truth about this particular family. The mother was ill, but the father was not struggling to provide for his children. Rather, he was using the money solicited and given in good faith to fund a lifestyle of expensive gifts for a girlfriend, and jewelry, hotels, dinners and gambling for himself.
The Mercury was then, as it is now, the kind of community newspaper that wants to help the downtrodden of the towns we cover. We want to believe that when people tell us their stories on the record and for publication that we can trust they are telling us the truth as best they can.
This experience hurt us as a staff and hurt our credibility. From that time on, we vowed to never collect money again for an individual. We will publicize a fund and tell a story of someone’s plight, but only if a fund has been set up independently of us. We will inform readers of that fund, but not solicit their generosity.
The exception is Operation Holiday.
We began Operation Holiday in 1991 to help children in needy families enjoy gifts and food at Christmastime. The fund has raised more than $1 million and has provided food and gifts for thousands of area children, averaging 400 children each year in as many as 175 families. Although our news staff coordinates the list of recipients, we partner with other social service agencies and accept their recommendations of deserving and needy families.
Each year, dozens of people call us and ask to be put on the “Santa-Christmas-Holiday” wish list. People write letters, call, come in the front door and tell us about themselves or their daughters or their brothers or their grandchildren, pleading, sometimes in tears, for help.
We say no. We tell people that they must go through an agency who can verify their circumstances before we will consider them.
In the 10 years that I have supervised the Operation Holiday list, I have made two or three exceptions to that rule. One of them was this year.
Jenna Esslinger wrote a letter asking us to publicize a spaghetti dinner fundraiser being held on her behalf at the Birdsboro Sportsman’s Club. She said she suffered from amyloidosis and was struggling as a single mom to pay medical bills and provide for her two young children. She fit the criteria for Operation Holiday and since there was already a fund established independently for her at Sovereign Bank, I made the decision to add her to our list. She was interviewed for an on-the-record story by a reporter, and we were aware that The Reading Eagle newspaper had also done extensive interviews with her for a column and video on their Web site.
When the Operation Holiday items were distributed, Jenna Esslinger came in as requested to pick up two $75 gift cards for gifts for her children. But when it was time to get the food, it took four phone calls over two days to get a response. That concerned us.
Then, about a month ago, a detective called to say she was under investigation for charities fraud. Last week, she was arrested and charged with misappropriating $12,000 by publicly claiming an illness she did not have.
Like that story of the philandering father three decades ago, our trust – and the trust of our readers – has been violated. As a result, there will be no more individuals or exceptions on our list in the future.
Of the $12,000 Jenna Esslinger collected, only $150 was from Operation Holiday, and as gift cards, it may have been for gifts for her children. We don’t know. But we are concerned that by publicizing her story, we added to her alleged crime.
The greater victims in this travesty though are the people who have real needs, but whose stories will not be believed and whose trust will not be honored in the future.
Helping others always carries with it the danger of helping those who take advantage. Sadly, we have learned this lesson yet again.

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