Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Surviving winter driving

Full disclosure: The editorial that appears at pottsmerc.com today was written by me, and this is my car. 

My shiny red convertible is a victim of the cattle chute on Route 422 westbound at Armand Hammer Boulevard. When I say "drive with care," I am speaking in part to those speeding past and getting too close to other vehicles, forcing them to veer ever so slightly until BAM a tire hits the protrusions from the concrete barriers.
This has not been a good winter for many people for lots of reasons, and the snow has often been the least of our headaches. 
When I write, "be careful out there," it has a personal meaning. Just ask my shiny, now dented, red convertible.

If you thought driving on snow and ice in the earlier weeks of this winter was treacherous, take a look around now.
The melting and refreezing runoff from this winter’s snow combined with the salt and brine applied to roadways has created a whole new set of hazards that demand drivers’ attention.
From our observations on streets and highways, it appears some people aren’t paying any mind.
We understand that driving on a clear road surface has a free-ing effect after snowfall on top of snowfall and two instances of extreme icing. But barreling down the clear road isn’t wise: Potholes, black ice and protruding snow piles lurk at every turn.
If you’re not seeing the potential these hazards can cause, your vehicles are. Auto body shops report vehicle damage is being reported, and some of it is severe.
“The roads look like they have been bombed,” said an insurance adjuster, noting the road damage. As an example of the damage the road can do to a vehicle, one auto body shop owner reported $5,000 in damage from just one pothole to a customer’s car. The customer had to replace a tire, wheel, front bumper cover and repair the fender and engine cradle, according to Nick Yannessa of Wheels in Motion in Pottstown.
Potholes are causing the most damage, but they’re not the only problem. Motorists are also encountering black ice or frozen patches from melting runoff during days when temperatures are above freezing which then refreezes overnight. The road you travel can change dramatically between one day’s evening commute and the next morning.
Hazards are aggravated at road and bridge construction sites, especially those on Route 422 east of Pottstown, where bridge reconstruction zones contain narrow chutes with barriers on either side and changing lanes. It’s nearly impossible to safely dodge potholes and stay in the construction lanes.
Another issue with potholes is that they fill with water from the melting snow, making it impossible for the motorist to know how deep they are. A 2-inch deep rift in pavement causes a bump; a 6-inch deep hole can damage the vehicle or cause a driver to lose control.
Drivers should slow down to avoid potholes and icy patches even if means angering the drivers behind you. That impatient driver behind you isn’t going to replace your wheel or tire, or find your missing hubcap.  Neither is the driver alongside you who is speeding by, inches away from your vehicle.
The best defense against damage from road hazards is driving slowly and remaining alert.
Hitting a pothole or an icy patch while driving at a high rate of speed can be disastrous. Hitting that same pothole while driving slowly may be annoying, but you’re likely to avoid a serious problem.
The psychology of driving fast because we feel freed from the worst of winter (at least for now) is dangerous. Don’t fall into this trap, especially when so many drivers around us are behaving carelessly.
We  trust that road crews will patch potholes as quickly as they can, and that temperatures above freezing will eventually prevent ice from forming.
The end is in sight to this harsh winter, but we’re not yet out of the danger zone. Keep that in mind when driving; be careful out there.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ben Franklin and us

Journal Register Company, which owns The Mercury, made headlines last week in every media trade journal with the successful completion of The Ben Franklin Project.
The project was the printing of two newspapers – a daily outside Cleveland, Ohio, and a weekly in nearby Perkasie, Pa. – using only free online tools for gathering information and producing pages. The experiment emphasized the involvement of the community in determining and pushing forward story content.
The Ben Franklin Project began as a challenge from company CEO John Paton to these two papers and to every employee of Journal Register to rethink the way we produce newspapers and Web sites.
By meeting the challenge before the 30-day deadline, staffs of the Perkasie News-Herald and the Lake County News-Herald created a new brand of journalism. Their successes and their mistakes will be shared with other papers in the company, including The Mercury, and we are pretty certain it won’t be long before “Ben Franklin” will be showing up in Pottstown.
The project is part of a larger sea-change that has already begun at The Mercury -- a change that is necessary for our survival and critical to our success. In the past, Journal Register and The Mercury remained a few steps behind other media companies in investing in technology and embracing the online universe. But, under the company’s new leadership, the catch-up is happening at lightning speed (Ben Franklin pun intended).
In February, we announced that every reporter was now equipped with a FlipCam videorecorder. Instantly, writers became multimedia journalists, and the metamorphosis was under way. That one step jumpstarted our newsrooms to presenting the news with immediacy, putting words and action online straight from the source.
We no longer wait to the end of the day to report what’s happening and then gather reaction. Our goal is to start with you, our readers, instead of end with you. The Ben Franklin Project pushes that goal into reality. Journalists discover ways to have readers inform their reporting instead of the other way around. And, what we are learning – what we must learn – is how to utilize technology to make that happen.
The staffs in the Ben Franklin Project used tools to harness community engagement. What does that mean? Well, it means that technology can enable us to involve readers in asking the questions when we interview public officials or put them in the room when we report on meetings or press conferences. It means that as news is happening, readers are pointing us in the directions to make our coverage more relevant to their lives.
A simple example is a news tip left on our Web site several days ago asking us to find out more about the value and criteria for classroom aides in schools. Aides’ positions are being cut in one district after another in this school budget cycle, and parents and taxpayers would like to better understand the ramifications. With the tools being tested in experiments like Ben Franklin, good questions like that one can reach us as part of reporting, not as part of reaction.
Paton said in a recent interview with Poynter Online that involving users in providing content “is not a replacement for journalists; it’s a new pipeline for information that journalists have to use.”
The key is “have to.”
In a business environment changing as rapidly as ours, we have to adapt and experiment and learn new methods and better ways of involving our readers in the process.
A little more than a year ago, I wrote a column about the demise of a newspaper, and I said that telling your stories is our privilege, and that will not change. Ironically, the path that will keep us alive is seen as the one that not only tells your stories but involves you in shaping them.
Another irony is that Ben Franklin as a journalist of colonial times contributed to a publication, “American Mercury,” and turned it inside out to make it better.
History may be repeating itself.

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, www.pottsmerc.com, 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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