Tuesday, January 29, 2008

How we report on a fire

John Strickler was working Saturday morning as the photographer on duty for the weekend when he heard a police dispatch for fire in a storeroom at the rear of 261 High St. Grabbing his camera and his video recording equipment, he ran down the steps and into the alley behind The Mercury. When he saw the black smoke rising near Lastick Furniture, he picked up the pace.
Strickler ran down the alley behind the burning building at the same time as the first police getting to the scene and seconds before the first fire truck rounded the corner. As firemen worked to get to the flames, Strickler was at work taking photos for the print edition with one camera, then video for the web site with another.
Racing to the front of the building, he shot the flames as they burst through the Dollar Beauty store.
Business editor Michelle Karas spent Saturday morning at Midas Muffler getting the exhaust system in her car repaired after hitting a deer carcass the night before on Route 422.
As she left to return home, fire trucks came racing past her. "I looked up, saw the smoke over High Street, and pulled over," she said. Karas grabbed a notebook and went to the scene, writing down details for a story she knew another reporter would write later that day.
Borough hall reporter Evan Brandt was washing dishes in the kitchen of his home across town when his wife spotted the smoke spiraling into the sky. "I think St. Al's is on fire," she said, referring to St. Aloysius Church several blocks from their home. Brandt thought it might be coming from the Pottstown School District administration building at Penn and Walnut streets.
A phone call to a neighbor confirmed that the fire was downtown.
"You're going in to work, aren't you?" said Brandt's wife with a sigh.
He spent the rest of the day on High Street talking to firemen and onlookers for a front-page story.
Police reporter Brandie Kessler was at a family luncheon celebrating her sister's college graduation in Bethlehem when she got a call from Karas to alert her to the fire. Although not due in to work until 2 p.m., Kessler hustled her family through their meal so she could get on the road.
Upset that she had missed the start of the action, she made up for lost time interviewing people evacuated from their apartments, fire officials and business owners.
After writing her story for the next day's editions, she went back to the smoky scene at night looking for more detail to report.
Kessler was headed out of town the next day for a cruise to the Caribbean with friends, but was she gloating? No, she was lamenting the "follow stories" that she would miss the chance to write.
Sunday editor Chuck Pitchford was at home when I called him around 12:30 to alert him about the news of the day. He knew the page configuration for Sunday's paper by memory, so we could determine if there was enough space for color photos.
Pitchford came into the office a little later to discover the power was out and computers down because of the fire. His plans to get off to an early start were waylaid. But by 5 p.m., he was placing photos on pages, writing headlines and packaging the four pages of coverage.
About 7 p.m., a computer glitch caused another delay in page layout, and the atmosphere in the newsroom got a bit testy. But pulling together and helping each other through a crisis is what we do best.
By 9 p.m., Pitchford was down to the fine-tuning of the presentation our readers saw the next day: "FIRE DESTROYS HALF A BLOCK."
Bob Morris learned about the fire in a phone call from his son and hustled into town to "protect" the building. Morris is The Mercury facilities manager, and through rain, sleet or smoke, he takes care of this corner. Morris quickly shut down the heating system so that the smoke filtering up the alley and into the building through a freight elevator opening would not permeate through the vents. It was smoky in here, but it would have been much worse.
Publisher Tom Abbott made the drive from Delaware County to make sure we were okay. Circulation director Rich Miller was on the phones, raising the press run numbers for Sunday. We remembered to post a story and photo to the Web, then updated with video. Circulation crews hit the streets Sunday morning, replacing papers in boxes as quickly as they sold out. A record number of people visited our Web site to view the video.
This was how we report on a fire in Pottstown. Morning, afternoon, and evening, seven days a week, the news doesn't stop.
Neither do the fine people who bring you The Mercury and pottsmerc.com

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Newton's law

Physics was my worst subject in high school, but there is one law that I believe has universal truth: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
For every good day, there is a bad day.
For every fall backward, there is a step forward.
For every stroke of bad luck, there is a moment of good fortune.
Take for instance this puppy-training that I am obsessing about these days. Yesterday, Sydney was a calm, affectionate delight. Today, she is misbehaving with manic aggression, up twice during the night and crying in her crate.
I am a firm believer that for every moment I let my guard down and relax, I will have a moment of equal and opposite inconvenience.
There have been instances when I stayed home sick on a day that I might have been able to get to work if I came armed with 4,000 tissues and 900 cough drops. So that decision to stay in bed demands an equal and opposite reaction from the universe. The next day I will have a flat tire or a dead battery.
Thank you, Mr. Newton.
The last time I broke my routine of going home to dutifully make dinner and instead stopped for a beer and appetizer with a co-worker, the pump to our well wore out in the middle of the night. I woke the next day to a house without running water. A little relaxation, a lot of inconvenience.
Yesterday, I discovered while checking the financial records of our son in college in Colorado that the school he is attending requires a certain amount of academic credits to receive financial aid awards. The credits he gets for being on the track team do not count; thus, while he has a full schedule, he was ineligible to receive his track scholarship.
The tuition check we just mailed was not enough. I discovered this by accident, and he was able to remedy the situation by adding a one-credit class to his roster, just in time to reinstate the scholarship award.
This was either very bad luck because it occurred or very good luck to have discovered it.
So I'm left today wondering what tomorrow will bring.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Lunch time -- or not

Here's the thing about kids and dogs: They rule your life.

Mine have controlled my ability, or inability, to have a lunch break for all of my working years.

When I was executive editor at this newspaper in the early '90s, my assistant at the time thought it amusing that I shopped for baby formula for my infant twins on my so-called lunch break.

Lunch was even more challenging when the twins were middle or high school students who always needed rides home from sports or play practice. I would take "lunch" from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. and put 35 miles a day on my car driving from work to school to home and back.

Now, lunch is dictated by an energetic 12-week-old puppy, Sydney, who needs a break from the crate at midday. I actually enjoy this. I leave the office, have a 10-minute drive, change from heels to flats, run around the yard for 20 minutes, wolf down yesterday's leftovers from the fridge, and head back.

I can throw a load of wash in the dryer or thaw something for dinner in my 10 minutes of kitchen time ... a whole world of opportunities never experienced before.

That's the thing about kids and dogs. They manage your time in ways you would never dream of otherwise.

They get you up in time to see sunrises, keep you up late enough to watch a full moon setting behind the trees, remind you of how the quiet of the woods feels at 5 a.m. and send you to bed early, exhausted.

And since there's never time to eat a complete meal, dieting is not an issue.

Kids and dogs are a recipe for healthful living.


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Monday, January 21, 2008

Good news or bad news

"You know what I don't like about the paper? It's all bad. It would just be nice to see some good news in the paper for a change."

Of all the opinions people feel compelled to share with me, that is the most often repeated.

It is also the most inaccurate.

The mix of "good news" and "bad news" and "neutral but interesting" news in The Mercury on any given day is about equal. Some days, the good seriously outweighs the bad.

Today's top story: "Lively, emotional service honors the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."

Yesterday: "Gateway to Growth. Planners eye master plan for Route 100 in Norco" shared top billing with "Heating oil price spike drives call for help."

Saturday: "Pair convicted of second-degree murder" -- okay, I admit a murder story is dismal -- but the top photos on the front page were young-at-heart seniors at Frederick Mennonite Community staging a Winter Olympics event. And even the murder story included a positive profile of the victim, "Her life was not in vain."

We suffer the identity crisis of being the bearer of bad news at the same time we want people to like us. We want to be the messenger invited into your home, as well as the resource you use for information. And, we like to inspire and make you smile while we're informing.

Sometimes, the information is bad news. People die in car crashes; children perish in fires; politicians make false promises; thieves embezzle from the elderly.

But there is good news to be told, too, and we especially relish the chance to help make the news even better.

Lindsay Spengler is a young Boyertown area woman who got a second lease on life after the community raised more than $200,000 for experimental medical treatments. The son of a Pottstown police dispatcher was given a Wii in a story that brought together the police department and a community donor. Operation Holiday this year raised $50,000 which we distribute annually in gifts and food to needy children.

These good-news stories came about because of our relationship as a community newspaper with the people of the community. When people say newspapers are a dying breed, these are the stories I remember. Any TV station or Web site could bring you film of a house fire. But then your community newspaper takes it a step further and invites you to donate to a fund to help those left homeless.

You know what I like most about the paper? It makes a difference in people's lives, for better or for worse.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

In print and online

If you are reading this blog, you probably are a regular visitor to www.pottsmerc.com, our newspaper Web site that is a work in progress. Some days there is more work than progress, as we strive to provide news in a faster, friendlier format.
As anyone who has ever read a newspaper has surely heard, newspapers are supposed to be on the way out and Web sites are on the way up. While I know that to be true, I also know that newspapers -- The Mercury in particular -- have a place in people's lives that a Web site can not replace. I expect in the years to come the two mediums may blend until there is no distinction (e-paper is the first wave of that phenomenom), but for now, I know my SoundOff crowd still likes to hold on to their news in print with coffee cup in the other hand.
But I'm digressing.
The point is that we are moving more features onto our Web site and developing fresh new ways to interact with readers. We have a new online editor, Eileen Faust, who was promoted from the print copy desk, and she works with promotions manager Chris March, who also writes the Entertainment blog Scene and Heard, and online advertising rep Jared Semet to come up with new ideas and new ways to entice regular visitors to our site.
Pain at the Pump is our daily update of regional gas prices. The Mommy Diaries is a new blog written by TimeOut editor and busy working mom Diane Hoffman. The Photo Files is a week in review of our photographers' news and sports photos, and it includes a slide show of that week's Youth at Play sports page.
Beginning today, we are posting "Cool Clicks" fun Friday features to guide your way to Web activities you can enjoy.
We have lots more ideas floating around in our heads to be tried in the coming weeks and months. If there is something you would like to see, let us know.
See you on the Web.

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Call her Sid-Vicious

The puppy's name is Sydney to note her Australian shepherd side. But her nickname has quickly become Sid-Vicious, as in, "I am a puppy and will chew anything I feel like, including your shoes and holiday plants."
A colleague told me about a family struggling with a new puppy and that biting tendency.
"You don't understand; there's something wrong with this dog. She chews on EVERYTHING."
That means there's something right: Healthy puppies chew on EVERYTHING.
The transition from clean and quiet household to household with dog is going well. At least, I'm enjoying it. Those who have lost parts of shoes may not feel the same.