Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A thousand words

Newspaper photographers and their editors do not hide things in photos.
We do not have ulterior motives and conspiracies in choosing what to photograph or print. And, we are not trying to incite tension among groups of people or risky behavior by teens.
That said, we are aware that some readers pick up the daily newspaper each day looking for hidden Waldos and Rorschach tests in photos. I continue to be amazed by the things they find.
Three examples from the past seven days:
A number of readers have called The Mercury's Sound-Off line to complain about a photo of Spring-Ford High School students cheering their team at a recent District basketball playoff game. The students, members of the Ram Nation cheering section at Spring-Ford, wore clothing and face paint in the school colors of blue and white. Callers say the photo depicts racism.
(These comments -- and there have been quite a few -- have not appeared in Sound-Off under the guideline that we do not print comments that are inappropriate -- or just plain ridiculous.)
On the same front page was a photo of a group of children enjoying a program at Pottstown Public Library. A parent who attended the Family Place Libraries workshop with her child complained to us that the photographer intentionally left her and her child out of the picture.
To the contrary, our photographers are diligent and determined to include as many children as possible at these types of events because they know from experience that kids want to see their pictures in print. But, even a wide-angle lens and the best lighting can leave out the folks in the corners or the back of the room.
Not intentional, no conspiracy, just a fact of taking photos of a group event. Not everybody gets in the picture.
The third example in recent days was the feature photo on page one last Saturday of two Birdsboro teens snowboarding off the roof of their house. A reader emailed us to complain that we were being irresponsible to glorify their behavior.
Well, they were not breaking any laws; we doubt that our pictures would inspire anyone to try snowboarding off a roof any more than not publishing them would deter someone. They were kids having fun, probably with no more risk of injury than some of the stunts they try at terrain parks in ski areas.
Do I personally want to see my own children take off the roof? No, but I am not going to blame anyone for chronicling their ingenuity if they try it behind my back.
Newspaper photos can be worth a thousand words, but trust me, we're not hiding secret messages inside them.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Beacons of hope

The Pottstown Relay for Life has become well-established in recent years as a fund-raising machine for the American Cancer Society.
The local effort raised more $1 million in 2007 and was fourth in the world in the amount of money raised.
Of the thousands who participate in Relay each year, many are connected to the fight against cancer through the loss or the survival of loved ones.
But, it is the survivors themselves whose presence epitomizes the “HOPE” spelled out in luminaria in the Pottsgrove High School stadium.
Hazel LeVan and Mae Mogul are two of those survivors profiled recently in The Mercury. Mogel, whose husband Pete is also a cancer survivor, is the grand marshal for this year’s Relay, leading the survivor lap at the track on May 31.
“I’ll be a 24-year-survivor April the second,” said Mae Mogul of Limerick. A breast cancer survivor, she was only 48 at the time of diagnosis. Even though her body is cancer-free, she says that her life revolves around the disease -- helping others to cope and volunteering for Relay to work toward a cure. .
She is a volunteer at Pottstown Memorial Regional Cancer Center and has helped raise nearly $100,000 through her church’s Relay team.
Hazel LeVan has a similar story. Diagnosed with cancer in 1984 at the age of 51, this Boyertown woman didn’t talk about it even while undergoing surgery and treatment.
“Cancer just was not talked about,” she said. To help correct that situation for future generations, LeVan got involved with starting a breast cancer support group through the Pottstown cancer center.
For LeVan, Relay is an opportunity to take action and produce something tangible in the fight against cancer, something she desperately wanted to influence given that she didn’t want her children and grandchildren to face a diagnosis like she did.
“I had four daughters,” Hazel said. “That’s four daughters I don’t want to go through this.”
LeVan also volunteers with Reach to Recovery, a program that pairs volunteers with people who are battling cancer, and helps give them practical information, such as helping a woman who has undergone a mastectomy the best places to get a bathing suit, and other things that will enable them to move on with their lives.
The stories of these survivors demonstrate the commitment and compassion of the corps of survivors that inspire everyone involved with the Pottstown Relay.
The Relay in Pottstown is about a community that takes up the fight, and these survivors are the ultimate fighters -- for themselves, those around them and for the future.
They keep the candles of HOPE burning bright.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Churches are stepping up

About a year ago, former Mercury reporter Sarah Fleener wrote a three-part series on the homeless of the area. Fleener delved into the issue locally, interviewing social service workers and others who provide programs for the homeless, and spent time in shelters to hear and recount the stories of the homeless themselves.
The series, "Without a Roof," was poignant and moving, and Fleener received many positive comments on its comprehensive local look at a subject that more often garners attention in big cities. The series has already won one reporting award and is in the running for several others.
At the time the series was written, Pottstown's homeless were being helped by Ministries at Main Street, a project started and sustained through the efforts of the Rev. Kork Moyer, pastor of a small church that meets in South Pottstown. Moyer was singlehandedly coordinating transport of the homeless from Pottstown and the surrounding area to what he hoped would be a corps of host churches offering their facilities one month at a time. Only two churches, St. John's United Church of Christ in Pottstown and St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in North Coventry, participated.
We hoped our series would change that, and more congregations would become involved.
That didn't happen.
Fast-forward six months. Ministries at Main Street refurbished with the help of volunteers the basement of a parish building at St. John's Lutheran in South Pottstown to serve as nightly quarters for the homeless.
But when the word "shelter" appeared in photo captions and an Opinion piece in The Mercury, neighbors became concerned.
They petitioned North Coventry Township supervisors to deny zoning for the space. To make matters worse, the same township board told Shenkel United Church of Christ that they would need sprinklers and other upgrades to provide a nightly shelter for the homeless in their church buildings.
Ministries at Main Street was back to a roving one-month-at-a-time shelter system. St. John's UCC was again the only church offering help.
Then, an interesting thing happened. Two congregations -- St. Paul's United Church of Christ and Zion's United Church of Christ, both in Pottstown -- volunteered to offer space for shelter, one for the month of February and the other in March. The churches are collecting food and money to buy toiletries and food items from parishioners, who are also staying overnight with the homeless to help Moyer and his Ministries volunteers.
The offers were at least in part inspired by the refusals in North Coventry to accommodate "the least among us." The news reports a year ago of a compelling need for shelter did not elicit the response that a township denial of shelter did.
It is easy for all of us to believe a problem is being taken care of, and to turn aside, but it is more difficult to ignore a blatant act of forbidding a church from helping its neighbors.
In letters to the editor and in a press release, the members of St. Paul's and Zion's express their pride at following Christ's example in welcoming those less fortunate into their halls of fellowship.
These are small congregations that struggle with their own issues of declining church membership within mainstream congregations. Yet, these are the ones that recognize the need to support the poor and honor the weak.
Moyer has been tireless in his endeavors to help, and he has borne much of the burden alone.
The help from these two congregations stepping forward is a positive demonstration of caring. There's an example here that our neighbors across the river could learn from.

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Exciting times

I prefer to leave the politics to my co-worker and much-more-prolific blogger Tony Phyrillas, but the view of the presidential primaries this year is too exciting to keep me on the sidelines.
Last night's primary victory for Barack Obama in Wisconsin was his ninth win in a row in what was supposed to be the Year of Hillary. Obama and Hillary Clinton are in a horse race toward the finish line of the Democratic primary. On the Republican side, even though John McCain has pretty much wrapped up the race, he's not boring.
Who would have thought as recently as a year or so ago that the nation would have real choices in 2008 -- a woman who is a political veteran, an Hawaiian-born African-American newcomer, and a wizened Vietnam POW with a reputation for flippant one-liners.
Take the nation's polarization four years ago, split severely into two camps along party lines, and put it on high speed in a blender and you'll get a taste of what the coming months will bring. People are not just looking at Democrats and Republicans this year; they are looking at real choices in style, experience, gender, race and ideology.
Which brings me to the year of my inbox.
Although it hasn't begun in earnest yet, I know that I will be inundated with email from throughout the country with form letters supporting one candidate or another. The onslaught will come after the conventions because the mailing lists to editors come out of central party headquarters. No point in wasting Republican or Democratic time and money until they have one person to support.
As November comes closer, I will get as many as 150-200 emails a day, the majority of them the same letter, sent from people throughout the country.
Occasionally, one of them is from a local person, and I have to be careful not to let it slip in as a letter to the editor. (Form letters are forbidden, according to our policy.)
The email proliferation in support of John Kerry or George Bush four years ago was annoying. At least this year, the discourse may prove interesting.
These are exciting times for our country, in my opinion, because the field of candidates we're looking at represent a new direction. The direction will be different depending on the candidate, but all currently in the running bring newness to the race for the White House.
I like it.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

My brave new kitchen

Last year, we remodeled our kitchen, replacing cabinets and appliances that were 30 years old.
Nearly a year later, I still have moments of amazement that I can see the backyard through the window over the sink (previously the sink faced a wall); I can load and unload the dishwasher directly from the sink and into the cabinets (previously the dishwasher was a portable version housed in the laundry room); I have seasonings at my fingertips when cooking as the spice cabinet is installed by the cooktop; I can see into the dining room instead of staring at yet another wall; I have enough counter space to actually prepare two food items at once; and I can store the cookware and bakeware I own in cabinets without relying on basement space and laundry room shelves.
But one of the greatest sources of amazement is the brains of appliances bought in 2007 compared to 1976. My microwave/convection oven is smarter than I am, and the cooktop is no slouch either.
The microwave knows the difference between a canned and frozen vegetable, and the convection oven can keep track of time left to bake even while a separate timer is counting down minutes for a boiling pot of pasta.
I am particularly fond of the "editor" that apparently lives inside the cooktop. It flashes a capital H to signal that the burner remains really hot, then changes it to lowercase h when it starts to cool down.
According to a recent press release I received, appliances with brains are the wave of the future.
"In Italy your dishwasher may call you at work to let you know that it has sprang a leak…but not to worry, it has already informed the service company and they will be out between 9 and 12 on Tuesday.
"In Norway you are caught behind a slow moving elk herd and will be 30 minutes late…so you call your oven to recalibrate the cooking time on your roast to be done at 8:30.
"In Korea…the refrigerator has taken inventory and has placed an order for all pre-programmed items to be replenished automatically with an online grocery service. It has also ordered a few additional items that will be needed for tonight’s dinner party.
"In Germany…the fully automated coffee machine can make your favorite cappuccino to your specific taste as well as all the other members of the family.
"And in the US…cooking is as simple as 1..2..3 with your pre-programmed oven…you simply choose from the menu, fish, beef or fowl…punch in the weight, as well as the time you would like to serve and then just press “OK”…you are now a gourmet chef all with the single touch of your finger."
This release titled "15 Minutes into the Future" by Kevin Henry reminded me that in just a few years, high-tech appliances will put my current kitchen to shame.
Henry went on to say that the next wave of microwaves will have a scanner to read the package of chili or popcorn and then preset itself for operation. "The family calendar on the refrigerator will update everyone’s calendar, from Mom's computer at work to sis’s cell phone to Dad’s PDA with all of today’s events, including soccer practice and dental appointments…It will remind Grandma to take her pills and Grandpa that he has a 6:30 Tee-Time.
"Shortly your kitchen will read your personal electro-magnetic field when you enter the kitchen and begin to brew your favorite beverage and update your portfolio, all while you wait for your bagel to be toasted.
"Whether this kitchen comes to pass, the modern kitchen will continue to be the heart, if not the hub, of the modern home, an essential element in our daily lives that touches and affects us both physically and emotionally, a place where we seek communion, rejuvenation, and sanctuary."
Some things will not change. In this high-tech future, the best part of the kitchen will still be the window with a view and the counter stools for conversation.
Even the smartest appliances can't take the place of friends and family.

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Watch for Progress

Coming soon to your driveway, doorstep, honor box or convenience store will be an edition of The Mercury that does something we are often accused of ignoring: Celebrate the local economy with success stories.
Our staff, in an effort coordinated by Business Editor Michelle Karas, is currently working on stories and photographs for the 2008 Progress edition on local business and industry.
Each year, this section features industries that may have been around a while but rarely are in the news. We also do features on retail changes, new projects coming to the area, and businesses that offer leisure or recreational activities. Last year, for example, the construction of the Philadelphia Premium Outlets in Limerick was a cover story for Progress.
We have featured longstanding businesses like Longacre's Ice Cream in Bally and new ventures like the Tri-County Performing Arts Center. We have written about factories, high-tech service firms and auto dealerships. We strive for variety geographically throughout the region as well as types of businesses profiled.
As business editor, Karas does an outstanding job every week in coming up with local business features for the daily and Sunday Business sections. But, Progress gives us a chance to profile businesses about which we are curious.
The process becomes a discovery of hidden gems in our area's economy.
This year's Progress features a firm that installed foam insulation into 89,000 cement blocks in the construction of Lincoln Financial Field; a business headquarters modeled after a ski lodge; a recreation site where the top of the rock is the goal; and a plant that makes remedies for ailing horses.
Progress is coming. Don't miss it.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Borough doesn't have a prayer

I am a person of Christian faith.
I am a churchgoer, member of my church consistory, serve on a committee or two, bake cakes when I'm asked to, and give regularly to both church and charity.
I pray a lot. I start the day with a prayer asking to make good decisions and do the right things at home and work; I pray at night to offer thanks for the blessings of the day.
When I'm driving, if I'm stopped at the third red light in a row on High Street, I pray for patience. When the phone rings late at night, I pray that nothing bad has happened to one of the kids. When I see a headline or an error in the paper that I know will set the phones ringing, I pray for fortitude.
I pray for wisdom when facing a difficult decision; I pray for guidance when challenged.
But, I do not believe Pottstown Borough Council meetings should open with a prayer.
Prayer, to me, is a conversation with God. Sometimes, like in church, at a family dinner, or in informal gatherings, the "conversation" involves a group. But when prayer is used as part of a public proceeding, it takes on a different quality.
The offering of the prayer -- a statement that "we are religious" -- becomes the focus. The conversation becomes a speech.
The move to open council meetings with a prayer may seek to illustrate that the borough is a place of values.
A better illustration would be strengthening leadership and demonstrating values through deeds, not words.
I think that will be my prayer.


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A likable candidate

I made a New Year's resolution in January to become better informed about national politics in this presidential election year. I haven't done much about it though.
I have a tendency, as I believe is the case with many voters, to form political opinions based on who I like or don't like. And those preferences have more to do with the sound of a person's voice or body language than with his or her track record.
Hillary Clinton is the ultimate example. One of the reporters in the newsroom was saying last night during Super Tuesday hype that no one he knows "likes" Clinton, yet she remains ahead in the polls and in the race for delegates.
Barack Obama has a higher "likable" factor, but the Internet-rumor crowd is fond of saying he is hiding something.
Here's where I feel guilty about the limited knowledge I have of the candidates' backgrounds and positions. I find myself favoring Obama because I don't like the sound of Clinton's voice. Or, if it's Obama and John McCain, I think McCain gets points for not looking emaciated.
All of which I believe makes me a bad citizen.
But take a step back ... if the person this nation elects as president is to represent us in the world and to accomplish results in Washington, don't we want that person to project confidence and to be well, "likable?"
In the wake of Super Tuesday, it appears that the Democrats are still in a race to determine their candidate, and the Republicans have a front-runner, but he's not yet a certain nominee.
It's an interesting year. I resolve, again, to become better informed and make wise choices.
I just hope that come November, I like the winner.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Regular customers

When I was scanning the obituaries published in Monday's Mercury, I recognized a familiar name, and I felt a pang of surprise and sadness. The woman, who died in her mid 70s, was not a friend or relative. In fact, I never met her. But I felt as if I knew her.
She was one of my "regulars" -- the readers who call or visit or email on a regular basis to tell me their theories, their opinions and their news tips. I am certain if any of my regulars are reading this, you know who you are.
One sends me postcards or letters on motorcycle notepad. He often disagrees with my opinions, but we became instant friends the day I called him on the phone to tell him I valued his thoughts.
Two of them are retired local businesspeople of some prominence who cheer on my efforts to lead community-minded news coverage. One of those is a shameless flirt.
Another is an elderly woman who headed a newsworthy organization for many years and knew me as a reporter before I was an editor.
The woman who died last weekend was a reader who liked to let us know, sometimes with an exaggerated reality, what was going on in her municipality. I knew several years ago that she had moved, because the place in need of "investigating" shifted from one town to another.
Sometimes, I don't hear from someone, a regular letter writer for example who likes to hand-deliver his letters to the newsroom, for a few months and then I learn there was an illness or a hospitalization.
And then I recognize a name in the obituary columns and know I won't be hearing from that person again.
We hear from a lot of people in the course of our days in the newsroom -- some less pleasant than others -- but I find a certain comfort in the predictability of my regulars. This week, they are one less.