Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Good neighbors

I've been busted.
The private golf course which I was using as a shortcut during my morning runs with my dog last week posted a No Trespassing sign intended for me. There is only one sign posted on the entire course at exactly the place where I routinely enter, and it says "No Trespassing. No Dogs. No Joggers."
It is so specific to me that they may as well have just posted a picture of me and my dog with a line through it.

No Nancy. No Sydney: I believe that's the point the sign is trying to make.

For about 10 years, I have been a regular jogger in the rural neighborhood where I live. Three times a week or so, I run on the roads which loop about three and a half miles to and from my house on a route that circles the perimeter of the golf course.

This summer, since I acquired a running "buddy," our 9-month-old Australia shepherd-spaniel mix, Sydney, I have been shortcutting along the back edge of the golf course for safety reasons. The shortcut avoids the one section of my road that has some traffic.
I have tried to be respectful of the course, taking care that Sydney doesn't leave any deposits behind and avoiding stepping onto the grounds if I saw golfers in carts. But, I admit the past few weeks I have encountered along with the grounds crew some early golfers trying to beat the heat with a 7 a.m. game. Apparently, they didn't want to share space with a woman and her dog, no matter how careful I tried to be.
I don't mind taking the long way around, and I understand the course is private property and I should have stayed off altogether. But the sign is really unnecessary. A word or two from anyone working there asking me to stick to the road would have been sufficient. Now, a bold "No ... No ... No" blots the otherwise exquisitely groomed and scenic grounds of the course. There is really no need for it.

Which brings me to SoundOff.
This popular newspaper forum has become a place for people to complain about their neighbor instead of just going next door and saying what's bothering them.
Barking dogs, loud music, parked cars -- even the color of paint on someone's fence -- are noted to us, the newspaper, and to our readers, but never to the person who could actually do something about it.
Have we become so afraid to talk to people, to approach them with a simple request or to engage in polite conversation that we have to resort to anonymous phone messages to newspapers and signs on sticks to make a point?
A few years ago, a neighbor had an issue with our family and the property line of our home. At the time, we hired an attorney to help us understand our legal rights and resolve the dispute. We met with him; he researched the issue, and offered us his best legal advice: "Go next door and talk to them," he said. "I've found over the years that nothing works better."
Although uncertain about how I would be received, I tried it. We talked, found a way to get past our differences, and found a way to deal with our boundary line issue. Not only was the problem solved, but over time, that discussion opened the door to rediscover old friendships and make new ones.
We paid our lawyer more money than we could easily afford at the time, but in the end his advice was worth every penny.
Just go talk to people face to face. You can save the cost of a sign and the trouble of sounding off.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Lama Mia (or is it Hello Dalai?)

A headline in last Monday's Mercury on the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Lehigh University has generated some debate on what is appropriate for newspaper headlines.

"LAMA MIA!" was the headline above a photo of a smiling Dalai Lama surrounded by flowers and a news story reporting on his Sunday afternoon lecture in Lehigh's Stabler Arena. The photo by Daniel P. Creighton and story by Brandie Kessler depicted and described a man who, though a figure of global esteem, speaks with humility and humor.

The headline, written to inspire a smile, reflected the talk and the image His Holiness offered in the Sunday event. His words dwelt on inspiring compassion, a little more levity and less ponderous attitudes among people, and humility. More than once during his talk, he laughed at himself, making the point that even the spiritual head of a religion and a winner of the Nobel peace prize can make a mistake and chuckle about it.

The headline, a play on the expression and now movie title "Mama Mia!" (which loosely translated means Wow!), was chosen to reflect the importance of his visit in a lighthearted way. It was certainly more creative and intelligent than "Hello Dalai!"

But, not all readers saw it that way. Not everyone smiled.

Several people called and emailed us to complain that we were being disrespectful of a religious figure. One person asked, "Would you say, 'Pope on a Rope'?" Another urged that the person who wrote the headline and the person who approved it should be fired.

Opinions in the newsroom were mixed. "Never have fun with religion," said some staffers. Others said that by itself the headline would have been offensive, but over the picture of the mischievously smiling His Holiness, the lighthearted approach worked. It almost seems as if the Dalai Lama is laughing at our play on words.

A poll at http://www.pottsmerc.com/ produced similar mixed results. Thirty-six percent of people answering the question, "What did you think of the headline Lama Mia in Monday's Mercury?" said it was terribly offensive. The same percentage said it was funny.

Other choices getting a few votes were "mildly tasteless" and "outrageously hilarious."

The real test of whether or not the headline was offensive should belong to His Holiness, according to staff writer Brandie Kessler, who covered the lecture at Lehigh. "I don't know for certain," she said, "but I think if you showed it to him he would smile. And, the point of his talk was that people should offer smiles and compassion to others."

The best headlines in newspapers involve risk. Any time something is written that skirts the edge, that is intended to invoke humor or any emotional response -- which is the definition of a great headline -- the writer runs the risk of offending someone.

This is not a risk we take lightly; we try not to offend. But last weekend, the words of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama made sense to us and we chose to follow our instincts.

"We all have same potential to develop more warmheartedness," he said.

A little humor can help us get there.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A bad moon rising

Yesterday, we received an email from a reader asking if we would print a derogatory obituary about her mother if she submitted it. Why not print the truth? she asked.

While pondering our reply, I said to myself: Must be a full moon.

A short time later, a subscriber called to tell us she was dismayed that morning to discover when she opened her Mercury that the crossword puzzle had already been completed by someone. Press operator? Newspaper carrier? Early-rising neighbor?

About midafternoon, a caller asked for the editor. I said, "This is Nancy March; I am the editor." He said, "Marge! I got a great story for you."

He then proceeded to tell me that Jim Baker saved his life and he could tell me the truth about Tammy Faye. After several minutes of repeating his "story," he stopped in mid-sentence and asked, "This is CNN, right?"

Today, a local businessman, who is one of my regular fans, called before I got to my desk this morning. No sooner was I done returning his call then another regular, this one the opposite of a fan, stopped by the front desk to lodge his complaint of the month.

Next, an unsigned letter came in the mail suggesting that instead of riding a bicycle in the rain, I investigate the "real corruption" in Pottstown. The writer also mailed a photocopy of the letter to the home of another staff person. Information about the "real corruption" was hidden amidst HA-HAs and smiley faces.

A full moon?

Meanwhile, the computers are acting up more than usual and while driving through town on a lunch break today, I saw two intersections with green lights out. Just the green. The red and yellow worked fine.

Last night, while leaving a restaurant after a delightful dinner with a group of cousins, I looked skyward and saw what appeared to be a full moon rising. But a second look showed that the moon was almost full, but needs another day or two to reach its complete stage of "lunacy" (sorry ...).

So it's a full moon rising. It's still a day or two away -- stay tuned for what tomorrow brings.

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Monday, July 7, 2008

'People take showers all the time'

If you want to see what patriotism looks like, just come to Pottstown for the annual parade on the Fourth of July -- in the rain.

On Friday, I had the privilege of riding bikes in the High Street parade with our publisher Tom Abbott, promotions director Chris March and police reporter Brandie Kessler in a Mercury contingent of bicycles. The parade appearance was planned as a promotional event for BikePottstown, the free-bike loan program being run as a nonprofit out of TriCounty Bicycles on High Street.

Brandie and I also ran in the Preservation Pottstown 5k race (I placed second in my age group, thank you very much), and I dried off and changed in The Mercury restrooms before heading down to High Street to the parade start.

Parade organizer Bill Krause put our bikes directly behind the convertibles carrying the queen contestants and their escorts and a convertible carrying Pottstown Mayor Sharon Thomas. As we pulled out onto High Street, a light drizzle started, and the queens' escorts all got their umbrellas open to keep the queens' tresses dry. The mayor was undaunted by the drizzle, and endured most of the parade umbrella-less, waving and greeting the crowd as if nothing was amiss.

I thought that the crowds would be thinned by the weather, but what a surprise! Not only were there hundreds of people lining High Street, they were a far more enthusiastic, patriotic and proud crowd than I would have predicted.

Families were dressed in red, white and blue and flag-adorned T-shirts. Kids wore crazy hats (we counted four newspaper hats from The Mercury!) and senior citizens waved flags from their seats in lawn chairs.

People cheered, waved and applauded, mostly for the World War II veterans on the float behind us, but we got our fair share of pleasant greetings.

As the parade progressed, the rain picked up. By the time we reached High and Hanover, it was pouring. Still, no one seemed to mind. The Ricketts drill team kept drumming; the dancers on the Sunnybrook float kept dancing; the bands played; the bicyclists circled around; and Uncle Sam just waved at everyone.

One paradegoer, Tom Smoyer of Bechtelsville, told our news reporter: "People take showers all the time. It's just a drizzle."

I encounter a lot of cynicism in my work and a fair amount of negativity. (I read SoundOff every day, after all.) But when I rode my bright yellow BikePottstown cruiser down High Street, struggling to stay balanced, I was struck by the positive upbeat attitudes. The people along this route were of all generations, all races and political affiliations, all income levels. They came from the Boyertown, Spring-Ford, Pottsgrove and Douglassville areas to Pottstown's parade. There were lots of kids and a fair number of dogs. Everybody smiling -- and getting wet.

When I awoke Friday morning and saw that Pottstown's Independence Day celebration once again was falling under a cloud of bad weather, I was disappointed and felt sorry for the committee members who work so hard for this day, only to have it spoiled by rain.

But rain didn't spoil anything. Instead, it just drove home the point that you can't stop this town from enjoying the moment and having a good time.

You can't rain on our parade.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Crazy hats and more

Anyone who reads the financial news knows these are not flush times for those of us entrenched in the newspaper business. But in the midst of doom and gloom predictions about the future of newspapers, we are not treading water at The Mercury waiting to sink or be rescued. Quite the contrary -- we are launching new projects and trying out new things and involving more people in different creative tasks than I can recall ever happening in my 30-some years in this business.

Most of the ideas spring from the brain of our publisher, Tom Abbott, but they quickly gather creative sparks from many of us here. We have become almost overnight a multi-department ideas operation where editorial, advertising, online, promotions, production graphics and circulation strengths converge on an idea and try to make it something exciting. We had Intros, Gas Giveaway, Staycation Planner, and The Bear Hunt.

Here's another one:

About a year ago, reporter Evan Brandt was on vacation out West and came back with a copy of a Denver paper about the time the Phillies were headed into Rockies' territory in the National League playoffs. The paper featured several interesting promotional ideas, one of which was a hat readers could craft from the paper and wear to games cheering on their favorite team. And, we all know that worked out pretty well for them.

We saved the copy for reference. About a week ago, reporter Brandie Kessler was having a slow night on the police beat and got the idea of making newspaper hats to hand out along the Fourth of July parade route. She made customized samples for staffers in the newsroom. Mine features a Yahoo Hot Jobs ad that reads "start loving your boss."

Brandie's creative spurt inspired promotions director Chris March (yes, he's my son) to pull out the Rockies hat and suggest that we do something similar for the Fourth of July. Give readers a colorful page in Thursday's paper to make a hat; seek business advertising support ; involve readers in actually doing something with the paper, including directions on how to make the hat.

Tom the Publisher then suggested a "Mercury minute" video for our Web site demonstrating how to make the hat as a promo to the paper, and Eileen Faust, online editor, quickly got on board designing a promo ad for http://www.pottsmerc.com/

The idea isn't going to make us a lot of money, nor will it win awards or send single-copy sales high on the charts. But, we hope it will get people talking. We hope that some families will sit down together at the kitchen table and make a hat. We hope to see just one youngster, or oldster for that matter, wearing one along the parade route (two or three would be even better!)

We hope that people say, "Did you see what was in the paper today?"

We hope it makes someone smile.

We have lots of ideas, but this is our idea for Thursday. This is our daily brainstorm. Buy a paper and check it out.