Sunday, June 24, 2018

A Newspaper Building By Any Other Name

WHAT'S IN A BUILDING?: Journalists, sales reps, circulation workers, business office workers, publishers (sometimes), drivers and a whole lot of history. 

It's no secret to many of you in the greater Pottstown area that I am a bit of a smart-ass.

But I will confess to being truly humbled by the actions taken in the past two weeks by the elected bodies I have spent more than 20 years covering and, in more than one instance, criticizing.

It takes a large measure of character to step outside oneself and see the greater good in an institution whose function is to tell you, and thousands of people, that you're screwing something up.

Certainly, that is not all The Mercury does in its coverage of local government. Like the elected officials and staffs themselves, we want to see Pottstown and the surrounding municipalities thrive and succeed. After all, that affects our health too.

But as I have said many times before, perhaps to the point that some of you are tired of hearing it, the First Amendment was not added to the Constitution just so the local newspaper would have the right to cover car crashes -- no matter how much people like to read about them and shake their heads over the photographs.

Our purpose for being, other than making money, is to hold government and the powerful accountable or, as E. K. Hornbeck once said "Mr. Brady, it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

So to have the people whom we so regularly afflict stand up and say "we need you here," is not only humbling, but reflects, at least in my opinion, a measure of their broader vision about the rolls we all take on.

Without any request from us, both Pottstown Borough Council and the Pottstown School Board took it upon themselves to vote (unanimously I might add) to send letters to the company that owns The Mercury in what will likely be an unsuccessful attempt to reverse the decision to close-up the newspaper's long-time home at King and North Hanover streets and move it to the printing plant in Exton.

Here is the borough's letter, authorized by a vote on June 11:

It's a little hard to read, so, at the risk of seeming self-serving, I'll quote the key sentences: "The award-winning, Pultizer Prize-winning journalists are the backbone of Pottstown, its community and its residents, providing stories and information each and every day. Local news, local government and school information allows officials and the public to remain transparent and accountable to its fellow-constituents and fulfills the mission and goals of true journalism."

And here is the school board's letter which the board members agreed to sign at the June 21 meeting:

Also a bit hard to read, so again here are some salient sentences: "Shuttering of the building will have serious negative economic effects on our community's efforts to revitalize our downtown business area. In a small community of 5.2 square miles with a population of 22,000 people, the loss of every physical asset has a tremendous negative economic and psychological effect."

Here is a video of the discussion had by the school board prior to the vote. (Apologies in advance. Like my photos, my video skills remain stubbornly rudimentary):

Sadly not caught on camera were comments by Board Vice President Katina Bearden, a lifelong resident of Pottstown, who talked about what The Mercury has meant to her over the years.

(How odd that I got something in both eyes at just as Bearden began speaking that made it hard to see the controls on my i-Phone through my watering eyes...)

Katina Bearden
When the school district was in the process of deciding whether to desegregate its buildings decades ago, due to the fact that a high concentration of minority students lived in the attendance area of the former Jefferson Elementary School, it was The Mercury, she said, who gave that effort voice.

"The Mercury was on the forefront of desegregation. That was the first time I saw minority faces on the front page, in a big spread, that were not there because they had done something wrong," she said.

"The roots of The Mercury are deep in this town and we need an entity which keeps people accountable," Bearden said.

My sincere thanks to both council and the school on behalf of The Mercury staff, none of whom look forward to this re-location.

However, it is time for a reality check.

Appreciated as your letters are, the council and board members need to know they will not change the decision to re-locate The Mercury's operations to its printing plant. It has already happened to The Daily Local News in West Chester, The Times-Herald in Norristown and even to The Denver Post -- all owned by Digital First Media.

Remember, all those newspapers are still publishing every day and so will The Mercury for the foreseeable future. For the average reader, there will be no change. It will still be there in the driveway or the corner store every morning.

I will continue, for the most part, to operate here in borough, mostly from my attic office which, if I can get my act together, may soon have an air conditioning unit. No doubt, occasional visits to Exton will be necessary.

It is also incumbent on us all, as we wrestle with this question of how to keep local news sustainable, to recognize the relocation is better than the alternative.

Newspapers across the nation are struggling and, with the exception of the
The JRO printing facility in Exton, will be the new
official home of The Mercury operations.
occasional billionaire who buys up a local publication and is willing to except meager or non-existent profits to keep it alive, there are not a lot of buyers out there.

The Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News is experimenting with a non-profit model. We all wish them luck in hopefully blazing a new path for the business that others can follow.

So yes, the owners of Digital First Media, the New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, is not in the business to invest in their newspapers to make them grow. That has been proven difficult to do and that is not their business model.

They are owners of newspapers not to build them, but to "right size" them, as they recently told the Denver Post newsroom, and primarily to extract profits and yes, the evidence suggests they are doing so rapaciously. Welcome to the capitalist system.

But, as one well-placed source put the question to me recently, "when you have to choose between death today or the death of a thousand cuts, which one keeps you alive longer?"

It's a fair point.

This is not a new, or terribly energy efficient building
and its upkeep requires a lot of money.
So if The Mercury can save $300,000 or $400,000 or $500,000 a year in overhead by not operating a building that is too large for its needs, is it not the prudent business decision to take that savings and live to publish another day?

And will some of the profit from those savings go to the owners with high profit demands? Most likely. But without a buyer for the paper, there are no other options.

In truth, we three entities are not much different.

Did the school district not just outsource its entire transportation department and close its copy center to save money?

Did the borough not ask the state to conduct a complete audit of its finances and operations to find every savings possible to prevent another 12 percent tax hike?

Much like The Mercury is battling reduced advertising (and subscription) revenues due to a splintering of its audience on the Internet, the borough and school district are trying to compensate for reduced tax revenues from dwindling property assessments -- and the loss of Pottstown Hospital from the tax rolls -- and are making savings everywhere they can.

So must we.

It's an emotional thing to leave a place you worked for 20 years, particularly when you will still see it every day.

But times change.

And so while I recognize that the shuttering of The Mercury building may be an unavoidable financial decision if we want to continue to publish, it's gratifying to be able report the "official" recognition of the elected officials I am paid to oversee and, when warranted, expose or criticize, that such work is necessary in the service of democracy.

In the meantime, see you on Twitter. Speaking of which, here are the Tweets from Thursday's school board meeting:

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