Sunday, June 3, 2018

Are You Ready for a Mercury Without Walls?

Shortly after The Mercury's founding in 1931, this building became its home and has been ever since. That all ends June 30, when the newspaper's vulture hedge fund owners will close the landmark building at the corner of King and North Hanover streets to save on overhead. Operations will be moved to the printing plant in Exton.

It was just two weeks ago or so, that Pottstown community leaders were scoffing at the idea of a "YMCA without walls."

That was the drab alternative executives at the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA were peddling to compensate Pottstown for the planned closure of the Pottstown branch on North Adams Street at the end of June.

Well as most of you know, that story had a happy ending when local businessman Charles Gulati agreed to buy the building and lease much of the space to the Y so it could remain.

(See Sunday's edition for an interview with Gulati about his plans and motivations.)

Now the executives at Digital First Media, which owns The Mercury and is itself owned by Alden Global Capital, a New York City based hedge fund now weathering world-wide condemnation for its unrelenting strangulation of the majority of the nation's newspapers, will give you "the newspaper without walls."

It was announced to a handful of the remaining employees at The Mercury Friday that "to save on overhead," the landmark home of the newspaper for more than 80 years will be shuttered.

The paper will continue to publish and be delivered to your door as well as maintain its irksome web site.

Office operations will be moved to Digital First Media's printing plant in Exton, where the remaining staff of our sister paper, The Daily Local News -- or at least those who don't work at home -- also work since the closing of their office in West Chester.

The Mercury building is an old one and, since our excellent maintenance man Bob Morris was down-sized, its problems have multiplied.

Some of you may have seen in a recent story in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, detailing some of those problems. The most severe of these is a severely leaking roof.

Saving on overhead at The Mercury building will

help DFM President Heath Freeman's expand

his already expansive vacation home in Montauk, N.Y.
That may well be one of the major factors which has prevented the building from being sold, which is the pattern Alden follows; selling off its newspaper properties' assets, cutting the staff and reducing its overhead to snatch that cash and plow it into investments which, for most part, seem to fail spectacularly.

And let's not forget using those profits -- as high as 30 percent among the newspapers it owns around Philadelphia -- to pay for lavish homes like nine, yes count them NINE mansions in Palm Beach for fund founder Randall Smith and a growing vacation manse in The Hamptons for DFM President Heath Freeman.

Your friendly neighborhood Pottstown reporter 

takes his message to the boss in The Hamptons.
(I stopped by that home recently to try to talk to Mr. Freeman face-to-face, but he declined to come to the door.)

So after The Newspaper Guild union, which represents some of the employees at The Mercury (including myself) complained about the mold conditions in the building, the owners pledged to fix the roof.

Which, to their credit, they are doing.

But the beneficiaries of that repair will be the new occupants, if they can find a buyer or tenants, not the employees who have worked beneath that roof for decades.

This is nothing new. As our co-publisher Ed Condra told us, "unfortunately, we've become very good at this."
Image courtesy of Darren Carroll
Heath Freeman

What he means is Pottstown is not the first of Digital First Media's newspaper properties to abandon the downtowns they once helped to anchor.

Locally, The Times-Herald building in Norristown has been closed for nearly two years and was almost sold to become an auto parts store until the deal fell through.

In Delaware County, the building once occupied by the Delaware County Daily Times was sold and they were moved into a former CVS.

The Main Line Times building in Ardmore was demolished several years ago and in West Chester, the Daily Local News building was closed and that property will become upscale apartments, we're told. The staff there was given the choice to work from home or work at the plant in Exton which prints all of the Philadelphia-area papers.

The current air conditioning system in my attic office.
That is the choice The Mercury staff now faces as well.

For my part, I intend to stay right here in Pottstown and work from my home office in the attic, although I think it's finally time to invest in an air conditioner for up there.

So understand what this means dear reader.

The closure of the building does not mean The Mercury is going away -- yet.

It will continue to publish every day with the same local content you have always enjoyed.

What's changed is that the building itself will be shuttered, sold or leased.

Lost will be the personal connection the staff had with the community, except for the lucky few like me whose job is to make connections with the community.
Dave Levengood, who works in
The Mercury's 

circulation department,
is also the president 

of our
Newspaper Guild Local.

Also lost will be the economic impact the 30-or-so workers had on Pottstown and the surrounding region.

Gained, will be more cash for Randall Smith and Heath Freeman, given that at the most recent negotiation session, the lawyer for DFM said there was no intention of offering any kind of raise for Guild employees out of that 30 percent profit margin.

But while it does not signal the immediate death of the paper, don't be fooled. It is just a step closer to closure on the path Alden has chosen and the paper will only last so long as it is producing enough cash for Smith and Freeman to siphon off.

After that, all bets are off and The Mercury will either become a memory, or be purchased by someone with enough money who wants to try to revive it; or reborn as some flavor of digital news source, hopefully to continue the vital public mission journalism undertakes every day to engender an informed citizenry.

That has happened elsewhere, in Minneapolis and in Pittsfield, Mass. But it is far from a sure thing.

Only one thing is sure, come July 1, 86 years of history goes out the window and Pottstown's hometown newspaper will be "The Mercury without walls."


  1. Thanks for all your hard work and reporting. It is much appreciated.

  2. Greed over professionalism... a sad state of affairs going on across our nation.... sorry to see this once local icon fall by the wayside....

  3. Sorry to hear this Evan...I have been in Pottstown my whole life. I remember being a child and driving past the Mercury building looking in the windows and likening it to a scene from my favorite movie at the time Superman. I remember thinking it looked like the daily planet and Clark Kent might be inside. That was 35 years ago and now the greedy and unjust have taken this town, this country. No I dont refer to Donald Trump I refer to the wishy washy immoral spineless live in the now that only care about themselves thumb their nose at history generation that is slowly infecting every aspect of life. Maybe someone could open a bike repair shop in the mercury building? with all the destruction of our local streets to accomodate bike riders that i guess vacation in Pottstown you would think there to be a huge void for a large bicycle depot / repair shop.