Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I always ask the toughest questions

When I was in eighth grade at St. Paul’s Elementary School in Norristown, our teacher decided to launch a class newspaper.
My best friend, Guy Mercogliano, was appointed editor, and I was one of the columnists. The teacher was Miss Laura Zatny, a former nun too rebellious to be contained by convent walls.
Before the first issue went to print on one of those mimeograph machines with the fragrant blue ink, Miss Zatny pulled an editorial I wrote challenging the concept of an all-merciful God.
There had been some tragedy in the world and I posited the perennial "Why would God let this happen?" question.
"This is a Catholic school, for chrissakes!" she scolded.
She spiked the column, and my friend Merc and I resigned in protest.
Except for delivering the Norristown Times Herald in my neighborhood, the short-lived St. Paul Gazette was my first exposure to newspapers, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
To me, newspapers epitomize democracy.
They’re all about sticking up for the little guy and challenging bullies wherever they exist. Rooting out corruption, exposing waste and revealing dangerous conditions are all worthy pursuits of a newspaper.
Some say newspapers got too wrapped up in telling their communities what’s good for them, or too consumed by what the paper looked like instead of the content of its pages.
I think a good newspaper strikes a balance between the watchdog and the town crier.
I’ve worked at five newspapers in my nearly 30-year career, and I don’t have any answers for the current crisis.
Merc is a partner in a Philadelphia law firm, and I’m still tilting at windmills from my parapet on the rampart of democracy we call newspapers.
The industry is going through revolutionary changes. Will print editions disappear completely? Will newspapers become a Web-only medium? Will newspapers be replaced by Internet bloggers.
For democracy to survive, there will always be the nucleus of a community newspaper staffed by responsible reporters and editors.
God willing, that is.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Harry Kalas called it all

Sea gulls flocked over the blanket next to our family plot on 30th Street Beach in Ocean City, N.J.
A group a shoebies let their kids throw bits of their ham and cheese sandwiches up to the birds.
It’s a seaside disaster in the making, but it’s something you can’t tell people. You have to let them experience an aggressive flock of swarming gulls before they start yelling at their kids to stop the feeding frenzy.
Dad turned up the radio against the roar of the surf and the incessant squawking of the sea birds.
My uncle Paul bolted to his feet.
“It’s a Russian trawler, I tell ya,” he said.
Uncle Paul always brought binoculars to the beach.
Often, when he saw a big boat off shore he’d be convinced it was a Russian trawler.
Ship names that weren’t printed in English were Russian. And they weren’t doing any fishing either.
Uncle Paul was a medic in WWII and was as jumpy as a toad in a hailstorm.
My dad, a Marine, sat with a towel over his feet and zinc oxide on his nose. He wore a big floppy jungle hat and cracked open another can of Schmidt’s.
Uncle Paul was a lizard. He could stand in the sun all day and get nothing but Vitamin D from it.
Dad has skin like fine Irish porcelain. He gets a sunburn from too much television.
When Uncle Paul was satisfied that he had spotted a Russian trawler, he’d pass the binoculars to Dad.
Dad would look, but probably couldn’t see much with his bad eyes.
“Let me know when they’re coming ashore,” he’d say and pass back the binoculars.
A sea gull swooped down and took a peanut butter sandwich from my little sister, Trisha.
Another gull dropped a bomb down the front of my Aunt Marie’s swim suit.
My mother and Aunt Beth agreed that dad and Uncle Paul shouldn’t drink so much beer when they’re out in the sun.
Grace Karpinski said she’d go to the boardwalk with me that night.
There was a deep drive to left-center field and the Phillies were not at bat.
“Aw, for cryin’ out loud,” Uncle Paul complained to the voice on the radio.
Harry Kalas was calling the Phillies game. He was the de facto narrator of so many of our family outings.
On the beach, on the back deck, at night dozing off in my room, Harry called it all.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Democracy doesn't stand a chance without newspapers

Since time immemorial, whenever things got bad, everyone from political wags to barroom philosophers has declared that the end is near.
Among the more frequent refrains, particularly among popular pundits, has been the downfall of the United States of America.
It is a recurring theme that normally surfaces around times of economic recession, but also can be heard from one political party after the other wins a presidential election.
President Bill Clinton stripped away our expectation for even a modicum of decency from our elected officials.
President George W. Bush is accused of trying to bring about the destruction of the middle class.
And now, less than 100 days into his presidency, Barack Obama is considered by some to be presiding over the end of our nation as we know it.
For the past century, or at least the half-century that I've been around, folks have been talking about how the Roman Empire didn't last forever.
I graduated from high school in 1976 and of those years I can remember reading editorials in newspapers and magazine articles about how we might as well enjoy our bicentennial because it was the beginning of the end for the U.S. of A.
We had our 200-year run and it was good while it lasted, but these are the end times, the doomsayers warned.
But the nattering nabobs of negativism have always discounted one aspect of our democracy that was lacking in Rome: newspapers.
H.G. Wells, in "The Outline of History," writing about the fall of the Roman Empire, observed the following:
"To the modern mind it is clear that a widespread popular government demands, as a necessary condition of health, a steady supply of correct information upon public affairs to all the citizens and a maintenance of interest. The popular governments in the modern states that have sprung up on either side of the Atlantic during the last two centuries have been possible only through the more or less honest and thorough ventilation of public affairs through the press."
Though things are looking pretty bleak right now, I firmly believe we're going to make it through.
The scary thing to me about this latest economic collapse is the impact it is having on newspapers.
I'm with Wells.
If the end of our nation is near, it won't be due to an imaginary historical clock.
But because too many of us seem to think we can survive without newspapers and the protection they afford us.

Exeter man won't pass up any job chance

Let me start by saying I can’t do this for everybody.
That said, someone needs to hire Charles D. Phipps.
Phipps, 44, of Exeter Township got laid off from Johnson & Johnson Co. in West Chester last year and has been retraining and looking for a job ever since.
He’s gone to trade school for technical writing and computer skills and was honorably discharged from the Army in 1989.
He’s a high school graduate. He’s Internet savvy.
And, after he spent six months looking for a job, the economy went into the toilet in January.
Now, he’s just another statistic in the unemployment figures that are posted each month.
But he doesn’t seem to be just any unemployed guy.
A few weeks ago I wrote a story about how the state is issuing debit cards to pay unemployment benefits.
Phipps was one of the Reading Eagle readers who responded to my request for comments from local unemployment recipients.
He wrote in sharing his experience with the unemployment system.
“Your article could have been better directed and more useful with a list of banks that charge fees and those that don’t,” Phipps wrote. “Then to really go at it, go ask those banks why do they charge fees to the unemployed?”
He not only contributed to my story, he challenged me to do a better one.
Then he did something you might think a long-term unemployed person might have given up on.
“Attached is my resume,” he wrote. “If you know of a decent job that fits my spectrum please let me know or forward my resume.”
I wrote Phipps back and told him I couldn’t open his resume on my office computer because we didn’t have the program.
A few days later there was a manila envelope in my mail slot in the newsroom.
It was a hand-printed letter, written in ink and without errors, from Phipps.
A copy of his resume, certificates from the technical courses he has attended and his military discharge certificate were attached with a yellow paper clip.
“Just throwing a dart,” Phipps wrote. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained, etc. ...”
Phipps said he’s applied at the Office of Homeland Security for a security job at an airport, but the only openings are in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, which he considers to be too long of a commute to make economic sense.
“Any ideas or suggestions would be greatly appreciated,” he added.
I have an idea.
Somebody hire Charles D. Phipps so I have something positive to write about amid all this economic gloom.