Pocono Record newsroom wins honors

The Pocono Record newsroom has been the recipient of some good news recently:

We won the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ (PICPA) “Truth in Finances Award” in the small newspaper category and we won in several categories in the PNA Foundation “Newspaper of the Year” Contest.

The “Truth in Finances Award” award honors “excellence and balanced reporting that clarifies misinterpretations of financial issues that affect individuals or the community at large, uncovers financial fraud, or reports on fraudulent activities that harm the financial well being of individuals, communities, or companies in or around the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

The award recognized our groundbreaking crowdsourcing investigation of East Stroudsburg University Foundation’s donor files arising from the Isaac Sanders scandal. More specifically, our work was the culmination of four years worth of teeth prying we took up in court.

The Pocono Record relentlessly pursued these donor files, arguing that they were public records.

ESU and ESUF tried to block us at every turn.

We got the records — all 14,000 of them  – in a “document dump” meant to thwart our efforts to find the specific information we were seeking.

But we posted all the files “on the cloud” and invited readers to help us wade through the avalanche of paper to find the needles in a haystack we needed.

In the end, not only were we victorious in gaining the records, we set a statewide legal precedent for public records rules AND the materials served as the springboard to revealing stories like this one:

http://www.poconorecord.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130729/NEWS/307290336&cid=sitesearch

And we continue to dig, BTW.

The Pocono Record was also honored in the 2013 PNA Foundation “Newspaper of the Year” Contest.

We won in the following areas:

First Place

Newswriting Excellence

Layout and Design

Best Use of Photography

Second Place

General and Departmental Coverage

Honorable Mention

Editorial/Opinion Page Excellence

These honors reflect the newsroom’s devotion and professional spirit.

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Saying farewell to our marvelous Marta

So this newbie executive editor from New Yawk finds himself on his first day in the lobby of the Pocono Record, smothered by anxiety and doubt about coming to a new newsroom.

At the counter he is greeted by a smiling, cheerful young lady who extends her hand and says: “Hi, I’m Marta Gouger.”

The new guy discovers that Marta, like her handshake, is firm, yet warm and welcoming.

That feels like it was only yesterday. And today we says goodbye as Marta Gouger leaves the Pocono Record to become editor of The Times News in Lehighton.

How she embodies the Pocono Record and what she has done for our newsroom cannot be overstated: She has poured her heart and guts into this news operation.

Every.

Single.

Day.

For 28 years.

Nights. Weekends. Early mornings. Holidays. On (alleged) vacation. Marta has given of herself in ways that will never fully be recognized.

What can be recognized, though, is her signature way of interacting with all of us as a compassionate, giving manager; her burning curiosity about the Poconos and her insatiable, enthusiastic appetite for news. (Can there be anyone more child-like in their glee about an approaching snowstorm?)

She has mentored many a reporter (and this editor) in the ways of the Poconos and for that, I am profoundly grateful. She now brings that passion and smarts to a new environment.

Though her final day here is today, her dedication to this, our imperfect craft, will long be remembered. 

 

 

 

 

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Our children’s security should not be kept secret

 

You might see from the chart about school security on our front page today that Pocono Mountain School District was absent.

 

We surveyed all school districts in the Poconos and asked for yes/no answers to a list of straightforward questions concerning some features of school security.

 

For instance, we asked whether districts require visitors to sign in and show ID or whether they have school resource officers or metal detectors.

 

We wanted to better inform readers ahead of a town hall-style meeting about school security being hosted tonight by Stroudsburg School Superintendent John Toleno.

 

We also wanted to better inform parents and taxpayers throughout our area generally about which districts have commonplace security measures in place and how their district compares with others.

 

The idea is to readily empower you with information.

 

Not all parents and taxpayers can be expected to attend school board meetings or ask these questions themselves at their son or daughter’s school.

 

So for instance, say you now learned that your district lacked metal detectors.

 

If you feel strongly about it, it’s a question you can now explore with elected school officials and administrators.

 

But if you never knew that in the first place, how could you act on such missing information?

 

Which brings us back to Pocono Mountain.

 

In response to a Pocono Record inquiry, district spokeswoman Wendy Frable replied Tuesday: “I cannot in good conscience provide the Pocono Record with a checklist of the security measures we have in place throughout the district, because to do so goes against the school safety recommendations we have consistently received from safety experts over the years.”

 

In a lengthier comment, she went on to say, in part: “We reached out to our police chiefs Friday afternoon to discuss school safety. … We have many security measures in place. Some of those measures are visible to visitors, other measures are not. Our security measures are flexible, and we adapt our security measures to meet any new needs that arise.”

 

In our request to the districts, we asked about measures that are out in the open or common knowledge.

 

We didn’t ask for secret codes used by staffers or copies of evacuation plans or blueprints of school buildings.

 

What we sought to do is inventory these measures. How the districts stack up against each other? That’s for you to decide.

 

We talked to Larry Banaszak, chief of police at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, and a consultant to schools on dealing with “active shooters.”

 

He said the public has a right to know what safety measures a school district has but added that he could understand why a district might be reluctant to share such information.

 

While a district might think that sharing could make it vulnerable, it could also discourage would-be attackers when they see how proactive a district is, he said.

 

Further, Banaszak said he didn’t think the checklist sought by the Pocono Record was so revealing as to make a district vulnerable.

 

In the wake of the heart-wrenching shootings in Newtown, Conn., we believe it’s a good time to take stock of security at our schools.

 

The goal of our reporting is to allow taxpayers and parents to decide if existing measures are adequate or more needs to be done.

 

What do you think?

 

Write me at cmele@poconorecord.com and share your thoughts.

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About those reader comments and Stalin as editor

Readers recently complained about the (mis)treatment of their comments below stories posted online.

They charged that their comments were being censored or deleted and that we were pushing our own agenda. 

One reader even asked: “When did the Pocono Record hire Josef Stalin as its editor?”

Since my email reply to that reader is posted on our Facebook page, I thought I would share it here as well, with some added thoughts.

Hi,

I’ll try to brief but that might be a fool’s errand.

A word about the reader comments. They are a no-win proposition no matter what we do.

First some background:

When I first got here not quite three years ago, they were the wild, wild, wild frontier with no law in the land.

Readers posted comments that were libelous, inflammatory, filled with cussing – you name it. It was a major time suck on my staff to try to keep an eye on all the stories and manually address each one.

A toooootal nightmare.

I declared a moratorium on the comments until we could figure out what to do. Enter registration. Readers had to give us some form of registration so we knew who were dealing with. That was somewhat helpful.

Then a short time later came the paywall and then a short time after that, human moderation.

That’s a mixed bag. The paywall had the effect of reducing the number of posts but the human moderation was a benefit because at least now we had people eyeballing these things.

Well….these things are moderated off-site, not by us. They are moderated and released only part of the day (stuff posted after 8 p.m. is not reviewed and cleared until the following morning) and then we deal with moderators who are overzealous because someone says something that is misunderstood and they take it down.

People often think we are deleting their comments when in fact, they have not yet been posted. When you enter a comment, you will see it on your screen but then it goes into a queue for approval. That delay can be several hours or even the next morning. That leads to people believing that their comment has been deleted when, in fact, it was never posted in the first place.

We deal with these kinds of complaints constantly and they are an irritant because these moderations are not under our control.

As for us having an “agenda” the only agenda I have as executive editor is to put out the best damn small community daily in Pa.

Period, end of story.

Let me amend that to add: To also get the damn paper out on time and to deliver the news as fresh as we can get it and as well written as time will allow.

I’d invite any reader interested to sit in on our page one meeting some day and see what it takes for a staff this small to get the paper out. As for political agendas, if you’ll allow me a British vulgarity, but we couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery.

Who’s got time or energy to think big conspiratorial thoughts about political agendas?

From the moment we hit the computer keyboard, we work against the constraints of deadline, resources and the catapult of news thrown at us.

Those limitations mean we are perpetually doing triage and making last-minute decisions right up to the point that the copy desk wants to stab me with a pen. At the end of the day, it’s all about trying to put out a smart, informative paper.

We welcome reader input, so feel free to drop me or my top lieutenant, Marta Gouger, a line at mgouger@poconorecord.com. My email is cmele@poconorecord.com

We’ll do the best we can to explain how things work or don’t.

Gotta dash. On deadline. I’m up to my rump in alligators and they’re filling the swamp – fast.

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When the dead make a political statement

 

When an obit makes a political statement what’s an editor to do?

Such was the conundrum confronting me Tuesday afternoon when I was alerted by Editorial Assistant Kathy Roland to an incoming obituary for John A. Reich of Dingmans Ferry, who died at the age of 91.

Reich’s obit read pretty conventionally until you got down toward the end.

Two of the last three grafs read:
“John was a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and friend who will be deeply missed but happily remembered. Mr. Reich’s last wishes for us that are left behind in this world is that we band together and clean out the current White House and take America back from the evil condition it is in today. May God Bless You All….

In lieu of flowers the family respectfully asks that donations be sent to the campaign of anybody who is running against President Barack Obama in 2012.”

To the world at large, it’s a safe bet that our obits are seen as a product of the newsroom. That is, reported and written by our news staff.

The truth is obits are actually paid advertisements. The days of free obits appearing as a community courtesy ended probably about a decade ago as newspapers sought more revenue opportunities and their placement was absorbed by ad departments.

We’re no different.

So back to my conundrum: Do we keep this verbiage in the obit, even though some might reasonably see it as unusual, at best, and perhaps objectionable and even in poor taste, at worst?

Features Editor Helen Yanulus, who oversees Kathy Roland, made a cogent case for excising the political passages.

Helen made the point that it would reflect poorly on the Pocono Record as an institution and that readers would see it as us advancing some kind of political agenda or letting this through in error. 

We checked with the funeral home, and yes, indeed, the obit was correct. We were not being pranked.

I conferred with Classified Ad Director Kelli McFall, who conferred with Advertising Director Brad Bailey. At the end of the day, it was ultimately my call. (Thanks guys!)

While I personally would not consider weaving this kind of verbiage into the obituary of one of my loved ones, no matter how diehard their political views, this was a paid ad.

It was not libelous. He didn’t accuse someone of committing some heinous act or crime. In a way, it was the rough equivalent of a letter to the editor at election time where partisans bash each other in print and urge voters to toss out their political opponents.

Plus, if we started here by censoring obits, then where do we stop? It felt to me like a slippery slope.

So at the end of the day and at the end of his life, John A. Reich of Dingmans Ferry got the last word.

 

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Easily find Pocono public salaries here

Want to know who some of the better-paid public servants are in the Poconos? Or what your school district superintendent earns? Or how much your township spends on salaries of certain employees?

In an effort to make things more transparent and accessible, we’ve created a searchable database of Pocono public payrolls based on figures compiled in 2011.

These kinds of searchable databases are more and more prevalent not just among newspapers but among other watchdog organizations. One of my favorites is SeeThroughNewYork which is organized by the Empire Center for New York State Policy.

Another favorite of mine is run by the Asbury Park Press, which has been at this for quite some time.

Check out its handiwork at Data Universe.

Our goal here in posting this material is not to feed NNS: Nosey Neighbor Syndrome. Rather, it’s to empower you – the readers and taxpayers – with detailed information.

I’ve written a rather comprehensive FAQ that I recommend you read.

I won’t repeat all of the underlying points of the FAQ here, but the bottom line is I believe this is a public service.

I hope you do too.

 

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All the news that fits, we print

Many reader emails I get are related to questions about why we run certain stories over others. Why don’t you run more news about religion? Or politics? Or housing? Or…

You get the idea.

The truthful (and somewhat smart aleck) answer is: All the news that fits, we print.

What we print, how much and where is almost exclusively a function of three things: “news hole,” our news content providers and time.

“News hole” is just a fancy way of referring to the blank spaces left on the news page after ads are placed there first. (After all, advertising does pay the bills!)

So if there is an abundance of advertising, we might have more pages of news hole to fill but if what we refer to as the “ad stack” – ads stacked atop one another on a page – are in short supply, the number of pages tighten up, which means we have less news hole. (There is a financial model of the ideal ad-to-news hole ratio that people way smarter than me understand.)

On those days when the “book” (newspaper) is “tight” (not lots of news hole), it means we are restricted in how many stories we can run and where because, in print, space is limited. Online, of course, space and length are not concerns (generally).

In these situations, we’re forced to be very selective and really weigh what runs in print, at what length and what we might need to hold for another day.

Since we are not rich enough to afford our own bureaus in Washington or Harrisburg, much less London or Moscow, we are entirely dependent on the wire services for news on a much bigger stage. We are largely beholden to the Associated Press as our main source of national, international, political and economic news. We have two supplementary news providers, NewsCore and MCT News Services, but they cannot match the firepower of AP.

Our news diet is dictated by what the wires are serving on a particular day. Some days the offerings are delectable, other days they are like Brussels sprouts. So you might have read or heard of a story somewhere else but if the wires did not “move it” (transmit it), then we are pretty much a up a creek without a notepad.

Last, time is our enemy. A little more than a year ago, we missed being able to put the death of Osama bin Laden on the front page by about 15 minutes. Confirmation of the biggest news story of the year came after our deadline. I was, um, not happy.

But that is the reality of print journalism. In the web world, you can live in a 24/7 news cycle, and post stories whenever it’s merited.

In print, you have to go with the best of what you’ve got by deadline, otherwise you’d never hear the satisfying sound of the rolled-up newspaper landing in your driveway in the morning.

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Fish spawn porn: What you can’t learn in J school

There are things they simply do not teach you in J (journalism) school. Nor is there enough training in the world to prepare you for the weird conversations you can find yourself in as a newspaper editor.

Take, for example, this recent email exchange between myself and copy editor/designer Andrea Higgins. The subject of her email: “sorta icky picture coming to Sunday’s outdoors page.”

Andrea: (Out and About columnist Rick) Koval’s column is about propagating fish in a hatchery. The attached photo shows eggs being removed from a female walleye. Looks pretty gross. Just wanted to tell you because it might result in phone calls.

Me: Fish porn? You are just killing me here.

Andrea: There’s another photo of sperm being ejected from a male walleye.

Like that somehow would be better?

In an email conversation in February, Andrea sent me a translucent outline of the female form to illustrate a story about women’s health and heart disease. She wanted to know if the “boobage” featured in the illustration was OK by me since the illustration was, well, anatomically correct to a fare-thee-well.

I OK’d the use of the illustration.

But let me repeat: There are things they simply do not teach you in journalism school.

And, oh, by the way: Never got phone calls either about the female form or Sunday’s fish photo, which is below.

 

With the aid of a fish culturist, as many as 180,000 tiny eggs might be released from a single female walleye. The spray of eggs is captured inside a basin.

 

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Coming Sunday: A new line-up of features and columns

Just a heads up that if you open up the D section of this Sunday’s paper and things look unfamiliar, it’s not your mind playing tricks.

We have revamped the section to re-organize features and columns and introduce some new ones.

Here are the highlights:

• We are introducing “Pocono My Ride,” featuring Donna Kessler. Donna’s has been writing about classic cars, car buffs, motorcycles and anything you consider “your ride” for years. Donna will display some of the coolest rides from Pocono readers as well offer a list of events where fans gather to show off their rides.

• We are also introducing “Pocono Wedding Talk.” Lois Heckman, a certified celebrant who officiates at weddings, funerals and other ceremonies, has written a blog by that name for poconorecord.com for years. Here you will get thoughtful, practical advice about planning your special day.

• Your photos are making a return! Readers who want to send us the best of their eye-catching work can send it through poconorecord.com/submitaphoto. We will select the best entries of the week to publish in the Sunday paper.

• We’re moving birth announcements to our “Celebrations” page in Sunday’s D section. The announcements had been customarily appearing on Your Community page on Wednesdays.

• The syndicated service that provided “Harvard Medical” has discontinued the advice column and it will no longer appear.

• Astro-Graph will be relocated on Sundays to page B3. Discontinued will be Gene Weingartner’s “Below the Beltway” column.

• Your other favorite features — Annie’s Mailbox, the Sunday Puzzler, Mr. Know It All, etc. will continue to appear in their customary spots.

 

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You call that news?

I frequently get emails or phone calls asking: Why did you put this in the paper? Don’t you have anything better to report? Don’t you know that what you published is not news?

Two recent cases in point:

In one email, a reader criticized us for publishing a story about a state police investigation into a potential “inappropriate” relationship between a Pocono Mountain School District teacher and a student.

This email was a bit of a head-scratcher. The police issued a statement about the investigation and the story had been picked up by several media outlets. If I were a parent in that district, I sure as heck would want to know that this kind of thing was being looked into.

Here you have a person of authority in a position of trust who is on the public payroll who is being investigated for possible improprieties. I’m at a loss about how such an investigation does NOT constitute news.

Another reader weighed in and was critical of our short story Tuesday about the closing of what had been Mollie’s Restaurant in downtown Stroudsburg.

“I just want to know why the Pocono Record seems to just love publishing negative articles about our area. Why did you publish it? There was nothing newsworthy in this; everyone who was a customer of Mollie’s knew it was closed and the Winehandles owners were gone,” the letter writer said, in part.

We’re in the business of telling readers what we know. In this case, the news was belated because we had been trying to reach the owners for comment and then we were overtaken by other non-Mollie’s news coverage that held our attention captive for a while.

Eventually, after fruitless efforts to reach the owners and after some of the other news stories settled down, I decided it was time to publish the story.

For me, the passing of a 30-year local institution should not go unremarked upon in a community newspaper and hence, it constitutes news.

Those who once patronized the eatery and who moved from the area may not have known of its demise. Thanks to the Web, they now will.

It’s also newsworthy in a way that nostalgia is something that brings us together. It’s a shared experience like: “Hey, remember that place where we used to have breakfast? Well, it’s closed now.”

I find that in circumstances like these, even those who did know of its closing are seeking some affirmation of what happened. By publishing such a story, it makes the closing “official.” 

 

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    Chris Mele

    Christopher Mele is the executive editor at the Pocono Record. He assumed the post as the acting editor in December 2009 and was appointed permanently in March 2010. A native New Yorker and Pennsylvania transplant, Mele grew up in the Bronx and went ... Read Full
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