National recognition for the Pocono Record

This is pretty cool: A national blogger who writes about newspaper design and copy desk issues highlighted our Sunday front page as one of the “five most arresting front page visuals.”

Credit copy desker/designer Tom Ostrosky with the page one design and copy desker/designer Andrea Higgins with an assist for finding the appropriate art to round out the design concept.

Also props to reporter Christina Tatu for staying with what turned into a complicated reporting job on an issue of social importance.

For us to get this kind of notice from a national critic is pretty sweet.

We also had some other good news last week: Winners of the Pennsylvania APME News Excellence awards were announced.

Reporter Mike Sadowski took first place for Best Blogging for his “PopRox” blog.

And reporters Howard Frank and Andrew Scott won second place in the Enterprise Reporting category for “Dangerous drivers: Why are they still on the road?”

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Dad, Dick Tracy and the Pennsylvania presidential primary

There is a popular blog, Twitter feed and even a one-time TV show called “S— My Dad Says.”

I am reminded of this in the context of a phone call I took from a reader Wednesday, the day after the Pennsylvania primaries.

The caller had several questions, among them was about the placement of the outcome of the presidential primary. Why put news of such national importance as the outcome of the state presidential primary on page 3 instead of page one?

My answer is simple: Because it did not cross the threshold of must-read news for page one.

Once former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum bowed out, whatever heat there was in the GOP contest cooled faster than a bowl of oatmeal left in a freezer. The outcome was essentially a done deal. There was no guesswork to it.

Which brings me to my dad and the s— he says.

When something was just so plain as the nose on your face, just so obvious, he’d say: “No s—, Dick Tracy.” (For those of you not of a certain generation, Dick Tracy was a high-tech crime-fighter who populated newspaper comics once upon a time. Also, it was a pretty good movie in 1990 starring Madonna and Warren Beatty.)

So for me, the outcome of the presidential primary was a case of “No s—, Dick Tracy.” Not only that, but given the media-saturated universe we live in, readers would know the vote several times over via TV, radio, Facebook, Twitter, etc. by the time we would hit newsstands Wednesday morning.

I know that the Allentown paper featured the presidential primary outcome on its front page. And so did some other papers I saw. That’s their call but a news judgment that, in this case, I don’t share. We did carry the results, just not prominently.

Local news is our bread and butter. I did not want to chew up space on the front page with a story that did not have roots in the Poconos and the outcome of which was already known.

Readers are busy people. Why bore them with stuff they already know? Why give them a reason NOT to pick up the paper?

I think Dick Tracy – and my dad — would agree.

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The things I will do for a story

What can I say? I am sucker for a fun story…

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Why I decided to put such a revolting story on page one

Today’s front page was unusually “heavy” in the gravity of the news it delivered.

As editor, I’ve steered away from routinely running crime stories on the front. To be sure, we’ve had more than our fair share of sensational crimes on the front page (Michael Parrish comes to mind most recently, for instance).

I think your garden-variety crimes have a place in the paper, it’s just that they belong on the inside news pages. A steady diet of crime news on the front page is a poor reflection of what’s happening in our communities and offers a skewed view of the Poconos, I believe.

Which brings me back today’s paper.

We had the breaking news story about the recovery of the body of a 61-year-old woman from Mount Pocono. She had been missing in Big Pocono State Park since the weekend. And we had a “CSI”-style reconstructive narrative by Christina Tatu about how authorities came to charge Rico Herbert in the death and disappearance of 87-year-old Joseph DeVivo.

But the story by reporter Beth Brelje about a Pike County man accused of unspeakable sexual abuse of a 9-year-old autistic girl is the one that kicked me in the gut.

What he’s alleged to have done to that girl and two other victims has to be one of the worst cases of child porn and sexual abuse I’ve ever read.

And here’s the worst part: When Beth sent me the opening of her story Tuesday in preparation for our page one meeting, I read it and the newsman in me instinctively responded: “Well, that story rises to page one.”

Period. No question. The news part of my brain immediately took over and ran the story through some news judgment formula and the other side of the equation was: Page One.

Then I edited the full story. As a parent – hell, as a human being – I was damn near sick to my stomach.

So why put such a graphic, disturbing story on the front page? I am sure some readers got as far as the third paragraph and had to stop.

At its most fundamental, it’s an interesting news story in that this case started with some eagle-eyed detective work in Sweden, of all places, and ultimately involved some 10 law enforcement agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. That makes it different right off the bat.

Beth advanced the story beyond other news organizations. The story broke Monday and we had a brief in Tuesday’s paper. But she dug deeper and developed additional information that put the story into context and perspective for today. That’s important.

Then, there is the emotional element of it that makes it compelling. There’s three kids, one of them incapable of communicating the atrocities being committed to her.

In our roles as watchdogs, it begs further questions about how this was allowed to allegedly go on for as long as it did. Was there no one – either official or unofficial – who had a hint that something was happening? It’s a question we’re following up.

Sadly, it forces us as a society to recognize too that we’re not insulated from the horrors that happen “somewhere else.” The very depravity that some thought they were leaving behind by moving to the Poconos is, in fact, right here in our backyards.

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Wayward comics page no laughing matter

No, it’s not your imagination. We goofed.

We carried in today’s (Tuesday, April 17) edition of the Pocono Record the comics and puzzles that appeared already on Saturday, April 14.

Tomorrow, we will run the comics that should have appeared today. And on the customary comics and puzzle page Wednesday we will run the ones that are slated to appear as usual.

So for those of you who thought you were seeing double today, you were correct. Or as Yogi Berra would say: “It like deja vu all over again.”

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Pocono Record newsroom wins big in PNA awards!

I am pleased and proud to announce that the Pocono Record newsroom has won the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association’s Keystone Press Award Sweepstakes for the third year in a row!

The sweepstakes is awarded by circulation divisions on the strength of the number and placement of winning entries. First-place finishes get assigned a greater number of points than do second-place finishes and so on, and the points are then tallied to determine sweepstakes champs.

Our 2012 showing was impressive!

15: Total Awards
8: First-place finishes
5: Second-place finishes
2: Honorable mentions

What is striking is the range and depth of categories where we won. It proves – again – that we may be small, but we’re mighty!

1st Place Finishes
Ongoing News Coverage
Howard Frank, David Pierce and Andrew Scott for continuing coverage of the scandal that enveloped Middle Smithfield Township

Sports/Outdoor Column
Tom DeSchriver
Joe Paterno columns

Personality profile
Chad Smith
Timeless teacher, Nearing 90, Sarah Jones amazes students

News Beat Reporting
Andrew Scott
Collection of news beat stories from crime and courts

News Photo
Keith Stevenson
S’burg bridge is coming down

Sports Photo
Adam Richins
Stroke of genius

Page Design
Tom Ostrosky

Headline Writing
Tom Ostrosky
“Ice creams the Poconos,” “Something’s abyss in the roads”; “Mosquitoes gone viral: More West Nile-infected suckers found this year than in last decade.”

2nd Place Finishes
Special Project
Our Losses. Your Stories. We Remember: 9/11 10 Years Later

Rick Koval
Pocono Outdoors columns

Online Breaking News
John Misinco, Marta Gouger, David Kidwell and Andrew Scott
Fatal stabbing in Stroudsburg

Business or Consumer story
Marta Gouger
A new generation of generators

Photo story
Melissa Evanko
Picture-perfect day for a parade

Honorable Mention
Front Page Design
Andrea Higgins

Page Design
Andrea Higgins

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Heads we win!

There are days when it’s fun to be the executive editor. Yes, you read that correctly: Fun. Not a word you associate much with working in newspapers nowadays…

So what made today fun?

Our front page, courtesy of copy editor/designer Andrea Higgins. Credit Andrea with the layout, and most importantly, the headline, on the story about the prolonged dry spell and rash of brush fires we’ve had.

Her headline? “Dry earth, wind and fire”

Bingo! A play on words like that that captures the story and invites the reader into it works for me.

It made me do a jig in my pajamas this morning.

Here’s a little bit about Andrea:

Andrea Higgins is a features designer, copy editor, outdoors news coordinator and a 16-year veteran of the Pocono Record.

Born in Pike County, she moved to Stroudsburg as a 6-year-old, and still wonders if that qualifies her as a “native.” This Stroudsburg High alumna is a mom of twins and a cochlear implant recipient — miracles that she loves to tell anyone and everyone about, if given half a chance.

In the 3.5 minutes per year of free time that her family and job allow, she likes to work with stained glass.

Reach Andrea at

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R.I.P. Mike Wallace

Word that “60 Minutes” bulldog Mike Wallace had died saddened me. He was one of a kind.

In an industry that values good looks, his face might not have been the most handsome in TV news. He did though have something of that Walter Matthau hang-dog look that made him appealing in an everyman kind of way.

Regardless, he was unrelenting in pursuit of the truth of a story and I admired that.

I was a journalism student at New York University in the mid 1980s when a libel case against CBS and others brought by Gen. William Westmoreland was raging in federal court in Manhattan’s Foley Square.

Quick background, courtesy of Wikipedia: Essentially, the general had sued CBS, Wallace and others for libel in the airing of a documentary that contended that Army intelligence had been manipulated for political purposes under the general’s command during the war in Vietnam.

One of my professors was an adjunct who worked as an editor at the New York Times. With the trial on, this professor decided we skip class and instead go on a field trip to the federal courthouse to watch the testimony.

It was a media scrum.

But what I recall most was catching Wallace on the stand. I don’t remember what he said, but the overall impression that stays with me was that he was tough as nails and as ferocious a reporter in person as he was on TV. That tenacious persona he projected on TV was the genuine article. It was not something he turned off when the bright lights dimmed.

R.I.P. Mike Wallace. They don’t make them like you anymore.

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Right To Wish Law

In a recent story by the news wire service, PA Independent, Terry Mutchler, executive director of the state’s Office of Open Records, was paraphrased as saying Pennsylvania’s open records law “is one of the best in the nation.”

See story here: quote is at the bottom of the story.)

The PA Independent went on to quote her directly as saying:
“The right-to-know law fundamentally changed the way people access public records of their government. If the government agency chooses to withhold a record, the agency has the burden to prove — with legal citation — why that record should not be available to the public.”

I have met Terry and think she’s terrific at her job. I also think she and her office have a monumental (and thankless) task. But “one of the best in the nation”? I must respectfully disagree.

As a newbie to Pennsylvania’s so-called RTK Law and as one spoiled by New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), I find the Keystone state’s law limiting, bureaucratic and cumbersome.

To be certain, the law as it currently stands is miles better than the one it replaced. (I had some limited exposure to the old law when I worked at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and dabbled in some Pennsylvania records requests for stories.)

But I find the exemptions here to be absolutes and hard to navigate. I mean, ever try to get a police report? It’s a fool’s errand.

One key difference between here and New York is Pennsylvania has an INDEPENDENT agency, the Office of Open Records which will hear your appeal when you’ve been denied access. In New York, you file your appeal to a “records appeals officer” who is someone designated within the agency where you made your initial request. While it sounds a bit like the fox guarding the henhouse, I found it worked in its own crazy way.

So far, I’ve had decidedly mixed results in gaining access to materials I’ve requested. The requests have either run into a bureaucratic buzzsaw of delays and obfuscation or been summarily dismissed under some of the law’s king-sized blanket exemptions.

Maybe I am still just too new to Pennsylvania’s public records law to understand its intricacies but some days it feels like the Right To Wish Law.

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Can we use the word ‘sucks’ in a headline?

“Can we say ‘sucks’ in a headline?”

That was the subject line of an email that came from features designer Andrea Higgins. The question surfaced in relation to a headline on an Entertainment section cover this past Sunday.

The “hed” – as we refer to headlines – was attached to a column by PopRox writer Mike Sadowski. He had interviewed drummer Marky Ramone who was unequivocal about his views of the state of music today.

The hed read: “Marky Ramone: Why rock music sucks.”

Now back to Andrea’s question: Can we use “sucks” in a headline? Well, sure we could. We could put anything in a headline. The real question is: Is that a good idea? (To say nothing of questions of accuracy, etc.)

Now, I admit, I am no prude. I have been know, ahem, to drop a vulgarity or two (or 15) in the newsroom.

Also, I am a tabloid guy at heart. I grew up with the New York Daily News and New York Post and admired their brash attitude and headlines. But that’s New York City. This is the Poconos.

Still, I endorsed the headline the way it appeared since I thought it fit the tone of the interview and had a bit of an edge.

Credit Features Editor Helen Yanulus with being smarter than me.

She came to me, proof page in hand, and questioned the use of “sucks.” Her points: It appears on a section front packaged with other stories that might appeal to teens and tweens and what would parents say if they saw their kids reading that page with the word “sucks” in bold-face?

To be sure, kids today probably hear and use language far worse, but does that mean we need to promote it?

Helen added that it’s not to say that we could never use that word, but just on that day with that mix of stories, it was a bad idea. Her call was contextual.

They don’t teach you this stuff in journalism school. It’s born of experience and trying to figure out a community’s compass.

It reminds me of a time about 20 years ago when I worked at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y. I was working on a profile of a very powerful former state senator who had been charged with corruption in her new role as high-ranking executive in a major power company.

Anyway, she was a political veteran and well-known. In the course of my reporting, I called former New York City Mayor Ed Koch who said, and I quote: “Linda Winikow had balls.” Now here was the former mayor of New York City using vulgar language to colorfully describe this woman.

His four words summed her up to a T. My immediate editor on the story, the late Mike Levine, went to bat for me with the managing editor and the quote appeared in print just that way.

Word usage and language evolve over time. And our tolerance (or intolerance) for borderline language changes over time as well. It’s part of what makes this job almost never boring.

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