Category Archives: newspapers

Looking at local journalism as the Sewickley Herald marks 116 years

Happy birthday, Sewickley Herald!

For 116 years (Sept. 19, 1903), the Sewickley Herald has served as the record keeper, fact checker and voice of the Sewickley Valley.

I played a small part in the storied history of the Sewickley Herald, serving as a reporter and then editor of the venerable weekly publication for about 11 years.

To say I loved that newspaper is an understatement. The Sewickley Herald and its core mission of providing quality news and information meant such a great deal to me.

I knew my role as a steward of that newspaper was important. Things don’t last that long without passion, pride and commitment.

In a 2013 story celebrating the 110th anniversary of the Herald, I wrote: “Founding publishers J.L. Kochenderfer and James Stinson likely had little idea of the legacy the Herald would carry with it more than a century later.”

By nature of the business, I was part of some pretty big stories impacting the Sewickley Valley — just in my short part of its legacy.

Community journalism sometimes gets a bad rap. Too often, I had then-colleagues snicker at the thought of covering hyperlocal journalism. They didn’t see the value in covering local school board meetings or road paving projects. To them, journalism was about big news in big areas with big crime.

And yet, there we were at the Sewickley Herald, covering bank robberies and business districts, middle school musicals and council members violating state ethics laws.

Thankfully, I’m bad at math, because I would not want to know how much unpaid time I put in at the Sewickley Herald (and in later years at The Signal Item in Carnegie and the South Hills Record — two papers I later became editor of at the same time as I was editor of the Sewickley Herald … doing more with far less).

As time went on, our staffs were slashed. I began with the Sewickley Herald in 2007. At the time, there was an editor (Dona Dreeland), two reporters, a sports editor and a photographer. I was a part-time reporter early on, splitting my time with the Herald and Signal Item (the two papers I would close out my Trib career as editor of).

By the end, we were a staff of an editor (me!), plus a photographer who was split in a million different directions … and a group of freelancers who I owe so much to for helping me look like I had it all together.

And somehow, we still put out quality work, covering school board meetings, student achievements, asking the tough questions and getting in all those local events and briefs.

And somewhere in there we managed to have some fun with (and win several awards for) our online presence/community, photo, news stories, feature stories and sports stories.

Stepping away from the Sewickley Herald was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But as much as I love the Herald, I knew it was time.

In my farewell column, I wrote, “As one of the oldest community newspapers still in operation in the region, the Sewickley Herald has documented quite a bit of change across the Sewickley Valley over the years. After all, change is news. And things always are changing.”

I’ve known and understood the role of a community newspaper for years, but I didn’t find quite the right way to articulate it until I was nearly done:

In my 2018 Herald Citizens of the Year celebration speech, I described how the role of a community newspaper is much like the role of a mother.

“The Herald is there to comfort when there is pain, question when there is conflict, and celebrate when there is joy,” I explained at that celebration. Mothers get to the bottom of disagreements between children, can tell when someone isn’t telling the truth, and know everything that happens at home even if they didn’t witness it.

– Sewickley Herald, Aug. 2, 2018

I miss local journalism. And, sadly, locally and nationally, local journalism has drastically changed just in the last year, as more companies seek to squeeze every last penny out of the success of decades old community newspapers.

I ended my 2018 farewell column with a quote from a musical (“Avenue Q”) that I think of every single day: “Everything in life is only for now.”

Sewickley Bridge marks 108 years

We tend to take bridges for granted in Western Pennsylvania. That is, until the span is closed.

Next year should be interesting for people who use the Sewickley Bridge, as PennDOT (finally!) will rehabilitate the span.

But until then, let’s celebrate the Sewickley Bridge, which turns 108 years old on Sept. 19. The current bridge that’s standing is not 108 years old. The second Sewickley Bridge opened Oct. 21, 1981.

And, as I documented in a 2011 story for the Sewickley Herald, the bridge almost didn’t make it into the 1980s. PennDOT wanted to tear it down following the recent opening of the Interstate 79 Neville Island Bridge.

But Sewickley Valley residents, led by Gloria Berry, campaigned and the bridge was saved.

A tugboat crashed into the new I-79 span, leaving no crossing along the Ohio River for miles.

“When they closed the bridge, it was like big red letters — emergency,” Berry told me for the 2011 Herald story. “There was no crossing the Ohio River from McKees Rocks to Ambridge.”

The bridge is an important piece of the culture of Sewickley Valley and the Moon Township/Coraopolis area, too.

“Both sides of the river are connected economically, medicaHy, through education, religion and socially. It was a lifeline for so many people on both sides of the Ohio River,” Berry said.

At the time, PennDOT said about 19,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily.

Read more about the Sewickley Bridge in this 100th anniversary story I did in 2011 for the Sewickley Herald. You can search the Sewickley Herald archives on the Sewickley Public Library website.

Note: I worked at the Sewickley Herald from about 2007 through August 2018.

Remembering Edith Hughes…

Unlike many colleagues and friends, my stories of Edith Hughes don’t involve what seemed to be a haphazard interview session or a layout filled with red ink corrections.

My first run-in with Edith came one morning in 2007 in the Gateway Newspapers former office on Greentree Road. It was early that morning — just myself and Signal Item editor Bob Pastin were in. Edith quickly zipped through the office, pausing just enough to look at me — a new face. She rushed into Bob’s cubicle and asked, “Who is that?”

Bob replied, explaining I was the new (at the time) part-time reporter for the Signal Item and Sewickley Herald. She came back out of his cubicle, looked at me as I awkwardly smiled at her — unsure of what just took place, and then she left.

The first time I spoke to Edith was in Harrisburg for a Pennsylvania Newspaper Association weeklies conference. Her first statement: “Did you get breakfast?” No, I said. She then looked me up and down and asked how I was liking the Sewickley Herald. Before I could finish a sentence, she said, “Interesting attire, young man.” I had on khakis, a polo shirt and tennis shoes — my usual work attire.

She then said, “Maybe you’ll learn something here to take back to Sewickley.”

What she didn’t know is that it wasn’t the guest speakers from The Patriot-News or any other newspaper that I’d learn from that day. It was Edith who would teach me more than I ever thought I could know.

You see, Edith had a way with more than just journalism. She had a way with life. In her eyes, good manners, proper attire and fine detail meant everything. You didn’t cut corners. You gave more than your best. And you did all of that out of respect for yourself, your talent and your colleagues.

I got to know her more through stories from colleagues and from her random visits to the Sewickley Herald office. She played a major role in the Herald’s annual honors dinner, recognizing the great community-minded individuals of the year. Place cards were handwritten, not typed. The menu offered nothing but the best food. And the entire evening was as perfect as perfect could be. Why? Because she’d settle for nothing less.

At one of the honors dinners, she looked at me and said, “You clean up well. I almost didn’t recognize you.”

In January of this year, I returned from a nearly two-week-long vacation. I had a missed call and e-mail from Edith. Odd, I thought. Out of the more than 20 voice mails and 200 e-mails, Edith’s were the first messages I responded to.

Days later, I heard from her. She wanted to talk to me in person. I was nervous, to say the least. She couldn’t fire me, she didn’t have that authority anymore. Right? But what did I do to be getting a visit exclusively from Edith?

I dressed a tad nicer than my average wardrobe (no tie, though), and awaited her visit. Snowflakes were flying. Edith called and said she’d be late. Finally, Edith arrived and whisked me away into the conference room where she shut the door.

“I need you to talk at the weeklies seminar about everything you do with technology,” she said. “It’s in April.”

This was early January — many months and inches of snow away from April.

“Yeah, I’ll do it,” I nervously said, scribbling down the words “April” and “PNA.”

“Yes, you’ll do it,” Edith said, either repeating what I said, but probably correcting my language.

She expected an outline by mid-February. I e-mailed her an outline by the end of that week in January.

The morning of the conference, Edith — oddly enough — was late. As it turned out, the massive rain and flooding from the previous day and night knocked the power out at her hotel. I stayed elsewhere in the Harrisburg area, which was unheard of in Edith’s mind because I did not get breakfast options at my hotel (though, she was impressed that I got a better room rate than she!).

Right before my turn to present, I completely re-did my entire presentation because the previous speakers took most of what I was going to say. Introducing me to the crowd, Edith explained what a dedicated and passionate reporter I was, and what I had done to help make the Sewickley Herald a newsier paper. I can remember standing there thinking, “Holy crap, Edith is saying this about me?”

Afterward, Edith told me I was the best presenter (even though I went over by 15 minutes). “That was some talk you gave” she said. “Even I was surprised. You knocked their socks off.”  She paused and said, “You’re already booked for next year.” I didn’t get a chance to agree because she grabbed a mint and walked away.

I wasn’t hired by her or even worked under her, but I still felt I needed her approval as a journalist. And I’m pretty sure I got it that day.

She didn’t make the Herald’s honors dinner this year because she was traveling. But I did sit next to her in May at the Keystone Press Awards, where she, again, spoke highly of my presentation a month earlier. At the Keystone Press Awards dinner, we talked about my presentation for next April and how she thought the awards dinner chicken was too dry and the speakers were mostly boring.

She, no doubt, has made a lasting impact on my career — and more importantly, my life. Thanks to Edith, I hold myself in higher regard and respect the decisions I make and the stories I cover, knowing that my name is on whatever story I’m writing at the moment, so it better be the best it can be.

“Reporters are a dime a dozen,” she once told me. That phrase has stuck with me, allowing me to remember what my job is and to carry it out with dignity and respect.

Edith made me realize just how important grammar and proper communication skills are, and to be poignant, sharp and decisive.

My world is a better place thanks to Edith.

Why journalists should build personal brands, and why those who disagree also are correct

Get ready for a tailspin of a ride regarding the personal “branding” of journalists.

The Internet — more specifically, Facebook — has been abuzz with reporters and television folks, freelancers, photographers and bloggers all creating their own Facebook pages after the social media-focused company created its Facebook + Journalists network.

It wasn’t until Facebook began connecting reporters across the globe that I realized branding is important on a personal level. We have no idea where our industry is headed, and for those of us employed by news companies, we never know what tomorrow brings. So we work and do our job and hope that we’re able to come in the next morning and pick up where we left off the night before.

This past week, for instance, we saw Gannett announce layoffs of some 700 employees companywide and implement mandatory 15-day furloughs for executives whose salary figures are above a certain number. We see newspapers closing, television newsrooms shrinking and more bloggers willing to work for free to produce work even a middle school journalism enthusiast would do a better job covering.

But it’s all part of an industry in a never-ending fluctuation.

So what’s a journalist to do? Market themselves.

We learn at a very young age to market ourself in a way that makes us stand out among the crowd. Resumes and cover letters are supposed to make hiring managers and editors stop in their tracks as a potential job seeker highlights his previous experience.

It’s not about embellishing, but rather, about the ability to showcase your skills in a manner that proves you’re capable of the challenges that could be ahead.

So when I created my Facebook + Journalist page, I took into consideration not just my reporting ability, but other media-focused things I’m interested in. I also considered my human interest side.

The outcome is a brand that showcases my reporting skills, writing abilities, volunteer work and a softer side that includes my passion for a certain long-running television series and my love of all things Pittsburgh.

The page isn’t branded as “Bobby Cherry — Trib Total Media,” but rather as “Bobby Cherry, a reporter with many skills and interests.” That’s not to say readers haven’t “liked” the page. A few have, and I want more to as well. I want them to be able to interact with me and get to know me in a capacity that doesn’t say, “Yo man, let’s go drink,” but instead says, “I’m your local reporter. Tell me what’s happening.”

We are in a different world now than 10, 20, 30 years ago. While I can’t speak first-hand about what reporting was like before cable TV and the Internet, I am led to believe that, at the bottom of it all, journalism hasn’t changed over time. The way in which news is consumed has changed, though.

So when I read things that question why journalists are branding themselves, I can’t help but wonder how those folks think people will receive the news in 20 years.

Take, for instance, Gene Weingarten’s column in Thursday’s Washington Post, whose column was written to a graduate student asking how he has branded himself over the length of his career. He replied by saying that branding is ruining journalism.

These are financially troubled times for our profession, Leslie — times that test our character — and it is disheartening to learn that journalism schools are responding to this challenge by urging their students to market themselves like Cheez Doodles. — Gene Weingarten

While I wish Mr. Weingarten would have spoken more about how branding is ruining journalism (I’d enjoy hearing more about his thoughts), I did agree with his comments on how newspaper companies think user-generated content is necessary.

Newspapers that used to allocate their resources to deposing dictators and ferreting out corruption are now using them to publish snapshots of their readers’ cats. This trend is called “user generated content,” or UGC. (Yes, in the new lexicon, “readers” have somehow become “users,” as though, in an effort to habituate people to our product, we’re lacing it with crack. Which we are, sort of. Pandering, and getting pandered to, can be addictive, and it is bad for you.) …

Newspapers used to give readers what we thought they needed. Now, in desperation, we give readers what we think they want. And what we seem to think they want is happy, glitzy, ditzy stuff, which is why in recent years newspapers across the country have been replacing sections named, say, “Viewpoint” with online Web destinations named, say, “Wheee!” featuring multiplatform, user-interactive content-sharing with clickable portals to “Lolcats.” — Gene Weingarten

He’s right. News companies have focused more on poking the reader for their thoughts and less on making the reader the audience. The readers do everything except sit in the newsroom with us. Every story seems to end by saying, “What do you think about the sky being blue? We want to hear from you!”

There’s nothing wrong with asking readers for feedback. In many ways, newspapers ALWAYS have relied on reader content — news tips, submitted photos, letters to the editor, community briefs, school accolades. But we’re at a point where we seem to want user content more than our own, unique content.

So I understand why Mr. Weingarten seems frustrated.

But I don’t understand his correlation between a personal brand and implementing more reader content.

Whether in a formal or informal way, newspapers always have branded themselves as the town’s focal point for news, views and information. So it comes as no surprise that now, as newspapers struggle to survive financially and struggle to compete with other venues, reporters are creating personal brands.

I want people to read my content. I want them to see what’s happening in their town. Journalism always has been about marketing one’s self. If we write a story and tell nobody about it, then what the hell was the purpose of writing it?

We’ve got to make a name for ourself, and for our newspaper. If a reader enjoys what I’m writing, they’re (hopefully) more likely to see what other stories and work our newspaper features.

Where I struggle to support a reporter’s personal branding is when the individual wants to share information and photos of their cat or their grocery cart filled with food. I’ve found many reporter Facebook pages that are filled with more content showcasing the individual at charity events or outside of the news world, rather than content relating to news.

While readers might be interested in seeing photos of our animals, I question the professionalism of such information. If you’re writing a column about a trip to a dog park and you add a photo of your pup, that’s one thing. But when you’ve uploaded a photo of your dog sleeping with a caption that says, “Rover is tired,” I really have to question it.

It’s about giving the reader what they don’t know they need.

And in today’s world where a century old newspaper is competing with a blog created yesterday, we — the reporters of the world — need to prove to people why our work, backed by intelligent editors who are passionate about journalism, can offer better content than a fly-by-night blogger.

So if that means branding my work and letting potential readers get to know me on a level beyond my byline, I’m OK with it.