Thursday, February 17, 2011

Department Store Building of the ... Pottstown, Part II

Thanks to the two people in western Montgomery County who liked seeing Pottstown's old New York Store mentioned. Although Pottstown had a branch of Pomeroy's, the big Reading-based store, into the 1920s, the other store most people would associate with the city is Ellis Mills of Pottstown Inc., 223 High St., shown here as the white-brick five-bay building at center.

Ellis Mills first appears in Pottstown directories as a dry goods and department store around 1900, although the Montgomery County Historical Society indicates that it was in business far before that. Boston's Jordan Marsh Co. was named for the last names of two men, but Ellis Mills was named for a man named Ellis Mills, a British immigrant.  He had two sons, Charles and William, who took over the business, which also had a location in Reading at 647 Penn St., just east of Pomeroy's main store. (He also had two daughters.) William ran things in Pottstown, and Charles was in charge in Reading. Although Pottstown is officially in suburban Philadelphia, it is closer to Reading and has long been in its orbit. (The tyranny of county boundaries.) The Reading store, separately organized as Ellis Mills of Reading Inc., petered out in the Depression.

Pottstown's Ellis Mills continued on as the upscale department store in town, and became financially associated with Harry F. Armstrong, a now-obscure department store investor based in Schenectady, N.Y. In the 1920s and 1930s there were capitalists -- Earl Knox in Detroit is another -- who backed fledgling department store owners through an interest in their stores, without actually moving to a new city to take charge of them. Armstrong also reorganized a store in Oil City, Pa., into Armstrong-Collier Inc., and was involved at one point in the large network of western Pennsylvania stores in which Sankey Metzler of Uniontown, Pa., had an interest. (It appears his descendants still live in the Capital District. Perhaps one will read this and tell more about this man.) But it remained in the hands of the Mills family -- Roberta Mills was its president for many years -- and closed in 1980.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's the Score?

I'm not qualified to talk about sports journalism, and therefore I merely read this column by my colleague John Gonzalez with interest. I've heard of Deadspin, of course, but had no idea it was now in the hands of a Philadelphia native. But then comes its latest coup, of presenting a lawsuit that appears to be a teenager's half-thought-out, back-and-forth revenge against/boast about New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez for a brief tryst, and this cri de coeur of Dan LeBatard of the Miami Herald. For all I know, Gonzo, or LeBatard, or Sanchez, or the girl have Tweeted, Facebooked, and Deadspun this thing to death by this time this morning. I don't know, and I don't care enough to know.

Both Gonzo and LeBatard, however, present this as some sort of unique fallout of the new media, as if without the Internet, these sort of offenses against society/telling of truths would not happen. But is this not the reaction to the New York Daily News' photo of the execution of Ruth Snyder? Is this not the reaction to Pulitzer and Hearst at the time of "Remember the Maine"? Or the penny press taking on the commercial and political newspapers of the 1830s? Or, for that matter, the underground newspapers of my younger years? The issue always seems to be: We wouldn't say that; therefore no one should say that; because it's irresponsible. And yet the irresponsible always seems to bubble up, and gets tons of readers. (Heck, you could say the attacks on USA Today for its first-issue lead of the death of Princess Grace over the death of a now-forgotten Lebanese president come from the same place.)

But the contrast between Deadspin's motto -- "without access, favor, or discretion" -- and LeBatard's column, in which he salutes himself for keeping a gay player's sexuality confidential until his career was over -- is apparent. LeBatard admits without rebuttal, "I can be accused of protecting him" -- and says he did so as a human being not wanting to expose him to the canards that would be hurled by Joe Q. Fan, possibly leading to a premature end to his playing days. Fair enough. Sports journalists also know, just as those in mainstream coverage of entertainment or politics do, that you can criticize or truth-tell only so far. Any good reporter knows so much more than can be written, and not just because it can't be backed up by two sources. The boundaries pertaining to athletes and sex are shifting the way politicians and sex shifted in the last generation, and for the same reasons: Not just, as LeBatard has it, that people will read it because it's salacious and not be embarrassed or skeptical about it anymore, although that's a big part of it; but on the other side, the respectful establishment side, at least part of society has decided it doesn't want females treated as bedwarmers by the powerful because of the message it sends to women about their own empowerment. So you get the push and the pull, and the line markers move.

At the same time, many are the fans who still want to think of sports as a moment of purity, as fine young men (and women) giving their all merely for the success and fame most of us dreamed of when we were 12 but realized we would never achieve. And there also those who want to think that athletes should still be our children's role models, whether they can be or not. Yet many are the other fans who want every day to get their own revenge for the athletes' getting that adulation, and millions of dollars in many cases, while they are stuck in pedestrian lives, to show the red card and say: See, you are Joe Cool, but I made you.

When journalism -- which used to be a record of what happened in public view -- tries to lift the curtain, it keeps finding multiple curtains. We can say what occurred and be accurate, but we cannot say the truth because the truth only lives in each person's heart and brain. Absent feeling, absent motive and dreams and delusions and lusts, all we describe are events, not truths. Yet events have their own consequences -- it does not matter to the dead of World War I if the last thought the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had was, "Damn, I shouldn't be doing this" -- and we can never know every motive and lust when the heart sometimes deceive even those it resides within. So the recording of public events should be honorable and sufficient. But it's often boring, and a salacious link is fun.

I'm not qualified to talk about sports journalism. I can talk about Indy-car racing a little. Do I really want to know the whole, real story of why Tony Kanaan came to a split with Michael Andretti's team? Sure. There's brain candy behind that curtain. Do I really really want to know, if I knew (which I don't) that it could affect people's livelihood, other drivers' contracts and sponsorships? I don't, but a lot of fans would. So should sports journalism should be in the hands of those, like Deadspin, who don't want to be able to ask a player how his team did and get in return, "Well, our team came to win. If John makes that play, we go home on top. But he didn't, so we didn't. But you've got to give Lower Upper Slobovia credit. They came to play" -- while "everyone knows" that had John not had a crushing hangover because his idol is Charlie Sheen, that play would have been made?

In journalism for about 25 years -- from the time of the Pentagon Papers until the rise of Google -- we made everyone (again, except for alternative weeklies) play by pretty much the same rules. The fact that newspaper circulations were dropping during that entire time perhaps should have told us something. But even today I'm not entirely sure what we could have done about it, although we certainly could have gotten the papers delivered on time and made them easier to read and not headlined day-old airplane crashes as if they had just happened.

What people want to read is a story that they think tells them that really happened, that lifts the curtains. But only in rare cases can journalism lift a curtain the reader doesn't want to see or believes isn't there. And readers often want to see exposed only what they believe is behind the curtain, even if it isn't there or if it's only a small part of the real story. "Children aren't learning? Blame the teachers. I hated my teachers, and teachers make more than I do."

For their part, journalists want to lift the curtains they believe hide the important truths, but let other curtains keep hiding other truths that they see as less important, distracting, or not socially beneficial. Every now and then they get a bit of financial power and can be both journalists and respectable; then technological or social changes make them Grub Street crawlers again.  Journalism usually is respectable only when respectable journalists have a near-monopoly on its supply. This is sad for those of us who have spent most of our careers being respectable journalists with normal middle-class lives, playing by the rules we thought made us pretty much the same sort of professionals as accountants or lawyers, but there's nothing Dan LeBatard can do about it except to say, as the headline on Gonzalez's column states: He's playing a different game, and as a sports journalist knows, games have winners and losers.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Department Store Building of the... Let's go to Pottstown

It's rare to find a store that closed a couple of decades ago but still has most of its sign on the building.  One example is the New York Store at 244 High St. in Pottstown, Pa. The store was founded in the early 1920s by Samuel Hoffman and in many of its early years was formally known as the New York Cut Price Department Store. When discounters started to eat department stores' lunch and they tried to react by moving more upscale, it went back to being the New York Store and adjusted its advertising accordingly.

Like a number of Pennsylvania stores -- Leh's in Allentown being the largest -- the store was run as a partnership of the descendants of the founder rather than being organized into a stock corporation. Nathan, Jack, Morris, Pincus, Edward, Harry and Estelle all were involved at one time or another, as was the widow, Rose. The store closed in 1986 and was redeveloped into the New York Plaza, which accounts for the sign's remaining in place with the word "Plaza" replacing "Store." As of this writing, the building appears to be for sale. Only $1.3 million and a former downtown department store can be yours!

You can tell from this photo -- including the false-front aspect of the "modern" storefront at right -- the number of buildings and additions this not-very-large store meandered through. I'm sure modern store executives found the sort of odd layouts most old department stores had -- alleys running through the first floor, steps and ramps to even off the floors in different buildings, strange corridors and passageways leading to obscure departments -- as something to get rid of with pleasure in their new mall stores. I always found them part of the fascination, such as at Pogue's in Cincinnati, with its two buildings connected by a bridge going through the vaulted lobby of an art deco office tower. But then, most shoppers looked at department stores simply as stores and not for aesthetics.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

As the Wave Heightens

Long thoughts and third thoughts:

1) As Rick Edmonds noted on Poynter, that was depressing news in McClatchy's earnings report. The rate of newspaper ad dollar fall-off for McClatchy -- which admittedly has a lot of operations in still property-depressed areas such as Florida and California -- was back to 10 percent in January after reaching  reasonable levels in the third and fourth quarters of 2010 ("reasonable" in the sense of "not falling off a cliff"). On the one hand, didn't major national advertisers -- whom McClatchy chief Gary Pruitt blames for the loss of advertising -- basically tell us this last year, that they were going to redirect dollars from newspapers toward online? Are we surprised that after 15 years of newspapers telling everyone how they're going out of business, advertisers have now gotten to the point where they completely believe it? (After all, if it's in the newspaper, it's so.) At what point do online revenues, which are increasing as a share of most companies' revenue not because of incredible success online but simply that print revenue keeps disappearing, achieve the 35-40 percent level at which your other revenue simply goes for paper, ink, and trucks, and so you don't care if you lose it if you stop the presses? But since you get a dime online for every dollar in print, your online revenues have to grow, what, 100 percent a year to cover that 10 percent print loss? And can you be sure that without that print avatar in the market, you will be able to sustain your online ad rates? And you've still got to deliver inserts. And will everyone whom advertisers want to reach follow you online, or will they just say, oh, the heck with it, I'm using Google News?

McClatchy and Gannett have responded to this distressing news by laying off people. A Los Angeles Times story on what happens to Southland journalism after Freedom is sold at auction, and with it the Orange County Register, says the hedge funds that now control about 10 percent of American newspapers (much more in terms of circulation) have decided that there isn't that much more cutting that can be done on the news side or you don't have a newspaper. Apparently our newspaper companies themselves don't agree. On the other hand, I'm sure the principal job Gary Pruitt is concerned about is Gary Pruitt's. That's not a cheap shot or a statement that he is a heartless person. Anyone who's had to decide to lay people off, or tell them, knows it's hard for everyone no matter how they try to spin it. But the job I care most about is my own, and I'm sure Gary and his counterparts at Gannett feel the same way, telling themselves, "If we can just get past this, we can hire again..." Which always reminds me of the pilot in "The Right Stuff" auguring in toward the ground, saying, "I've tried 'A'! I've tried 'B'!"

2) Hearing AOL chairman Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington talk about the merger of AOL and the Huffington Post on PBS news Tuesday night, what struck me about the gamble AOL is making is that if they're right, it means Internet 2.0 is over for the news business. What they were basically describing is a newspaper without the presses -- floated by ad support, covering a wide range of issues, covering them perhaps with more spin than print has done but not being a liberal political organ. Huffington herself took pains to show how many writers from the right the Post has brought on board since the 2008 election. I don't know if HuffPo still draws most of its traffic from celebrity photo galleries. I can't imagine how Arianna Huffington is going to relate to the local-local Patch. (For the life of me, I can't imagine how, after her career, she is suddenly going to be able to succeed in a large organization she did not create. Any bets on which one of these two will be around a year from now?) Maybe she believes that with apps the era of browser-based Internet usage is indeed gone and she'll never get a higher price than this and she really doesn't care. But that doesn't seem like Huffington. But can HuffPo transition to be a sort-of-New-York-Times with local news from Summit and Flanders?

Either way, this and Murdoch's The Daily mean that we're leaving the era in which the future of journalism on the Internet was going to be defined by at least Talking Points Memo, if not Daily Kos and its equivalents. AOL/HuffPo may not work. But news on the Internet is going to become a business and not a free agora of ideas done from love and passion and obsession. Newspapers, alas, got there too early, and have spent the last 15 years Trying A and Trying B to preserve their way of doing business while every time running up against the Innovator's Dilemma. On the other hand, we now can look forward to decades of reminiscences about Internet journalism's "Golden Age," just like television producers and scriptwriters did sitting at the bar talking about how much better life was before networks discovered they could draw bigger audiences with "Petticoat Junction" than they could with "Playhouse 90." Not that it wasn't better, at least for them, but as "Mad Men" and "Boardwalk Empire" and many other programs show, golden ages come and go and come again; it's just that most of us only get one, if that, and it only lasts for a while.

3. The rumor about Andy Reid losing his job as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles drew a number of columns in response locally -- that of John Smallwood of the Philadelphia Daily News is here. I use it as an example not out of any desire to single out Smallwood, a fine columnist. But he, as other columnists who wrote on this, first makes his obligatory bows to the house god of online -- the "yes, folks, you know I'm not a Luddite" line -- and then deplores the loss of print standards in the virtual world that allowed a silly, unsourced rumor posted on one site to become a viral exclamation point. What I liked about Smallwood's column was how he mentioned the effort he had to spend chasing down this ridiculous rumor. Before the Internet, this would have been a water-cooler conversation that got spread among people by phone or at bars, if that. Someone might have called the sports department and had the phone slammed down on them by a clerk after he yelled out, "Anyone hear anything about Reid?" But because someone posted it on his website and someone else picked it up, it becomes News, it becomes What Everyone's Talking About, and frantic calls must ensue.

Smallwood rightly notes that mainstream journalism has to come up with some sort of rules or conventions to deal with this. Perhaps it will be easier when the Internet is a business, and journalists who work for Internet businesses will be journalists and bloggers will be anonymous tipsters. But nothing made every sports medium that covers the NFL or Philadelphia football chase this. They could have said, gosh, there's nothing to this, we would have known, we would have gotten a tip, we Cover the Freaking Eagles! But then they would not have driven traffic to their website from obsessed Eagles fans willing to check 40 websites in 40 minutes to see if Permanent Loser Andy was indeed gone. They would have looked noncompetitive by not reacting to idiocy. Yes, we need to consider the source, not the frequency. But to do that, we need to stop thinking that we are competing with everyone in the world. We are competing with people who do what we do to gain the readership of people who want to follow what we do. Those are our customers. Other customers will go to other types of information. With every person having a printing press, it has to be that way. There are too many options to cover every bet. We have to figure out what customers we can get and what they want, and not be worried about the customers we won't get.

Mainstream news media also need to note the blogger's initial response when he posted that the whole thing was not just an unsourced rumor, but an unsourced rumor he heard from someone else, not even someone in the Eagles -- "What Fun." This is like the response of the guy who posted the New York harbor tornado photos from 35 years earlier that sucked in NBC -- that he was just doing it for a hoot to get a rise out of his friends. Katie Couric was doubtless wrong for Tweeting that Hosni Mubarak had resigned, when he had not. (On the other hand, UPI used to do this sort of stuff all the time.) Couric wasn't doing it just to get attention. She thought it was a legitimate story. She would not have posted a photo of a years-ago tornado in New York harbor and said it was new just to get a rise out of her friends. The people who do this may have websites and may occasionally post something of interest and possibly of newsworthiness, but they are not journalists. Be watching this case in New Jersey to see if nonjournalists suddenly are defined as if they were. Again, newspapers shot themselves in the foot on this, on the one hand for First Amendment motives and on the other for Web Economy reasons (if we link to you, it will drive traffic), but in doing so again forgot exactly what they are selling. Smallwood is right. We need as a profession to come up with ways to handle this, and that means seeing ourselves as a profession and not just as the equivalent of anyone with a site.