Pennsylvania

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Hurricanes have a way of getting your attention. Being part of the Mid-Atlantic path of Sandy has made me aware of many things out of the normal course of daily business. Storms of all sorts are increasingly opportunities for local news stations to push weather expertise and project themselves as round-the-clock regional communications centers. The result is typically a lot of supermarkets benefiting from bread and milk sales and a lot of snow shovels and sidewalk salt sold at Lowes and Home Depot.

Erie Insurance and State Farm took to the air pre-Sandy promoting emergency preparedness.

Erie Insurance and State Farm took to the air pre-Sandy promoting emergency preparedness.

However, the potential for serious flooding, property damage, and power outages with Hurricane Sandy over such a wide path of the Eastern seaboard has upped the ante in many directions. Yesterday, a number of smart retailers like Wal-Mart and Office Depot had moved essentials to the front of their stores, including bottled water, flashlights, batteries, etc. Perhaps the only exception — portable generators are still tough to be had at a time like this.

Especially surprising were some smart radio commercials yesterday by two different major property/casualty insurance giants — State Farm and Erie Insurance. Both spots were direct, full of good preparatory advice, and reassurance that they would be there for policyholders. That is a solid message for corporations to send ahead of what will be a costly quarter for them as they help customers settle claims post hurricane. The media buy was expensive, but likely more than offset by the new customers they will gain from competitive property/casualty insurers who don’t treat their insureds well in the days ahead.

Travelers sent a safety email to customers in advance of Sandy.

Travelers sent a safety email to customers in advance of Sandy.

I wondered about my own company, Travelers, but found a similar message emailed to me, along with important details on storm preparedness and claim follow-up. This is a terrific use of a Customer Relationship Marketing database, and while it may seem like a no-brainer, it requires advance planning on the part of the insurance company’s marketing department, along with coordination with all the departments within the company to ensure accuracy of information.

One of the biggest concerns related to Sandy appears to be about loss of electricity from downed trees taking down transmission lines and water affecting the power grid. I had one unexpected level of assurance from my friend Steven Brush posting to Facebook on Sunday — he snapped a smartphone picture of electrical crew trucks traveling north from Alabama via I-95. Now, that’s emergency preparedness and much appreciated out-of-state assistance even before it is officially needed.

Power crews from Alabama already headed north in advance of Sandy.

Power crews from Alabama already headed north in advance of Sandy.

In the information age, all of us are getting better prepared to handle whatever nature throws our way, certainly following painful lessons learned during Katrina. And government, utilities, media, non-profit relief agencies, and businesses are getting smarter in helping citizens weather these storms.

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Susquehanna University. Just follow the river up from the Chesapeake Bay to Selinsgrove, PA and you're there.

Susquehanna University. Just follow the river up from the Chesapeake Bay to Selinsgrove, PA and you're there.

Our blog update is late this week thanks to a time warp — college reunion weekend. It was a minor milestone year for me since graduation from Susquehanna University in 19??. The beauty of aging is that those of us who were never good with numbers now have a built-in excuse for deep-sixing dates.

But Susquehanna University is an institution with proud traditions dating back generations. My own family now boasts four generations of SU alumni with our oldest son a 2010 grad. As a result, I have witnessed many of the recent campus changes firsthand that may represent bigger shifts to some of my classmates.

With the cost of higher education continuing to ascend, and recent graduates emerging to a very tough employment market, the competitive challenges faced by small private colleges have never been greater. Over the past two decades, many institutions have done impressive jobs of upgrading facilities, technologies, and academic departments. College has become such an American rite of passage from high school to young adulthood that parents and alumni have been willing to keep writing checks to fund whatever has been needed. However, it will be harder to keep these ongoing improvements going year after year given present economic realities.

Susquehanna University beat cross-state rival Muhlenberg 17-0.

Susquehanna University beat cross-state rival Muhlenberg 17-0.

For now, Susquehanna University continues to resemble the school and experience I had back in the 19 ____s. It is a little like Brigadoon, an idyllic campus in the small town of Selinsgrove, easy to miss (if you don’t get off the 11/15 bypass) between Harrisburg and Lewisburg, PA. Homecoming is still a big fall weekend of football, luncheons, and even a parade through town (no sign of the giant “Eat Me” cake float/Deathmobile from Animal House).

Susquehanna still stages a Homecoming parade every fall.

Susquehanna still stages a Homecoming parade every fall.

Perhaps the most welcome change is a far more diverse campus community. The numbers of minority students and minority faculty and administration members are definitely on the rise. Successful integration requires all parties to get out of their comfort zones to make new friends and find common and not-so-common ground. There was a lot of evidence that at least on a beautiful fall Saturday in central Pennsylvania, this is now old news. While no one is ever going to classify Selinsgrove as urban, the appearance of Snoop Dogg for a fall concert is one such sign of the times. And with that, I will let a band from my era (who never made it to campus except in countless albums sold) close out this week’s blog.

Snoop Dogg is coming to Susquehanna!

Snoop Dogg is coming to Susquehanna!

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A roof over your head. Seems like such a basic concept, but ironically, what is the term for the biggest group of expenses of any business (the expenses that constantly get cut in order to maintain profitability)? Overhead — employee salaries and benefits, office or commercial space, utilities, taxes, insurance to maintain that office or commercial space. So, as businesses struggle to make payments, and often have to layoff staff, so do the many individual employees affected by such cuts. And with all the holes in the safety net of government assistance, more and more people are losing homes and without employment unable to find affordable housing. Vicious cycle, as they say.

Homeless is a term that says it all. You have hit rock bottom economically and you have the cold hard pavement as a pillow each night. A few weeks ago, our blog talked about the politics of cancer and how some forms were politically incorrect and less sympathetic (notably, lung cancer thanks to tobacco stigma). The same rules apply to the homeless and make them easy to dismiss — when you have a group that includes the mentally ill (many off meds or untreated), the drug addicted (alcohol, prescription, and/or illegal drugs), and the criminal (serving your time does not guarantee you a roof over your head upon release), many are going to be quick to write off the problem of homelessness as unsolvable or throwing good money after bad. But the group also includes people who can’t find work in a tough economy, entire families, veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other wars, and the poor who work but don’t earn enough to pay for housing.

Real life is seldom ever neat and tidy, however. I was reminded of this when hearing the latest presidential campaign tussles over 47% of Americans not paying federal income tax and some other percentage receiving government assistance. Regardless of which candidate you support, those numbers should disturb you. A lot. For me, they underscore that too many Americans are on the handout side of some kind of weighted scale and not enough are on the working and earning enough to pay federal taxes side.

One Step Away is a new newspaper sold by the homeless in Philadelphia to help the homeless.

One Step Away is a new newspaper sold by the homeless in Philadelphia to help the homeless.

That is why I was heartened by a casual event when I was down to the Pennsylvania Convention Center last week. I was approached by a street vendor selling a newspaper called “One Step Away.” It is a new publication designed for a noble purpose— to incentivize the homeless to earn money and get themselves on a path toward a roof over their heads.  Each homeless vendor pays 25 cents a copy but sells the paper for $1. That means every paper purchased puts 75 cents in their pocket. Most salespersons I know would kill for a 75% commission; however, we’re not talking about an easy-to-sell product in the digital age. In fact, I just saw a story about how newspaper revenues had dropped to 1950s levels. So, “One Step Away” is properly structured on a basic free enterprise level and the homeless vendors have a great carrot to help themselves. They have skin in the game, unlike a significant portion of those 47% who aren’t paying federal income taxes but receiving benefits.

“One Step Away” gets its name from the truism that too many of us are only a missed paycheck or a lost job or a medical crisis on the plus side of the homelessness ledger. That is a sobering thought.

If you would like to help the “One Step Away” mission, I encourage you to visit OSAPHILLY.ORG to donate, support, advertise. This video will introduce you to some of the many homeless vendors you will be helping get back on their feet.

Philadelphia once captured national attention about the problem of homelessness when an 11-year-old boy named Trevor Ferrell from one of America’s richest suburbs, Gladwyne, challenged his parents, his church, and a whole lot of other fellow citizens to help out. I am glad to see that TrevorsCampaign.org is still carrying on his mission. It was a little bittersweet to read this account and learn that the adult Trevor elected not to leverage his fame into a career and is now dealing somewhat anonymously with adult challenges like the rest of us — meeting financial obligations and trying to make a good life for his own family. We all have skin in this game.

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There are few things that adults and children agree on, but a life-altering ice cream dessert might be one of them. In Philadelphia, home of so many great ice cream brands, we now have two very different ice cream palaces that are worth special trips to.

One is in the western suburbs (Audubon, PA) and embraces a Swiss tradition of ultra-rich, fresh ingredient ice cream and chocolate making — Zwahlen’s. You can’t miss their store, because it is in a chalet style building in the middle of a strip shopping center.  But cuckoo clock ambiance is not what makes this place special. It is the incredible melt in your mouth frozen goodness in a rotating lineup of great flavors. However, their vanilla is just so perfect for adding your own toppings that you will likely walk away a Zwahlen’s fan for life. It is a tough measuring stick for the ice cream chain stores.

Franklin Fountain

A very different experience can be had in Old Philadelphia, right on Market Street at the corner of 2nd Street.  Franklin Fountain is an old time ice cream parlor that has reinvented what ice cream sundaes and floats can be. In the winter months, they make a smore style confection with specialty marshmallows that they light with a blue flame. The lucky recipient gets a long spoon to break up the graham crackers in the ice cold stainless steel container. Or there’s the Franklin Mint made with real crème de menthe. Whichever great ice cream dish you select on their menu, you will find yourself transported to heaven.

Now, Philadelphia also has another kind of ice cream experience. My friend Pete tipped me off to a YouTube-based ad with a text link literally designated as “scarred for life” from the Hot Air blog. This is one of the oddest, creepiest spots (there are actually two of them) to ever attempt to sell ice cream. In this case, the brand is Little Baby’s Ice Cream. The experience of watching these two spots is about as far away as you can get from Zwahlen’s and Franklin Fountain. It is in Frank Zappa “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” – David Lynch Eraserhead territory. You have to be pretty damn sure of the quality of your ice cream to attempt something that is this far out on a crazy limb that you just hacked off with a crosscut saw. If you can’t join ‘em, lick ‘em.

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Joe Paterno statue

Joe Paterno has been synonymous with Penn State. It will be hard to change that.

Last November, we had some wait and see recommendations on the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal. In the ensuing months, Sandusky has been convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse, and this week, the Louis Freeh investigation results landed on the university like a well-deserved ton of bricks. The report provides extensive documentation of school officials creating a false Sophie’s Choice between protecting the football program or protecting the kids in Sandusky’s Second Mile program.

It is hard to imagine how the reputations of Penn State University, the football program, and Joe Paterno could be damaged if they had dealt with news of Sandusky’s activities at the time they learned of them. While there might have been some initial bad press, no one would have judged the institution and its officials badly because of the acts of a sick individual. Fourteen years and many additional victims later, however, there emerges from the wreckage, a remarkable amount of institutional and personal complicity.

There are two kinds of public relations: the PR that comes from an institution’s own communications with the public via media (including now social media) channels AND the PR that results naturally from being a good local, regional, national, and global citizen.  Penn State needs to start practicing both forms. Immediately.

Here are some overall thoughts on PR via good communications practices and Penn State’s unique situation:

  • Start doing the opposite of what PSU did during this dark period. Hiding things (very bad things) and misrepresenting is what got university officials into so much current trouble. PSU needs to be transparent. Share information, more than less, when asked. Unless a university attorney is advising against making a specific statement (and even then press the point with legal), speak accurately and honestly. The truth shall set you free.
  • The nickname for PR is spin. Although politics is involved, this isn’t about winning a campaign. PSU needs to worry less about putting the worst news in the best possible light and worry more about sharing information that is clear and coherent and factual to the audience it is sharing it with.
  • Make some tough decisions ahead by remembering to put the interests of students first and with a goal of restoring the brand and integrity of the institution. For instance, much of Philadelphia talk radio yesterday was abuzz about what to do with the Paterno statue and his name on the library. Tough calls, but one host made the point that especially in the case of the statue, seeing it is only going to spark immediate associations with the scandal (it isn’t next to a scale of justice statue determining whether all the good outweighs the bad). Also, there is never going to be a consensus opinion about this man, so don’t look for one. Use the prism of what will be best for PSU and its current and future students.
  • There are going to be many other voices on the landscape for  the foreseeable future via the past administrators on trial, the Paterno family, attorneys for all, and of course everyone with even a modest connection to PSU with a strong opinion. Some of this represents the parties involved, but the rest represents the court of public opinion. Avoid being sucked into public battles. In fact, the more that some of the parties involved speak directly or through hired mouthpieces at the moment, the worse they sound.
  • Accept that some events are going to be out of the university’s control (court rulings, NCAA decisions, etc.), so however much that rocks your world, be prepared to accept the results, act on them responsibly, and move on as best you can.

Where Penn State can make a huge difference is by making a huge difference. It is largely too late to make any good come out of this very bad situation. So focus on doing good, day in, day out, on many other fronts.

  • Repair any town and gown fallout locally. This may mean gradually de-emphasizing the football program, which created such an integrated Happy Valley economy by cooperatively helping to create more year-round tourism opportunities to visit State College and surrounding towns. Work to partner with the communities around PSU, so the university isn’t looked upon as an 800 pound gorilla with a football helmet on. Penn State is its own community, but it is interconnected with a wealth of others around it.
  • Beef up academic and social outreach programs that teach and practice ethics and morality in business, government, and daily life, especially those that protect and aid the weakest members of society. It is shocking how so many grown men in this situation could not recognize the right thing to do when the welfare of children was at stake.
  • Renew an emphasis on excellence in everything, by not letting the scandal distract from important current programs and activities that have nothing to do with the Sandusky mess except a Penn State logo. Look for new initiatives locally, nationally, internationally. One example is an ongoing effort — every year, without fail, kids from Penn State visit the Philadelphia area and many other communities to raise funds for children with cancer. They do this with little fanfare. I suspect by the number of students involved, they raise an amazing amount of funds. As a father of a childhood cancer survivor, I will never ever judge PSU as a whole on the basis of this scandal, because of the annual enthusiastic commitment I see from these students.
  • Become Penn State proud again. Don’t let the actions of an unfortunate few define the whole vibrant campus. Look in the mirror and remind yourself that you are going to help many others restore the Penn State name through your own deeds and conduct. Step in when you see a fellow Penn Stater doing something that is going to create a negative impression of the university.

Scandals come and go. The tarnish from this one is not going to easily rub off. But a lot of positive energy over time can diminish the memory of some very bad events and set a course that ensures that something so odious won’t ever happen again. The culture of Penn State needs to change. The university needs new leadership in Old Main and can’t allow itself to be controlled by the gate receipts at Beaver Stadium ever again.

Coda: Ironically, as I finished this post, I received a NYTimes e-alert with a link to this story. There’s no time like the present to begin rebuilding the PSU brand.

 

 

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Adopt-A-Highway is one way to get some outdoor brand exposure and positive PR.

Adopt-A-Highway is one way to get some outdoor brand exposure and positive PR.

There are a lot of ways to contribute to the community and get some positive PR out of it. One that many of us see every day is the official sponsorship of a stretch of roadway under the local highway beautification program. However, this article gave me serious pause about government standards, slippery slopes, and whether every entity is a good candidate for this kind of citizenship initiative.

It’s going to take a lot more than litter clean-up for the Ku Klux Klan to overcome all the negatives associated with it. There’s some very bad history involving lynchings, cross burnings, and mob intimidation. A couple bag-fulls of fast food trash and tossed cigarette butts are not going to overcome people’s memories of racial hate crimes and white supremacy drives. I don’t care what kind of bleach you use in washing your sheets. Not all good PR is capable of overcoming really bad PR.

Interestingly enough, Adopt-A-Highway, the local PA arm of highway cleanup, Sponsor-A-Highway program, has a statement addressing the KKK story out of Georgia. They are obviously concerned about any associations with Grand Wizards, racial intimidation, and highway cleanup. Meanwhile, whenever I am stalled on the Schuylkill Expressway (which is often), I often find myself ruminating on the subject of who is and who isn’t a good sponsor of highway cleanup. For instance, I am often struck by the sign spotlighting Risque Video for their efforts. Of course, I am never stranded in traffic when scantily clad young ladies are out picking up trash on the side of the road. It is always burly looking guys in orange jumpsuits that I see.

Still, highway cleanup is a terrific cause and unless you are long associated with racial strife, most enterprises can benefit greatly from having their names on an outdoor sign heralding their support of this positive effort. It’s been a long time since a first lady focused the nation’s attention on our litter problem, but I will forever appreciate Lady Bird Johnson for helping to stem the trash tide.

Of course, the other association most people have is with this iconic TV commercial featuring a Native American who is profoundly saddened by the way his land is being mistreated.

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Preen's breakthrough dispensing package

Preen's breakthrough dispensing package spreads granular weed killer via a battery-powered chute unit built into its cap.

Preen's battery-powered dispensing top has a built-in on-off switch.

Preen's battery-powered dispensing top has a built-in on-off switch.

The spinner mechanism on the top of Preen's battery-powered dispensing cap.

The spinner mechanism on the top of Preen's battery-powered dispensing cap.

Branding and marketing is all about making things pretty and putting a best foot forward. That extends to package design, where graphic design is used to either give a new brand point-of-sale power or an established brand an appealing refresh.  Sometimes the packaging’s structural design is used to innovate the overall shape or a closure to either add aesthetics or consumer convenience.

With this conventional wisdom in mind, I found myself blown away by a package this past week, one that didn’t jump off the shelf at me, but totally surprised me when I’d open it to use the product inside. I’m talking about the new Preen granular weed killer I’d picked up at The Home Depot. Not sure if you’re familiar with Preen, but you apply it prior to and after you mulch a flower bed. Simple enough product to use, but its makers figured out how to really innovate the package, adding actual functionality.

The cap  is a fold-open dispensing chute, novel enough unto itself. However, it now features an actual motorized dispenser to help gardeners apply Preen evenly and to prevent accidental dumps of too many granules at one time and to one area. By motorized, I truly mean motorized. There is an on-off switch, a spinner section that limits the amount of product it takes from the main handleware jug, while it limits the amount of product it sends out the chute. The whole operation is powered by two AA batteries (supplied!).

The makers of Preen have even put together a helpful video off their web site, and presented here, to show how the new package operates.

All in all, very impressive work in a package that, while pleasing from the outside, isn’t screaming to tell you about this surprising piece of innovation on the inside. This is the kind of thing that elevates marketing. It isn’t something that the consumer is necessarily clamoring for, but any time you are adding functionality, you are changing the game in unexpected ways.

I have to admit that this Preen package surprised me. Newton Associates has actually done a few projects for their parent company, Lebanon Seaboard Corporation, but on the professional turf care side of their business, through Mike Sisti, who helps us with new business development, particularly in this industry. This is a company focused on the growing of green plants and grasses, so it is all the more surprising that they have led the way on a significant packaging development.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=7EPQPd_NksY#!

 

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A front page article in today’s Wall Street Journal has my Irish up (and I’m mostly Scotch-German). It concerns the Washington Nationals organization trying to have it both ways — full stadium attendance when the Phillies come to town, but with those seats occupied only by Nationals fans. Currently, this is the work (and job) of one Andrew Feffer.

Feffer is outraged that marauding Phils fans have traveled south to take over the mostly empty Nationals stadium whenever the NL East rivals played. The article cites the usual predictable nasty anecdotes about how horrible the sports fans of Philadelphia are. In this case, vomiting on a local fan’s shoes when he took his father to opening day. Well, there are horrible Philadelphia fans, but they are in the minority. Also, they are in roughly the same proportion as horrible fans from other cities. Philadelphia fans are the polar opposite of fair-weather, they are knowledgeable about their teams and their competitors, and they are passionate enough to take their support on the road.

Philly sports fans are proud to root on their teams even in enemy territory.

Philly sports fans are proud to root on their teams even in enemy territory.

Last summer, I had the pleasure of witnessing this phenomenon while vacationing in Los Angeles with my family. We wanted to take in a Dodgers game that week and were thrilled to learn the Phils were on a West Coast swing. Our only concern was awareness that LA had gotten some serious bad press after Dodgers faithful had beaten a Giants fan nearly to death in the parking lot earlier in the season. Turns out our concerns were unfounded. Like the Nationals, the Dodgers were having real trouble filling seats and as a result Phillies fans turned out in force. It was a great atmosphere and a real kick to watch our team notch a win in someone else’s ballpark. During every trip to the concession stands, a sea of red was high-fiving fellow travelers.

Back on the East Coast, for the past few seasons, Phils fans have actually helped boost the Nationals’ revenue by selling large blocks of tickets that would otherwise have been empty seats. Now, Andrew Feffer is leading an organizational charge to, in his mind, keep the barbarians at the gates. Really sad and shabby idea.

The solution is to field a winning team. The Nationals have been so bad as to be nearly unwatchable in recent years. It’s understandable to not fill seats when your team is terrible. There have been times in recent years, when the Braves and the Marlins had good teams and were unable to fill their stadiums, even at playoff time.  This year, the Nationals have improved from those tough seasons and look like they might be more than competitive. Feffer should trust that winning baseball will attract people to the ballpark. I know there will be at least one. My friend, Glenn, has been a Nats ballpark regular when they were like watching paint dry. THAT’S a fan. Now, it’s thick. Glenn was also there through thin.

Competition is good for sports rivalries. You don’t build a fanbase by keeping other teams’ fans out of your own ballpark. I hope the Nationals new stadium is filled to capacity this weekend. With Nats and Phils fans watching some great baseball, cheering on their teams, and not vomiting on each others’ shoes. Go Phightins!

 

 

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Earlier this week, I was distressed to read (online) that long-time b2b publisher Penton had made a decision to give up on print. At first, I thought the move to all-digital applied across the board to each and every Penton trade magazine. Turns out it is strictly their tech group titles. With the cost of paper, ink, and press time combined with the explosion of tablets and e-readers, it is mighty tempting for publishers to give up on their print properties, especially if pages are down and advertisers are off.

I’m a print guy and always will be. I’d far rather hold a newspaper, magazine, or book in my hands, than strain my eyesight scrolling, adjusting screens, and absorbing pixels. Also, as our art director pointed out this week, doctors and hair salons are never going to fill their waiting rooms with stacks of Kindles and iPads.

However, some publishers are making the most of digital platforms and they are making it harder for print to keep up. QR codes and MS Tags are being used (some would say overused) to link ads to relevant online content and measurability. Meanwhile, ICIS and others are producing digital platforms that integrate rich media. Our client, Graham Engineering, was able to run a full page ad in the print issue. Then, we adapted it for their digital issue on the Ceros platform, integrating an extended video clip within the space of the ad (see page 6).  Sure beats banner and pay per click advertising.

The other way to look at this is for publishers being in the content business and connecting with readers (viewers?) in the way(s) that each prefers — print publication, digital version of print publication, web site, video clips, e-newsletters, webinars, in-person at events (and virtual events), and of course, all the flavors of social media.

It can be done and it is working . I had that reinforced by Michael Pitts this week, a hard-working ad sales rep doing his job the old-fashioned way, making face-to-face appointments with new prospects. What was he selling? The Philadelphia Tribune Media Group properties. Yes, the oldest, continually running African- American newspaper (since 1884) is still going strong. It was thrilling to hear that weekly print circulation is at 221,977, the vast majority of delivered to subscribers’ front steps. That’s a loyal and engaged readership.

The Philadelphia Tribune is America's longest-running African-American newspaper published continuously since 1884.

The Philadelphia Tribune is America's longest-running African-American newspaper published continuously since 1884.

The Tribune hasn’t been content to rest on its considerable laurels either. In recent years, it has launched Metro editions taking it to specific Philly neighborhoods, as well as the Delaware and Montgomery County suburbs. It has also added special print publications like the Sojourner, a quarterly visitor’s guide to the region, and the Tribune magazine, with special editions on the Most Influential African Americans, Top African American Attorneys, and Women of Achievement.

Of course, like most newspapers, the Tribune has made its web site its 24/7 news platform, off which to build content for print via what is happening right now, what is engaging readers, and what demands the longer, more thoughtful coverage that print allows. Also, getting two-way conversations going via social media community pages. As Michael noted, the tragic passing of Whitney Houston has generated the kind of interest locally that it has nationally. PhillyTrib.com offers some outstanding run of site ad opportunities, as well as rich media ad units that are going to reward sponsors generously.

I tire of the debate that digital is killing print. I’d far rather see examples like a 125-year-old newspaper continuing to successfully publish by delivering great content that doesn’t divide print and digital, but balances it instead.

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My wife is a daily reader of obituaries because she always learns some interesting bits of local, national, or personal history about the decedent. I am the opposite. Reading obituaries causes me to check my pulse.

Some weeks, however, the pace and nature of the obituaries can’t be ignored.  I’ve been intrigued for days about the passing of  conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart, who died very suddenly at age 43 walking home from a local bar. I was glad to see this account because it could help nip conspiracy theories in an election year that is already generating its share of sideshows. Breitbart was a Zen master at driving the Left crazy and exposing their worst practices. When I heard that Matt Taibbi, Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone and a firebrand in his own right (left?), had written this provocative headline and account (very bad language alert), I was prepared for the worst of where this country was in terms of politics and personal destruction. To his credit, Taibbi captured why Breitbart successfully got so far under his skin and offered grudging admiration for his fearlessness. For that (and because too many never read beyond the headline), Taibbi (and his family) were repaid with digital mischief and angry death threats. It is a sad coda, because it underscores how badly we continue to treat each other over political disagreements.

If you need further proof, just plug in “Rush Limbaugh” as a search term on Twitter. This week, Rush has generated a firestorm of anger, hate, and threatened advertiser boycotts following his taking the Congressional testimony of “reproductive rights activist” Sandra Fluke to its logical economic and marketplace conclusion, converting $3,000 in annual contraception costs into sex as an occupation. While I am agitated myself at the transparent attempts to spin the Obamacare provision of requiring religious institutions and employers to pay for health benefits that is against their religious tenets into a personal right to have an employer pay for contraception, and the use of this young woman as a political prop, I am troubled at how this has now devolved into a war of insults and righteous indignation. I may not agree with Sandra Fluke, but how is calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute,” even in exposing the absurdity of her case, going to advance the strong “on its own merits” case against this provision? Here is Limbaugh, in his own unapologetic words, making his points again. As Taibbi and Limbaugh learned this week, it is painful to be a lightning rod.

Co-creator of the Berenstain Bears with late husband Stan, Jan Berenstain passed away this week.

Co-creator of the Berenstain Bears with late husband Stan, Jan Berenstain passed away this week.

That brings me to the first obituary of the week, which is the local loss of Doylestown, PA-based Jan Berenstain, creator with her late husband Stan, of the wonderful, long-running Berenstain Bears children’s book series. There was a time when our older kids were younger that I under-appreciated the Berenstains’ books, because there were just so many of them.  I had the impression that they were cheap and mass-produced and Mr. Rogers corny. Then, I read a few of them to my boys at bedtime. Each one was lovingly and intricately illustrated in a style whose graphic consistency corporate brand managers could learn a ton from. Didn’t hurt that they had a Random House editor and mentor by the name of Theodor Geisel. The stories were always engaging , humorous, and each one taught meaningful, universal life lessons and the importance of  family, friends, neighbors, and respect for one another. The inherent decency is easy to dismiss, but as evidenced above, we are in desperate need of it in the adult world. Jan Berenstain will be sorely missed, but thankfully, she and Stan, in addition to building a model marriage, a joint career, and an entire industry, managed to also balance a family life, and have two sons, Michael and Leo, who are carrying on the Berenstain Bears brand and business.

I was also amazed to learn of another local loss. First, I was amazed to hear about the sudden passing of Davy Jones of the Monkees fame, then to discover his long-time local connection.  This link will take you to a phone interview by the King’s College radio station in Wilkes-Barre, on Friday, February 24, just days before his passing.  Jones talked about his PA ties, having seen a house for sale in Beavertown (Snyder County) in 1986, where he split much of his time between there, Florida, and the road (touring). Mike Sisti, who works with Newton on new business development, confirmed all this, having run into Jones in a Selinsgrove “pub” but didn’t know it was a brush with fame at the time. He wondered who was this guy in the heart of PA Dutch country calling everyone “mate” and was stunned to learn he’d met a Monkee. Biography just reran an earlier feature that included Jones’ purchase of an old country church in Beavertown. He wanted to revive the beautiful building and said “Everybody has to have a dream.” From his King’s College interview, you can tell that Jones was full of life and still living his dream until his heart gave out last Wednesday.

Hug your spouse and kids every day. Multiple times. Treat with respect even those with whom you adamantly disagree. Think and live large. Carpe diem!

Update: We all live in Internet time and before the day finished, Rush Limbaugh decided a personal apology was in order for Sandra Fluke. The blogosphere and twitterverse were buzzing about the squashing of free speech, but I really believe that Limbaugh recognized that he’d allowed his anger to get the better of him, losing sight that he had misdirected some pretty ugly invective at a young woman.

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