Eric Wise is a stay-at-home dad with three children, ages 11, 9 and 3. He was formerly a reporter for the now-defunct Hershey Chronicle newspaper, and he has 10 years of experience in public relations with four different statewide associations. His home improvement column, "Around the House," appeared in daily and weekly newspapers around Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2009. He is a graduate of Hershey Senior High School and Elizabethtown College. He enjoys reading, playing guitar and photography.
During my school days, one of the elementary school highlights was a field trip to Philadelphia where we visited the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the Betsy Ross House. We were supposed to go to Valley Forge as well, but the class was so interested in the Betsy Ross House and its gift shop that we had to skip Valley Forge.
As I look back on that trip, I wonder how many generations of students shuffled through those same sites in Philadelphia. Why exactly, did our class or any other make a stop at the "Betsy Ross House?"
Betsy Ross, of course is the fabled woman who created and sewed the first American flag for our fledgling nation. Read that again. The key word is "fabled," not in the sense of Ross' fame, but of the phony flag story. There are no Continental Congress records reflecting any truth to the Betsy Ross story, which first appeared in print more than three decades after she was dead. Historians have precious little evidence for the Ross Myth. The fact is Betsy Ross never designed the flag, did not sew the first flag and probably never met George Washington.
Historians aren't even convinced that Betsy Ross even lived at the tourist trap now deemed the "Betsy Ross House." When American celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, someone chose two graves, had the corpses exhumed and they are now buried at the Ross house where they now rest under headstones of Ross and her husband, regardless of whose bones they were.
Moving the grave sites was ridiculous, especially when moving the right sets of remains was something of a crapshoot (even a "best guess" is still a guess).
Sending children to visit "The Birthplace of Old Glory" was a waste of time when I was in fifth grade, and it still is today.
Late night talk shows and drive-time radio personalities love to skewer humanity's dumbest ideas, including silly laws, useless or unneeded products and the absurd life choices of others (often celebrities).
We hear about so many of these than it's possible to rank them. I have even stopped counting the times I thought that TV networks have reached a new low with a particular series now broadcast.
In the inverse situation, I rarely learn about an idea that blows me away. We have had them in the history of humanity, but how often has it happened lately?
I know people who love certain novels, movies or comedy routines. Sure, entertainers are creative and innovative. But I am looking for the best idea you have ever heard. To narrow it down, let's stick with new ideas within your lifetime. I have heard two remarkable ideas in the past few years.
The Lifestraw is a personal water filter that is worn around the neck. It filters 99.9 percent of waterborne parasites and 99.9999 percent of waterborne bacteria. Distributed in developing nations where safe water is rare, the Lifestraw provides potable drinking water instantly -- up to 1,000 liters, a one-year supply. The Lifestraw Family will provide a family of five safe water for up to three years.
The world's water problem is a monumental problem that is not going to be solved with something you can wear around your neck, but the Lifestraw is a phenomenal way to improve lives of so many people, in developing nations and in areas ravaged by natural disasters.
Like the Lifestraw, my other favorite idea found a way to help a lot of people as affordably as possible. Josh Silver, a professor of physics at Oxford University, developed fluid-filled eyeglasses that people can adjust themselves to improve their vision. Although the glasses do not correct all vision problems, the glasses improve the vision of many common problems corrected with refractive lenses.
In most of the world, people who need glasses do not get them. This health problem becomes an educational and economic problem, especially in nations where the vast majority of the people have no access to an optometrist, even if the doctor's services were affordable to them. Glasses based on Silver's design cost about $19 just a few years ago, and now have dropped to about $15. Researchers continue to look for ways to drop the price to $5, perhaps $1.
Tens of thousands have been distributed in developing nations so far. Silver's goals are lofty -- he wants a billion people to get them.
I like these ideas because they give people a way to help a lot of people. They don't require building something or changing major institutions where they are needed. They offer a way for people to see well and get safe drinking water. That's why they are the two best ideas I have heard.
Early this year, after a 10-year break, I joined a gym (following my wife, who did the same earlier) and started exercising again. It's been a rough process to get myself back in shape after putting on weight and being mostly inactive, aside from a few physical gigs and regular yard work.
I have been sticking with it, averaging about 4 days each week in the gym, never going below 3 and sometimes hitting 5 days. During my workouts since January, I often think about a something I heard the first time I tried to lift weights a long time ago.
I was puny and weak as a teen. At one point in high school, I was 6'2" and 120 pounds, miles from imposing. I filled out a little by the time I graduated, but I was still weak. After high school, I spent a year driving a van making deliveries between a company's several buildings, which kept me moving all day. I felt fit, but definitely not strong or truly in shape.
One of my friends talked me into trying to lift weights with him, as he had recently lost some weight and was trying to get in better shape. We lifted with his uncle, a high-school dropout who had been into working out most of his adult years. The "gym" was an old barn with limited ventilation that was stocked with free weights that the uncle and another relative had purchased together.
Starting with no knowledge of weightlifting, I learned the basics of proper form, how to warm up and how to balance a workout by covering the various muscle groups. One of the first times I was there, my friend's uncle said, "You know, after you lift weights for just a couple of weeks, you make a little progress and you really start feeling better about yourself. It helps your self-esteem."
At the time, I thought, "Sure." I knew I was weak, and that I would soon be very sore. I didn't know how embarrassing myself by lifting such light weights would ever make me feel better about myself.
Turns out that he was right. Before long, I did make improvements and start feeling better about myself. I continued working out when I started college, and got into a routine. My workouts continued through college when I got in the best shape of my life. After college, I continued for several years until eventually life got too busy.
Now at it again, I am making some progress, and I am feeling a lot better about myself. For the first time in my life, I know and accept that it's about my own potential, goals and perseverance. There will always be plenty of people stronger than me and in better shape than I am.
When I keep that in mind, I always feel good about myself and the progress I have made. The only competition is with myself, trying to get better than yesterday, last week or last month. When you invest effort and time into your workouts, you will see and feel improvements. Working out helps push me to make better choices regarding my diet, although I have a long way to go. Managing stress and getting enough rest also help with making progress on becoming healthier. Every step toward improving your health and fitness should and will help your self-esteem, if you set reasonable goals for yourself.
I know that I am in better shape than the guy who sat on the couch too much for too long. I set some reasonable personal goals that I achieved. And like the Oracle Uncle suggested, I feel better about myself than I have in a long time.
That was the best thing I learned about workouts and weightlifting.
I am planning another blog post about the best ideas I have ever heard. What is the best idea you have ever heard?
Pennsylvania is home to thousands of towns and cities, and more than a few are small enough that you can miss them when you are passing through. Quentin is one little town of a little more than 200 households near where Routes 72 and 419 meet in Lebanon County. Most people associate Quentin with this intersection that includes a gas station, Quentin Haus restaurant and Quentin Riding Club on Route 72 from the Turnpike into Lebanon. I only recently learned that it was named for the son of President Theodore Roosevelt.
When the Great War (now World War I) broke out in Europe in 1914, Theodore Roosevelt was only a few years removed from the end of his presidency in March of 1909. When America was drawn into the conflict in 1917, it was Roosevelt's youngest son, Quentin, who dropped out of college and enlisted in the First Reserve Aero Squadron.
Quentin Roosevelt served in France, and he was shot down and killed July 14, 1918. The Germans buried him with military honors out of respect for his service.
The loss was reportedly a great one for the former president, who would also die within a year. At the time, the Quentin Roosevelt's death meant a great deal to the American people: The son of a popular president chose service over other options and it cost him his life at 20. It's hard to imagine a recent president's child enlisting and being killed in action; one of the greatest criticisms of our leaders during the past 65 years is that they are often of an elite class separated from the blustery cold Korean winters, the jungles of Viet Nam, the turmoil in Mogadishu, the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq and the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan. TR and his family may have been wealthy, but they were not above serving the United States.
Today Quentin rests in Normandy American Cemetery beside the grave of his brother, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who died of a heart attack about a month after serving as the highest ranking officer to lead troops ashore on D-Day. Quentin Roosevelt, the only World War I casualty buried at Normandy, may be largely forgotten today, but he was not 95 years ago.
This little town in Lebanon County named itself in his honor. The airfield where he had trained in Long Island, N.Y., was also named in his honor (it no longer exists today). Quentin Roosevelt was honored many times throughout the United States, including Quentin Roosevelt Elementary School in Pittsburgh. Today, that school has been replaced by Roosevelt Elementary School, which belittles the honor to Quentin, as I am sure most people associate "Roosevelt" with Presidents Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
If you happen to travel through Lebanon County and venture near Quentin, take a second to remember the man who left college to serve his country and lost his life doing so. Fittingly, Quentin is located near the Veterans Administration hospital just outside Lebanon, where veterans of our armed forces with less prestigious lineage receive care and treatment. Take a moment to remember them as well.
I worked at a large outdoor event last weekend, just the latest in a long series of promotions and events where I joined an eclectic group of people assembled for a few hours to a few days.
My supervisor, Will, took a few minutes to introduce himself and chat with the 40 staff members assigned to work in his area. He is a friendly guy, and he naturally found a connection with everyone in a brief conversation, i.e., a college, a neighborhood or a sports team. He asked me where I was from, and I said "Lancaster County" because people outside the area know the county better than Elizabethtown. He followed up by asking me how many counties there are in Pennsylvania. I quickly answered (correctly) "67 counties."
He said I must have experience working for government or social services, so I explained I had worked for several statewide associations, groups whose missions varied so much that I visited all 67 counties for one association or another. (It turns out Will works in social services, and he has visited about 25 counties.) But there's another reason I know how many counties we have in Pennsylvania: I am a journalist.
I was reporter for a weekly newspaper, in addition to several years of freelancing for different newspapers, magazines and web sites. More importantly, when I worked for associations, I never lost being a journalist. I wrote and edited publications for the association members with the drive and mindset of a journalist.
If you visit curmudgeons with decades of newspaper experience haunting a newspaper copy desk, many are sure to scoff at the notion that an association's editor is anything but a public relations flack engaged in press agentry: some combination of that guy at the fair barking encouragement to visit the freak show display and the "secretary" who presidents and governors send out at a press conference to do anything but give substantial answers to questions.
That's not what I was interested in doing. I was looking for great stories for the association, its area of focus and its members. So, like many newspaper copy editors, I picked up a lot of knowledge that might seem useless, trivial and just plain weird.
I find all sorts of stories and tidbits interesting, and I easily remember them. I think this is why I rarely find anyone willing to play trivia games with me. But I like learning all sorts of things, perhaps because I am easily amused. One copy editor friend makes posts on Facebook, starting with "Today in my endlessly fascinating job, I learned ...."
I have even managed to infect my son with this, at least a little of my penchant for facts. In his written report about an animal, he noted that Shakespeare coined the term "alligator," as the first recorded use appears in "Romeo and Juliet." Sure, I know Shakespeare gave us "wormhole" and "puking" and "eyeball," but that was not a part of his report (See? I can't resist it). At least, not this report. Maybe high school.
Lists of trivia and odd facts have bloomed and reproduced like weeds in my front yard since the Internet made sharing them that much easier. These lists are not the sort of things I am talking about. Too often, they are simplistic, misleading or wrong.
Just recently, while I was reading about something else, I came across a reference to how 14 years ago, the National Park Service was spending millions on a site of the President's House, where George Washington (and John Adams) lived as president during the 1790s, yet not planning to mention that part of its history in the resulting site. Do you know where the former President's House was located?
To answer, you have to think about the capitals of the United States prior to its permanent move to Washington, D.C. Well, it's not in New York City, Baltimore or Princeton, New Jersey (really, of all places, founders?). Nearby cities York and Lancaster also served as the U.S. capital, but too briefly for the President's House (Sorry, does it seem like I am showing off now?). The actual site is the Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia. The discovery and confirmation of the President's House caused a bit of controversy when the Liberty Bell site was designed and built. The site includes not only where Washington lived, but also where his slaves lived. Adams did not own slaves when he lived at the President's House; in fact, of the first dozen American presidents, the only ones to never own slaves were named Adams. John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, regularly spoke out against slavery.
The Liberty Bell's engraving, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof," had inspired the abolitionists starting in the 1830s. The notion of Washington keeping slaves on the site clashes with the image of the Liberty Bell and its history of the anti-slavery movement.
Public outcry led to the inclusion of the site's history in the Liberty Bell Center, although original plans were to focus solely on the Liberty Bell and American independence.
Now that's something I find fascinating: A link to America's tragic and troubled history is found on the site of a precious symbol of liberty. A patriotic update to the historic district of Philadelphia -- the cradle of liberty and freedom -- denuded an ugly pus-filled cyst on America's backside (or in its backstory, as it were), the hideous part of our shared history that was the antithesis of freedom and liberty.
I like knowing the full story of the site. History is varied: triumphant and cringeworthy, awe-inspiring and sad. The full story is "good history," to reference my last blog post.
What's the most interesting thing you learned recently? Tell me about it in the comments.
Pennsylvania has a rich and storied history, and yet a true understanding of it is out of reach for many people. I have always enjoyed learning about history, finding stories from the past and trying to get a better understanding of the people who influenced events for centuries up until today.
Unfortunately, I see far too little of what I call good history. It's not about what's bright, uplifting and shiny. I do not need anyone to blow sunshine up my pants to tell me our predecessors were wonderful. They were as complex and bewildering as people of today. Good history instructs and it tells a intriguing tale of what actually happened. Each issue of your newspaper includes items that the editors have ranked by importance -- take a look at where a news item appears, the size of its headline and how much space is allotted to tell the story. Good history works the same way.
In contrast, bad history and really BAD history works in the opposite way. Instead of telling us the most important or consequential bits of information, those are left hidden while we learn something useless, wrong, misleading or trivial. While I love trivia, I would prefer to take away something that makes me think, including something controversial, rather than a factoid that clutters the history. Even worse, bad history tells us who, when and where and leaves out the what, why and how. That leaves it about as dry as can be!
Bad history is too easy to find; it seems to be everywhere. Historical sites, markers placed by the government, textbooks and TV provide countless examples of the useless history. Good history is harder to find.
One of the best examples of good and bad history is the Underground Railroad. When most people talk about the Underground Railroad, they spew bad history like smoke from an incinerator. I once spent a month researching the Underground Railroad, specifically in relation to some sites in Pennsylvania, for a feature article. The editor came back with suggestions from his background in extremely BAD history. I tried to explain, and even offered the alternate title "Everything You Know about the Underground Railroad is Wrong." He didn't get it, and my article was never published.
I will use some of my upcoming posts on this blog to highlight both types of history for you. Keep in mind that my goal is always presenting a good story with something for you to think about, not a dry history of names, places and dates.
This Tuesday, some of us got to decide whether who we wanted to hire and fire for our local leaders. In Pennsylvania's primary Election Day this year, most of us got to vote for at least some members of the local school board and municipal government (township supervisor, borough council, mayor and other posts).
For many local elections in Pennsylvania, the story is largely told with the spring election, rather than the fall election. Individual towns lean so heavily to one party that the winner in the dominant party's primary often win by a large margin in the general election.
Local elections make an impact on garbage pickup, local schools and oversight of local residential and business development. With local responsibility, municipal and school board leaders have more day-to-day effect on our lives than the president of the United States or the governor of Pennsylvania. Yet when it comes to voting, the turnout is abyssmal for these "off-year elections."
Actually, participation levels are pretty lousy in the United States for all our elections. It's worse than what sometimes gets reported in the news because we often hear that a certain percentage of registered voters went to the polls, not what percentage of the citizenry.
One solution is the creation of a holiday for Election Day. In Germany, national elections must take place on Sundays or national holidays.
Some people have made proposals for such a change in the United States. Since the Constitution requires Election Day to be held on the Tuesday that falls between Nov. 2 and 8 each year, we could either add a holiday, eliminate one to keep the number of holidays the same, or move the observation of a holiday. The most obvious solution is cutting Columbus Day, which would relieve some of the tension and cultural baggage associated with the explorer's unsavory deeds. Then Election Day becomes a holiday, and more people are able to get to the polls.
A less popular suggestion is to move Veterans Day (originally Armistice Day) from its Nov. 11 celebration, which was picked to remember the end of World War I (well, "The Great War," at the time). I grimace at this suggestion because our leaders might be less likely to hold public celebrations of veterans if they were consumed with the election on the same day. Veterans Day already suffers enough when people conflate it with Memorial Day, and I would prefer to keep it where it is. Finally, simply adding a holiday for Election Day causes problems for public and private sector managers who will have to find a way to pay for a day of lost productivity, and for many businesses, that simply means they will not participate.
Fewer options are available for primary elections. Do we want to send Pennsylvania to the polls in February on President's Day? That would leave a long time between the primary and general election. Voting on Memorial Day would be even worse than holding general elections on Veterans Day: More people plan to get away for Memorial Day, so voting then would drop, not rise.
Are you starting to see why creating a holiday for a Spring Primary is so difficult? I can't see us adding a holiday specifically for it, even if it would help. If we made a drastic change, we could move the primary to Labor Day for off-year elections. September voting isn't as crazy as it sounds at first -- remember, Sept. 11, 2001, was supposed to be an Election Day in New York.
With all of these problems, perhaps a holiday isn't the solution for primaries. (But let's push for the Columbus Day trade for the general election, ok?) To really make a dent in the lack of participating in the primary, we need new options. We could explore options for early voting or voting remotely -- by phone, Internet or mail.
It's time that Pennsylvania at least takes a look at these options for the future. None are ready for our state to roll out immediately, but they are worth a look.
Middletowners have choices to make to shape the future of the borough. Voters will choose candidates for the fall election on Primary Election Day, May 21. Officials taking office in 2014 will have plenty of hard work ahead. I am sure Press And Journal readers need no reminder of serious issues facing the local government. Some people have even suggested that at this point, some of the tools for good government are starting to rust, and current officials continue to leave them out in the rain.
Bickering, blaming past officeholders and bemoaning the situation have not actually solved anything, regardless of how much effort some players gave these options. I hope voters choose wisely.
However, it's clear that Middletown needs leadership outside its government as well. Business and community leaders are searching for answers to help reingivorate, engage and build momentum with the local economy. Middletown is hardly alone in this regard, of course. Plenty of other communities also stand at crossroads.
Maybe Middletown is waiting for the right person to step forward, or perhaps he or she is here, but being overlooked. I don't know.
What Middletown needs is someone with leadership, vision and charisma who is ready to leave a special mark on the town.
About 50 years ago, Sam Hinkle was that type of leader in Hershey. The president of Hershey Chocolate 1956 to 1965, Hinkle came up with an idea that visitors often talk about after a trip to Hershey -- the Hershey's Kisses street lamps. The alternating wrapped and unwrapped Kisses that line Chocolate Avenue provide distinctive local color.
Sure, Hershey has plenty of things that make it stand out. Even without the old Chocolate Factory (most of it is being demolished as I write this), the chocolate business is still there, Hersheypark attracts tons of tourists and the Bears have a stellar history and dedicated, ardent fan base. But the street lamps with their special shape are unique. Hinkle had a great idea that went beyond just "marketing" the candy Kisses or "branding" the town. People from Ohio gush about the town that smells like chocolate and its street lights. Parents and grandparents point them out to kids as they drive through town.
Best of all, they make me smile when I see them.
Sam Hinkle did a lot for the community. He was also one of the people who was instrumental in building the Plaza, Hershey's swimming pool and recreational center, when the Pennsylvania State Police Academy moved from that site to its current home just north of Hershey's Tanger Outlets. As Hershey's chemist before he was the company president, he developed Mr. Goodbar, Krackel and the product that became Special Dark. He also developed fortified chocolate supplied to American servicemen during World War II, known as C, D and K rations. Finally, he set in motion the deal that took an excess $50 million from the Milton Hershey School's private trust, passed it through the Hershey Foundation Trust (governed separately under a 1935 trust) and founded the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, the Hershey Medical Center.
Hinkle's ideas have touched generations of people, countless lives. My favorite one marked the town with an identity, and with just a little whimsy.
I hope Middletown finds its people who will lead and will "light up" Middletown for future generations.
I saw a baseball game in Kansas City about 12 years ago. Honestly, I wasn't that interested in the game itself, with Kansas City playing an interleague game with another non-contender. It was a nice day out with friends while I was traveling, and I always enjoy visiting the ballparks of Major League Baseball. Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium (previously "Royals Stadium") is especially nice, one of the best 1970s sports facilities.
I don't remember a whole lot about the game, not even who won. Our group was seated along the first-base side with a fine view of the field. What I remember best is the group of disabled adults seated a few rows in front of us. Among them was one man who was into every play of the game. He had unwrapped the giveaway Royals backpack and wore it proudly with whatever he carried to the game that day stowed inside. With every tag play, he enthusiastically spread his arms in the safe sign after a Royals player dived back to first on a pickoff attempt, slid into second trying to steal a base or advance around the bases after a hit.
Before long, this mentally challenged man had moved away from his group, as close to the action as he could get. Even when the ushers checked tickets partway through the game to make sure everybody was in his proper seat, nobody seemed to care that he moved. As I sat there behind him, I realized something: I was watching the person having the most fun of anybody at that afternoon's game.
Over the years I have been to plenty of baseball games in many locations. I sat nervously watching Jamie Moyer pitch in the 2008 World Series, hearing fans griping with worry about the "cursed" Phillies. I watched opposing teams' fans bicker with each other when two terrible teams met in Pittsburgh. I have seen blowouts, comeback wins and gut-wrenching losses.
But this was the first time I had seen a person enjoy every minute of a baseball game so much. He was overjoyed to be there, enthusiastic about his team (regardless of its record), and glued to the action. I am sure it was the best day of his week, probably the month. He was enthralled by every play. This guy wasn't just the one having the most fun of anybody at that game; he had the most enjoyable experience of anybody I had seen at any game. Sure kids have fun with the game for a while, but they also like the food, the kids' activities and other distractions. On the other hand, adults who are into the game end up making themselves sick if their team loses; others leave early or get drunk on their $8 beers. So, as far as I am concerned, he alone was Mr. Fun.
That same baseball season, my brother and I went to a few other baseball games. We went to a game in Baltimore and saw a great game. The teams went back and forth with plenty to cheer and boo about. We had a great time. Seated near us in our row was a pudgy teen who didn't seem to take part in this. He was quite possibly the least interested fan in the ballpark. About 16, he wore glasses and a brown Nike hat, he sat with his parents barely speaking at all. No matter what happened during the game, he displayed incredible emotional detachment. His only expressions showed he was bored, more bored and apathetic.
As he sat leaning his chin on his hand with his elbow on the armrest, I wondered if he sat at home practicing to look this bored all week. He probably had.
He was there with folks I assumed to be his parents, and he barely, if ever, spoke to them, because he was much too bored for that. He was polite when he excused himself to leave his seat for a while, and when he returned before long. I am sure he was back so fast because the concourse was also much too boring.
Near the end of that season, my brother and I went to a game in Philadelphia where the strangest thing happened. Again, sitting in our row was the pudgy kid with the brown Nike cap. Two random games in two cities, and we're sitting next to the same kid. As you would expect, he's acting as if he's sitting through a tedious lecture about what colors of paint dry the fastest. My brother spied him first, and I turned to look just in time to catch him yawning and adjusting that odd brown cap. Yep, that was him all right.
I was curious what possessed Mr. Humdrum to get out of bed, pull on his favorite headgear and attend a baseball game. Did he yawn this much at hockey or basketball?
Regardless of his motivations, he and the boisterous Royals fan got me thinking that summer because I realized which one I would rather be like. I would like to think that I could find a way, even on my worst days, to be the guy finding a way to have fun rooting for a last-place team. I wish I could let my guard down to have that much fun in three hours.
Despite our best intentions, I think all of us, especially including myself, have spent enough time wearily resting our chin on our hands with a nondescript poker face as the world passes us by. I know I am like the Bored Guy sometimes, but it's high time I toss that brown cap in the fire and strap on my Royals backpack, smile and enjoy the game.
I bet some of you have, at one time or another, taken some type of audience survey. Web sites and magazines survey readers all the time about their experience to find out what they liked and didn't like.
As a reporter and publications editor, I have been through many of these. Sometimes the process gets agonizing when the number of people involved grows larger and larger. Everyone has his or her own idea what to include, when to ask it and how it should be worded. I understand that many types of questions allow you to gather information that you might want. At the same time, the wording of questions influences the answers. You see this all the time from political surveys and special interest groups who just happen to conduct surveys that confirm their bias.
At times, I have gathered some information about readers through these surveys. For my own purposes, I have done my own survey with a focus group that was quick and cost very little. I bought a cheap pack or two of magic markers. I gave everyone in the group a copy of the publication, a magic marker and an envelope to fit the publication. I simply asked the focus group to circle exactly what they read and mail it back to me. This humbling experience gave me insight into how much time people spent with the publication, what they actually read, and what drew their attention. In a questionnaire, few people will say, "I read two articles, and glance at some photos, headlines and captions as I page through the rest of the issue." The magic marker survey told me that.
But I also liked those longer surveys, too. The best part about them was that the boss (sometimes a publisher, an executive vice president or department head) was so interested that he or she collected the surveys and sat down for a few hours to scour, dissect and digest the results. Most importantly, this kept him or her out of my hair and allowed me to concentrate for a couple hours.
When it comes to finding out what people want to read about, hear about and watch on TV or a movie, it's actually very difficult to get them to tell you exactly what they want. "Oh, I don't know," say some, while others might rattle off their favorites and tell you do "something like that."
I found the answer to this question in the middle of my career, and it's simpler than you think. In fact, it's so simple that a three-year-old could tell you (they might even tell you clearer than some adults!). Here it is: "Tell me a good story."
Telling a good story is a simple concept, yet it takes a lot of work. It's not easy to find truly great stories and be able to write about all of them. Your editor will give you a shot glass, and you go to Niagara Falls and bring back the best water. Yet that's the way I look at producing articles, columns and blogs.
There you have it. In my Press And Journal community blog, I will be posting as I can. I hope that my posts tell you a good story, provide some interesting tidbit that you never heard before, or give you a nugget of an idea to think about for the day. Thanks for reading, and I will see you back here soon.