Evan Brandt’s calling
“When I miss a meeting, these days most often due to a threadbare staff, officials literally say ‘The Mercury’s not here, what should we get done?’” —Evan Brandt, reporter at the Pottstown (Pa.) Mercury
November will mark the 20 years since Evan Brandt came to Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
It was November, 1997 when he was hired as a reporter for The Mercury, the smallest circulation daily ever to win two Pulitzer Prizes.
Both Pulitzers were awarded long before Brandt arrived in this economically hobbled rust belt town on the banks of the Schuylkill River, but it does indicate the quality and initiative of the newsroom he joined — at least at the time.
Before arriving in Pottstown, Brandt had worked for 10 years at a weekly newspaper group in affluent northern Westchester County, N.Y., home to multi-millionaires and large estates north of New York City.
Fresh out of the State University of New York at Binghamton, he worked his way up from reporter, to Managing Editor of The Putnam Trader, which covered all of Putnam County, N.Y. and finally was named Executive Editor of Trader Publications.
As such, he was responsible for overseeing two weekly newspapers, a monthly parenting magazine, a quarterly senior newsletter produced on contract for the county’s Office for the Aging, and a twice annual four-color bridal publication.
One night, or rather one morning, he was editing an article about what gifts to buy your bridal party and realized it was time to get back to journalism or risk further damage to his soul and sleep cycle.
Brandt no longer uses the phrase “I don’t know what else they could cut.”
An advertisement in Editor & Publisher brought him to The Mercury where a contract with The Newspaper Guild ensured he could get back to the work he loved without taking a huge hit in the wallet.
He and his wife Karen moved; had one child, Dylan, and shortly thereafter bought a house in town. About a year after arriving, the newspaper was purchased by the infamously tight-fisted (and now defunct) Journal-Register Company.
Since then, the belt has been pulled ever tighter, through bankruptcies, new owners, pension payment contractions, pay freezes, crippling health insurance increases and endless lay-offs.
Brandt no longer uses the phrase “I don’t know what else they could cut” because he has too often discovered the answer soon after uttering it.
Long a member of the NewsGuild local’s negotiating committee, Brandt got involved after an ill-informed contract ratification vote which created two separate pay scales condemning newer hires to perpetually lower salaries. It’s a condition he has unsuccessfully fought to reverse since taking a seat at the bargaining table.
Throughout, Brandt has focused on the work, which he has been known to refer to as “a calling,” winning state (and sometimes national) awards every year along the way.
Subjects ranged from an early series about the future of Pottstown, which laid the foundation for his coverage of the town. It won the American Planning Association’s sole national award in 1999 and was named a finalist, along with Time Magazine, for the James K. Batten Award for Civic Journalism from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism.
He has taken (and written about) a week-long canoe trip down the Schuylkill River, followed ice climbers, covered the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, revealed a long-forgotten earthquake fault beneath a nuclear power plant and created a searchable database of the state’s education employees and retirees for a series on Pennsylvania’s ongoing public pension crisis.
Journalism, he says, whether local or international, is the not-terribly-silent partner in a healthy democracy.
But Brandt’s central focus has been, and remains, coverage of local government, a focus which earned him both first and second place awards in the investigative journalism category in last year’s Keystone Awards contest.
Journalism, he says, whether local or international, is the not-terribly-silent partner in a healthy democracy. “The First Amendment was not created to make sure we can cover a car crash, no matter how many readers it provides us that day. It’s part of the balance of power. We’re the branch that keeps all the other branches in check.”
That mission that has never been more important than it is now.
With sea changes in the market conditions in which journalism, particularly local journalism, is now struggling to stay afloat, the mission of providing citizens with reliable, critical information about their government has never been more vital – or more difficult.
“I have been told that when I miss a meeting, these days most often due to a threadbare staff, officials literally say ‘The Mercury’s not here, what should we get done?’ Brandt says.
“That is both satisfying and worrisome. It’s good to know that just our presence makes them think twice about undertaking any shenanigans, that’s the function of a free press, keeping all government accountable to the people. Vigilance is required,” he said.
“But as I watch our newsroom get pared down one staffer at a time, as I try to figure out which local government we’ll be holding accountable on any given day — all while being pushed to pursue clicks and sensational headlines to drive web traffic, I worry how much longer we’ll be able to perform that function,” Brandt said.
“Listen, I’m an old dog, but I’m not averse to new tricks. I understand that unless we find a new way to keep journalism sustainable, we need to stay in business. I’m perfectly happy to use new tools that advance our mission, whether it’s my blog, live Tweeting meetings, live video or engagement on social media. If it works, if it keeps us relevant to our readers, I’m for it, so long as we’re still keeping our eye on the ball,” he said.
“But at some point, no matter what efficiencies technology brings to the table, it comes down to man-hours. Someone still has to steer the ship, someone has to ask the questions and interpret the answers and we’ve reached the point where things are being missed, being lost, for the sad but simple reason that there are just not enough bodies to do the work,” Brandt warned.
“Of course, I worry about being owned by a vulture capitalist firm — whose unabashed purpose is to strip the meat off our bones, and then crush the bones for the marrow inside, in the name of quarterly profits. It would be madness not to be worried. But I also worry that not only will I be without a job sooner rather than later, but that this town to which I have devoted 20 years of my professional life, will be without a watchdog for the first time in 75 years,” he said. “Hey, just because it’s a cliché doesn’t make it any less true.”
“When that happens, when Alden Global Capital finally determines there is no more cash to be sucked out of us and it’s time to discard the corpse for a tax break, not only will Pottstown lose another local business, ‘The Mercury’s not here’ will become a permanent state of affairs,” said Brandt.
Editor’s Note: During the past five years under the ownership of hedge fund Alden Global Capital, DFM workers have endured unprecedented, draconian cuts in staffing and resources. Yet despite workloads that have doubled or tripled, these dedicated workers continue to produce outstanding reporting for their communities. Their efforts remind us of news workers’ essential role in our nation’s civic life, and that democracy depends on journalism. We asked Brandt to chronicle his experiences under this sea change.
Author’s note: It has been an existential and distinctly uncomfortable experience writing a profile of myself. “Do I write first-person?” “Do I really have to write about awards?” “I’m quoting myself? Really? Well at least I can’t dispute the accuracy…”