Bill Cologie is a print guy.
When you walk into his newsstand, Transit News, all your senses tell you that you’ve just entered a tiny temple to ink on paper.
Magazines line the walls, and paperbacks fill up shelf space. You can almost smell the page pulp and feel the anticipation of what lies ahead as you flip through a new thriller or romance.
Bill resolutely remains in business inside Harrisburg’s train station despite the fact that he depends upon two technologies that seem quaintly of another time—passenger rail and the printed word.
Bill has run his stand for 27 years, but, in recent months, felt his small business threatened by a state Department of Transportation plan to remodel the station, which did not include space for Transit News.
I first heard of Bill’s problem at a meeting of Capitol Area Neighbors, a community group of downtown Harrisburg residents, where I serve on the board. As we sat at a long table at Aleco’s, eating pizza and discussing this or that neighborhood issue, a fellow downtown denizen mentioned Bill’s plight. What could we, as a group, do?
Someone suggested contacting PennDOT. Another person wondered if PennLive would be interested.
“TheBurg will write that story,” I said.
And we did.
Our story led to more media coverage, and, meanwhile, Bill urged his customers to contact PennDOT, which then met with him and pledged to include Transit News as part of its next design draft.
“It has been incredibly gratifying to read the messages sent to PennDOT and to see how much Transit News means to so many,” Cologie said in a letter to his supporters.
Score one for community. In fact, recently, community action has been on something of a roll in Harrisburg.
Just months earlier, a group of students had found out that HACC planned to cut six elective arts courses, including several—ceramics, glassblowing—that are hard to find elsewhere in the area. They mounted a petition drive that garnered some 20,000 signatures, and TheBurg also wrote that story, bringing the issue to greater public notice.
Within a week, HACC administrators had agreed to meet with the students and, in the end, restored five of the six courses.
“We heard you, and we listened,” said HACC President John J. “Ski” Sygielski.
As newspapers fall on hard times, I sometimes wonder what will happen to stories like these in the future. If TheBurg weren’t around, would Bill’s story go untold? Would HACC students have had a tougher time getting their classes restored?
Just last month, we told of a few local men who plan to open Pennsylvania’s first black-owned brewery, and that story became one of the most-read in our 10-year history. I recently ran into them, and they graciously thanked us for telling their story, which, like in Bill’s case, led to a ton more media coverage.
“I didn’t realize you guys had such reach,” said co-founder Shaun Harris. “Someone from Erie contacted us.”
They since have set up a Kickstarter page to raise money for their new brewery. If you’re so inclined, please make a donation.
My favorite recent community story actually has its roots in the rather distant past.
Almost a decade ago, when TheBurg began, one of the first columns that I wrote featured a group that called itself, “Right Site Harrisburg.” These residents had taken on a monumental task, getting the federal government to do something it definitely did not want to do—locate its new courthouse on a forlorn patch of grass and gravel outside of downtown Harrisburg.
And they succeeded. Their effort, I wrote at the time, was a stunning example of how grassroots activism could lead to change. But, honestly, I was surprised then, and remain surprised today, that this group of just regular people could unite all the major players—from neighborhood groups to the Harrisburg Chamber to political representatives—behind their plan, which, together, put pressure on the U.S. Judiciary and General Services Administration.
The groundbreaking just took place in June so that, in about three years, a new courthouse will rise from the rubble (literally), seeding an entire area that is ripe for redevelopment.
But, for the community, that wasn’t the end of the story. When I covered the groundbreaking, I was shocked to find that no one from Right Site Harrisburg had been asked to the invitation-only event. In fact, during the hour-long ceremony, full of VIPs and self-congratulation, their vital contribution was ignored entirely. One now-elderly woman, a key member of the group, was turned away at the entrance by heavily armed guards from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Her name was not on the list.
This slight prompted me to write a short piece that, while it could never undo the injustice, perhaps brought a small measure of recognition to these forgotten people—without whom this day never would have arrived.
Journalism, today, finds itself in a world of pain. Reporters face dramatic cutbacks in staff and coverage, destructive mandates from distant corporate parents, relentless abuse from the highest levels of government and, as we saw in Annapolis in June, sometimes literal attack.
Most journalists simply want to tell good stories and make positive contributions to their communities, often working long hours for little pay to do so. Certainly, TheBurg shares this purpose.
I’m delighted that, from time to time, we can step back and see the small ways in which we may have helped make a difference, even if it’s just one guy in one newsstand in one train station in central Pennsylvania.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.