At TheBurg, we’re not much into new media stuff.
Link bait, user-generated content, seeding. Yuck.
In recent months, I’ve had several news people defend aggregation to me, the practice of taking content produced by others and liberally repurposing it for one’s own use.
“We used to call that plagiarism,” I’ve snapped back, stunned that reporters are now being told to do things that used to get them fired.
Then there’s the listicle.
Using lists to convey information has been around for a long time.
For years, one of my favorite features in the Washington Post was the annual “What’s Out and In” list that appeared every New Year’s Day. I had no idea how the contributors determined what would be hot or not over the coming year (why, a few years back, were “cancer memoirs” out and “grief memoirs” in? Beats me), but I relished sitting down with a big cup of coffee and poring over the lengthy, whimsical list every Jan. 1.
In part, I enjoyed the feature because of its novelty. Presenting information as a list was an exception, not the rule, or a crutch, as it’s become for many media outlets today.
For the past few years, I’ve created my own list each January: the Top 10 Harrisburg news stories of the past year.
So, enjoy the list for what it is: a highly subjective summation and ranking, with my own spin on the year’s news. Feel free to nod, argue or curse me out. And I promise not to make a habit of it. This will be my one and only listicle of 2015.
10. Civil War War: Sometimes, big stories seem to pop up from nowhere, and the scuffle over funding for the Civil War Museum fit into that category. Without notice, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse appeared at a Dauphin County commissioners session to mount a case for negating an agreement that set aside about $300,000 a year in hotel tax money for the museum. Over the ensuing months, the city and county revived issues that hadn’t been discussed much in years: the purpose of the museum, its viability, its funding and how Harrisburg should use its limited funds to market itself. It also re-engaged the always-simmering battle over the legacy of former Mayor Stephen Reed.
9. Pastor Arrested: Upon taking office, Papenfuse declared an all-out war on blight, targeting slumlords, deploying codes officers and even formulating a new Housing Court. That sounded fine to most people until the first person arrested under the get-tough policy was one of the city’s most prominent pastors, Bishop A.E. Sullivan, Jr., whose blighted church began to crumble down on its neighbors. For some, the arrest was an early test of Papenfuse’s resolve. For others, it signaled the re-emergence of racial tensions that always seem to lie just beneath the surface in Harrisburg.
8. Grand Jury Convened: What happens when you open a closet and a room full of secrets pours out? In the case of Harrisburg, a grand jury is empaneled. At press time, months after official-looking guys in official-looking jackets hauled away box-loads of potential evidence to Pittsburgh, the investigation continued into the myriad twisted, dubious deals that led to Harrisburg’s financial collapse.
7. Primetime Crime: If it bleeds, it leads, right? The media continued to have a field day (or year—or years) over the issue of crime in Harrisburg. Not that there wasn’t ample material to draw from. A continuing high homicide rate largely negated the good news that some other types of crime fell. Meanwhile, a few high-profile stories (the tragic case of Jared Tutko, Jr., a brief exchange of gunfire between a state legislator and a teenage mugger) led to predictable bouts of media hysteria. We’ll have to see if a few more cops and, as has been proposed, the revival of the school resource officer program make any difference for 2015.
6. Treasurer Trouble: Sometimes, it seems like Harrisburg just can’t catch a break. In August, trouble arose from an unexpected corner when city Treasurer John Campbell—a young man with a seemingly boundless future—was arrested on charges of taking money from several organizations where he also served as treasurer. These allegations involved no city business, and the treasurer’s office operates largely independently from the administration. Nonetheless, Campbell’s arrest was yet another reason for people to dump on Harrisburg, as was the withdrawal, two months later, of his appointed successor, Timothy East, after a personal bankruptcy came to light.
5. Receivership Ends: It came in with a bang and ended with a whimper. No, I’m not talking about the month of March, but about Harrisburg’s state-imposed receivership. In November 2011, bond attorney David Unkovic rode into the office amid tremendous skepticism over his intentions. In just a few months, he allayed those worries so that, when he suddenly resigned, many people feared the city had lost its best friend. In stormed Air Force Maj. Gen. William Lynch, who completed what Unkovic had started: selling the incinerator, privatizing the parking system and trying to straighten out and normalize Harrisburg’s calamitous finances. Count me among the surprised that the receivership ended so quickly after the major elements of the financial recovery plan were put into place. Today, the state retains some supervision over city finances as Harrisburg remains in Act 47. However, the receivership was never as strong-armed as many thought it would be, and, instead of fading away, it just went away.
4. Parking, Parking and More Parking: Besides crime, parking became the media’s go-to story of the year. Sleepy news day? Go find some suburbanites and restaurateurs pissed off about the rising cost of parking. Beneath the hype, there was a real story. As part of the city’s financial recovery agreement, parking rates doubled and metered parking expanded, which did negatively impact some businesses. In addition, the rollout of the new digital meters was bumpy, and Standard Parking was (how shall I put this?) god-awful in communicating with the public. But, by the end of the year, people seemed to be adjusting, and the new regimen even had some pluses, such as a new source of revenue for the city, the ability to use credit cards and much higher turnover of street spaces. Also, while some weak businesses shut down (though not all due to parking, believe it or not), several others opened.
3. Front Street Makeover: Sometimes, events are deemed important because they follow an accepted standard of what constitutes news—a political scandal or a high-profile crime, for instance. Other times, the importance is less certain, and only later do people realize the significance of a piece of news. I put the state’s announcement that, starting this spring, it will reconstruct Front Street, into the second category. Moreover, the state is studying improvements to Forster Street and to making much of N. 2nd Street two-way. It also plans to re-open the dormant rail bridge to pedestrians and maybe transit. In other words, the state seems to want to reverse the damage wrought almost six decades ago, when much of Harrisburg was turned into either a freeway or a traffic island, with devastating results. A more welcome, livable city could be a game-changer for Harrisburg.
2. Papenfuse Takes Over: In January 2014, Eric Papenfuse took the oath of office as mayor of Harrisburg. In so doing, he promised to be both an effective administrator and an inspirational leader. A year later, I’m not sure about “inspirational,” but he has shown competence both in identifying what needs to be done and then taking steps to get those things done. From finances to blight to streetlights to schools, Papenfuse took on a full plate of issues, most very difficult, many controversial. My fellow columnist, Tara Leo Auchey, has described Harrisburg as being in a state of “reconstruction” following decades of misrule. The administration’s first year has been to try to stabilize a government in shambles and then plant the seeds of that reconstruction.
1. Balanced Budget: This may seem like an odd choice for the #1 news story in Harrisburg. Yawn, right? Yes, in most cities, a balanced budget indeed would be a non-event. In Harrisburg, however, this was (or should have been) major news, as it was the city’s first truly balanced budget in—God knows—20, 30 years? Papenfuse even insisted on including items that had been kept off-budget for decades, as Reed was a genius at tucking inconvenient expenses into places where they couldn’t be found, then masking the overage with borrowing. This is an achievement that should not be understated. Going forward, it should allow the city to build an honest foundation and move forward from there.
So, there you have it—my Top 10 stories of 2014. Looking at the year in whole, I consider 2014 to have been a transition year: a transition from state to local control; a transition from perpetual crisis to some level of normalcy; and, I hope, a transition from dishonest and incompetent government to one that conscientiously serves the people of Harrisburg.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.