Pottstown Mercury: an Army of One

When Evan Brandt began working at The Mercury as a municipal reporter in 1997, his beat focused on one community -- Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and the daily paper had 14 reporters, including a few sportswriters.

Twenty-three years later, Brandt, The Mercury’s only municipal reporter, covers nine school districts and 30 communities in and near Pottstown, a town of 23,000 people 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

“You get good at multitasking,” Brandt, 56, said matter-of-factly, a tone of weariness in his voice.

Despite all the downsizing and corporate carnage that he has witnessed, Brandt said he continues to enjoy his job and remains committed to his readers.

He said he neither expects nor receives thanks from Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that has owned The Mercury since 2011.

“I’m not doing it for them,” said Brandt, a NewsGuild member. “They don’t care. All they care about is the money. They don’t care about the content at all.”

Pottstown’s economic glory days are long gone, a victim of the region’s shriveled iron and steel industries. But Brandt, a NewsGuild member, said there’s still plenty of news to cover. And he said the 100,000 to 150,000 residents who live in the paper’s coverage territory -- parts of three counties -- are clamoring and grateful for it.

Brandt’s status as one of a dwindling number of journalists struggling to cover the local news that bigger news outlets mostly overlook was spotlighted in a feature story in the July 10 issue of The New York Times.

It’s not unusual for Brandt’s multi-tasking to have him monitoring two or three public meetings via Zoom on his laptop and  iPhone on weekday evenings. He said he has had to become the “agenda whisperer,” scanning multiple documents ahead of time in hopes of figuring out which meeting is deserving of coverage and likely to yield the most important news.

When asked how often he guesses wrong, even after soliciting recommendations from readers on Twitter, he responded, “All the time.” 

“That’s the thing that I have to get used to the most: Things not getting covered,” Brandt said.

The paper’s 6 p.m. deadline makes it all-but-impossible to shoehorn breaking news from night meetings into the next day’s print edition. Brandt tries to compensate by posting stories first on his well-read blog, evan-brandt.blogspot.com. The stories on the blog end up running in print a day later. 

“It’s much harder to do long-form journalism, and your brain gets used to not even thinking like that,” said Brandt, who earns less than $55,000 a year. His most recent raise was three years ago, a 1 percent hike that was eaten up by higher health insurance premiums.

Even with the heavy workload and frenetic pace, Brandt said he enjoys the freedom and never has considered leaving journalism, as so many journalists have, for a job in public relations.

“I would last about eight minutes in PR,” he said. “Who wants a 56-year-old, fat, balding guy who questions everything?”

Brandt said his reporting job is particularly rewarding when, for example, he can inform parents about the status of school reopenings during the COVID-19 pandemic. One recent story he wrote about a school district’s lack of Chromebooks for remote instruction led to a $60,000 donation covering the cost.

Staff cuts at The Mercury, through layoffs and attrition, began before Alden took charge, but it was Alden’s aggressiveness in maximizing profits that prompted Brandt’s impromptu visit in spring 2018 to Alden part-owner Heath Freeman’s mansion on Long Island, New York.

The Times story recounted the visit, in which Brandt, upset after reading about how Alden’s co-founders were investing their fortunes -- not on improving newspapers -- managed to talk his way inside Freeman’s house. Brandt said he was turned away before he could ask Freeman this question: “What value do you place on local news?”

A relative of Brandt’s who lived nearby and accompanied him to the Freeman estate snapped a photo outside the house of Brandt wearing a “#NewsMatters” T-shirt and holding a sign that said, “Invest in Us or Sell Us.”

He said his work as an award-winning journalist may help extend the life of The Mercury, which has operated since 1931. He has his doubts, however, as to whether protests by him and others in the NewsGuild will cause Alden to invest in its newspapers or sell them to more benevolent operators.

Brandt said he takes pleasure in the agitation and vowed to “not go quietly.”

Evan Brandt, Pottstown Mercury

Dean Olsen can be reached at (217) 836-1068 or [email protected].