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Taking Names

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 1997; Page C01
The Washington Post 

* * * EXCERPTED COPY * * *

 The Pottstown, Pa., Mercury is taking the movement known as public journalism to a whole new level.

 Other newspapers have taken polls, convened town meetings and teamed up with TV stations in an effort to put selected issues on the map. But the 28,000-circulation Mercury has gone a step further, staging a national petition drive for a constitutional amendment to protect crime victims. The yield so far: 230,000 signatures.

 "We're a real activist paper," says Editor Walter Herring. "Everyone talks about the new public journalism and I've never seen anything done. We just decided to get behind it and see what we could do."

 Herring is not dispassionate about crime: He says his brother killed his father seven years ago.

 The paper began its crusade in July on its World Wide Web site after publishing a series on crime victims. "We are launching a nationwide effort," it declared, "to gather more than a million signatures from Americans across the nation urging Congress to pass a Victims' Bill of Rights Amendment. . . . The Mercury hopes to help the people of the United States spark a legal revolution."

 But the Mercury didn't stop there. Staffers went to Oklahoma City -- putting up banners and collecting 30,000 signatures -- and to a victims' rights convention in Houston, where 60,000 signatures were garnered. Other field trips are planned. The signatures, from 47 states -- and locales as far away as New Zealand -- are to be presented to Congress at year's end.

 Herring says he initially "wasn't real comfortable" with the petition drive -- indeed, such political advocacy would be a firing offense at most news organizations -- but doesn't believe it has compromised the Mercury's objectivity on the issue. He says such activism "is in the tradition of journalism from the time the country started."


© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company