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If You Can't Say Something Nice...

A new publication says it loud: We're from Springfield and we're proud.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012
Photo Courtesy of Prospringfield Media
Heading up ProSpringfield Media (left to right): Deb Walsh, Janet Bennett and Nancy Urbschat

Nancy Urbschat isn't a Springfield native—her family moved to the Valley from Columbus, Ohio, 27 years ago—but she's embraced her adopted hometown with a fervency that could rival any old-timer's.

Urbschat and her family initially landed in Longmeadow. It was a fine place to live, she said recently: "We did stuff there. The kids went to school there. But it was different. ... I never felt like I was connected to a community."

But even when she lived in Longmeadow, Urbschat was closely connected to Springfield. Her business—she's the owner of the marketing firm TSM Design—was founded in Indian Orchard and has been located in Springfield for most of its 27 years of existence, the last 17 downtown, on Bridge Street. In 2004, she and her husband left the suburbs and moved to Springfield as well.

What drew them to the city? "I met Charlie and Joan Ryan," she said simply, referring to the former Springfield mayor and his wife, both of them ardent supporters of Springfield. "I saw what they had, and I wanted some of that."

Today, Urbschat lives not far from the Ryans, in an old Victorian house in Forest Park. "We love living here. We love our neighbors," she said. "There are lots of people like that."

But those people's stories about the joys and benefits of living in the region's biggest city are often drowned out by the screaming headlines about the standard urban ills: struggling schools, street violence, drug dealing. It's an omission that Urbschat and her colleagues plan to remedy, with a new on-line magazine that launches this summer and, she hopes, will be published weekly. Called ProSpringfield Media, the free publication promises to offer news that, in the words of its tagline, is "up close, upbeat and uplifting."

'By [their] very nature, cities are messy," Urbschat said. "So traditional media has to cover that messiness, and it often leaves out that other side of what the character and life in cities is all about. ...

"This is not a media-bashing thing," she added. "There's a job to do. We're trying to become a voice of the wonderful people who live and work in Springfield."

*

ProSpringfield Media will be published by a nonprofit corporation of the same name and will be based in TSM's office. "I peddled this idea for a long time, and I could never find anyone to take it on," Urbschat said. Finally she decided that her firm would take the lead.

While TSM will support the publication—"incubating" it, as Urbschat puts it—plans calls for hiring a managing editor to take day-to-day control of the magazine and freelance writers, photographers and videographers to fill its virtual pages. The inaugural issue—which, Urbschat said, will be available by July 15—will include a feature on Gary Bernice, the dedicated band director at SciTech whose students have a remarkably high graduation rate (Urbschat calls him a "one-man graduation machine"), a visit to the Puerto Rico Bakery and Restaurant at Gasoline Alley and a story on the Mason Square Food Justice Initiative, which is trying to bring a grocery store to the neighborhood.

Urbschat estimates that it will cost $347,000 to publish the magazine for one year. By way of comparison, she points to another nonprofit on-line publication, the New Haven Independent, which is published five days a week and, according to a recent report in Commonwealth magazine, has an annual operating budget of $575,000. ProSpringfield Media's costs will be lower since TSM will be providing some infrastructure support, including hosting its "world headquarters" in the design firm's conference room, she said.

So far, Urbschat has raised $16,000, including a $5,000 donation from one neighbor who's particularly high on the city. She's hoping to find more donors like him, she said: "I'm looking for people who have an irrational love for Springfield."

ProSpringfield Media's board, Urbschat said, has recommended that she raise $100,000 by the end of the summer. To get there, the group will rely on a combination of corporate underwriting, grants and individual donations. The group is now in the process of applying for nonprofit status and cannot accept donations directly until it's granted; in the meantime, the Chamber of Commerce is accepting donations on its behalf.

*

ProSpringfield Media has another source of income, one that Urbschat sees as particularly promising: T-shirts, bumper stickers and lapel pins bearing the slogan "Say Something Nice."

The "Say Something Nice" campaign was inspired by Improv Everywhere, a self-described "prank collective" based in New York. Last summer, the group set up lecterns on the street, equipping them with bullhorns and a sign urging people to "say something nice." The group filmed the results from a distance, then posted the video online, where it garnered lots of attention. ("You are all wonderful," one hipster announces, generally, to the crowded street. "Hey, you with the umbrella! The blue umbrella," a woman calls to a passerby. "I really like it. It's pretty.")

Initially, TSM planned to adopt the "say something nice" idea for a promotion for the firm, using the phrase on a postcard created by Deb Walsh, the firm's creative designer. "I kept looking at it and saying, 'That is such a big idea,'" Urbschat recalled. In the end, TSM decided to use the image for its pro-Springfield campaign—"so people know what it actually feels like to say something nice about Springfield and hear other people say something nice."

ProSpringfield Media also adopted the public lectern idea, with a Springfield-specific twist. Over the past couple of months, the group has set up lecterns at several locations around the city, with signs urging speakers to share some good words about Springfield. A video of the experiment is on its website (www.prospringfieldmedia.org).

"Springfield is cool!" one little girl yells into the speaker, to cheers. In another scene, a man drives his motorcycle right up to the lectern, takes the bullhorn and announces: "All right, all you motorcycle riders: this is the place to be. Come to downtown Springfield, the best place to ride your bike." Other people mention Springfield's friendly and proud people, its parks, the Basketball Hall of Fame, City Stage, Symphony Hall— and the Court Square hot dog cart.

"The things people say, it's really cool," said Urbschat, noting that the lectern lends an instant authority to people, empowering them to share publicly things they might not otherwise have the opportunity to say. ProSpringfield Media plans to set up its lectern at public spots and community events throughout the city over the course of the summer, she said.

*

ProSpringfield Media's plans call for the magazine to reach a subscriber base of 100,000 readers within five years, including people from outside the city who might see Springfield as a scary place or not know about all it offers. "There are great things readers should know about," Urbschat said. "There are great places they should know about, people they should meet, and we want to introduce them. They're going to pick up some insight into why there are these people who have an irrational love of Springfield."

Urbschat also hopes that local corporations will lend their support to the project, recognizing the benefits it offers them. "When Baystate is recruiting for doctors, and MassMutual is recruiting financial folks, having something they can send a prospect that shows the great stuff that happens in Springfield will be pretty cool," she said.

ProSpringfield Media, Urbschat noted, will be classified as an educational nonprofit. "We're going to educate people about things that are happening in and around Springfield—the civic life, arts life, neighborhoods—and do it in a way that people will say, 'Hey that's something I didn't know. I never thought about Springfield in that way.' ... There's so much stuff out there, and we need more of it, and to amplify it."

The magazine, she said, will steer clear of politics, both electoral and social. "We have no bosses other than our board of directors. We don't have to report to anyone," or serve as a promotional vehicle for any particular group or agenda. "Our purpose is to change the conversation about Springfield," Urbschat said. "That's it, pure and simple."

And to critics who might accuse the magazine of offering a romanticized, Pollyannaish perspective on the city? "With a tagline of 'Upbeat, up close and uplifting,' you don't get any more Pollyanna that that," Urbschat said. "You can call us Pollyannaish, absolutely. We are definitely embracing it."

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