Top of the Morning, April 23, 2014

Melissa Merli can relate to all those runners coming to town later this week.

Covering Eberfest, our arts and entertainment writer said, "is like running a marathon. Only sitting in a tight seat."

Merli has been our point person for Ebertfest since the event's inception. She's back at it for Year 16, beating a path from The News-Gazette to the Virginia Theatre for shows and interviews.

"Before the week I get into a frantic, mind-racing, excitable state," Merli said. "Afterward, I'm pleasantly exhausted."

While our coverage of Ebertfest kicked off months ago, Merli shifted into a higher gear this week. The 61-year-old Westville High and University of Illinois grad will write daily, tweet (@mmerli) frequently and skip tailgating altogether.

"Some of my friends find a parking space close to the theatre where they can go out during breaks," Merli said. "I see them out there but can't join them. That's hard."

At The News-Gazette since 1990, Merli struck a friendly, working relationship with Roger Ebert, who died weeks before last year's festival.

"Old-school reporting skills: I think that's why Ebert liked me," Merli said. "His presence is missed but also felt at the same time."

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To complement Merli's coverage, we've enlisted a UI journalism class to toss a social media net over Ebertfest.

Check it out here

Eric Meyer's 28-student "Multimedia Editing and Design" class will be on site using Twitter, Instagram, Vine, etc., to tell the news of the day. We'll include a link to their work with Merli's online stories.

This from Meyer: "Rather than simply covering speeches and panels, their goal is to pick up interesting sidelights from the crowd and involve the audience, both attending and monitoring from afar, in two-way communication."

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Three major Ebertfest players — Chaz Ebert, Nate Kohn and Patton Oswalt — are scheduled to join "Penny For Your Thoughts" host Jim Turpin in studio from 9-10 a.m. today on WDWS 1400-AM. We'll have the podcast available on our website afterward.

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