Monday, April 26, 2010

Is brotherly love in Philly's DNA?

The statue of William Penn
sits atop Philadelphia City Hall.
Philadelphia could be in line for a new journalism initiative, focused on public affairs coverage and funded through a foundation.

Or, maybe not.

Like ProPublica (investigative) and The Texas Tribune (state government and politics), the effort in Philadelphia is coming in response to a perceived decline in the formerly robust reporting offered by mainstream media.

As newspapers saw ad revenue decline and circulation fall, they cut in depth and breadth, eliminating things like investigative teams and statehouse bureaus as they tried to cover the basics with reduced staffs.

In response, foundations and philanthropies have stepped in to help salvage some of the lost coverage. In Philadelphia -- sixth largest city in the country -- that role is being played by the William Penn Foundation, which announced last week it would underwrite formation of what it's calling an independent journalism collaborative.

"[W]e believe in the role that high-quality journalism plays in making our region a better place to live," says a letter from foundation president Feather Houstoun. "We see robust public affairs coverage as critical to having an engaged, informed public and accountable public institutions, and like many of you, we are concerned about our region's ongoing capacity for that type of journalism."

That concern was borne out in the report the foundation commissioned from the J-Lab, an incubator for new-media experiments housed at American University in Washington, D.C. It was written by Jan Schaffer, executive director at the J-Lab and a former business editor and Pulitzer Prize winner at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The report found that by many measures -- staffing, "news hole," air time, story count, key words -- "The available news about Philadelphia public affairs issues has dramatically diminished over the last three years."

And not only are the city's civic leaders concerned about the state of

the media, but so too are everyday readers: "They are weary of the newspapers' drama of survival and express pronounced antipathy at what remains," says the report. (The dominant Philadelphia Inquirer and smaller Philadelphia Daily News, both owned by Philadelphia Newspapers LLC, have been operating under bankruptcy protection for more than a year. An auction Tuesday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York City will determine whether ownership will change as part of the plan for reorganization.)

But the J-Lab, which studied the city's media scene for four months last year, said it found a rich landscape beyond the two dailies and four commercial TV stations: 260 blogs and hyperlocal or niche websites, 60 of which "have some journalistic DNA" -- that is, they report news.

So the J-Lab recommended bringing them together with the newspapers and TV stations -- along with other entities like public broadcaster WHYY and Temple University's journalism program -- to establish a networked collaborative that would focus on public affairs reporting.

The effort would be anchored by an independent news website "that would both curate and aggregate some of the excellent reporting originating in many of the city's new-media sites," as well as doing its own reporting. The site wouldn't be all-encompassing, but would focus on a half-dozen or so subject areas: government, politics, the local economy, what it means to live in Philly.

The Penn Foundation says it is committed to supporting the effort for a few years, although the letter from Houstoun gave no estimate of its planned investment. But the foundation expects the network to "aggressively plan" for the day when its support will be limited.

The big question, though, is whether the effort will get off the ground.

To be sure, independent websites will embrace the exposure and infrastructure support of the larger collaborative. But the mainstream media appear cool to it, judging by an article last month in the American Journalism Review and an account of a pre-report meeting that Schaffer held in January.

Even in the final report, Schaffer refers to "guarded" interest in the idea, which surely refers to the long-established media.

And can you blame them? Here's the major foundation in town saying they've slipped, and a report -- released just a week after the Daily News won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting -- saying Philadelphians regard them as slow, late and superficial in news coverage. So now they should play nice with local blogs and niche websites?

You know the answer is yes.

If, as the report states, the papers are regarded as being run by "middle-aged white guys who did journalism 30 years ago and think that's the gold standard," the city's minority community is going to seek its news elsewhere. And if, "Simply put, people in Philadelphia are mad at the city's dailies," the papers' declining circulation numbers aren't likely to reverse.

So those 60 online sites with "journalistic DNA" -- some smart ones like PlanPhilly (planning and development) and TechnicallyPhilly (technology) -- are better embraced as friends than defended against as enemies. To do otherwise would be foolhardy.

UPDATE: The Tuesday auction went into Wednesday before the senior creditors/lenders won in the bidding for the Philadelphia papers.

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