Announced proposal for William Penn Foundation hyperlocal investment

William Penn News Roundtable small
One half of the influential round table at the unveiling of a proposed William Penn Foundation news innovation involvement.

Forty leaders in Philadelphia media were on hand last week for the unveiling of a structure to develop more public affairs journalism in the region, as proposed by a university research center on behalf of the William Penn Foundation.

From 8:30 a.m. to after 2 p.m. on Jan. 7 inside the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission conference room of the American College of Physicians Building in Old City, a series of discussions focused on bolstering the next generation of news gathering in Philadelphia around community-building and replacing competition with collaboration.

Explicit details were left slim to encourage a dialogue, but loosely defined, Jan Schaffer, the executive director of American University-housed J-Lab, recommended an aggregated content hub that could be supplemented by a limited editorial team. The funded sustainability of that recommendation was not detailed, but rather suggested to be put off for three years until an appropriate level of support was developed, she said. Hers were only recommendations for the Penn Foundation. No action was announced, nor taken.

Rather, Schaffer, a former Philadelphia Inquirer business editor and Pulitzer Prize winner, led a fact-finding research project for the better part of 2009 on behalf of the Penn Foundation, which included more than 60 interviews and ran from July to October. The day was her chance to gauge response. She has not yet submitted a formal proposal but, she said, expects to do so this quarter. Last week’s open unveiling and ensuing feedback would inform her final suggestions, she said.

The ramifications of what Schaffer proposes could have a historic impact. That is, if anything happens at all.

Those attending the five-hour, not-for-attribution session were executives from the Philadelphia Daily News, Philly.com, Philadelphia magazine, WHYY, the Philadelphia Business Journal, the Public School Notebook, Plan Philly, Phawker and other publishers, including the New York Times, in addition to representatives of Temple [one of whom shared his thoughts here] and Rutgers universities, the University of the Arts, the Penn, Knight, Pew and other foundations and nonprofits and supplemented by a handful of other journalism stakeholders. The three co-founders of Technically Philly were present, including myself, who was also there on behalf of NEast Philly.

It was, indeed, as powerful a collective of news gathers as one could find in Philadelphia, and I was honored to be among those included.

Seated on the outside of four long conference tables made into a rectangle, there were moments of conflict surrounded by long periods of skepticism and doubt around the successful partnering of so many disparate groups.

CONVERSATIONS OF THE DAY

Below watch Schaffer begin an overview of her recommendation.

Schaffer highlighted the many possible news gathering partners of Philadelphia (both traditional, independent and new to the role), offered that anything that would be created shouldn’t be for everyone nor should it compete with the daily newspapers. It remained unclear what the next steps would be and who would lead them.

“How to build and house this will be up to all of you,” Schaffer said.

In addition to Schaffer, others spoke about community building, how Chicago and Bay Area news collectives have partnered with the New York Times and why partnering with the city’s creative economies is important.

Fellow Technically Philly co-founder Brian James Kirk addressed the group with his own research on what other metro markets have done by way of online news. See his slides here.

But in many of those cases, big money was put up to create region or metro-wide institutions that, inevitably, competed with some other news gatherer. It was made clear that no one wanted to fund something that would rival Philly.com, the Inquirer or other existing media.

So, perhaps a real concern is how unlikely it may be that a room full of legacy media players could suddenly offer anything innovative in the name of news. With so many competing interests,  the answer may be very unlikely.

The father-son team that founded neighborhood blog Frankford Gazette was present, and son Jim Smiley shared his notes from the meeting, including this:

“Not once did I hear about increasing the voice of the originators of local news. The civics, the cdcs, the community groups. I didn’t hear anything about outreach. I didn’t hear anything about letting them talk. I heard more of letting them continue to talk through journalists. I guess I expected more.”

ONE PITCH ON RECORD

The morning discussions were dominated by the old guard of Philadelphia media. It turned combative at times and was circular for most. At lunch, there were more than three quiet pieces of encouragement tossed Technically Philly’s way to offer something in the way of perspective from Web native, young journalist entrepreneurs.

Schaffer asked that she be the only one quoted on the record in any discussions of the day. The exception offered here is to share the only two thoughts Technically Philly did offer.

After lunch, Schaffer looked to bring in more voices to the conversation. She called on a Temple professor to give a sense of what his students were seeing as their future. Not long after, he chose to deffer to the building’s southwest corner, where I sat with Sean Blanda and Kirk.

Blanda gave something of an impassioned plea.

“I have every reason not to do this,”  he said of building Technically Philly. I’m not quite certain he won’t mind my saying that he got behind on credit card and student loan payments building our targeted site. Since taking a full-time job in B2B media that has him commuting four hours round trip twice a week, he doesn’t sleep much.

Key Recommendations by Schaffer and J-Lab

  • Anchored by a “hub site”
  • It should bring together WHYY, Temple, existing assets
  • Narrow focus, to start.
  • Original Content
  • Curated links
  • Crowdsourced tips and reporting.
  • Databases
  • Interactive
  • High level of community management.

-Sean Blanda

He’s supposed to be part of the future, and we get lots of praise for that. That means mostly nothing. We’ve brought in less than $10,000 in revenue since monetizing in October. Understand: we’re quite pleased with that growth for a part-time, un-funded news startup that is less than a year old, but it can’t sustain anyone.

We made very clear what mechanism we think could create the next generation of news: News Inkubator, a business services hub and collaborative newsroom for media startups in Philadelphia.

With great reservations about involving myself in the conversation, I raised my hand and said just that — trying my best to not sound as if I was trying to simply personally gain.

“Everyone here is talking about helping the next generation of journalists, of making certain they are there and trained to cover our communities in future,” I said, paraphrasing to make me seem more coherent. “But we’ve only talked about maintaining, not transcending.”

News can make money online. We can pay people to cover communities, once we rid ourselves of the debts of legacy media. Kirk highlighted a dozen of sites doing just that — and I recently wrote about hyperlocals across the country joining in.

If the William Penn Foundation wants to impact the future of news, they need to mitigate the risks surrounding building that sustainable news product.

They need to fund a vehicle that would encourage other Technically Phillys and NEast Phillys. It doesn’t have to be News Inkubator, but it could be.

If Sean and I ever thought there would be any reception to our words, it was quickly dispelled. After we spoke, the conversation devolved into a handful of others making specific pleas for their own ideas and initiatives, before the session was tabled not long after.

SERENDIPITY

It was as the meeting was coming to close, a handful of participants having already left and only crumbs and plastic plates left from lunch, that something particularly nagging was shared.

It was brought up by a leading foundation executive and then echoed by others.

What is being lost, they said, in the mashup of the Web and our news and the crumbling of print is finding coverage by chance. You went to the newspaper for the Eagles score but were stopped by the public affairs story, they said. Anything that can’t replicate that might not be worth investing in, the foundation executive intoned.

It’s a wonderful power, indeed, of flipping from jump to sidebar to section in the printed newspapers of our past. Serendipity, indeed.

But I take great issue with this assessment that that is lost on the Web. So, too, it seems, did others at the meeting.

Scanning social media — Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds and the like — afford me the opportunity to find a wider breadth of news and information than I think I could ever have from print alone.

Navigating the Web by visiting individual sites on a traditional browser from your personal computer is certainly changing. In most early-adopting Web communities, it certainly seems accepted as a given that there’s wonderful serendipity online.

That that was a primary issue — indeed, the closing issue of the day — was a disheartening one for me. It felt then that perhaps those in the controlling roads of mitigating loss in the creation of news innovation aren’t as closely following discussions and trends as I’d hope, at least it didn’t seem so in Philadelphia on that day.

I left without much hope for anything dramatic or truly innovative to happen with any great speed in Philadelphia anytime soon from any outside party represented at the meeting. I left thinking that if my news startup can’t fund my lifestyle now, I ought to find another path because no outside help is coming anytime soon.

Technically Philly will continue building, but we certainly know we are just a very small piece in a much larger ecosystem.