NewsWorks: WHYY will announce new hyperlocal news initiative for northwest Philadelphia

Updated 4/13/10 @ 8:50 a.m.: Regionally-specific hyperlocal is just part of the broader system

WHYY, the public media station for the Delaware Valley region, is hoping a $1.2 million hyperlocal news initiative for the northwest region of Philadelphia will be the first successful bold Web-first journalism effort from a legacy media player.

Updated: That northwest hyperlocal is just one very large, very expensive trial vertical within a larger rollout.

But will “NewsWorks” go the way of a handful of its predecessors?


BIG WEB JOURNALISM TRIALS IN PHILLY

If you talk to the big players in Philadelphia media, you’ll find that there have been more than a few starts and stops in launching Web-first journalism outposts here.

In 2006, during that tumultuous year in which the Inquirer’s then-parent company Knight-Ridder divested its newspaper catalog to rival McClatchy and that giant cleared the 12 most under-performing dailies from its holdings, one of the largest conversations took hold.

While the Inquirer was bought by an investor team led by PR magnate Brian Tierney, there was real concern leading up to that purchase that Philadelphia was going to become the first major city to lose its paper of record.

Former Inquirer Editorial Page Editor and current WHYY content honcho Chris Satullo

The William Penn Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts — the two biggest nonprofit funders with interest in media in the region — sat at a table with some serious industry leaders from within the city like former Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick and Editorial Page Editor Chris Satullo and, I’ve been told, big names as distant as Entertainment Weekly founder and CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis.

As the Tierney era has soured, Temple University’s journalism department has continued to toss its young journalists into neighborhoods throughout the city as part of its much heralded Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab. In January, the Penn Foundation held a summit of sorts, the public culmination of more than a year revisiting the subject of how best to create the future of public affairs journalism in Philadelphia. Last month, Philadelphia magazine made a new, cautious step into a daily, content stream — steps that have also been taken by alt-weeklies CityPaper and Philadelphia Weekly, in addition to any number of angles from the Inquirer and others.

Small pieces, loosely connected — to paraphrase Web developer and community organizer Alex Hillman — are floating in the ether, like Technically Philly and NEast Philly, with which I participate, and conversations are ongoing to try to connect them and the aforementioned legacy media forays.

Yet, Philadelphia remains a city without any big, bold forays into innovative Web-first journalism from an existing industry leader. WHYY hopes very much to change that, and it’s about to go public about it.

NEWSWORKS: THE WHYY INITIATIVE

The northwest part of Philadelphia. Click to enlarge.

In February, I was invited to sit in on the first advisory board meeting held for a long-rumored hyperlocal initiative from WHYY, currently being called NewsWorks and pitched as a hyperlocal testing grounds for the northwest part of Philadelphia — much in the model of NEast Philly for the Northeast.

That northwest vertical is the first of what could be many in the NewsWorks network.

The meeting was a diverse collection of nearly two dozen bloggers, journalists, community members and WHYY big wigs — yes, including Bill Marrazzo, who has managed to develop a reputation for little more than perhaps being the highest paid CEO in all of public broadcasting, despite, as former Inquirer columnist and Philadelphia Weekly editor Dan Rottenberg wrote, “WHYY has never been mistaken for a world-class organization.”

This new project could be Marrazzo’s legacy, and it’s been long in the making.

As far back as December 2008, there was talk that the public media company was itching to dive into a big Web journalism push, after the 2006 initiative from Penn and Pew died after the local Inquirer purchase and ensuing financial collapse.

WHYY had looked to hire staff for this initiative — then dubbed in-house as “Y-Factor” — as far back as last May. But, as multiple sources had mentioned to me, they were waiting a fat check from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Simultaneously last spring, WHYY’s senior producer of Web news and information left — Dan Pohlig  [Full Disclosure: he's a friend] — and soon after the network of blogs he had maintained were taken down, going with it many a link and the public media company’s only serious Web journalism outlet.

Updated: New Web content has found a home at WHYY.org, but the public media organization is looking to start a surer foundation.

NewsWorks Community Forums

(All forums, 6:30 to 9 p.m.)

  • Monday, April 19: North Light Community Center, 175 Green Lane, Manayunk
  • Wednesday, April 21: Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology, 2111 Eastburn Avenue, West Oak Lane
  • Thursday, April 29: Germantown Friends School, 31 W. Coulter St., Germantown
  • Wednesday, May 12: St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, 8000 Willow Grove Ave., Chestnut Hill

Starting next Monday, WHYY will go public with NewsWorks, Y-Factor’s developed cousin, and using the motto “For You. With You. By You.”

WHYY will be sponsoring four neighborhood forums for the project, hoping to garner further community support — after already reaching out to leaders in the region.

Led by the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, the workshops will give residents a preview of what’s to come, input on what stories to cover and solicit recruits for contributions and a tease to the multimedia training that WHYY hopes to offer residents.

Update: So goes this hyperlocal start, will go the broader WHYY initiative.

Labeled a pilot project with CPB funding, WHYY’s NewsWorks — led by the aforementioned former Inqy scribe Satullo who jumped ship for the greener pastures and sure footing of public media — just might be the big splash that no other major player in Philadelphia has been able to make.

Most important here is how slowly WHYY is moving. They’re not projecting full launch of the northwest vertical until the fall — though Satullo has said they’ll begin content creation as early as this spring.

With as many major false starts as we’ve seen in Philadelphia, it comes as no surprise that NewsWorks will move carefully.

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