William Penn Foundation details plan for Philadelphia online journalism network

Updated 4/25/10 @ 5:41 p.m. with William Penn Foundation clarification

Fewer than four months after its Philadelphia media elite round table to discuss the subject, the William Penn Foundation has released a more detailed outline of its intentions of investing and developing local online journalism in the region.

The report, which was released Wednesday, comes from the J-Lab journalism institute at American University and its Executive Director, Pulitzer Prize winner and former Philadelphia Inquirer business editor Jan Schaffer.

“While we’re not ready to brand the project at this point, it is fair to characterize what we have in mind as an independent journalism collaborative,” said the foundation’s President Feather Houstoun in an e-mail to stakeholders in the initiative.

The final report, which can be read in its entirety here, tacitly outlines the steps to develop roughly two things: (1) a central website of public affairs coverage and (2)  a journalism collaboration by way of staff, funding and shared administrative and business services — which I like to think was at least partially influenced by our pushing on with News Inkubator.

Updated: The William Penn Foundation will not “necessarily” implement what was found in the report, communications director Brent Thompson told me.

More broadly, as Schaffer wrote in an e-mail to those she interviewed in her months-long research: “After a deep analysis of the media landscape, J-Lab has recommended that Philadelphia is ripe for a unique Networked Journalism collaborative, partnering new media makers with original reporting on public affairs.”

It’s a quick and more detailed move less than half a year a large stakeholders meeting that was less than decisive.

There is too much coming out of this report and the feedback and buzz I’ve heard around it to make clear here. This is what broadly comes from this, with context to follow.

William Penn Foundation President Feather Houstoun

The most explicit mention of the foundation pledging to lay down funds to shake up the city’s media ecosystem came from Feather’s e-mail to stakeholders.

“To initiate this effort, we will make three grants in the coming weeks to support project design and early action projects. These grants are intended to lead to a more substantial investment in the near future,” Houstoun was quoted as saying.

According to a press release on the topic, “Over the coming weeks, the Foundation will make several investments designed to strengthen the links among these groups by developing an independent journalism collaborative and establishing two ‘early action’ projects:”

  1. “The OMG Center for Collaborative Learning has contracted with a project manager — Michael Greenle, formerly of Penn Praxis and Plan Philly — who will convene a team of stakeholders and community leaders tasked with designing a regional journalism collaborative. This is expected to result in a proposal to the Foundation for a more significant investment to implement the collaborative.
  2. “A tech-savvy organization will be funded to help journalists experiment with content delivery, engage audiences and find new and constructive ways to analyze and present data in the public interest. [Author note: this seems to mean a content management system of some kind, but UPDATED, Thompson from William Penn says, “the technology aspect is not really about developing a CMS. It is intended to provide technical assistance to help news gatherers experiment with different tools, applications, and ways of connecting with audiences. I suppose if the groups agree that a CMS is their most important tech need, it could go in that direction, but that seems unlikely to me. Again, we are not pre-judging the process.”]
  3. “An intermediary organization will be identified to manage a series of micro-grants for enterprise and investigative reporting and collaborative projects among news organizations.”

Greenle and the OMG Center have launched a WordPress.com blog to track the progress, which can be seen here.

Updated: “These grants do not proscribe specific outcomes – the group will need to decide what best serves the needs of Philly’s independent journalism community,” Thompson of William Penn said. For example, a central website is not necessarily going to be the result of the process. Mike and the team he puts together will have to invent the structure of the collaborative, which may or may not result in that type of central website.”

Who the stakeholders will be is less than clear. At the Jan. 7 stakeholders meeting, all of the major legacy media were represented and seemed cautious of what the foundation and its partners would fund. Indeed, soon after the meeting, WHYY and Chris Satullo, who was at the stakeholders meeting, announced its plans to develop its own hyperlocal news network.

How they may align is as yet unclear, though Schaffer’s report notes it:

Currently, while the newspapers are cutting back, WHYY public television and radio is trying to increase its local news coverage with a $1.2 million initiative. It is moving forward with reallocated funds and a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which currently has a keen interest in enhancing the local journalism efforts of public media. WHYY plans to beef up reporting and train citizen journalists in eight Zip codes in Northwest Philadelphia.

Two projects in which I’ve had a hand caught reference in the report.

In the report’s section titled “Asset I: Blogs and niche websites,” the technology news site I co-founded in February 2009 was noted:

One newcomer has made a quick impact. TechnicallyPhilly.com was founded in the spring of 2009 by three Temple grads. Since then, it has achieved a notable level of recognition for its coverage of the city’s technology community. And it is moving forward to hire an ad salesperson, who will work on commission.

“They break the news that needs to be broken,” says one tech entrepreneur, who points to TechnicallyPhilly as a key example of what can happen in the city. “They remain timely, relevant and interesting” in part, he says because “they are there when the story breaks because they would be anyway.”

In the section titled, “Asset VI: Temple University’s Journalism Program“, NEast Philly’s branding was gotten half-wrong but mentioned nonetheless:

In addition to the TechnicallyPhilly team, Temple grad Shannon McDonald has launched the NEast site for Northeast Philadelphia and a few other non-news sites have launched. [Italics mine]

From the report’s conclusion:

We believe the focus of any new public affairs initiative has to be what is best for the citizens of Philadelphia – not what is best for any commercial news organizations or individual Web start-ups. While collaborative processes, alone, might be good for individual news sites, they don’t do much to build a collective audience for public affairs news and information.

Philadelphians are not getting all the public affairs news and information that they once did. There is a robust media ecosystem that has emerged in the city.  There is a talented and organized community of creative technologists.  People in the community feel that the city’s traditional media outlets are failing to cover some important issues or covering them in a haphazard manner with undependable follow up.