Journalism isn’t what we should try to save: Philly example

A couple times a year, someone in Philadelphia technology will say to me, what that community really needs to broaden its prominence is “its own Tech Crunch,” a reference to the established and influential tech business blog with Silicon Valley roots. The implication is, with all due respect to the maturity of Technical.ly Philly (relative to our newer, smaller markets) and its readership and regular events, that Philadelphia needs a megaphone to a global audience of investors and talent.

When someone says this, I hide my cringe and instead I politely nod, before changing the subject.

Of course, a statement like that shows a profound lack of understanding of audience, goals and impact in online media. Tech Crunch is established and influential because it covers big, well-funded tech business nationally, not a fledgling community in a non-traditional hub. Technical.ly Philly looks the way it does because of where it is. It doesn’t have national readership because it isn’t national in focus. The people who say “we need a Tech Crunch,” are confusing outcomes and solutions (Silicon Valley was the global tech leader first, then it spawned Tech Crunch, not the other way around).

This is a problem that happens elsewhere.

Rather than facing the complex and challenging reasons why one place isn’t like another place (uh, because they’re different places), we often oversimplify the solution for changing it. I may have never been in a focus group about a given community and not had someone say that the biggest challenge is “storytelling” or “getting our message out.”

In effect, the statement is that awareness will solve our problems. In the Philly tech business case, we need more serious technology businesses, not more attention for the ones that are here.

TL;DR: Executive Summary

  • We want better communities. Journalism is one tool to get there, not the only thing we need to save.
  • Stop creating new public affairs journalism orgs.
  • We have plenty of content and existing journalism orgs that can be improved with support.
  • We need more people making a better community and fewer writing about doing so.
  • Audience and action is what the market doesn’t support right now.

Something similar is happening in the continuously disappointing and frustrating parade to establish an “online nonprofit public affairs news outlet” in Philadelphia. Millions of dollars have been given to a variety of such efforts here alone, but I have no confidence that anything has changed or improved in that time. It’s time to recognize that journalism shouldn’t be saved, but rather what its goals are meant to be. We’re focusing on the wrong part of the news ecosystem.

Like the Philly tech example, we don’t need more attention, we need more solutions.

First, here are three important, relevant beliefs I hold here:

  1. Journalism is a tool to make better communities. When it fails to do that, I do not care at all about journalism surviving. I don’t care about newspapers or reporters or nut grafs or editors or any of it unless they are making my community better. The people who care about journalism the industry surviving are either people who have nostalgic views of reading newspapers and/or are people who want a job in journalism — neither are balanced and emotionally well-informed here.
  2. It is easier to make new things than it is to improve old things and humans are lazy and self-referential, so our instinct is to start many, smaller new organizations. That isn’t always bad, but, again, like the Philly tech/Tech Crunch example, we sometimes assume a new organization to find the story is what’s lacking, rather than stronger stories. It’s lazy.
  3. Content creation and audience delivery are two different, specialized tasks. I have a long list of frustrations with the well-funded AxisPhilly effort, but here’s one of the top. Its founding CEO, its board and its staff, confused creation and delivery. They focused entirely on creating more content in a world crowded with it and spent no time on the strategy on getting anyone to find it. Having spent five years building up a full-time, local niche news effort with just barely 100,000 monthly page views, I know how challenging that is. I thought it was dismissive of that effort to launch and expect to be found immediately. Maybe at best, Philadelphia has an audience of 50,000 civic-minded residents who could serve as a stretch goal community. There is likely more work to be done in bringing together those 50,000 people than in creating more content.

At last count, there are no fewer than five efforts to fill this role as online public affairs journalism home for Philadelphia, assuming there needs to be or should be one. And, of course, that means, as it stands now, they all appear to want to raise funding (which almost exclusively means foundational support here) to support the effort.

That means rather than convincing a community to support the idea of your existence, you convince a relatively small number of highly-resourced people to support your existence.

philly-citizen

  • AxisPhilly — Perhaps one of the more frustrating of these examples nationally, the wrong person was chosen to lead this first effort at independent, nonprofit public affairs news, someone who lacked a cohesive strategy. It now is quietly spending down its money, doing some good reporting by a disaffected and fractured editorial team. I find this infuriating (and borderline insulting, as the founder of a local news org with journalism DNA), and I’m not alone. It lacks any clear community. The money could have been better spent by funding nearly any existing news organization in the city. But rather than having to choose one existing org to make it better (and making others get jealous or mad), funders chose to start a new one and wasted the money even worse (and, I’d argue, making all of the other orgs mad).
  • Philadelphia Citizen — Backed by a crew of former Daily News editors, I give credit to founder Larry Platt for already launching an event series to build a coalition, but I was disappointed by its launch messaging, which, as seen above, was mostly a series of digs at the misgivings of local media — a stupid tweet, a fabricated story (never happened before) and, surprise, a floundering big city metro daily. That isn’t aiming for a better community, it was a petty game of industry one-upsmanship. ‘We’ll do journalism better,’ not ‘We’ll actually make Philly better.’
  • Digital First Media spinout — After Project Thunderdome was shut down, the rumors about then-Digital First Media’s Jim Brady wanting a TBD redux in Philly slowed but there’s still talk that some of its team would launch a venture here. This is very much not confirmed publicly but various hints suggest there is at least a discussion of it. Still, let’s not discuss this now, since it remains just an idea.
  • WHYY — Their Newsworks.org spinoff (which desperately needs to be reconstituted within WHYY in my opinion) was also meant to be an answer to this need. It remains the most active and best known of these efforts, but it remains hampered by criticism of its CEO, legacy shortcomings of a sleepy and bloated public media outfit and funded by aging PBS viewers, not those supportive of innovation.
  • ‘The Network’ — For years now, in many cities, including Philadelphia, there is also this sense of the collaborative filling this form by the collective. Here, consider that the Public School Notebook, PlanPhilly, Hidden City, freelancers and social media accounts, open data activists and, in our own way, Technically Philly, among others.

What are all of these efforts trying to solve? As best as I can tell, they’re all attempting to do things that could be done better by a different kind of organization altogether.

Here are 5 better solutions that journalism is said to provide but that would be more directly solved otherwise:

  1. Increase (and better inform) voter turnout — Instead, have fewer, more competitive elections. Make it easier to change voter registration. Give tax incentives for voting. Any of these and other ways would almost surely more directly impact voting more than having more reporters. What’s more, this just might be overblown. Of 38 big-city mayoral vote turnout from 1978 to 2003, Philadelphia had the second highest, only to Chicago, according to Neal Caren, an associate sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, as cited by Daily News columnist John Baer. (On the Philadelphia Citizen launch page, they called the low 8.5 percent voter turnout a reason for their work to be important, yet there have been lower turnouts in Minneapolis, which is home to one of the country’s most established online public affairs journalism sites) (The Committee of Seventy should do a more interesting job of providing contextual information, as do other niche publications)
  2. Make government spending more transparent — Instead, support the massive workflow challenges to have all public money expenditures be more easily searched online. Open gov, including open data, efforts would better allow all citizens to oversee government and encourage transparency.
  3. Have a central ‘town square’ for ideas to develop city-wide community — This may not be possible at this time of fractured audience, but if we’re desperate for it, I’d say it either has to be a long-overdue, smarter Philly.com or an effort that focuses on content dissemination and doesn’t touch content creation. (What I experimented on with the Ph.ly/newsweekly)
  4. Support more neighborhood coverage — Instead, develop and encourage journalism DNA at community civic groups, institutionalizing the idea of a ‘secretary/scribe/blogger’ as part of the organizational structure. We just need information transcribed online for others to build upon. (I was part of a neighborhood correspondents pitch once)
  5. Uncover narratives that help us learn, understand and improve our communities — Instead, support and better connect what already exists. From the print dailies and weeklies to the niche publications of various ages to the aforementioned ‘network’ of other outlets, there is not a lack of content, there is a lack of deliverable outcomes and collective audience. The need is for backend support and audience development, not content.

Journalism organizations can help in some way with all of those tasks but, increasingly, I do not find journalism organizations, particularly general interest ones, to be the most effective at making any of those outcomes happen.

So now that the effort to bring together a public affairs journalism effort is fracturing into many smaller attempts at a slice of this real estate, it becomes increasingly apparent to me that the fight for it may likely be unnecessary altogether.

Like when someone confuses outcomes and solutions, we’ve been distracted for years now in trying to build something that doesn’t need to be built at all.

2 thoughts on “Journalism isn’t what we should try to save: Philly example”

  1. Thank you so much for saying this! I agree very strongly with about 80% (the other 20%; well, we’ll have to differ).

    I think you touched on a key issue: The feedback loop is gravely distorted, if not outright perverted. As a user, I’ve made dozens of suggestions to WHYY and Axis Philly staff and leadership, both formally and informally.

    I’m talking about pragmatic, utilitarian feedback from a reader’s perspective — nothing political, nothing expensive, nothing controversial.

    Overwhelmingly, that feedback has been ignored — not, I think, because of the largely well-intentioned and hardworking folks who work there, and not because I’m some kind of nutcase. But rather, because *the business model demands otherwise.*

    That is, when most of your money is coming from private foundations or a TV fundraising juggernaut, you’ve got to focus most of your “customer” time and attention on THAT customer.

    And so, consciously or not, you don’t perceive the piddly little daily user as a decisive factor in your organization’s strategy. And you end up with the business-model equivalent of a “think-piece” on The Future of Journalism rather than an effective, nimble community-serving product.

    Look at Aine Doley and her litter project. It could have been so much more powerful and effective with the right approach by Axis Philly. What a waste of a talented, civically engaged young woman’s energy! Look at the near-total lack of audience participation on NewsWorks — it’s as though 20+ years of research on good practices in developing online communities doesn’t exist.

    Whew. Long rant. Short version: Thanks for writing this. I hope the powers that be are paying attention.

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