What the Philadelphia Public Interest Information Network should be

If all the timing was right on track, some time this month or next, a CEO might be named for a new collaborative nonprofit news and information project being initially funded by the William Penn Foundation.

As first shared here, the deeply invested regional foundation put an initial $2.4 million onto the table to form with Temple University a Center for Public Interest Journalism, which is being charged with initially housing the currently named Philadelphia Public Interest Information Network and represents the largest gift the university’s communications school ever received. What that will be, well, that’s up to the as-yet-unnamed CEO.

(Full disclosure, yup, the William Penn Foundations funds the Technically Philly Transparencity open government coverage project and CPIJ was the title sponsor for this year’s BarCamp NewsInnovation, so let’s go ahead and assume that I have absolutely no objectivity about anything written here.)

Now, I’ve shared broadly what I’d do if I had $7 million burning a hole in my pocket and wanted to drop it the news pot, but, after a few dozen conversations on this topic, I wanted to get a bit more detailed with my thoughts on what PPIN should be.

I’ve struggled a bit, like many to whom I’ve spoken, to parse the difference between the Temple-housed CPIJ and the, at least initially CPIJ-housed, PPIN. So, I’ve decided to go ahead and make that distinction for myself from what I know:

  • CPIJ should be a subscription-based cohort of Temple University services — Offering innovation-themed continuing education, networking and connective events for journalists and their kin, serving as a clearing house for journalism-related internships, a broker of photography, video and other multimedia talent, creator of professor speaker series (strong lectures recorded and shared, in addition to connecting the Philadelphia Neighborhoods capstone, application development and other university-based tools and resources that news organizations can pay limited fees to have access to.
  • PPIN should be an independent investment, philanthropic and incubation network — Creating a near lobbying block of independent sites that pool back-end services

In short, (a) CPIJ is a services-orientated, business-minded collection of university services that relate to news and information and (b) PPIN should be responsible for increasing collaboration between existing and expansion and sustaining of new news and information sources.

That much is mostly, from what I understand, the plan that is already currently in place.

Here’s what I say the CEO of PPIN should do: [Formal job description here]

  • Think product locally, impact nationally and message globally — This damn well better be oozing with Philadelphia luster in the projects and partners it creates, but the projects and processes should have a big footprint across the country, the success of which will echo internationally.
  • Fundraise an initial $100 million for the Philadelphia Innovation Fund — Expanding on an idea from RoseAnn Rosenthal, go to every big company in the region, foundation of every kind and any group with a relevant mission in the world. Have five big piles of cash, (1) public affairs journalism, (2) community coverage, (3) technology, (4) entrepreneurship and (5) media literacy/education. Use this pile of money as a carrot stick to get done what you want: like JLab did with considerably smaller piles of money, foster collaboration around important issues, invest in companies and demand they stay in Philadelphia for a certain period of time or whatever else you want to do to create triple-bottom line businesses that impact our communities for the better. White paper everything and share your lessons with the world.
  • Take ownership of, curate, house and grow OpenDataPhilly.org — This is the future of accountability journalism, and PPIN could have the broadest and most relevant mission to steward this ship. You’d probably curate a community  of coders, hackers and designers, host a quarterly event series and an annual competition partnering groups with developers and designers.
  • Partner with the Our Philadelphia local campaign contributions database — This project came from CommonCausePa and Azavea but clearly needs a steward.
  • Serve as a bridge and a conductor of public affairs research — That means in addition to playing traffic controller with existing news agencies and pushing them to do better, bigger and bolder work. Additionally, that means connecting and creating collaboration — not competition — among similarly themed groups, like Common Cause, Committee of Seventy and even the local ACLU, City controller, Solicitor General and other watchdog groups.
  • Host and highlight journalism excellence in the region with the Pen & Pencil Club — To help create a culture and community among journalists and good government research.
  • Create the world’s first information incubation program — Host five startups, meaningful, topical (not geographical) niche sites with real business plans from elsewhere in the country, relevant tech shops and the like, offer them space, capital, mentorship and a deadline. The Philadelphia Media Network keeps talking about something sorta-ish like this [sidebar], so maybe you go in with them together on it.
  • Serve as fiscal agent for other media projects — If any for-profit or smaller news or information outlet gets outside funding, be the go-to resource to house and incubate those groups.
  • Offer other boring back-end services — As we’ve often pitched about News Inkubator, some group could offer pooled accounting, payroll, libel protection, general insurance and other assortments of media-related services.
  • Membership and cross-platform directory build out — Offer the technology and shared sales and follow up resources for niche sites to have a membership platform, that could fit into customizable directory pages, which would be populated by all tagged content, like this Knight application of ours. [Unless WHYY could get to this]
  • Advertising network — I wrote that I don’t think the traffic would be meaningful enough for Philly.com to make this happen, but I think there’s a real build here for PPIN. [Unless WHYY could get to this]
  • Parse the rest of this post for anything that make be relevant to the mission and bring in a little scratch — Don’t rely only on foundation, philanthropic and related support.

Here are the actual roles I think matter:

  • CEO — You’re a cheerleader of, advocate behind and fundraiser for public affairs journalism, news, information and informing communities generally. Speak artfully and uniquely across the country — see the honorariums as mini-grants toward PPIN — and bring word of the great work that is happening in Philadelphia.
  • Investment Vice President — Give out bags of money to get news organizations and other groups to hit your mission, and also be adept at asking for money. Bring it in and then send it out.
  • Chief Innovation Officer —  Your job is to know everything that is happening in the news and information world, to push forward conversations, dream up collaborations and projects, work with partners, create and move forward cutting edge technologies, projects and the like.
  • Event planner — Lead convenings, help grab in-kind sponsorships and other partnerships for all partners
  • Important boring stuff person — HR, manage bookkeeping, accounting
  • Sales Director — Advertising network, sponsorship sales,
  • Multimedia Producer — Media literacy training for outsiders and, perhaps, partners.
  • Investigative reporter chair — Maybe. What if there was an investigative reporter endowment chair, where a year-long stays for talented investigative reporters would bring them here to work with partner groups or sites to create impactful reporting and action>

What you don’t need:

  • A website that costs you more than $10,000 to make — The idea of a landing page is on its way out anyway, but any need to recreate this is over, if Philly.com ever does right, they are the portal through which all meaningful content flows. Don’t waste your money chasing after them.
  • To be creating meaningful journalism at the outset — There could be a future in that, but I’d say to start, I’d use the pot of money to give incentive to existing news organizations to act.
  • A mobile app — Stop.
  • A Board of Directors that is made up exclusively of old white men, or exclusively of journalists — Have an impressive, meaningful, varied board that will push and dictate the future of the country’s methods of informing communities. That said, you do sure as hell want an old journalist or two who know a thing about meaningful reporting and important coverage.

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