Journalism DNA: Is a journalism outlet?

Acts of journalism are challenging and at times infrequent things for local news organizations. Pushing a community and seeking to find outcomes through difficult questions is the best of what media can do. Balancing that with the work tied to creating a sustainable news venture is a consuming one. Here’s where I am in my thinking about that process.

When we launched in 2009 what has since become, we always prepared for a content mixture that would include information and community journalism. We were trained in a newspaper worldview that put a type of ethical paradigm and professional standards that we embraced, even as we challenged its traditions.

Along the way, I found out that I want to build something that could have an impact. Pessimists are nothing but spectators and reporters are almost always pessimists.

We need to celebrate when and how journalism (in all its forms) can find its way into organizations of any stripe, including but not limited to media. So we’ve tried to find a way to mix that into our coverage, which also includes soft community profiles and basic goings-on.

To find motivation to justify spending staff time on highlighting efforts that have no money and angering institutions that could be sponsors, we try to celebrate when we keep on our mission of using tough questions to better our community. Part of the challenge is knowing whether we deserve the credit we seek.

I think about a book I read on the Panama Canal, in which an agent of change for the project’s development was described as: “An active go between will easily think he is the author of the messages he has to carry.”

We aim to separate the hubris and the pride. To do that, it’s worth checking what work we do and whether it can justly be called journalism. This is something we have thought about for years.

Here are examples of work we’ve done that I consider journalism:

  • Solutions journalism — In which we seek to move shortcomings forward, like organizing the first Baltimore city council hearing on innovation policy.
  • Expectation for accuracy — Whether it was pushing for a startup CEO to ‘bristle’ for our assessment of his work or highlighting a telling mispronunciation from a politician, we don’t hide the uncomfortable details when they are part of better understanding.
  • Uncovering what wasn’t yet known — New advanced tools for creating efficiency for 911 calls helps celebrate corners of city government not often heralded and also raises the expectations of their work and helps set the tone for the type of place we live in.
  • Covering all relevancy — Civic apps that highlight crime, hosting a weekly big business roundup that includes the good and the bad and anything that touches how technology is impacting and changing our communities doesn’t end because it’s convenient. We’ve been told by potential sponsors that they wouldn’t fund our work because we highlight news that is inconsistent with their glossy depiction: say, when startup companies leave.
  • TransparencyBuilding in ways to write disclosure and ethics to all our posts shows that commitment.
  • Connections — Good niche media has very small, highly engaged audiences. That fits us in spades. Of the few hundred who read an item on the struggles of OpenDataPhilly, several were leaders of institutions that reached out about possible ownership of the open data portal. Relationships are currency and media should be a major part of transporting them for their communities.
  • Resource as platform — In the role that all news media plays but still can have journalism outcomes is simply being a place to share and send the ideas and tiny movements that make up a place people want to be. Community is built by a common set of facts and we hope to help establish them.
  • Be of the community we cover — We find important narratives from personal social media accounts. We quietly introduce members of our communities to each other to do good work. I remember in the lead up to the first women-focused hackathon in Philadelphia that I shared news that so few Wikipedia entries were written by female contributors. It became one of the event’s outcomes and helped expose women to that part of growing the Internet ecosystem. That is the sign of a old guard community reporting but we can keep journalism within it too.

The best definition of journalism just might uncovering something that someone doesn’t want you to know about. If that’s the case, I fell we do that with fair regularity.

Despite all of this, I’m left with this assortment of anecdotes. Not data about impact or proof of what we’ve done, just a mess of feelings and stories. That feels good but doesn’t prove much.

It’s exactly where the impact journalism conversations enter the room. If we can find a way to measure the sometimes intangible outcomes of journalism and more broadly news media, then we can better justify the work put into it.

For now, it’s a balance we struggle with mightily. We seek to maintain a mission-minded role in the aforementioned journalism outcomes because we believe in them and think that’s what makes us valuable and differentiates ourselves from others in our space.

I hope that means that if we do lose funders for reporting, we gain others for our legitimacy.  I know that my competition really isn’t just other news media, it’s any organization seeking sponsorship, sales and revenue in the technology communities we cover. At times, it worries me that my ‘competition’ doesn’t all have to play by the same rules — namely, holding to a journalism aesthetic — but I also know it benefits us. In truth, if anyone is your competition, no one is.

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