Enterprise Reporting Awards a “Home Run”

December 15, 2011

Washington, D.C. – Fourteen media partnerships awarded $5,000 apiece a year ago to produce a single enterprise-journalism project ended up producing hundreds of pieces of content and far exceeded expectations in terms of impact.

The $70,000 awarded to the winners of the Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Awards leveraged $96,000 in additional funding. The journalists produced more than 300 stories, blog posts, videos, podcasts, searchable databases and interactive maps.

The resulting journalism influenced the city's broadband plans, prodded responsible redrawing of City Council districts and produced an interactive power map of the city's 29 boards and commissions. One project tracked a schools-turnaround initiative and reported irregularities that led to the resignation of the city school superintendent. A major investigative project documented how one in every five properties in the city was tax delinquent, owing $472 million in back taxes.

"By any measure, the Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Awards were a home run," said Jan Schaffer, director of J-Lab, which administered the awards funded by the William Penn Foundation. "This is a replicable model for jumpstarting stories that journalists know need to be done. As important, the media partnerships meant these stories were co-published in many media outlets."

The report tracked the progress of an experiment J-Lab designed to see if there were ways to incentivize media collaborations and amplify, beyond narrow silos, the journalism being created by emerging news sites in the nation's sixth largest city. The results are outlined in a report J-Lab published today, available in hard copy and online.

Jeremy Nowak, president and CEO of the William Penn Foundation was pleased with the outcome. "We were interested in seeing what happened if enterprising news organizations had the resources to focus on under-reported topics. The results have been outstanding.

"We learned about how a cash-strapped city still can't effectively collect the taxes it is owed; how neighborhood politics subvert sound economic development strategy, and the challenges of turning around the lowest-performing schools.

"Most of all, we learned that a new generation of public-interest journalism is being hatched in new venues."

Some of the most robust collaborators in the enterprise projects were the city's entrepreneurial news startups. Philadelphia has a vibrant media landscape consisting of niche reporting sites, legacy newspapers and an active community of creative technologists. In 2009, the William Penn Foundation commissioned J-Lab to explore the city's media ecosystem with a focus on the state of public affairs reporting. You can read that April 2010 report here.

One of the recommendations was to incentivize with $5,000 enterprise reporting awards several discrete, in-depth journalism projects that required news creators to collaborate. J-Lab issued a competitive request for proposals and announced the winners in October 2010.

Today's report details the outcome of that experiment. The award winners called their media collaborations successful and expect them to continue. While the awards called for the projects to be completed within six months, the report says this was "too rugged" a timeline, especially for the more ambitious projects.

The report emphasized that it would be an "overstatement" to say that the $70,000 in award money funded all the journalism that resulted.  All the projects benefited from countless hours put in by editors, multimedia producers, graphic artists and others not covered by the awards.

"There was collaboration and stories that normally would not get done did get done," said Tom Ferrick, founder of the Metropolis news site, which spearheaded two of the projects.

The report recommends greater adoption of set-aside funding for collaborative enterprise reporting initiatives.  "We believe mainstream media companies, universities, foundations and others can – and should – replicate programs like the Enterprise Awards and set side $50,000 to $100,000 a year in greenhouse funding to start them," Schaffer said.

About William Penn Foundation: The William Penn Foundation, founded in 1945 by Otto and Phoebe Haas, is dedicated to improving the quality of life in the Greater Philadelphia region through efforts that foster rich cultural expression, strengthen children’s futures, and deepen connections to nature and community.  In partnership with others, the Foundation works to advance a vital, just, and caring community.

About J-Lab:  J-Lab is a journalism catalyst for igniting news ideas that work. It funds pilot projects, awards innovations and shares practical insights from years of working with news creators and evolving news ecosystems.