In August 2011, 111,000 Philadelphia properties – one in every five properties in the city – were identified as tax delinquent, more than any city in the country. Property owners owed $472 million in back taxes and penalties. The city administration quickly announced ramped up sheriff’s sales.
“The results have been outstanding … Most of all, we learned that a new generation of public-interest journalism is being hatched in new venues.”
– Jeremy Nowak, president and CEO of the William Penn Foundation
In June, the first Power Map of Philadelphia was published, an online map detailing a shadow government consisting of appointees of the city’s 29 boards and commissions. The map identified members, terms, compensation and interconnections among various appointees.
In March, Metropolis website and Al Dia, the Hispanic weekly, published a joint bi-lingual report on the plight of Latino males, noting that in one 12-month period, 26 percent of all 18-to-24-year-old Latino males in Philadelphia were under control of the criminal justice system.
Meanwhile throughout the year, theNotebook.org, which covers public schools, and WHYY’s Newsworks.org engaged in such vigorous coverage of a school turnaround initiative that their reporting of irregularities at a charter school helped lead to the resignation of the city’s school superintendent.
These are just four of the stories developed over 10 months by winners of 14 Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Awards, funded by the William Penn Foundation and administered by J-Lab at American University.
Each project received $5,000 to develop – and collaborate with other media organizations on – a discrete in-depth reporting project. The Request for Proposals called for the projects to be completed within six months of receiving funding.
The awards were announced on Oct. 29, 2010. As of Aug. 29, 2011, 13 of the projects had launched. The last one, a data-driven New Jersey Voter’s Guide, launched in mid-September as the start of a data library on NJSpotlight.com, a watchdog news site for New Jersey.
The news and information that resulted from the $70,000 awarded for these efforts exceeded expectations, both in terms of impact and volume of stories. The 14 projects produced some 300 stories, blog posts, videos, podcasts, searchable databases and maps. Stories ranged from 50 to 11,000 words.
Because all the awardees were involved in media collaborations, the multiplier effect of the reporting was considerable. Half of the stories and news items, some 128, received an additional megaphone because they were either co-published on all partner sites (44) or linked to from partner sites (84).
At least 21 other news organizations republished all or parts of the stories produced. And new partners joined some of the efforts. In two cases, media partners anted up another $5,000 to match the Enterprise Reporting Awards.
The resulting journalism led to recommendations that influenced the city’s broadband plans, recommended reforms for redrawing City Council districts, tracked how a major city school-turnaround initiative was faring, produced angry stories of how developers couldn’t access city properties they want to rebuild, and poignant stories of how harsh realities affected some of the city’s downtrodden.
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. We are excited to partner with these social entrepreneurs and look forward to much more.”
The projects gave public officials some new roadmaps with the delivery of three searchable databases detailing abandoned city properties, tax-delinquent city properties, boards and commission memberships, plus maps on redistricting and broadband penetration. One project identified the city’s 10 most active drug corners.
The projects also gave the participating journalists new roadmaps for additional reporting and collaboration opportunities.
The partnerships generally took three forms:
- True partnerships: These projects, such as the “PushOuts” project, led by PhillyCAM with YesPhilly and the Voice of Philadelphia, involved members of the various teams working together closely to create the final projects.
- Distribution partnerships: In these situations, one outlet primarily created the content with multiple outlets co-publishing or linking to the finished stories, giving them a broader distribution pipeline. Examples include the Artblog Radio project, which appears on WHYY’s Newsworks.org, or Metropolis’s “Ballad of Red Dog,” which was also a City Paper cover story.
- Commissioned stories: These were essentially freelance projects, either pitched by, or produced by, freelancers hired to do the bulk of the reporting. Then they were slated to run in several outlets. A key example is freelancer Patrick Kerkstra’s investigative report on the vast number of tax-delinquent properties in Philadelphia.
Regardless of the shape of the collaboration, there seemed to be general consensus that there was a greater benefit in the outlets working together. Aside from the production of excellent journalism, some of the most valuable outcomes of the awards have been the relationships formed by the partners, many of which are continuing.
To say that the $70,000 awarded to these 14 projects funded all the journalism would be an overstatement. The awards certainly jumpstarted compelling news stories. However all the projects benefited from countless hours put in by editors, web/video/audio producers, photographers, graphic artists, trainers, educators, lawyers and others who were not covered by these awards.
“There was collaboration and stories that normally would not get done, did get done,” said Metropolis founder Tom Ferrick.
PlanPhilly.com, a site that focuses on planning and redevelopment, was one of the biggest collaborators, co-publishing, summarizing, and linking out to stories on tax-delinquent properties, abandoned properties and the city’s plans for broadband connectivity.
The most prolific producer of stories was The Public School Notebook news site. It used the award for full-blown coverage of a major turnaround initiative for poor-performing schools, producing at least 126 stories over 10 months about the so-called Renaissance Schools initiative in partnership with WHYY’s Newsworks.org.
The most ambitious undertaking was the full-blown investigative report on the city’s vast inventory of tax-delinquent properties, which filled nearly six full pages of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The bottom line: These awards served to show that Philadelphia is still a city where journalists can show how journalism, in all its iterations, can be done.