Zack Stalberg, the former longtime editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, fielded a reporter's call recently — and told him he was asking the wrong question. "I know it's the wrong question," the reporter replied. "I don't have time to ask the right question."
The exchange underscores the problem with Philadelphia's public affairs coverage, says Stalberg, now president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan civic group that aims to improve government. The reporter knew there was a more significant story but lacked the time and resources to pursue it.
Philadelphia news outlets, like those across the country, have been battered by the recession and the historic shift of readers and advertisers to the Internet. Staffs have been sharply reduced. Philadelphia Media Holdings, which owns the city's two dailies, the Inquirer and the Daily News, is in bankruptcy.
Concerned about a decline in the amount and quality of public affairs coverage in one of the country's largest cities, the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation is considering bankrolling a new Web site that would generate original content as well as aggregate content from existing media players.
"We're concerned that the region have a good, robust ability to hold public officials and institutions accountable," says Brent Thompson, the foundation's director of communications. "The legacy media institutions in the city are not providing the level of public affairs coverage they once were."
To see what might fill the gap, the Penn Foundation, whose mission is to improve the quality of life in the Philadelphia area, brought together representatives of local news outlets--among them the Daily News and public radio and television broadcaster WHYY--and bloggers for a brainstorming session in January.
To set the scene, the foundation had commissioned Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, to examine the state of public affairs reporting in the city and offer recommendations for bolstering it. She compared newspaper coverage in August 2006 and August 2009 and television coverage from one week in May 2006 to one week in May 2009. While she found coverage of public affairs in the city had plummeted, she also discovered a "fairly robust blogosphere."
Schaffer recommended that the Penn Foundation bring together bloggers--especially the dozens that loosely follow journalistic standards--with creative technologists who build applications such as searchable databases. Bloggers and technologists would then join Philadelphia's established media players to foster a Web site for news on public affairs, one that would showcase its own content, including coverage of city government and local trends as well as investigations, and aggregate the work of outlets in Philadelphia and its suburbs. "As community Web sites or blogs emerge, they'd be welcome to join as affiliates," Schaffer says.
Schaffer, a former reporter and editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, says the Philadelphia media scene consists of disconnected silos of information that should be joined together. "Rather than re-create, the initiative would amplify their good work to the region's audiences," she says. An enterprise reporting fund to underwrite efforts by media partners, interactive elements and even a community contest to name the site were among Schaffer's recommendations.
"This may be the brave new world of American journalism," says Gene Gibbons, former executive editor of Stateline.org, which reports on and analyzes developments in state government. Gibbons notes that a number of recent Web startups are staffed by journalists who used to work for traditional media and are funded by foundations in "an effort to find a new way to do journalism."
And there's certainly a need for a new way. Stalberg says that about 40 reporters were assigned to Philadelphia City Hall in the 1970s; now there are four. City Council action might be neglected entirely or reported superficially, he says, and this isn't fair to the public.
Philadelphians need what Stalberg called a "centralized entry point into the world of public affairs journalism," a hub that would assist readers in finding trustworthy reporting. Public officials also would benefit from the increased scrutiny, he says.
In Philadelphia, existing media outlets, some of which expressed concern about the continued viability of traditional reporting in the face of competition from such sites, conveyed some interest in--and some resistance to--the Penn Foundation initiative.
"The future of old media and new media is a complex conversation, and everyone's having it in their own spheres," says Sandra Shea, editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, who attended the brainstorming session.
Newspapers, and the role they play in informing citizens about public affairs, are a critical component in a democracy, Shea says. The Daily News continually discusses how it can expand its coverage of the issues that keep people engaged in their society, but Shea says it is too early to say whether the newspaper would partner with an initiative like the one proposed.
Vernon Loeb, the Inquirer's deputy managing editor for news, says a busy schedule kept him from attending the brainstorming session. But Loeb says the Inquirer is looking for opportunities in news aggregation, collaboration and experimentation with online coverage. Aggregator sites, such as the one proposed, direct traffic to the Inquirer's Web site and increase the flow of high-quality reporting across the Internet, Loeb says.
Both Philadelphia residents and news outlets would benefit from such partnerships, Loeb says, and the Inquirer supports "anything that pulls together serious journalism for the community and will help people stay civically informed."
However, Loeb is quick to point to what he calls the Inquirer's "robust" public affairs coverage and the fact that the paper has six full-time investigative reporters. The Inquirer already provides a unifying voice for the city, he says, and that makes a content hub less necessary in Philadelphia than in cities that lack a strong news outlet.
Jim Smiley, Web editor of the hyperlocal Frankford Gazette, attended the January meeting. He sees nothing but positive results for the Gazette from an endeavor like the one Schaffer is proposing. Smiley and his father, who run the online-only operation together, see themselves more as citizen activists than as reporters. They welcome an aggregator that would pick up their content, edit it and distribute it to a wider audience that would otherwise overlook news from Frankford, a neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia.
Over the next few months, the Penn Foundation will consider the recommendations and decide whether to go forward. "Our interest is that we have an informed, engaged citizenry that understands the impact of public institutions' actions on their lives," Thompson says.
And while the foundation has previously funded initiatives tangentially related to journalism, this one would represent a new attitude. "We're beginning," he says, "to approach journalism as something important in and of itself rather than as just an extension of our policy goals."