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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

Thinking Big   

The Philadelphia Public Interest Information Network wants to upgrade the flow of news and data in the region—and come up with a new name for itself. Tues., August 14, 2012.


By Kelsey Pospisil
Kelsey Pospisil (kpospisil@ajr.umd.edu), an AJR editorial assistant, is a master’s student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Neil Budde, CEO of the fledgling Philadelphia Public Interest Information Network, is thinking big.

"We want to be a catalyst for raising the profile and amount and quality of public interest news and information that's available to the people of the Philadelphia region," says Budde, who became CEO of the organization in March.

Although exactly what that means is not completely evident yet — even to Budde.  "To me it's a somewhat complicated thing, because we're trying to do a number of things."

Those things include becoming the go-to place for the best journalism about the Philadelphia area, from a variety of news outlets; providing data and applications to help people cope with their government and their lives (one of its first projects was a mapping application to help city residents project their future tax bills); and, ultimately, original reporting, sometimes in tandem with other news outlets.


Neil Budde

PPIIN — Budde and his cohorts have taken to pronouncing it "pippin" and are using the current clunky name as a placeholder until they come up with something sexier — is funded by a $2.4 million grant from Philadelphia's William Penn Foundation. It is still working to complete its incorporation and obtain its nonprofit status. PPIIN is currently operating as part of Temple University's Center for Public Interest Journalism.

Technology will play a large role in how PPIIN showcases information and data.  Casey Thomas, hired to work on Web development and application creation, says he is excited about an opportunity to use his skills in a new way.

"I'm new to journalism. I come from working primarily in the public sector," he says.  "It's been fun to figure out how to work alongside journalists."

Thomas used to work for the Philadelphia Water Department, and he says knowing firsthand how the city operates will be helpful to him in his new role.

Rather than going head-to-head with established news outlets such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Budde hopes to work in concert with them. "I don't see us being particularly competitive with those organizations," he says.

Budde says he can picture a synergistic relationship in which PPIIN will pool resources with another news outlet to cover a specific subject.  He says this model would be beneficial to both parties, since traffic would be driven to both Web sites, as well as to the region.

Bill Marimow, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, sees a future partnership with PPIIN as a real possibility.  "Definitely, there will be areas where their interests and our interests converge and we can work together," he says.

"I think it's excellent.  I've been looking it over and I think the material they have there really is in the public interest."

In an age of diminished resources at legacy news organizations, Marimow, as a concerned citizen of Philadelphia, says he loves seeing another player in the newsgathering game. But, he adds, "as a competitive journalist, it's a mixed bag."

Michael Days, editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, did not respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment for this story.

Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that helps foster effective government in the Philadelphia region, says PPIIN has a role to play. "There's an intangible thing that has been missing for a long time," says Stalberg, formerly the editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. "And that's a strong media voice that can really help set the agenda and help pull the region together."

Stalberg, who was interviewed for AJR's Spring 2010 issue when the idea of creating something along the lines of PPIIN was first explored (see "New News for Philly?"), says, "I think it's still a very necessary development to the Philadelphia media landscape. Others are doing decent work, but you wouldn't say many of the other sites have emerged or become the go-to place."

But while Stalberg says he sees future benefits for Philadelphia in the partnerships Budde is hoping to create, he also sounds a warning note. "Philadelphia," he says, "is a very primitive place, and getting genuine collaborating to happen is tough."

Whatever its future, it's important to remember the media rookie is a work in progress. PPIIN's debut project, in June, was a mapping application showing the likely impact of Philadelphia's Actual Value Initiative on homeowners' property taxes.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Actual Value Initiative "would establish a property assessment and tax system based on the actual market value of real estate" in the city. Although the tax rate has not yet been cemented, with this application residents can input their address and an estimate of the fair market value of their property, as well as set a projected tax rate, to find out what their tax increase might be.

While opinions on the tax increase are varied and vocal, most commenters on the site appear to find the tool created by PPIIN useful. One user wrote, "Thanks for creating this — simplest calculation tool so far." Another wrote, "Thanks for helping people understand the impact." 

PPIIN also features the application Lobbying.ph, which was co-created by Thomas earlier this year. It catalogs quarterly expense reports by lobbying firms and organizations paying for lobbying services in Philadelphia. The Web site strives to make the information user-friendly.

Stalberg says that while it is way too early to evaluate PPIIN's impact, it's off to a good start. "Both of those things are interesting and doable, and it says something that the other sites hadn't done it yet.  It suggests to me that Budde is looking for issues or features that can be unique to PPIIN."

He adds, "The useful thing, I think, is there's real power in that. If you can help people solve their problems..they'll remember that and have some degree of loyalty to you for that."

Budde says he is looking to make additional hires at PPIIN once it has incorporated, which he expects to happen sometime after Labor Day. He says he is looking for versatile people to fill a few editorial and Web development/programming positions.

In addition to its first two projects, PPIIN took control in July of the Web site OpenDataPhilly.com from the geospatial analysis firm software Azavea, which intended for the site to eventually be run by a nonprofit, civic-oriented organization.  PPIIN describes OpenDataPhilly.com as "a portal that provides access to more than 175 publicly available data sets, applications, and APIs related to the region..to provide free and easy access to data to encourage better and more transparent government and a more engaged and knowledgeable citizenry."

Stalberg says that while PPIIN's game plan is ambitious, he believes the organization has found the right person to lead the charge.  "Neil Budde impresses me as a guy who can create something special here."

"I think he's got the personality for it.  If I had to place a bet, I'd say, 'Yes he can pull this off.' But it's not going to be easy."

Budde, 56, was instrumental in the creation and development of the Wall Street Journal Online and also served as vice president and editor-in-chief of Yahoo! News. Before coming to Philadelphia, Budde was president of DailyMe.com and then executive vice president of ePals when it acquired DailyMe.com, a personalized news Web site.

Budde, who started his own neighborhood newspaper as a child in Cleveland, says, "I've always been interested in newspapers and news." Budde's family moved to Kentucky, which he considers to be his home. He received his undergraduate degree at Western Kentucky University and went on to complete his MBA at the University of Louisville.

He calls his new home of Philadelphia "a very vibrant technology community that really cares about doing things for civic good," and says he hopes to emphasize a mobile platform for PPIIN.  "I'm particularly interested in mobile because it's obviously where the future is going. More and more traffic is headed that way. Everything we do needs to operate well in a mobile environment."

Budde says the AVI mapping project enabled him to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of the city and issues important to Philadelphians. He says he has been able to get a better grasp of its numerous, often distinctive neighborhoods, and says one of his favorite things about the city is its walkability — as well as its great restaurants.  "To me, it's just a very easy, livable city."

Budde says the organization will primarily focus on city-specific issues at first, but expects to embark on covering issues important to the greater Philadelphia region in the future.

In Stalberg's opinion, the best possible outcome for the people of Philadelphia would be for philly.com (the Inquirer and Daily News' Web site) and PPIIN to grow and flourish simultaneously.

"If philly.com is getting better at the same time that PPIIN is starting to offer good content and they can work together, there is a potential for a big win for the community," he says.  "It's going to be easier for PPIIN to be great if philly.com is great." 

Stalberg sees the two becoming natural partners if this happens, but says if the Inquirer's Web site remains "a little bit of an orphan," it will be harder for PPIIN to establish itself alone — since philly.com has the eyeballs.  "If the two can be good together that's the best possible case."

Marimow says he is impressed by what PPIIN has done during its brief tenure and calls the information it provides valuable for Philadelphians.

"There's a lot of what I see that I would like the Inquirer to utilize or even initiate ourselves," he says.

"To me, information like this is really the lifeblood of a democracy, because citizens need this kind of information to make informed choices when they go to the polls."