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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Enterprising Collaborations Will Unite Diverse Philly Groups in Journalistic Endeavors, Thanks to Awards

Published:  November 16, 2010
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A youth training organization like YESPhilly is one of the more unusual partners to receive a Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Award. YESPhilly is collaborating with cable-access channel PhillyCam and the "Voice of Philadelphia" website to report on the reasons young men of color drop out of school.

As barriers that once defined the field of journalism―between writer and audience, community and editor―continue to morph, one of the great challenges facing the field is how to navigate these new intersections. And while it’s no secret that all kinds of media players―from large, established, mainstream media outlets to much smaller, community-based groups―could use additional funding given the transitional state of the industry, a recent announcement may signal a brighter future for some: A number of previously unheralded media players received Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Awards to perform some particularly innovative journalism. The awards of $5,000, announced by J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism and funded by the William Penn Foundation, will help get 14 collaborative, public affairs-oriented journalism projects off the ground in the city of brotherly love. 

The awards will facilitate collaborations among larger broadcasters, Philly.com (the online hub of the city’s major newspapers), the University of Pennsylvania, TheCityPaper, and others. But in addition to the regularly recognized players in Philadelphia’s media environment, the awards also support unsung groups that will contribute to the body of reporting on public affairs in the city in less traditional ways.

We see many of the opportunities for the future of journalism in emerging media ecosystems that allow for collaboration among diverse groups, and we were critical of the analyses that preceded the awards as they omitted mention of less traditional media players. Like other reports of media ecosystems, they didn’t discuss the contributions of many groups that are increasingly considered to be under the umbrella of journalism. (Unfortunately, as members of our team have discovered, it’s an easy trap to fall into as we’ve also been guilty of omitting the less obvious media players whilst investigating MPI’s local case studies.)

With this in mind we were thrilled to read about the awards and a few of the award recipients in particular caught our eye. Take “Drop Zone,” a collaboration among cable-access channel PhillyCam, the "Voice of Philadelphia" website, and youth training organization YESPhilly, which will report on the reasons that lead young men of color to drop out of school. Non-profit youth organizations and even cable-access channels are not often seen (or do not always see themselves) as being in the business of doing journalism, and an online news outlet devoted to covering historically marginalized communities rarely gets its fair share of time in the spotlight. So, in addition to reporting on a subject that impacts the community, it will be interesting to follow how “Drop Zone” brings a different set of voices more prominently into the mix of Philadelphia’s media ecosystem.

Likewise, “Stop-and-Frisk”―an investigation into the effects of a new policy the Philadelphia Police Department has implemented in West Philadelphia―will be led by an ostensibly unlikely team. Scribe Video Center, WPEB-FM community radio, the University City Review, and West Side Weekly plan to partner up to produce a combined narrative and video project. “Neighborhood Development, Politics and their Relationship” is another interesting award recipient. It will be powered by two community-oriented websites: PhiladelphiaNeighborhoods.com (a project of Temple University’s journalism students) and Neastphilly.com.

The granting of the awards themselves was also, in a very literal way, more inclusive than intended. The 27 applicants were not just good: According to Jan Schaffer, Executive Director of J-Lab, the proposed ideas were “so good that we added four more to the original scope and made it happen,” by expanding the originally planned 10 awards to 14 with additional $5,000 awards from the William Penn Foundation. “It is very clear to me that not only asking for a good reporting idea but requiring an element of collaboration really got people talking to one another in a way they hadn’t before,” said Schaffer.

Yet success was not ensured from the start. The awards are “a win-win project,” said Schaffer, if “risky to start.” “We didn’t know the responses we would get,” she said.

But now that the applications have been received and the awards decided, Schaffer sees potential for the project’s future. “I’ve had interest from others around the country who may want to pick up the stories once they’re produced,” she said. And the awardees themselves will be creating stories with staying power. As Schaffer put it, “A lot of the stories are evergreen ideas; they live on and can be updated in the future.”

Now what does this mean for the way journalism is developing? The Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Awards don’t necessarily indicate a big shift in the way America conceives of journalism. The practice is still colored by industry norms and perceptions around what counts for professionalization. Socioeconomic and cultural differences still limit participation by low-income populations, for example, who don’t have time to get involved in the emerging ecosystem. And the digital divide continues to leave many Americans out of online media altogether. It’ll take far more to effect a change in how American society defines journalism.

In the future, Jan Schaffer has hopes for expansion of the program: “We would like to find sponsors to roll this out around the country.” In the meantime, we at MPI are pleased to see the innovative steps J-Lab has taken towards advancing journalism and exploring ways in which local media may develop in the future.

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly referred to the awards as "grants" in eight instances throughout the post and in the headline. We have since corrected our error.

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