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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Toward a Healthy Media Ecosystem for Philadelphia

Published:  May 25, 2010
Issues:  

"Infection in our Health Care System," an hour-long investigation by Media Mobilizing Project (MMP) into the local impacts of the healthcare crisis, premiered May 18 on PhillyCAM, the new public access cable station serving the people of Philadelphia.

The show is the first episode of MMPTV and it bears both the grandeur and flaws of any new ambitious undertaking. For an issue that has dropped off the media radar since passage of federal health care reform, however, the report adds new perspectives and elevates the public discussion. It seems that we hear more often about the fate of shareholders than directly from the workforce that keeps hospitals running. Those workers dominate the MMP production, leaving anyone used to 60 Minutes-style productions and their ambush moments wanting to hear the spokesperson for Community Health Systems, which owns Pottstown Memorial Medical Center, respond to the claims of its workers.

So, "Infection in our Health Care System" is not a complete picture on its own, but without it our picture of health care in Philadelphia would be even more deficient. From the perspective of the workers, the video corrects an imbalance in the local media ecosystem, what residents of Philadelphia have termed a "media blackout" on poverty that distorts an audience's understanding of the city, leading to policies that harm people living on low incomes. The report examines the issues behind a recent strike at Temple University Hospital, for example, where one of the sticking points was a proposed prohibition on nurses speaking out about problems in how the hospital cares for people without insurance.

A recent report on the Philadelphia media ecosystem continues this media blackout pattern, presenting as comprehensive a review that excludes the news outlets and information assets serving the city's poor and people of color. "Exploring a Networked Journalism Collaborative in Philadelphia: An Analysis of the City’s Media Ecosystem with Final Recommendations" prepared by J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, on behalf of the William Penn Foundation, focuses on the decline in reporting from The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News and the rise of local issue blogs and neighborhood websites. The report omits the city's longstanding African-American, Spanish-language, gay, alternative weekly, and neighborhood papers, along with substantial new infrastructure such as the hard-won cable access channels, a recently-transferred radio broadcast license, a comprehensive broadband plan and funding proposal, and the production and training network developed by Media Mobilizing Project.

As part of the Open Technology Initiative's ongoing work in Philadelphia and on the future of media, this response paper is intended to identify some of the omissions in the J-Lab report, point to problems in its starting assumptions and methodology, and discuss some of the implications for the future of journalism.

Based in Washington, DC, OTI is an active contributor to Philadelphia's media ecosystem. Our goal is to help local residents achieve a top-notch communications infrastructure that serves local information needs, which we believe necessitates public participation in major decisions about future projects. With support from the Wyncote Foundation, OTI worked as a consultant on the city's broadband plan and federal funding proposal. In that capacity, we worked closely with Media Mobilizing Project, among many other local organizations. Before joining OTI, the author participated in early discussions about the community acquisition of the WPEB radio license and used to share an office with the Philadelphia Community Access Coalition, which led the 27-year effort to secure public access cable channels for the city. As part of our own investigation into information ecosystems and the future of media, the Media Policy Initiative, part of OTI, has conducted studies of Scranton and Seattle with more studies in the works. We assume these will receive close scrutiny in the wake of this paper; we welcome suggestions and criticism. We look forward to improving our approach and, we hope, our results. We appreciate the time that people from J-Lab, William Penn, Media Mobilizing Project, and The City Paper took to discuss the issues below and hope that all of them will be open to further discussions in the future. 

Some New Media Assets for Philadelphia

OTI has worked with Media Mobilizing Project because of its success filling gaps in local information needs and increasing participation in journalism. Over 40 people collaborated in the production of "Infection in our Health Care System," for example, making it one of the more successful acts of collaborative journalism in recent Philadelphia history. Most of the 40 were new to reporting, graduates of MMP's most recent round of trainings in basic media production and community journalism, which was funded by United Way of South Eastern Pennsylvania. MMPTV adds a new level to a growing media distribution network that includes five issue-based websites: All for the Taking, Our City Our Voices, Labor Blog, Youth and Education, and Media Mobilizing; two radio shows: Labor Justice Radio and On Blast; a YouTube Channel; a Facebook Page; and a Twitter Feed.

By working with concerned and neighborhood-based organizations throughout the city, such as Asian Americans United, Casino Free Philadelphia, Juntos, the Philly Student Union, Pennsylvania Head Start, and Unified Taxi Workers Alliance, Media Mobilizing Project has trained over 200 local residents to take part in media production and has organized them to take part in shaping their local media infrastructure. The people actively engaging in the Philadelphia media ecosystem through MMP are people who have historically been underserved by the city's major dailies, local television news, and public broadcasters. This growing participation in content production among Philadelphia's poor, working class, and immigrant communities is connected to new distribution infrastructure they have secured:

  • Over a dozen local organizations have launched a network of issue-based websites at www.mediamobilizing.org with original local reporting on housing and gentrification, immigration, labor, education, and telecommunications policy.

  • Anchored by Scribe Video Center and aided by Prometheus Radio Project, the community of West Philadelphia recently revived WPEB-FM and began producing news and public affairs programs.

  • Thanks to a 27-year effort, led by the Philadelphia Community Access Coalition, the public finally has access to channels on the local cable system, along with the production facility and equipment to make full use of them.

  • The Philadelphia Digital Justice Coalition and other non-profit partners worked with the Nutter administration and commercial providers to develop a shared vision for expanding local Internet infrastructure. This citywide partnership has three proposals for a total of nearly $50 million pending with the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program that would, respectively, provide high speed Internet access to community anchor institutions, bolster public computer labs, and fund training programs in computer literacy and media production.

None of these assets are considered in the report from J-Lab.

An Exploration and Its Blind Spots

The published version of "Exploring a Networked Journalism Collaborative in Philadelphia" explains that it is the result of 60 interviews, a content analysis of the city's daily papers and commercial television news broadcasts, and a "scan of the city’s 260 blogs, and hyperlocal or niche websites," 60 of which "have some journalistic DNA," according to the report's findings. The specific websites cited include

  • BroadStreetReview.com – reviews local music, art, theater, dance, and opera.

  • Metropolis – in-depth news, analysis and commentary for the Philadelphia region.

  • Pa2010.com – coverage of Pennsylvania's 2010 elections.

  • Philebrity.com – covering Philly media, gossip, nightlife and politics.

  • PlanPhilly.com – which describes itself as, "an independent news gathering entity affiliated with PennPraxis, the clinical arm of the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania. Former reporters and editors from The Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as citizen journalists, provide daily news coverage of the built and planned environment."

  • Public School Notebook – coverage of Philadelphia public schools.

  • SEPTA Watch – coverage of the local transit system.

  • TechnicallyPhilly.com – covering local technologists and tech issues.

The additional assets the report presents include

All of these are significant actors within the city's media ecosystem, made all the more significant by being highlighted in this report. Many are already meeting critical information needs and others soon will be. Yet, taken together, they tend towards an audience that is online and college-educated. The image of the city implied by the J-Lab assessment of the media ecosystem is younger, whiter, and wealthier than the actual population of the city. If the report were comprehensive or accurate, this disparity in access to and participation in public affairs journalism would be the most notable – and alarming – aspect of the media ecosystem, yet the report makes no mention of it.

In discussing the decline of local public affairs reporting, the report notes, "The Inquirer, in particular, is criticized for not reflecting the city’s significant minority population. A local journalism educator sees a paper run by 'middle-aged white guys who did journalism 30 years ago and think that’s the gold standard.'" However, The Philadelphia Tribune, an African-American newspaper that has been publishing continually since 1884 and that faces many of the same challenges hobbling The Daily News and Inquirer receives no mention.

According to the report's lead author and J-Lab Director Jan Schaffer, some of the perspectives absent from the published version of the report were included in the research or in a more comprehensive, proprietary report submitted to the William Penn Foundation. She interviewed the publisher of Al Día, the region's most prominent Spanish-language newspaper and he attended the discussion around the report's release, but Al Día is not in the published report, nor are any of the city's other ethnic or alternative press. She interviewed Brian Howard, editor of The City Paper, a local weekly founded in 1981 that produces public affairs journalism for its print edition and website, but said she did not include them because they did not want to take part in a collaboration, something Howard says is untrue.

Ms. Schaffer also explained that the mandate for the research was "public affairs journalism" or "capital 'J' journalism" and so excluded "citizen journalism" and "advocacy journalism." But trying to maintain that distinction seems to have led to a certain amount of schizophrenia in the recommendations, which advise, "Building a sense of community, and of the region, by advocating for the good of the region, something that can be out of the comfort zones of traditional news organizations," and note that "A cool, dispassionate objectivity will not work in the new ecosystem, or give the collaboration enough sizzle."

In discussing the functions for a potential central website, the report recommends that it "engage in ambassadorial work - with nonprofits, city agencies, other audiences - to elicit needs and pique interest." This could describe the multi-issue, multi-platform news production of Media Mobilizing Project, but then the report ascribes to the website the role of "amplifying to more citizens the responsible news and information coming from the region’s existing media makers" and limits reader involvement to "use crowdsourcing and reader tips to help inform coverage and jumpstart enterprise stories." In this vision, the reporting, along with the advocacy and ambassadorial work, is to remain the province of a few professionals.

BroadStreetReview.com, which reviews opera and the Broadway shows that the Inquirer no longer reports on, is considered public affairs journalism for the purpose of the report because "a key gap in coverage in Philadelphia was coverage of the so-called creative economy, as more of an economic revitalization driver than as a cultural beat," according to Ms. Schaffer. But when it comes to other genres of music, such as rock or hip hop, the report is silent.

A media ecosystem is complex and any analysis of one will inevitably have some blind spots, but J-Lab's Philadelphia report excludes more than it includes, and does so without explaining its criteria. On the contrary, it presents the text as comprehensive: a "study of the city’s media landscape and the state of public affairs reporting [with] recommendations for a possible media investment strategy."

Going Forward In Philadelphia

The J-Lab study's distorted view of the Philadelphia media landscape and the state of public affairs reporting has the potential to shape material conditions for people who live and work in the city. A project built from the report's recommendations is likely to offer a version of local public affairs that shares its skewed vision of what counts as journalism, misinforming residents and policymakers. In addition to William Penn's future investments, the report could influence other grantmakers, as well as media buyers considering where to spend local advertising dollars.

Nevertheless, J-Lab recommends William Penn Foundation support a networked journalism collaboration in Philadelphia that focuses on the groups and assets included in the survey. The Foundation anticipates a proposal for a regional journalism collaborative coming out of a stakeholder process, which is already underway, facilitated by The OMG Center for Collaborative Learning. The Foundation also plans to fund an organization to "help journalists experiment with content delivery, engage audiences, and find new and constructive ways to analyze and present data in the public interest" and set up a process to deliver micro-grants for investigative and collaborative reporting projects.

Each of these action items could lead to important new journalism resources for the residents of Philadelphia. Before proceeding, however, William Penn and OMG should reconsider the definition of pubic affairs journalism that has led to the exclusion of many of the city's poor and people of color. This does not have to mean abandoning the desire for a journalism that presents a full range of perspectives, but it does mean considering how today's Cambrian explosion of journalism is demonstrating just how many perspectives were not included in journalism that might once have been considered balanced.

Without necessarily waiting for a more comprehensive survey of the local media ecosystem, any new journalistic endeavor in the city, regardless of audience, should consider how increased public access to and changing demographics on the Internet, radio airwaves, and cable system will offer opportunities for distribution, revenue, and broader public engagement. Beyond their usefulness as new media infrastructure, the community engagement processes that WPEB and PhillyCAM have used to develop their assets and that Media Mobilizing Project and the Digital Justice Coalition used to develop its broadband vision offer important lessons for how to launch a collaborative media venture.

A Challenge for the Future of Journalism

The divisions between what was included in the J-Lab report and what was not mirror historic divisions in media ecosystems, including Philadelphia's. We can see those divisions in the economic disparities among who has access to the Internet, in the racial disparities of media ownership and employment in executive positions in the media, and in the gender disparities of who is cited as sources in our news. Eliminating those divisions may not have been the purpose of J-Lab's investigation, but by defining journalism in the way that it did and presenting the version of the ecosystem it did, it has the effect of perpetuating that division.

The challenge of addressing these historic inequities in the media is not a secondary issue in current debates about the future of journalism. It is the fundamental question. Are we content to preserve an institution that, while venerable, has served different communities unevenly and fragmented audiences along economic and ethnic lines? Or do we take the opportunity of current technological, demographic and financial upheavals to realize more fully journalism's democratic potential?

Frustratingly, in discussions of journalism, we often hear claims of inclusiveness while paradoxically seeing a proposal to preserve it as an exclusive domain. So the J-Lab report recommends a focus on "what is best for the citizens of Philadelphia - not what is best for any commercial news organizations or individual Web start-ups... new paradigms for the future of news in communities... [with] a mission that doesn’t just cover community, but helps to build it as well.... something that will not only be transformational for the community, but for the future of journalism." Yet by dismissing the contributions of news outlets serving Philadelphia's poor, J-Lab is perpetuating the old paradigm of journalism and the media blackout of poverty in the city.

Fortunately for the health care workers of Philadelphia and the people who rely on them for medical care, Media Mobilizing Project is not waiting for anyone to include them in a report. They are already developing a networked journalism collaborative and engaging members of the community in media production. MMP is a 501c3 supported by grants, private donations from monthly sustainers, a lot of in-kind labor, and a growing fee-for-service revenue stream, with distribution via the web and non-profit outlets. The first episode of MMPTV was funded by a grant from the Media Democracy Fund and grassroots donations and is airing on the new Philadelphia Community Access Media network.

Residents of Philadelphia who are dissatisfied with how the media ecosystem has served them should look to build on this example and take further advantage of new infrastructure for public participation. Those who have considered themselves well-served by the media should look to the MMP model of a networked media hub that can greatly expand the public's access to information and build relationships across historic divisions. Those who have been unserved by the journalism of the past may be the ones with the most to teach us about its future. It is a message that older media ignore at their own peril.

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