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April 29, 2010, 10 a.m.

Why Philly matters: The intersection of bankruptcies, Pulitzers, networks, foundations, and geeky “edglings”

I’ve been studying the Philadelphia media ecosystem since before we had the name “ecosystem” to describe the new journalistic world we were entering. So many of the trends shaping our collaborative futures — from the bankruptcy and restructuring of newspapers that still manage to win Pulitzer Prizes, to the role played by foundations and collaborative news networks, to the pioneering rethinking of journalism by techies, geeks, and programmers from the edges of journalistic space — all these trends and more are playing themselves out in the City of Brotherly Love.

And all of the latest events in those trends have happened in just the last week. If you want to see a microcosm of our current journalistic universe, with all its highs, lows, excitement and uncertainty, take a look at Philadelphia.

Beyond bankruptcy

Without a doubt, one of the reasons Philadelphia’s legacy media institutions — the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com — have seemed frozen in place while the journalistic world changes around them is that they are, quite literally, frozen: bankrupt. On April 28, Philadelphia Newspapers took its first step in its exit from bankruptcy: After a struggle worthy of not one, but several movie scripts, local ownership lost its battle to retain control of the newspapers. “We didn’t make it,” former owner Brian Tierney told Philly.com. “I think I’ll go home tonight and sleep like a baby, which means I’ll wake up every hour crying.”

The newspapers are now owned by their creditors, who acquired them for around $139 million dollars, less than a quarter of their 2006 purchase price.

Even before the auction concluded, questions swirled about the fate of the company once it emerged from bankruptcy proceeding, with early conflicts centering around the fate of the company’s 4,500 workers. Although the creditors later formally rescinded their layoff plans, most bankruptcy proceedings involve considerable latitude for the new owners to drastically alter the state of a company’s workforce. It’s far from certain that any owner of the newspapers would have refrained from trying to overturn long-standing union contracts and staffing levels.

Will a drastically shrunken Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com mean a shrunken news product? Of course. Indeed, the news product has already gotten smaller: As J-Lab noted in a comprehensive report discussed below, “the available news about Philadelphia public affairs issues has dramatically diminished over the last three years by many measures: news hole, air time, story count, key word measurements. People in Philadelphia want more public affairs news than they are now able to get. They don’t think their daily newspapers are as good as the newspapers used to be.” But the irony is even greater when you consider that the Philadelphia Daily News, even in its diminished form, recently won a Pultizer Prize for an investigation that brought down a crooked narcotics ring inside the police force through the kind of old-fashioned, dogged reporting that is most at risk if urban news institutions disappear.

There aren’t simple, soundbite answers here. Have the Philly papers been diminished, both in terms of quality and quantity of coverage? Yes. Do they still, in the words of Media Mobilizing Project member Hannah Jane Sassman, provide the kind of “investigative journalism [that] can save communities, businesses, even lives?” Yes. Will the new news networks emerging from the cauldron of Philadelphia blogs and hyperlocal websites fill the gap left by the legacy media institutions? No. Will they produce a new kind of journalism — a kind of journalism that might aid democracy, “save communities, businesses, even lives?” Maybe. It’s too soon to tell. But they might have to.

The need for a network

Also last week, the William Penn Foundation (a local Philadelphia foundation) announced plans to fund the design of a “a regional journalism collaborative,” which was “expected to result in a proposal to the Foundation for a more significant investment to implement the collaborative.” The foundation also announced plans to fund a technology program to help local journalists experiment with new ways to engage audiences, and analyze and visualize data. In other words, after lots of false starts, Philadelphia appears to be finally getting serious about that old Jeff Jarvis dictum, “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” As I wrote a few months, “it’s evident to me that smart thinkers have moved beyond the question of ‘how to save newspapers’ and even ‘how to save news institutions’ to the ultimate question of ‘how do we build durable news networks?'”

The William Penn initiative is informed by an excellent J-Lab report, “Exploring a Networked Journalism Collaborative in Philadelphia,” consisting of an overview of 260 Philly blogs and hyperlocal and niche websites. The report notes that “in the nation’s sixth largest city, a vibrant media landscape exists with niche reporting sites, legacy newspapers and an active community of creative technologists.” But while “these groups are doing solid work,” the William Penn Foundation adds, “they are diffuse and fragmented.”

This echoes one of my key findings in my own dissertation research — that networked journalism is hard, and that news networks just don’t appear out of thin air. They require institutions to take the lead make them happen. Collaboration, as Laura recently noted here at the Lab, is complicated. For one reason or another, and despite some early signs of promise, the traditional media institutions of Philadelphia have declined to take the lead on building these networks; it looks like it might be the William Penn foundation’s turn to try tackling the knotty problem of networked journalism.

Rethinking journalism with the geeks, developers, and “edglings”

The third recent event to show why Philly matters took place this weekend, at BarCamp NewsInnovation Philadelphia. (I missed the conference; I was at another, also great conference.) Over 110 people attended the all-day session, which included talks on “The Insight Graph: CRM For Journalists,” and Howard Weaver on the new business models being advanced by the Honolulu Civil Beat. Perhaps the most fascinating BarCamp session, “Rethinking our Thinking,” was run by Greg Linch, the news innovation manager at Publish2. “What are different types of thinking we use for journalism currently?” Linch asked BarCamp attendees. “How should we be thinking in a way that informs our journalism better?” And what’s the relationship between this journalistic thinking, and other kinds of thinking?

These wasn’t a foundation-run meeting, though there were foundation officers in attendance. Nor was it a meeting run by newspaper people, or even by bloggers and twitterers. Bankruptcy judges were nowhere in sight. Jack Lail actually called the attendees “edglings,” drawing on a label first proffered by Stowe Boyd:

[The BarCamp] was far from the hotel gatherings of American Society of News Editors, the Newspaper Association of America and the National Association of Broadcasters, all of which were held earlier this month…[the attendees] were eclectic: Young news and technology geeks, seasoned traditional journalists trying to refashion careers, software developers with visions of the future, mainstream journalists looking outside their box, enthusiastic journalism students full of hope and ambition and others just eager to carve a space in the media landscape.

Taking place in the shadow of newspaper bankruptcies and Pulitzer Prizes, the BarCamp Philly meeting was a reminder that the real future of journalism might be shaping itself at the edges, outside of the places most of us are paying attention to. It might be shaping itself even outside foundation reports and emerging networked news organizations.

At the very least its a reminder that, as Clay Shirky says, we’re all trying really hard to think the unthinkable.

POSTED     April 29, 2010, 10 a.m.
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