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Sept. 19, 2018, 8 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How the Broke in Philly collaboration is focusing local media’s attention on poverty and economic mobility

“As journalists, we’re taught to be competitive and territorial. On the other hand, things are changing dramatically, so don’t assume other people in your local market don’t want to collaborate.”

A comprehensive list of 45 affordable summer camps isn’t a typical item on Billy Penn’s website. (More standard: “Center City has fewer restaurants with sidewalk cafes but more outdoor seating overall” or “City Council pronunciation guide: How to say your elected officials’ names.”)

But then again, 19 news organizations actually working together to pool their reporting on economic inequality isn’t your everyday local news market, either.

“As journalists, we’re taught to be competitive and territorial. On the other hand, things are changing dramatically, so don’t assume other people in your local market don’t want to collaborate,” Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, the collaboration’s editor, said. “If you’re thinking about it, chances are they’re thinking about it too.”

Billy Penn, one of the three Spirited Media sites aimed at those pesky millennials in various local areas, had joined the Inquirer/Daily News/Philly.com, WHYY, and a dozen other Philadelphia-based news organizations last year for the first iteration of this collaboration. Then called the Reentry Project, the collaboration focused on the single issue of formerly incarcerated people’s return into society. This year, after a grant from the Lenfest Institute and support from the Solutions Journalism Network and Temple University’s Klein College, Friedman-Rudovsky marshaled the organizations into a second collaboration called Broke in Philly.

Launched in April, the year-and-a-half-long project focuses reporting on poor people needy citizens the economically disadvantaged neighbors struggling to break out of poverty and the economic realities they face. (It also published a language guide on what words to use — and not to use.) Friedman-Rudovsky is the independent editor via Resolve Philadelphia, a new hub she spun out from the Solutions Journalism Network to bring more issue-based collaborations to life and serves as co-executive director. She also was able to draw more partners in various corners of the media environment — ethnic media, broadcast TV media, etc. — to help actually reach the readers, viewers, and listeners who would find this type of reporting particularly useful.

Reporting on the economic issues (and solutions) in the daily lives of Philadelphians brought that information about summer programming for kids to Billy Penn’s site, a feature about the impact of financial improvement centers to the nonprofit urban development site Next City, a series about the high costs of basics like dental care and diapers for those experiencing poverty to WHYY, and a guide on finding low-cost bank accounts to Philly.com. And these are just a handful from the last month or so, distributed among the audiences of the other outlets.

It’s a feat, but it’s doable.

“This is large and overwhelming as a topic, but it’s such a critical mass of news organizations to get together to decide to report on something meaningful in this city, the poorest big city in the U.S.,” Friedman-Rudovsky said. “It should be this topic. For a collaborative reporting topic, you want something where it feels like real value is added by doing it collaboratively.”

“My worry was that Billy Penn and just online news in general doesn’t necessarily reach the people experiencing poverty, but to get something in print is useful,” said Danya Henninger, Billy Penn’s editor. The summer camp guide was republished as an insert in the Daily News and shared by independent black station WURD Radio, among other partners, and the site has also been working with a community partner to host an afterschool activities fair this fall.

All of the organizations from the first project returned for Broke in Philly, but Friedman-Rudovsky had to win over some additional partners to join the second round. Anzio Williams, NBC 10/Telemundo 62’s vice president of news, admitted he was skeptical.

“Initially, we did not participate, because I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to join forces with a lot of organizations when I felt like I was in competition with them,” Williams said, declaring himself “the most competitive guy who you’ve ever talked to or laid your eyes on.” But he’s found a new way to channel his energy: “What makes it work is that everybody shows up with the attitude of: How can I be the better partner?”

Emma Restrepo hosts an independent radio/Facebook Live show Para Ti Mujer focusing on Latina issues in Philadelphia. She said Broke in Philly has helped bring her to the same table as mainstream media for the first time. “I believe that this kind of journalistic exercise can positively influence urban social goals such as inclusion. [This is] an essential and current topic with important effects. The media play an important role in the integration of communities. I don’t know if my US-American colleagues have thought about that, but they are without a doubt living through that without even noticing,” she wrote in an email to me in Spanish.

So how do you actually wrangle all these organizations? A mixture of Google Docs, in-person meetings, and an underlying sense of trust, Friedman-Rudovsky said. “The people who have come to the table have been open in forming those relationships of trust with each other.”

Friedman-Rudovsky added that publications in other cities are now thinking about starting their own collaborative, issue-based network. (A group of public radio stations recently launched a separate collaborative project focused on the role of guns in American life.) Her how-to guide for collaborating in a local market around a specific topic:

  1. Just ask (see her first quote in this article)
  2. Build a sense of trust as the collaboration’s baseline (see her last quote in this article)
  3. Independence is golden, if doable: “If it’s going to be something close to the scale or size of what I lead here in Philly, there needs to be someone in my position as a project editor,” she said.
  4. Remember the varying strengths and limitations of each partner newsroom, but don’t hold it against them: “Equity is taking into consideration the strengths and resources of every partner and figuring out a way to make sure that everyone is on an equal footing by mitigating the difference in resources and in power amongst those at the table,” she said.

Image of reporters and editors brainstorming at the collaborative’s January strategic planning session by Jim MacMillan, used with permission.

POSTED     Sept. 19, 2018, 8 a.m.
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