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Nov. 18, 2016, 10:38 a.m.
Reporting & Production

In Philly, news orgs are teaming up to cover problems (and solutions) around prisoner reentry

“With big topics like this, you really have to look at the solutions with the same rigor as you would when you’re investigating the problems.”

Criminal recidivism is a big problem for most major cities in the U.S., but Philadelphia may have it worse than most. Each year, 650,000 prisoners are released from federal and state prisons, and more than 35,000 of them return home to Philadelphia. In addition, around 24,000 Philadelphians are in local, state, and federal prisons in any given year, giving Philadelphia the highest per-capita incarceration rate of America’s largest cities.

It’s a significant problem, but not one large enough that it can’t be alleviated — or so the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative hopes. Launched earlier this month, the 15-organization group is taking a close look at all the factors related to prison recidivism in Philadelphia — mental illness, housing, unemployment — albeit with a twist: It also wants to cover potential fixes well.

“With big topics like this, you really have to look at the solutions with the same rigor as you would when you’re investigating the problems,” said Sabrina Vourvoulias, project editor of the collaborative. “It helps make readers feel less despair about the issues.”

The collaborative’s member organizations are diverse, and include newspapers (the Inquirer and the Daily News), monthlies (Philadelphia Magazine), public radio stations (WHYY), digital sites (Next City, Philadelphia Citizen, Philly), and Temple University’s School of Media and Communication. The Spanish-language weekly El Sol and WURD 900 AM, which is primarily targeted to African Americans, are also involved, offering the collaboration angles specific to ethnic media. This diversity of member organizations is by design, letting each organization cover the issues in ways unique to their approaches. Next City, for example, which covers urban design and planning, will dig into how housing issues affect reincarnation rates, while Philly will view prison issues through the lens of tech.

“It seemed like a really good marriage of general interest print, media, of community and ethic media,” said Vourvoulias. “Everyone is playing to their strengths.”

The six-month project is still in its early days, but its first efforts offer signs of what to expect. A piece produced last week by Newsworks, WHYY’s online site, covered the success of a one-day “expungement clinic” that removed minor offenses from the criminal records of a few dozen participating Philadelphia residents. Another piece, to be published Monday, will cover some the financially focused solutions to prison recidivism, with a focus on housing, employment, and Philadelphia’s efforts to cut its prison population. Future stories will examine education in juvenile facilities and how returning citizens took part in get-out-the-vote efforts during this year’s presidential election.

The Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative’s solutions-focused approach is a product of the the group’s collaboration with Solutions Journalism Network, an organization that trains journalists to cover social problems with solutions in mind and helps support projects that take that approach. The group, whose work has been funded by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and The Knight Foundation, has previously partnered with news organizations on projects such as The Seattle Times’ Education Lab, which covers potential solutions to big problems in education. The El Paso Times worked with SJN for its series covering efforts to curb liver disease in El Paso County; the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in 2015 developed a reporting project that explored the correlation between homicides and domestic violence, with the hopes of creating solutions to fix the problem. The group also had a hand in this year’s SF Homeless Project, which involved 70 Bay-area organizations covering the homeless problem in the region.

“With all of these projects, reporters are most focused on things that are of keen interest at the moment in the community that they’re in. It’s all about those burning issues,” said
Liza Gross, SJN’s director of newsroom practice change. While many of SJN’s early projects were with individual news organizations, today the group is more focused on group collaborations, which help increase the impact of the work members produce.

These collaborations are not always destined to succeed. Gross said that any collaboration can fail if member organizations aren’t on the same page early on with their projects’ ultimate goals and expectations about how much each participating member will contribute and share. Groups can also struggle with logistical hurdles around combining workflows and schedules, as well as the the more human challenges of getting reporters to surrender their egos and scoop-driven missions.

“That competitive mindset is one that most of us in journalism have been brought up wit: We feel that collaborating with another organization is somehow abdicating its mission to be first to a story,” Gross said. “But we like to make people realize that, when you’re covering these broad societal issues, you’re not dealing with scoops. The stories demand more thoughtful, longterm strategic coverage that’s meant to benefit real communities.”

These challenges aren’t lost on Vourvoulias, whose role effectively makes her the managing editor of all the pieces coming in from the organizations she is working with. “It’s always going to be a challenge when you take an organization that is looking at its own timetables and its own needs and its own set of editorial concerns, and you’re asking it, in addition to that, to look at a set of concerns above and beyond that that includes everyone else in the media landscape that you’re collaborating with,” she said. “I’m here to help make that easier.”

All of this is in part why SJN has such high hopes for the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, which will not only test the efficacy of the collaborative approach, but could also produce some best practices that later similar projects could replicate. In particular, Gross and Vourvoulias say they’re paying close attention to the projects’ upcoming efforts at community engagement. Its plans include live events, online quizzes, and a website feature that will let residents submit their own stories about adjusting to live after prison.

“We’re looking at all of this as way go engaging and creating a more dialogue-centered back-and-forth between the community and our journalists as they cover solutions to this problem,” Vourvoulias said.

Photo of prison by Matthias Müller used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 18, 2016, 10:38 a.m.
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