Spotlight Exclusives

Broke in Philly: The Path to Making Ends Meet in Philadelphia

Gene Sonn and Kriston Bethel Gene Sonn and Kriston Bethel, posted on

Broke in Philly is a collaborative initiative among 20 local Philadelphia news organizations to provide in-depth, nuanced and solutions-oriented reporting on the issues of poverty and the push for economic justice in Philadelphia. This effort is led by Resolve Philadelphia, a proving ground for journalistic initiatives that challenge the industry to be more equitable, collaborative and based in community voices and solutions. Their work centers on building trust between media and communities. Spotlight spoke with Gene Sonn, Resolve’s new Senior Collaborations Editor, and Philadelphia photo/journalist Kriston Bethel about a recent collection of stories and photographs called Zig Zag: The Winding Path to Making Ends Meet in Philadelphia as well as Broke in Philly’s plans for 2021. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and content. 

How did the Zig Zag project come about?

Kriston: I had been wanting to work with Broke in Philly and I’m also a local photojournalist and I’ve worked with a number of the project’s organizations to begin with. Jean (Friedman-Rudovsky, co-executive director of Resolve Philadelphia) and I had sat down in 2018 and tried to come up with an idea for a project that would be very much visually and multi-media driven and that would really bring together multiple organizations to tell a story together. We started talking about economic inequality and how we could tell that story and we came up with this idea of how we could tell multiple stories with a solutions focus – what is really being done to fix these issues. We wanted to find three different stories with three different angles to look at economic inequality and what’s being done. We set out to find different organizations and programs and we decided to look at cooperatives, and how those might help people pull together their resources; the PHLpreK program, which provides free preschool for children throughout Philadelphia; and permanent housing, which is a method of trying to help people who are experiencing homeless to find permanent housing rather than putting them in temporary living situations.

We’ve done a lot of work at Spotlight on the challenges that visual journalism can present in doing stories about poverty and opportunity topics but still presenting people who are struggling with these issues with dignity. Was that a big part of the discussion before you launched this project?

Kriston: Yeah, it absolutely was. I photographed one of the stories and brought on two other photographers to do the other two, and that was honestly a huge foundational part of this work and who I wanted to bring on to help photograph these stories – bringing in people who were caring photographers and would put the individual first. It’s not just the work you create and how you show it, but I think it’s also very important how we do the work. There is a traditional view in journalism that you tell the story that you want to tell and you think needs to be told and which you think is fair. But I think it’s also important that we understand that as journalists, our biases and experiences can color our reportage. It’s incredibly important that we start by thinking about what stories we tell and how we’re telling them and being sure that we’re not missing someone else’s perspective. Beyond that, I think telling stories with that level of sensitivity really helps you connect better with who you’re working with and it helps better connect viewers as well. One of the things about solutions journalism is that we’re not just looking at what the problem is and ignoring the positive aspects that are happening in people’s lives. If you come at it from the perspective of showing exclusively what the problems are, I do think that there can be media burnout for news consumers. That’s not to say we can’t do really great investigative stories that shed light on dark issues, but we also need to be able to tell additional stories, help show people examples of how things are working.

How did you bring in assets of other parts of the Broke in Philly community?  Did this involve other newsrooms as well?

Kriston: Absolutely. Most of what we do is not produced just for Broke itself; we do have an investigative reporter but most of what we do is done with the partners, or sometimes partners will apply for funding from Broke to do a particular piece of reporting. In this case, Jean and I worked on a pitch which we shared with a few partner organizations and then we took it to Resolve to get approval for the budget we’d prepared.

And did you end up adding audio and/or video?

Kriston: We wanted to add a bit more additional multimedia, but with the Mexcon story that was done by WHYY, there are a couple of audio files. For the PHLpreK story, there’s audio as well and we may release some more.

And so, the way this works, once these stories run they’re available for anyone in the network to use?

Gene: Every piece that is done through Broke in Philly is available for the partners to publish on their own sites directly. One of the things we’re looking at and how hoping to do in 2021 is use of a new technology that would allow us to put together stories into a collection that don’t come from the same original publisher. What we’d like to do is put together a collection of stories on Broke in Philly’s site, but which partners could use while the user experience keeps you in one place but the clicks and credits go to the organization that originally published it. It could be a collection of stories like Zig Zag, which is a formal series, or a looser collection of stories that focus on one general topic

What was the reaction to Zig Zag either in terms of readership or in the communities where the reporting was done?

Gene: We’ve gotten feedback thanking the reporters for this spotlight on ideas that are really rich and thoughtful and not just a quick hit, and also some questions, particularly on the story about Mexcon. It’s not a huge surprise that when you do a story about somebody in the contracting business that there will be people who come forward and say, hey, I didn’t have such a great experience with this person. So, it was interesting working through those discussions and a good opportunity to engage and talk about how the origin of this whole thing came about. There were two instances in which readers were critical or questioning of that story and I think we were able to address those concerns pretty well.

Kriston: And to that point, something Resolve really tries to make a priority is community outreach and I think that’s such an important asset of journalism to be able to do today with such low levels of trust in journalism. Being able to engage with our audience and having them understand more of our process and the work that goes on behind the scenes to produce the work is so crucial, and to understand that we are not producing stories that push an agenda but are designed to help improve our society and to help people make better decisions.

Another thing is that the photos from that Mexcon story were picked up by Buzzfeed News and included in a story about 9 photos that will challenge your view of the world. So, it’s really interesting seeing how pieces of this get picked up in different contexts and connecting all these newsrooms together gives them the opportunity to build off each other rather than competing against each other.

A granular question on how the editing process works; do partners have the final say in editing, or does Broke?

Gene: Our general process, since the individual stories are going to live on the partners’ sites, is that the editors there get final say. We really feel like that if I or someone else had the final say on what goes on to WHYY’s website or another partner, that could be a real stumbling block. But we haven’t had any real concerns or disagreement. One of the things we’re really looking forward to in 2021 as the pandemic hopefully begins to wind down, is more direct collaboration among the partners. One of the things I’m working on is a story status dashboard that we can share with the partners so that there’s one place where people can see stories in progress. We’ll also be making a decision later this month on the what the larger reporting project will be with Broke and that also hopefully will drive a lot of partner collaboration as well as outreach and community engagement.

Gene, is there anything else on Broke’s 2021 wish list that you want to mention?

Gene: One of the things that I’m hoping to do in 2021 is for everyone to know more what everyone else is working on, so we can leverage the collaboration more. And increasing the information share between the partners could be part of the answer to that. Our collaboration is voluntary so there’s never a situation where you find out, oh that partner is writing about that, so we can’t write about it. There’s often things that more than one partner will write on, particularly the daily turn kind of story. But if we have a better system for everyone seeing what’s being worked on, it may allow partners to say, oh, I can get that story from partner X, so I can assign my reporter to do something else. Everyone in journalism, to some degree, is in a stressed financial position so anything that helps people be more strategic about where they are spending their time could be a real benefit.

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