New Media Initiative Looks to Find Solutions to Philadelphia’s Enduring Poverty Problem
Poverty has long been a central challenge for the city of Philadelphia. Now, a collection of the region’s media organizations – including both large and general interest newsrooms and small community and ethnic media – are working to cover the issue more robustly and identify potential solutions. The year-long initiative, Broke in Philly, launched in late April and seeks to “examine what it would take to bring about economic justice in Philadelphia.” Spotlight recently spoke with Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, who serves as editor for the project, to learn more about the budding work. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us about the Broke in Philly project?
Broke in Philly is a collaborative reporting project among 19 local news organizations based in Philadelphia. I am the editor of the project and the executive director of a new organization here called Resolve Philadelphia, which is a hub for solutions-oriented collaborative reporting and engagement in the city. The initiative was born out of a similar initiative, the Reentry Project, which we carried out last year as a project of the Solutions Journalism Network.
The group of media organizations was interested in continuing this collaborative work and we decided to focus on the topics of poverty and economic justice.
How did you choose poverty as a focus?
Rather than just sitting around a table with the editors of our partner media outlets, we decided to ask what people are interested in. We solicited ideas from the community and our partners at Temple University were gracious enough to include questions about issues people wanted covered in focus groups they were already conducting.
We collected over 400 responses on issues from traffic, to litter, to sex trafficking. We then looked at which of these topics would make the most sense given the missions and strengths of our news organizations and the desire to have some continuity with the Reentry Project. Poverty ended up feeling like a natural next step.
Philadelphia is America’s poorest large city. We have a 26 percent poverty rate that has remained the same or gotten a little worse over the last ten years. Given that we have such a critical mass of local media, we figured we may as well take on arguably the biggest issue facing our city.
How does the project work?
On the process side, most of the reporting happens individually within each outlet. But there is back-end coordination. Prior to Broke’s launch, Resolve prepared a reporters guide which has relevant facts and figures, primers on economic policy, as well as best practices for reporting and language when covering topics this sensitive. We even put our language guide online. We have a shared stories idea document and people can indicate what they are interested in and would like to partner on. And I do a lot of coordination with community groups, legislators, and other stakeholders.
We have a central website that curates all partner content, linking out directly to the originating publication website. We also have an agreement where any of the media organizations can run another outlets piece. The group also thinks strategically about how we present and frame the reporting, and provide platforms to highlight each other’s work and staff. For instance, NBC10/Telemundo62 just hosted a Facebook live, bilingual event with three Spanish speaking reporters who work for other collaborative partners. So you see coordination where you’d normally expect competition.
You mentioned that Broke in Philly is solutions journalism. Can you talk a little more about what that means?
Solutions journalism is rigorous reporting around responses to social problems rather than just the problems themselves.
This isn’t just feel good reporting like the type of human interest piece you see at the end of your local newscast. We’re using critical analysis and looking at not just how the problem manifests itself but how people are responding to and bringing to the fore effective programs.
There are four key elements to this approach: we identify an intervention or idea that is broader than just one remarkable person doing something great, we highlight available evidence to show whether it is working or not working, we provide some sort of takeaway for the reader if they are facing similar challenges, and we expose the limitations and challenges of the given approach.
It’s the media’s job to uncover corruption and injustice and all the ills of the world. But it’s not enough to do only that. We believe it’s part of our duty to also report on how society is solving these challenges.
Can you give us an example of this kind of reporting?
One of the things solutions journalism does well is showcasing who is doing something better. For the Reentry Project, one of our partners, Next City, went to Missouri to look at earned compliance credits where if you behave well you can have your time on parole and probation significantly shortened. They’ve able to greatly reduce the number of people under court supervision without changing recidivism rates.
And you emphasize non-traditional forms of storytelling as well, correct?
This work leads to some cross-newsroom reporting, which is some of the real fun of it. We had several stories where WHYY, our NPR station, paired with a print reporter so there was an audio and print component to the stories. We also placed an emphasis on first-person storytelling. One of our partners is PhillyCam, which is community access media. Last year, they ran a video storytelling booth that allowed a lot of formerly incarcerated people to tell their stories for themselves. We plan on doing something similar this year.
Is there an underlying message that you want people to talk away from this work?
You can see on our homepage that rather than breaking out stories into issues like jobs, housing, or education, we have chosen more forward-looking categories like “heal,” “organize,” and “love” where we see the need for action to really change things.
We’re also trying to change the frame on who we are talking about when we discuss economic insecurity. Forty-eight percent of Philadelphia’s residents cannot adequately provide for their and their family’s needs without outside assistance. We want to reframe the conversation so we’re not just talking about those officially in poverty but the much larger swath of the population who is struggling.
Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is the executive director of Resolve Philadelphia. Follow Broke In Philly’s reporting on twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.
Broke in Philly is a project of Resolve Philadelphia with support from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the Klein College of Media and Communications at Temple University, the Solutions Journalism Network, and the Knight Foundation.