When The Lenfest Institute for Journalism formed in Philadelphia two years ago — and under a highly unusual arrangement ended up owning The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com — its leaders started out by breaking bread.
The foundation reserved a private room at a swanky restaurant, ordered some good wine and food and invited a group of 25 local media people to dinner.
Participants included the publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer, the news director of public radio station WHYY, the founder of The Philadelphia Citizen, a nonprofit news site, the owner of Philadelphia Magazine, the CEO of WURD radio, the city’s largest African American talk radio station, a prominent venture capitalist, and the deans of the communication programs at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.
It was the kind of party that people wanted to attend.
That night as they dined, the participants shared the spirit of a familiar admonition from the city’s most popular founding father, Benjamin Franklin: They realized that if they didn’t hang together, they surely would hang separately, Jim Friedlich, Lenfest’s executive director and CEO, told me in Philadelphia.
By the end of the evening, one participant turned to Friedlich with a sense of awe: “Half of these people didn’t know each other,” the person said, “and the other half hated each other.”
Pittsburgh could learn something from this experience. Yes, media competition drives strong storytelling and accountability, but in a time of newsroom layoffs and shrinking coverage areas, media outlets also can find ways to help each other survive — and perhaps even thrive.
A recent study of the Pittsburgh media ecosystem — its diverse collection of media outlets, from large and traditional to small startups — called for media collaborations. When journalists get together, they might find that their common problems also have some shared solutions. At the least, collaboration could give strength to story ideas that reach across the region.
In another example of media collaboration here in Philly, 19 media outlets are engaged in a singular effort this year to report on poverty, a resonant topic in the nation’s poorest big city.
The partners include the city’s daily newspapers, public radio station WHYY, Billy Penn, a four-year-old media startup, the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation’s longest-running African American newspaper, community news outlets and two academic institutions — Temple University and Allentown, PA’s Muhlenberg College.
“You achieve a level of diversity of perspective, experience and expertise that no single newsroom could ever achieve on its own,” said David Boardman, dean of Temple’s Klein College of Media and Communication and chair of Lenfest.
The collaboration creates a “righteous” cycle, he told me, with the diversity of journalism leading to broader engagement among audiences across the city. That audience engagement then feeds back into richer reporting.
“What’s emerging in relatively short order is the belief that, number one, this community is way better served if all these entities work together because we’ll reach more people with the work, and the work will be better because we’ll be reaching more audiences,” Boardman said.
The combined effort, called Broke in Philly, addresses issues of hunger, gentrification, tuition costs, breaking poverty cycles and more.
In a previous experiment, 15 media outlets worked last year on The Reentry Project, about how former prisoners return to their communities. Philadelphia also has the nation’s highest per capita incarceration rate among the 10 largest cities.
The collaborations’ successes have hinged on three key ingredients, Friedlich said: a singular compelling story idea, strong and selfless leadership from Resolve Philadelphia and a committed funder.
“We brought a spirit of collaboration and cooperation and some added funds that have been helpful,” he said.
Another lesson has been that journalism is not zero-sum, where one media outlet’s big scoop somehow causes others to lose out, Boardman said. Instead, the effort of working together seems to have helped everyone while sparking a renewed interest in substantive, enterprise reporting.
“It’s adding a level of quality and credibility across the board, and visibility in the community of the importance of journalism and the seriousness of it,” Boardman said. “It’s not just stenography or something you pull out of the air.”
The question for Pittsburghers and local media will be what topic or topics could be covered by a local media collaboration. Certainly opioid addiction comes to mind, along with food insecurities and the growing political and cultural divides among urban and rural residents. But I would like to hear what you think. See email below.
The Pittsburgh Public Editor column looks at local media by telling stories behind the stories, holding journalists accountable and celebrating their successes, addressing growing gaps in coverage – and, above all, giving you, the public, a bigger voice in your own story. Email us here.