When I started the process of trying to determine the year’s top Philadelphia journalism, something surprising happened: I ran into a whole lotta “meh.”
To create the list, I undertook much the same process I did last year, reaching out to dozens of people in journalism, civic activism and politics to give me nominees. And what I heard from a few of my correspondents was this: It wasn’t much of a year for Philly journalism.
I have a theory about that: This may have been a year Philadelphia journalism simply disappeared too far up its own ass.
The problem? The most interesting story of the year was probably the ownership shenanigans at Interstate General Media, the company that owns the Inquirer, the Daily News and Philly.com. While the evidence was that the business side of the business was probably more stable this year than it had been for a long time, the firing and restoration of Inky editor Bill Marimow, along with all the accounts of internecine warfare among owners and executives like Bob Hall, Lew Katz, Gerry Lenfest, George Norcross, Nancy Phillips, and others, was simply too rich in back-stabs and office politics to be anything but irresistible to follow. (Incidentally: I plead guilty to participating in all of this.)
If you are a newspaper and you are the most interesting story in your market … well, newswise, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong. And I suspect that the energy spent on covering IGM’s internal fracas probably rippled throughout the local ecosystem.
But it wasn’t all crap. Here are five stories that did matter to Philadelphia in 2013:
• RALPH CIPRIANO’S COVERAGE OF THE IGM OWNERSHIP BATTLE FOR BIGTRIAL.NET
Given his own fraught history with the Inquirer, Cipriano’s coverage of this story probably isn’t as interest-free as you’d hope for. Still: His reporting at BigTrial.net has been both detailed and full of scoops. That hasn’t made everybody happy, but it’s been fun as hell to read.
• DANIEL DENVIR AND RONNIE POLANECZKY ON THE SCHOOL BUDGET DEBACLE
There are a lot of good journalists in this town. City Paper’s Dan Denvir — full disclosure, a former colleague of mine — is probably the most consequential. And this year, the most consequential piece he wrote was whether the steep budget shortfalls at Philadelphia public schools (caused, in part, by Gov. Tom Corbett’s refusal to turn loose money) had contributed to the asthma death of 12-year-old Laphorsia Massey. The Daily News followed a week later with Ronnie Polaneczky’s make-no-bones about it attempt to shame to governor over Massey’s death. It seemed to work: The governor loosened the purse strings, and the disaster receded somewhat.
• WILLIAM BENDER AND THE STOP-AND-FRISK COP
There was a ton of good police accountability reporting this year. Philly.com’s Sam Wood managed to provoke Commissioner Charles Ramsey into inviting a federal examination of police shootings here; the Inky’s Craig McCoy and Sarah Smith examined the possible revival of abusive “nickel rides” during transfers of arrestees to jail; the Daily News’ David Gambacorta always seems to be in range of some new revelation about the police department. The DN’s Morgan Zalot, who recently moved into an editing position in the paper, was one of the city’s more dogged crime beat reporters.
But for my money, it was the Daily News’ William Bender’s series of October articles about stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia — starting with the story of an ex-cop who’d been frisked, proceeding to the revelation of a video featuring Officer Philip Nace warning a detainee “don’t fucking come to Philly,” which in turn led to the release of a video (written about by Bender, Polaneczky and Zalot) showing Nace knocking over a neighborhood basketball goal seemingly for the sheer hell of it.Good on Bender and his colleagues for exposing such a bully.
• MIKE NEWALL ON THE DEATH OF BEAU ZABEL
Let’s admit some awkwardness here: In Philadelphia, the bulk of the violence problem does not tend to fall on bright-eyed middle class white twentysomethings new to town. That said, Mike Newall’s “Almost Justice” series for the Inky, documenting the five-year anniversary of Beau Zabel’s murder and reconstructing the crime that took his life stands as a journalistic achievement — all the more so because it led to charges and an arrest in the case.
• STEVE VOLK ON KERMIT GOSNELL
I’d try to leave my Philly Mag colleagues off these lists, just to avoid the appearance of bias. But Steve Volk’s reporting on notorious abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell was just too complete and nuanced to overlook, contributing mightily to our understanding of a story that had drawn national attention. Tara Murtha’s work (another former colleague of mine) in multiple media outlets, pushing back against the Gosnell story’s mythology, merits mention here as well.
• HONORABLE MENTION
The city’s broadcast outlets acquitted themselves best on breaking news stories like the Salvation Army collapse and the murder of a Center City physician. … Philly Love Notes let us see ourselves anew …. Axis Philly’s Solomon Jones and the Inky’s Alfred Lubrano each offered bodies of work about and on behalf of poor and minority communities with little voice of their own … Questlove’s Mo Meta Blues was a great memoir from a Philly icon … Jason Fagone’s Ingenious, includes a few Philly characters, but is great read from a local journalist of national renown.
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