Philly Post: Trending: Can the William Penn Foundation Save Journalism?

Probably not. But it might help keep the little guys alive

In December, the William Penn Foundation quietly bequeathed $2.4 million to fund a journalism incubator program at Temple, which, if successful, could help small, independent news sites consolidate and streamline their business operations — and stay viable. While no one’s quite sure of the details — Temple is still searching for the incubator’s executive director, says Foundation spokesman Brent Thompson — this grant marks just the Foundation’s latest foray into Philly’s indie media substratum.

For the last decade, it has enabled the Philadelphia Public School Notebook to cover Philly schools. More recently, it partnered with WHYY and the Daily News to produce It’s Our Money, a blog on the city and state’s budgets, and is funding both Metropolis — Inquirer­ vet Tom Ferrick’s year-old website of commentary and essays on city life — and PennPraxis, an arm of the Penn School of Design that, in turn, serves as benefactor for the planning and zoning site PlanPhilly, which joined with WHYY on a “hyperlocal” reporting project in Northwest Philly as part of WHYY’s November-launched Newsworks site.

This increasingly interwoven ecosystem — ­last year, a study by J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism (commissioned by the William Penn Foundation, of course) counted at least 60 city blogs with some journalistic component — is by no means entirely non­profit, nor solely reliant on philanthropy. It’s instead a hodgepodge of different aims and business models, of ambitious start-ups and old-timers, of niche sites, content aggregators and bomb-throwers.

But it’s fragile.“By the time you get this into print, there may be three more [sites] up and two more down,” Ferrick said in December. (A few days later, Brownstoner Philadelphia, a real-estate blog, went belly-up.)

Quality journalism costs money to produce; these sites need both enough readers to attract advertisers and somebody to sell them ads. And that’s where the incubator comes into play. Ultimately, it may build upon an elegantly simple proposal pitched (unsuccessfully) last year by local tech blog Technically Philly to the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge: Packaged together, a dozen or more independent sites could offer advertisers hundreds of thousands of visitors, rather than a fraction of that on their own.

And no, Thompson adds, this incubator is “not at all intended to supplant the legacy media” — a necessary addendum, considering that William Penn Foundation chairman David Haas was part of Brian Tierney’s bid to retain control of the city’s daily newspapers last year.

Rather, as the number of column inches dedicated to public-affairs news shrinks, there’s a void to be filled, Thompson says, and someone’s got to figure out how to make such ventures feasible. “It’s a civic health thing for us.”