For all the kvetching about the future of Philadelphia journalism that took place during 2012—a perpetual condition, it must be confessed—there was also a lot of good work that took place in the city this year.
To come up with this list of Philadelphia Journalism That Mattered in 2012, I consulted with some of the city’s best-known journalists, but I also reached out into the community—the “audience” as they’re often known—to see what stories made a difference in their lives. The goal: To pick the work that helped Philadelphia understand itself and even change where necessary.
The results sometimes veer outside the box of traditional journalism. The work is a conversation now, more than ever. The 10 choices, in no particular order:
Not all the best journalism about Philly happened in Philly this year. David Carr and Amy Chozick’s NYT story about the impending sale of the city’s two major dailies—and how then-Publisher Greg Osberg lied to them about a meeting in which he threatened to fire editors of those papers who ran unapproved stories about the sale—led to a re-assertion of the values of independent reporting by journalists at those papers, and left Osberg’s credibility in tatters. But the Times story was rooted in ground first covered by WHYY’s Dave Davies, whose day-to-day work covering the muzzling of reporters and the sale machinations meant that there was a watchdog watching the watchdog, after all.
The gun deaths in this city are so numerous that they can all bleed together, pun intended, into a low background hum of violence. The journalists who put together GunCrisis.org pulled each individual death to the forefront and kept the spotlight on the city’s epidemic of gun violence—offering documentation, yes, but also relentlessly searching for solutions in a city desperately in need of them.
The best journalism wasn’t always done by journalists, either. When Philadelphia Police Lt. Jonathan Josey punched an un-armed woman in the face at a Puerto Rican Day Parade earlier this year, the citizen video—uploaded to YouTube by “Gisela Valentin”—set off a national uproar and cost Josey his job. If journalism is about capturing the news and deciding to publish it, then Valentin committed journalism—and got a needlessly violent cop off the streets as a result.
When the Daily News’ Wendy Ruderman jumped ship to the New York Times this year, it seemed like a possible harbinger of the newspaper’s decline: Ruderman had partnered with Barbara Laker to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for uncovering corruption in the city’s police ranks. Instead, Laker teamed up with David Gambacorta and kept the hits coming—including, perhaps most notably, shocking stories about high-ranking officers who had sexually harassed female subordinates—one of whom kept receiving promotions despite decades of complaints.
I know and have worked with City Paper’s Dan Denvir. I like him. But it’s also true that he’s earned his reputation as a self-righteous pain-in-the-ass, an unabashed class warrior and the Philadelphia journalist most likely to start a public argument with other journalists over their failures to meet his standards of reportorial decorum. But the same qualities that earned Denvir a parody Twitter account also drove him to relentlessly explore who wields power in this city and how the poor often get screwed by the powerful, writing important stories this year about Voter ID, Pennsylvania gerrymandering, the effects of Tom Corbett’s budget cuts, and more. Most notable in that body of work? A July profile of Jeremy Nowak, then-chief executive of the William Penn Foundation, documenting how Nowak was steering the foundation’s money to support the process of privatizing the city’s public schools. The story helped make Nowak a lightning rod—he ended up leaving the foundation in November.
Even as evidence mounted in recent years that the Philadelphia School District was broke and broken, administrators kept pointing to one piece of evidence that suggested otherwise: The district’s performance on standardized tests had kept rising in the face of every other bit of trouble schools experienced. Turned out that wasn’t exactly true: Ben Herold has been on the cheating beat for WHYY and The Notebook for the better part of two years now, meticulously documenting the likelihood that district officials tampered with tests to improve the scores, and how administrators advanced through the system despite cheating suspicions. Herold’s work means that the district’s long-delayed day-of-reckoning may finally be at hand.
As the hurricane loomed in October, it often seemed the best source of real-time information—better than TV or radio—was Twitter, provided you were following the right people. Some tweeters curated storm info, like PhillyMag’s Erica Palan; others ventured out into the storm, like the Daily News’ Jason Nark, or checked in on neighborhoods like his colleague Morgan Zalot. Some kept an eye on the radar, like (who else?) John Bolaris, and any number of people relayed news from the shore at Atlantic City. Together, the city’s Twittersphere joined together to provide startling photos, fresh information, and a sense that we were all in it together.
There’s a lot of work by my PhillyMag colleagues that I’d love to highlight—and for the sake of institutional modesty, I won’t. Still, a list of journalism that mattered in 2012 has to include Patrick Kerkstra’s May piece about City Hall’s pension problems. Whether you blame public unions for being greedy, or generations of mayors for failing to sock enough away for a rainy day, Kerkstra laid out (with beautiful simplicity) what the city’s overloaded pension system is costing us now, in terms of lost services and opportunities. Lots of smart people had their eyes opened by this one.
I’d love to be the first to praise this collaboration between WITF, WHYY, and NPR, but this project on Wednesday won a duPont Award for excellence in broadcast and digital journalism. The project took a close look at the impact of and politics surrounding natural gas drilling—”fracking”—in the Marcellus Shale, focusing on everything from questionable ethics by state officials to an examination of whether doctors are gagged by state law to protect energy company interests.
The Inquirer’s Graham received a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize this year for her participation in team reporting about safety in Philadelphia public schools. (Notice how the school district’s follies keep providing a springboard for journalistic greatness in this city?”) But she’d already cultivated a loyal following on Twitter, where she keeps up a relentless stream of news about the city’s schools—including live play-by-play from School Reform Commission meetings. More than any other journalist in Philadelphia (with the possible exception of Jim Gardner) Graham utilizes Twitter to build her beat and keep her audience informed. She’s the future.
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