What if Philly.com Isn’t a Joke Anymore?

The site is usually for the boobs, but it just did an important piece of journalism. Can it do more?

So here’s a question I never expected to ask, ever: What if Philly.com isn’t a joke anymore?

I ask because on Tuesday night, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey announced a startling—but welcome—step: He’s inviting the federal government to town to take a close look his department’s use of force.

And why is he doing that? Because Philly.com—not the Inquirer, nor the Daily News, nor any other outlet in town—did a bit of basic reporting and pointed out a serious fact: Shootings by Philly police are soaring in 2012, even though violent crime across the city is going to come down.

In other words: Philly Police are inviting a federal investigation because Philly.com did journalism. It’s journalism that may ultimately make the town safer, police officers more judicious in their use of force, Philly a better place to live.

No seriously: Philly.com did that.

And yeah, that’s astonishing. This is the same Philly.com that spent so many years with a business model that might best be described as high-minded version of Girls Gone Wild: Sure, you could find local news headlines—if you tried really, really hard—but it was super easy to find photo galleries of the Philly Naked Bike Ride, the Lingerie Bowl, the Wing Bowl, and pretty much every big local event where attractive local ladies were likely to be displaying cleavage.

For so long, Philly.com was for the boobs—in every sense of the term.

In fact, its revamping late last year was the first sign that the new local ownership group—comprised of guys like George Norcross and the rest—was committed to seeing this thing through: For the first time in years, maybe ever, Philly.com looked like a modern news website, with more emphasis on local headlines and less (though not always a lot less) on bra straps. (Another sign: George’s daughter, Lexie, runs the operation. He wouldn’t set his own daughter up to fail, would he?)

The emergence this spring of paid websites for the Inky and Daily News raised further questions about what Philly.com could and would be, and it’s slowly starting to answer the question: It stays on top of breaking news, there’s a healthy dose of gossip after dark, and a huge reliance on a startlingly white array of community contributors—including, controversially, Gov. Tom Corbett—much in the mode of the original Huffington Post. It’s a healthier balance than what you’d find a year ago, but it’s still the kind of mix that elicits contempt from the cynical newspaper journos who still share ownership with the website.

And yes, the commenters are still there, doing what Philly.com commenters do. So there’s still a lot of joke material to be found at Philly.com, if that’s what you want to do.

But the site is starting to show it may be capable of being more than, say, the Metro with a really enviable URL. It may never reach the journalistic heights of its daily newspaper cousins, but if all it does is knock out a couple of meaty pieces every month—about the police, about corruption at City Hall, about the million obstacles between Philadelphia and success—then it’ll be a welcome, unexpected addition to the local journalism landscape.

On Twitter Tuesday night, I confessed that the emergence of Philly.com as a genuine journalistic force in this town would “freak me out.” Lexie Norcross responded: “Why? I wouldn’t bet against us.”

Given its history, Philly.com has a long trek before it reaches respectability. But the jokes? They’re getting more difficult to make. At least for now.