5 Questions: Chris Satullo on WHYY’s New Urban Reporting Project

"Keystone Crossroads" will focus on challenges facing the state's cities.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting last week announced a $1.5 million grant to WHYY and public radio stations in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh to form “Keystone Crossroads,” a joint urban reporting program to be based at WHYY. Chris Satullo, WHYY’s vice president for news and civic dialogue, talked with Philly Mag about the project, about the problems facing Pennsylvania cities, and whether pushback can be expected from rural parts of the state.

WHYY is getting $1.5 million to start a journalism center devoted to in-depth coverage of issues facing Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. What’s the aim of this project?

Okay, first if I could just clarify, it’s not about just Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, it’s about cities across the Commonwealth. If you look at the number of cities in Pennsylvania officially declared distressed by the state and add up the people living in those cities, about two out of five Pennsylvanians live in a city that has been declared distressed, and that doesn’t include Philadelphia. So if you throw Philadelphia in there, it’s well over half the citizens of the Commonwealth are living in a city that’s in trouble, fiscally and on other fronts. Yet there seems to be very little direct, candid or solution-oriented conversation about the state of Pennsylvania cities or urban policy in Pennsylvania. So we’re hoping over the next two years to shine a light on what the problems and challenges are, which are pretty much shared across all the cities, and also to spend an awful lot of energy reporting on possible solutions, things that may have worked in the cities of Pennsylvania or things that are working in other cities.

What are some of those challenges that are common to the cities then?

Pension costs, aging infrastructure and the cost of replacing it, workforce costs generally beyond pensions, high incarceration rates which lead to the emptying out and the depleting of assets in a number of communities, very common struggles with the job base, where are the jobs going to come from? Obviously another shared challenge I’m talking about today is the state of urban education. I think this project will touch on the state of urban schools and school funding. I don’t think its primary focus will be that.

One of the rules of the grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is that the stations are getting to hire reporters, but the reporters are supposed to be deployed to cover something that (the stations) do not already cover, to expand what we’re doing and not simply substitute. So we’re covering the Philly schools pretty heavily, we’re actually covering the problems of Philadelphia pretty heavily, so that the reporter we dispatch will be tasked to focus on other cities in the eastern half of the state. The Coatesvilles, the Chesters, the Readings, the Allentowns, Scranton, and sort of expand our skillful coverage.

There is the widely received urban/rural divide in Pennsylvania and it certainly seems to rear its head quite a bit in Harrisburg. Do you anticipate any kind of pushback against your project from Harrisburg?

I mean, I’ve been doing journalism in the state for 30-plus years, so yeah, I’m familiar with that stuff. We’re going to tell accurate stories and we’re going to look into solutions as well as problems. If people want to push back to that, there’s not much I can do about it but essentially our goal is to add to every civically engaged, aware Pennsylvanian’s understanding of what the moving parts of this crisis facing the cities are, but also to give them a really solid and hopeful sense that some of this stuff can be fixed. Ideas that are working either around the state or elsewhere in the country.

The other point I wanted to make was I think it’s critical right now that all across the country and certainly in Philadelphia and in some other cities around Pennsylvania, there’s a kind of urban renaissance going on. Millennials and empty-nest boomers are moving back in. There’s a real increase in the appeal of urban living all over the country, and the questions  are, what does it look like? Why is it happening? How can we capitalize on it? How can more Pennsylvanian cities capitalize on the fact that cities are hot? The New York Times reviewed a book two Sundays ago called Happy City that basically argues that city living makes people happier. So these are among the questions that we’re going to try to investigate.

StateImpact Pennsylvania has been highly praised for its coverage, of fracking issues in particular, but it’s also been kind of a collaboration among the commonwealth’s radio stations. How much did that lay the foundation for this new project?

Very much so. StateImpact is a slightly different deal, it’s a collaboration between two of the stations that are participating in the Keystone Crossroads project. That would be us and WITF in Harrisburg. WITF is the lead station in that particular partnership whereas we’re the lead in that one, but it is true that through StateImpact we built out real good relationships and procedures for working with partnerships between those two stations. We also built out a statewide network of public radio stations, all of whom were carrying StateImpact stuff. So a lot of what CPB wanted to see happen in these local journalism centers we had already built the groundwork for at StateImpact, so it’s very definitely sort of a one-two punch we’re building off of StateImpact.

How many reporters are you going to have, how long is the money expected to last, and when will we start to see the first reports emerge?

It’s a two-year project and the clock started on January 14th. Each of the four full partner stations — WESA in Pittsburgh, WPSU in State College, WITF in Harrisburg, and u s —will add a reporter to our staff. WQED in Pittsburgh is kind of an associate content partner. They contribute a little bit of TV and they’ll do what they can with the content. Here in Philly, we’ll have a project editor, a project manager and a multimedia producer in addition to the reporter. WITF will have a coordinating producer for the TV pieces of the project. We’ll be reporting on web, on radio, on TV, we’ll be doing civic engagement events. We’ll be creating, hopefully, content-sharing partnerships with a lot of newspapers around the state so they’ll carry the material as well.

We would hope to start producing coverage by March because, you know, we’ve got a governor’s race. So we’d definitely like to get up and running and be contributing some grist for conversation during the primary season for the governor’s race.

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