2014: The Most Important Philly Journalism

Making our list and checking it twice.

It’s not always easy to figure out what the most important journalism is when it appears. Sometimes, it takes months or even years to see that a story’s ripple effects changed us or how we live. That much is apparent in this year’s list of Philly’s most-important journalism.

How the list was made: I reached out on Twitter — both publicly and, behind the scenes, to people in journalism and politics — to get nominations. When it was done, I sorted through and, using my best judgment, came up with the list you see here. (That judgment was often influenced by the number of nominations a piece of journalism had.) With one exception too big to ignore, my Philly Mag colleagues were exempt from a place on the list.

So, you know, your list probably looks different. But here goes. The five most important pieces of journalism in Philly in 2014.

Kathleen Kane’s Abandoned Sting: This Inquirer investigation by staff writers Craig McCoy and Angela Couloumbis was the most-nominated story, by far, for this list. It was explosive enough on its own: Philly Democrats caught on tape taking cash and expensive gifts and the Democratic attorney general deciding it wasn’t worth prosecuting. It might’ve been contained, except that the AG, Kathleen Kane, decided to handle it in the worst possible way every step of the way — bringing a high-profile trial lawyer to represent her at a meeting with the Inquirer’s editorial board (and suggesting a lawsuit might be in the offing), then basically daring Philly D.A. Seth Williams to prosecute the cases if he thought they were worth it. He took the dare, and by year’s end Kane’s political career — once seen as highly promising — looked like it might in danger of ending before her first term was completed. (Also of note: This series also had the most vocal detractors among my contacts, with some folks seeing it as little more than a product of a long-running pissing match between Kane and Frank Fina, formerly of the AG’s office and now an assistant to Williams.) Even with the critics, though, the ramifications are undeniable.

FanSince09 Finds Alleged Gay Bashers / Hannibal Buress on Bill Cosby: “You’re a Rapist.”: It’s not fair to lump these two efforts together, except for this: Neither would’ve existed about a decade ago. FanSince09 used some detecting powers and the crowdsourcing power of his sizable Twitter following to identify likely suspects in a Sept. 11 attack on a gay couple in Center City; my Philly Mag colleague Dan McQuade was at Buress’s Philadelphia show when Cosby’s name came up — he whipped out his smartphone, started recording, and posted the video to the website. Both acts had startling repercussions — in the Cosby case, all the more so because some of the allegations had already been public for years. Why’d they catch on this time? A little social media, it seems, can go a long, long way. Can they be replicated on purpose? It seems serendipity helps, too.

Isaiah Thompson’s reporting on Philadelphia’s forfeiture practices. This is my third year putting together this list, and each year Thompson’s reporting on this topic has been among the most-nominated pieces of journalism. Why? Because it’s an ongoing body of work that gets more and more impressive — and more and more impactful. It started with a 2012 piece for City Paper, grew into an investigation for Pro Publica, and this year resulted in a lawsuit against the city by the Institute for Justice (It also helped inspire a typically penetrating John Oliver segment.)  The result? At least two families who would’ve lost their homes under questionable circumstances get to keep those homes. That’s impact, and though most of the reporting happened before this year, it seems only fair to acknowledge its ongoing importance. Maybe we’ll start a “Most Important Journalism Hall of Fame.” Thompson’s reporting would probably belong.

Stephanie Farr on Philly Jesus. It seems like Philly Jesus was everywhere this year — BBC, Reuters, Instagram, jail — but it was the Daily News’ Farr who introduced him to the wider public. Why do I rate this story so highly? Personal pique. I saw Philly Jesus wandering Center City early in the summer and thought: “I wonder what his story is?” Farr had the same question, and like a good journalist, went to answer it — and got an interesting piece out of it. Not every important story results in a lawsuit or a reputation ruined: Sometimes we just get to learn a little more about the community around us. Kudos to Farr for remembering that.

“Stop Revering Bill Cosby” in The Temple News. No doubt that Bill Cosby has done a lot of good things for Temple University. And no doubt: No accusation against Cosby has been proven or judged in court. So it’s easy to understand why, when Buress video went viral and accusations started pouring out upon accusations, Temple initially seemed to stand by its man. Still it took a bit of bravery for a student journalist, Grace Holleran, to publicly push the school to reconsider its relationship with the comedian — and she did so with firmness, fairness, and (natch) grace. “While it’s important to emphasize that Cosby has never been charged or convicted of any sexual crime, it’s perturbing that such publicly accessible information appears to have been brushed under the rug,” she wrote. “If anything, continuing to act as if these allegations never happened is only encouraging students to ignore them.” By year’s end, Cosby had resigned from the university’s board of trustees.

Honorable mention: