2015: The Year in Philly Media

Four big stories, six smaller gems, and three important developments.

In a way, covering the big stories is easy.

When there’s a big story to be covered, it’s easy to forget we’re in an era of profound, sometimes painful evolution in the Philadelphia media scene. Maybe the city’s major newspapers had to cut nearly 50 journalists during the holidays, but the big story demands that editors at legacy media outlets forget about diminishing resources for a second and throw everything they have it — and that editors at startup outlets, well, forget their still-insufficient resources and try to report bigger and better than their staffs would suggest.

One look at 2015 would tell you that three or four really big stories happened in Philadelphia this year — the Amtrak crash, the visit of Pope Francis, the race to succeed Mayor Nutter, and the conglomeration of scandals, miseries and indignities that we’ll just go ahead and lump together under the “Porngate” brand — and sure enough, there was an astonishing amount of good journalism from a range of sources about each of these stories.

But there was good journalism being done in the quieter moments too. And not always from expected sources. Those stories and sources deserve recognition, too.

To put together this list, as always I solicited input from several dozen Philadelphians — journalists, but also activists, politicos, public servants, and a few “regular” people who simply pay attention to what’s going on in the city. I’m sure, despite my desperate attempts to monitor the mediasphere day in and day out, some good stuff has been omitted here. And for the sake of fairness and objectivity, the often-excellent journalism of my Philly Mag colleagues is left out. They will get their deserved accolades elsewhere.

Also: There were problems in the city’s journalism this year. But it’s the holidays. For now, we’ll celebrate what’s best, then return to snark and critique after the break.

So, the city’s best journalism of 2015: Four big stories, Six smaller ones, and three important developments on the media scene. Two things you’ll notice: The Inquirer and Daily News are still the big dogs on the local news scene. But that matters less with each passing year.

The Four Biggest Stories:

The Amtrak crash: There was a lot of good real-time reporting on the unfolding tragedy from unexpected sources: Joe Kaczmarek, an independent journalist, provided some of the best pictures from the scene while providing live video via the iPhone Periscope app. BillyPenn.com made its bones covering the accident through social media, and journalists from every other outlet in town started providing words and pictures to the rest of the world. And when it was over, the Inquirer’s Alfred Lubrano and the techies at Philly.com put together a tremendous multimedia overview of the events of that night.

The Pope’s Visit: Too much good stuff to name here, but a few highlights: NBC10’s Vince Lattanzio broke the story that the visit was going to be a security nightmare for city residents; Philly.com’s Sam Wood let us know that City Hall and the World Meeting of Families were late in hashing out a contract to determine who would pay for what parts of the visit. The Inquirer’s Julia Terruso let us know the true costs of the visit. Heck, The Onion even did pretty good work. Also to be noted: Pope Francis received wall-to-wall live TV coverage — and as usual, we were happiest when 6ABC’s Jim Gardner was doing the narration. Online, videographer Cory J. Popp offered up this gem about what city streets looked like without cars.

Porngate: This one’s difficult to write about. Why? Because the media — and leaks to it — have been so important to the evolution of this story that the line that separates observing and reporting from outright participation can appear blurry to some. There’s a conversation that probably needs to be had about that phenomenon. That said: The Inquirer’s Craig McCoy and Angela Couloumbis will haunt Kathleen Kane’s dreams for decades to come with their series of scoops about the controversies enveloping her. The DN’s David Gambacorta and William Bender profiled Frank Fina, Kane’s chief rival, and were head of the class in covering the scandal’s Philadelphia fallout. And long after everybody was exhausted by it all, the DN’s Helen Ubinas did the best job of explaining why it all actually matters.

Police Reform, the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the Death of Brandon Tate-Brown: After Philly.com’s Sam Wood wrote in 2013 about how police-involved shootings were on the rise in Philly — even though crime was coming down — Commissioner Ramsey invited the Department of Justice to town to begin the reform effort, with efforts that bore fruit this year. When police shot Brandon Tate-Brown to death last December, Helen Ubinas kept the story alive by covering community anger that wasn’t going away, and wasn’t afraid to point out when, exactly, the police had gotten it wrong. (She applied those standards without fear or favor, when she wrote scathing criticism of every Philly reporter’s favorite cop, SEPTA Police Chief Tom Nestel, after an incident involving that department.) The crew at Philly Declaration covered police and policing policy with a pesky commitment to FOIA-driven reporting. Independent journalist Christopher Moraff was also a go-to source on such issues, as was Christopher “Flood the Drummer” Norris.

Six Smaller (But Still Important) Gems

Cosby said he got drugs to give women for sex: The dwindling universe of Bill Cosby defenders got noticeably less vocal in July when AP’s Maryclaire Dale got her hands on a long-locked away deposition given by the comedian, in which he admitted giving sedatives to at least one woman. Cosby denied — and still denies — sexual abuse allegations, but this story changed the debate: There was less of one after.

Why is SEPTA Key arriving two years late? A verrrry late entry into consideration for this list — appearing two days before Christmas — PlanPhilly’s Jim Saksa asked the question we keep asking ourselves every time we dig through our pockets for tokens. And he came back with the answer.

The Rocky Movies ​Still Get Philadelphia: Inga Saffron got a lot of pushback for writing how Creed doesn’t show Philadelphia’s revival, but Jake Blumgart’s Slate piece on the Rocky movies and Philly’s poverty was the best look on what the film series continues to show about the reality of Philadelphia. “The problems facing the long-deindustrialized neighborhood that Rocky has been jogging around for close to 40 years are as intractable as ever, while other outlying areas of the city that once contributed mightily to the local tax base are becoming poorer as reasonably paying working-class jobs continue to vanish,” he wrote. “Rocky may be back, but his neighborhood and city are still bruised. And the films have never shied from showing their struggles.”

AWOL from City Hall: The Daily News’ Wendy Ruderman went looking for City Commission Chairman Anthony Clark — never once finding him actually doing his job or in his office. Voters re-elected him anyway.

Our loss, and Philly’s too: City Paper suddenly, finally, wrongly went out of business. The final issue celebrated a laudable history and lamented the stupidity of it all. The final issue was a bittersweet summing up of an important, incredible legacy. Yeah, the media is changing. But shouldn’t there be room for smart, tough journalism that prods and pokes without fear? We should all hope so.

Brand.com has mysteriously disappeared: Two years after getting a mayoral welcome from Michael Nutter and just months after adding Ed Rendell to its advisory board, Brand.com and its Philly headquarters had basically ceased to exist. Juliana Reyes dug into the story.

Three important developments

The evolution of the Inquirer and Daily News: The Daily News has, for some years now, been listed as “an edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.” Mostly this was a technicality, so the papers could share expenses on wire services and such. (Certainly, the staffs seemed to think the papers, despite sharing an owner and a building, were in competition.) Now it’s more of a reality. Following late-year layoffs and a move to a one-newsroom model, reporters at both papers shed their byline affiliations — no more “Inquirer” staff writer, instead everybody was merely non-descript “staff writer” — and stories were shared more widely. The Daily News will remain its own brand, for now, with provocative headlines and its excellent set of columnists. But it’s fair to wonder if this is really a two-newspaper town anymore.

Grants, grants everywhere: Philadelphia Media Network got one grant to cover the mayor’s race, and another to develop tools to help journalists shift to an era of journalism dominated by cell phones. (So did BillyPenn.com, for that matter.) It raised a question: How much “business” is left in the news business?

The rise of new media. Maybe plenty. City Paper died, yes, and the Inky and Daily News struggled. But BillyPenn.com appeared to be growing, PhillyVoice.com kept making excellent hires, and Spirit Newspapers expanded their reach in the city’s underserved neighborhoods. NewsWorks wasn’t a startup, exactly, but in a year in which its leader, Chris Satullo, left, it’s worth noting the site has developed in recent years into a generally excellent source of Philly news. Similarly, Al Día found a way to stay fresh by expanding its English-language coverage and throwing elbows at the city’s other media outlets. It’s a tough time to be in the media business, yes, but people keep trying to make a go of it. Maybe, hopefully, somebody will figure out how to make a success of it again.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.