Is the William Penn Foundation Stifling Journalism in Philadelphia?

Following Neil Budde’s exit from the fledgling Axis Philly website, former Philadelphian Sean Blanda weighs in with some thoughts about the lack of journalistic entrepreneurism in this city. He blames the philanthropic William Penn Foundation—saying so many small operations in town are hoping-slash-working for grants from the institution that they don’t settle down to the hard work of figuring out journalism’s future here.

Since 2009 the promise (or threat) of money from the William Penn Foundation has stifled the city’s journalism community as many of its members hope to receive a check from its $2 billion endowment. Moreover,as Erika Owens alluded to on Twitter, many people are scared to speak up as they may bite the hand that feeds them.

Instead of a vibrant network of independent and sustainable news sites, Philadelphia has a hodge-podge of entities who have to burn lots of calories worrying about how and when to get the next William Penn check that could disappear any moment if the foundation changes their mind, something they did with its previous director: Jeremy Nowak.

Blanda suggests that Nowak’s attempts to create change in Philadelphia ran afoul of the good ol’ boy’s network, as represented by the foundation itself. Similarly, he suggests, attempts to create a new culture of thriving journalism here won’t emerge from the “Old Philadelphia establishment.”

It’s an interesting take, but maybe puts too much emphasis on a grand narrative. We encountered Budde shortly after he got to town, when he made a presentation before journalists at the Pen & Pencil Club. What was notable about that evening was Budde’s vagueness—disclaimer here that he knows and has done more in journalism than this poor writer can claim—about what the project would become, to the point that even dithering about the name (Axis Philly would come later) took up a good portion of the evening. Budde’s mandate, it seems, was to do something different in Philly journalism, and based on the results, it’s not really clear what that different thing was, much less that it offered the city something it really needed. That’s not the Penn Foundation’s fault.