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Case Study

Covering the Passion Beat

Philadelphia, issues of planning and development can evoke high passion and deep was created with a grant from The William Penn Foundation. was created with a grant from The William Penn Foundation.

emotion. Concerns can pit hot-tempered stevedores against high-minded historic preservationists and opportunistic developers of waterfront casinos.

What happens, then, if there is little or no coverage of these powerful forces – even in a two-newspaper town?

One community funder, The William Penn Foundation, paved the way for a new kind of niche newsgathering to shine a spotlight on these planning and development issues as part of an overall city visioning process.

In late 2006, the Web site launched with William Penn funding. Since then it has become the go-to place for coverage of planning questions: Where should casinos be sited, should the port be expanded, and what happens when the expansion of the Center City convention center consumes entire city blocks?

“The Planning Commission and the Zoning Code Commission have immense power over how people live in this city. And these commissions meet regularly,” said Matt Golas, PlanPhilly’s managing editor. “And the mainstream media doesn’t cover them at all.”

PlanPhilly attracts 16,000 unique visitors a month with its reporting on 11 issues and 12 neighborhoods. Five thousand subscribers receive its free e-mail updates.

PlanPhilly has earned a reputation as an honest broker on hot-button topics. Golas, a former Philadelphia Inquirer editor, populates the site with stories he assigns to eight or so freelance writers, as well as with reports from policy watchers and resource links. He also posts lively videotaped coverage of important meetings.

The videos permit everyone to “relive the excitement and tension” of the civic planning process, said Feather Houstoun, president of The William Penn Foundation. “You can watch 20 or 30 very irate stevedores yelling with the historic preservationists about what’s going to happen to a certain part of the waterfront, where the stevedores want an expansion of the port and the historic preservationists want expansion of the grid of the city out to the water.

“Seeing that live makes the entire process a civic process in a way that it can’t possibly be if it’s left to the people who have nothing else to do but go to some meetings,” she continued. “It’s really a very democratic process now.”

Indeed, it was PlanPhilly’s video camera that chronicled – on Christmas Eve 2007 – the wrecking balls that demolished two buildings, considered historically significant, just north of City Hall to make way for a new convention center.

“It reminded me of how Pennsylvania got casinos on a July 4th weekend when no one was paying attention,” Golas said.

“The more things we cover, the more expectation there is to do more. … As wonderful as that is … it also ups the ante in terms of, ‘How are we going to sustain this project when people expect more of us?’”
— Matt Golas,
PlanPhilly’s managing editor

PlanPhilly is an editorially independent project of PennPraxis, a consulting and management practice based at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design.

“It’s difficult to make planning and zoning interesting to the public,” said Michael Greenle, PennPraxis’ director of communications. But he credits PlanPhilly with outreach that engaged 4,000 people in deliberations about new plans for the city’s Delaware River waterfront. For the plan’s final presentation, a standing-room-only crowd of 1,500 showed up at the city’s convention center.

For a planning meeting, such a large turnout is “pretty rare,” Greenle said.

Houstoun’s board has invested $600,000 in PlanPhilly from 2006 to 2009 as part of larger grants to PennPraxis. PlanPhilly also received a one-year, $100,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in 2007.

What motivated The William Penn Foundation, which generally invests in regional quality-of-life projects, was the rapidity of the new city administration’s planning and zoning processes. “We really want to hold that administration accountable for doing it the way we really believe it should be done,” Houstoun said. “And the best way to do that is to let the stakeholders in that process know what’s happening.”

Golas feels pressure to meet the demand for stories and videos and to post them quickly after a meeting, a challenge when video production costs are increasing and his budget allows only $7,500 a month to pay freelancers, who earn $30 an hour. “The more things we cover, the more expectation there is to do more,” he said. “As wonderful as that is … it also ups the ante in terms of, ‘How are we going to sustain this project when people expect more of us?’”

The William Penn Foundation has learned some things, too, in funding media projects like PlanPhilly, including the difference between advocacy and journalism. Houstoun’s advice to fellow foundations: “If a community foundation wants to accomplish something in a community, it has to figure out how it reaches people. And I think public-interest journalism is a really exceptional way to do it, if it’s done with quality.”

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