PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA — Philadelphia Neighborhoods is a news website reporting on the city’s poor and working class neighborhoods, produced by undergraduate journalism students at Temple University. The site is part of Temple journalism’s Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, which emphasizes two things deemed important for future journalists: hyper-local reporting and the ability to tell stories via text, photos, and video.
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“The strength of Temple is the urban environment, and it was clear to the faculty that multimedia was the way to go,” says Christopher Harper, co-director of the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab. “What we decided to do was multimedia in an urban setting.”
He says that similar programs exist at Northwestern, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Southern California, and Arizona State. But while Philadelphia Neighborhoods is a class project, it’s also a real news source. Harper says the site receives 100,000 discrete readers per year and more than 250,000 page views. And it is the university’s second-most visited page, after the homepage.
If you perform an online search for many parts of the city, Philadelphia Neighborhoods is often the only site with information. This reporter has used the site countless times as a tip sheet to find sources in this or that corner of Philadelphia. According to Harper, about 70 percent of visitors come to the site through search engines rather than visiting directly. While this demonstrates their breadth of reporting, he would like to increase the number of people who come directly to the site because they recognize the brand.
“The audience are people whose neighborhoods mainly get covered when the yellow police tape goes up, when something bad has happened,” says Harper. “We go in and cover neighborhoods week by week, the good and bad and the ugly. And a lot of these stories we find are pretty good: most people who live in poor neighborhoods want the same things that people want in wealthy neighborhoods. They want good housing, better lives for their kids, they want criminals to be gone.”
They have also produced a printed version of their work for neighborhoods.
“People were just happy to see the name of their neighborhood on an eight-page newspaper. That’s pretty cool.”
“Kensington was named as the worst drug neighborhood in Philadelphia,” says Harper. “It’s known for prostitution, and there was a strangler recently caught that killed two women. We did stories about drug rehab programs, about a boxing program that dealt with at risk teens, and about people who live right under the el [elevated subway] and how they lived.”
Harper says that it can be a tough assignment for students. But he says that it’s crucial to prepare journalism students for on-the-ground reporting.
“After the students finish the program they realize its importance. During the program, there’s some pushback. For the students it’s a lot of work. And it’s learning a lot of things: all of the students have had courses in audiovisual, design and writing. But putting it all together is still a difficult thing to do. You’re also outside of your comfort zone when you’re a white kid going to an African-American neighborhood that is quite poor, or an African-American kid going to a primarily white neighborhood that’s Polish.”
Harper emphasizes that Philadelphia Neighborhoods is “students who do good journalism” rather than “student journalism.” In 2009, journalism student Shannon McDonald did a ride along with a Philadelphia police officer and reported him using racial slurs. The cop was fired and the Philadelphia City Paper put the young journalist on its cover, pen and notebook in hand.
Philadelphia Neighborhoods Data
Name: Philadelphia Neighborhoods
Principal Staff: Christopher Harper, managing editor; Linn Washington, managing editor.
Affiliations: Al Dia; neastphilly.com; technicallyphilly.com; the Germantown Chronicle; the Mt. Airy Independent; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; WHYY; planphilly.com; and pa2012.com.