He moved from there to AxisPhilly. While inspired by the nonprofit public affairs journalism pioneered by outlets like ProPublica, Texas Tribune, and MinnPost, he sees the magic ticket for sustainability as still elusive, especially at the local level. “The MinnPost is very successful [with high-quality local journalism]. And they break even. But their CEO and CFO take no salary.”

But if the business model for local public-interest news is especially challenging, that’s also where there are untapped editorial opportunities.

The digital revolution has opened up more sources to more readers than ever before. “But on this local metro level, this kind of [high-quality investigative reporting] is fading away. And that’s where it’s needed,” Ferrick said. “You find breaking news anywhere: traffic, a fire, a shooting down the road. But can you find not just what city council did, but why?

There’s no shortcut around the need for resources to do that sort of contextual reporting. While AxisPhilly’s three-member board works on drumming up support from local foundations, donors, and others, its talented staff persists. The site has five full-time journalists, and plans to hire two more on the computer desk at the new year. Two columnists are published each week, along with two major features of about 2,000 words. “I’d like to do more,” Ferrick said.

AxisPhilly now gets about 20,000 hits a month, the vast majority of that from Monday through Wednesday, and the site aims to triple or quadruple its audience as it builds a reputation as Philadelphia’s only general public interest site. There’s been an uptick in mobile users, Ferrick said, reflecting a design that works well on mobile platforms.
All the while, despite the budget constraints, AxisPhilly remains committed to investing in reporters.

“In order to get high-quality journalism, you have to get high-quality journalists,” Ferrick said. “I don’t see any way around it. We pay people as professionals, because they are, and we pay freelancers as professionals, because they are. And then of course, we put expectations on them.”

What are those expectations about? “Public affairs journalism is the spinach of newspaper journalism,” Ferrick said. “Our job is to make it taste better. Make it interesting. That doesn’t mean hype it-it means, make it interesting.”

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The Guardian, Grantland, and Salon; blogs at Isak; and can be found on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.