DETROIT, MI — When the Online News Association announced the finalists for its 2013 awards recently, it may have raised a few eyebrows: AxisPhilly—a public affairs news site in Philadelphia that was scarcely six months past its soft launch under its current name—had not one, but three citations. At the ONA awards banquet this Saturday, the site is in line for a prize for online excellence among small publications, along with honors for explanatory reporting (“Philadelphia’s Property Tax Upheaval”) and “planned news/events” (“Property Tax Changes”).

The big tax project, one of AxisPhilly’s very first investigations, did what seems impossible: it took granular information from Mayor Michael Nutter’s Actual Value Initiative (AVI), which reassessed the value of all land and buildings in the city, and made it engaging, accessible, even beautiful. The signature feature was the interactive map AxisPhilly put together, which didn’t just illustrate the changed valuation of Philly property, but allowed users to look up the new values simply by typing in an address or clicking a cursor. Not unexpectedly, local residents were curious not just about their own home values, but in those across the city… and down the street.

“It’s a tool with a lot of utility. It’s very popular,” said Tom Ferrick, AxisPhilly’s interim director and editor. “Because the [information set] was so huge, it was otherwise hard to get a handle on.”

Ferrick, a 31-year veteran of The Philadelphia Inquirer, pointed to AxisPhilly’s interactive map of 10 years of shootings in Philadelphia as a similar undertaking. As with the tax project, the shootings project fulfills AxisPhilly’s mission: to “provide citizens of the Philadelphia region with high quality, multidimensional public interest news and information … We want to provide more context, not just more content.”

“A lot of this [computer-assisted reporting] has been around for awhile, and we did not pioneer any of this,” Ferrick said. “But we emphasize it. Some just do maps, some just do reporting. We like to do both.”

The ONA nominations point to a promising future for AxisPhilly, and they should help to raise the profile of the young site. But the publication is also “going through a lot of growing pains,” Ferrick said—and whether AxisPhilly flourishes or flounders in the long run will have as much to do with its ability to find firm financial footing and stable leadership as with the elegance of its interactives or the intrepidness of its reporting.

The site was founded in 2012 with the support of a $2.4 million, two-year grant from the William Penn Foundation, Philadelphia’s largest local grant-giver. Neil Budde, who formerly led The Wall Street Journal Online, was hired to build the news organization—which is affiliated with Temple University’s Center for Public Interest Journalism—in spring of that year. Much of the reporting for the tax project began then, even before AxisPhilly launched in its current form.

The Penn foundation’s leadership had been eager to get into media. But, as Ferrick puts it, shifts at the foundation brought new leadership, and “they didn’t feel the same way”—so further funds weren’t going to be forthcoming. The news site lobbied to the Wyncote Foundation, another Philly-based philanthropist, for a supplementary grant. “But the grant was less than Neil expected, or felt he needed,” Ferrick said. “So he left. He felt the site wasn’t going to be big enough for a CEO like him.” According to Philly.com, Budde’s departure was part of a contraction that halved AxisPhilly’s annual budget. (Budde is now the executive editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville; he detailed much of this history—and offered some data showing city officials are increasingly paying attention to AxisPhilly—in a July 11 farewell letter on the site.)

Ferrick, who had written for AxisPhilly as a columnist, moved into the director/editor role on an interim basis. He’s a veteran of Philadelphia journalism—which is to say, he’s well-acquainted with the now-tenuous economics of the industry, online or in print. As he puts it: “I’m a journalist of long standing, but it hurts the longer I stand.”

Ferrick departed the Inquirer in 2008, thinking that, “I guess you’re in trouble when you’re called legacy media. You used to just be the media.” He was alarmed by the diminishing space and staff devoted to in-depth local investigations. “I thought, if [the newspaper’s decline] is going to happen, that kind of journalism needs to migrate to new media,” he says.

So Ferrick then edited Metropolis, a Philly public interest blog that ran for three years—“until we ran out of money.”

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 New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.