PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA — PlanPhilly is a news website providing in-depth coverage of the city’s built environment. The site was launched in 2006 to cover the planning process for the Delaware River waterfront. PennPraxis, a planning consultancy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, asked journalist Matt Golas, former metro editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, to come in and give them some advice. He left with a job offer and a news website to create.
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“After two hours they said to me, ‘What should we do?’ I said, ‘You can cover it like a beat,'” Golas recalls. “And they said, ‘What’s a beat?’ They said, ‘That’s so cool. Do you want to do it?'”
Since the 1990s, a revitalizing Center City and gentrifying neighborhoods have sparked a building boom, and raised important questions about how Philadelphia ought to grow as a city. PlanPhilly, which is housed at PennPraxis but is editorially independent, began to provide coverage.
“Every meeting, every move Praxis made, we wrote about it, and I started hiring people. Then I realized: the planning commission? Not being covered. Parks and Rec? Not being covered. So we just started covering news and no one said ‘Don’t do it,'” says Golas. “The people running one of these meetings called the Law Department and said ‘There are people here with cameras, can we tell them to go?’ The Law Department was like, ‘No.’ These people had never seen a reporter.”
Since then, PlanPhilly has covered hot-button issues like the now-completed construction of Philadelphia’s first casino. Golas says that casino supporters and opponents alike trust the site’s work. And PlanPhilly coverage has also had an impact on historical preservation, alerting Philadelphians to demolition plans so that the public can have input before the fact–instead of when it’s already too late.
“In two years, PlanPhilly, the pipsqueak on a shoestring budget, has hijacked the city’s hottest beat,” Bruce Schimmel wrote in a 2009 Philadelphia City Paper article. “Thank goodness someone has.”
The site offers detailed coverage of the dark corners of city life and government where action is often taken with little citizen oversight. Alongside the reporting, PlanPhilly also posts full videos of public meetings, for those with the stomach to handle them. PlanPhilly is an example of how new experiments in news media can move beyond simply filling in for the ailing print media and actually break new ground.
“[We cover] a lot of what I’d call arcane subjects for general news,” says Golas. “People will say to me, ‘It’s great that you’re covering things the Inquirer and Daily News used to cover.’ But the truth is the papers never really covered the built environment deeply. It’s not like we’re doing things they walked away from.”
Just as Golas used to be metro editor at the Inquirer, most of the site’s reporters previously worked at one of the city’s two dailies. He prefers working with journalists rather than academics, who tend to turn in term papers–with footnotes.
“There’re so many people out of work,” he says. “I was metro editor in 2002 when we hired seventy people, there was a big suburban push. Almost all those people are gone. The Inquirer had 525 FTEs, and has about 270 now…I had my pick of those that stayed in Philly.”
Golas notes that he pays higher freelance rates than the Inquirer.
According to Golas, PlanPhilly is the nation’s only news gathering operation dedicated to a city’s built environment and planning.
“I think we’re totally unique. I’ve tried to find a peer. That’s part of the problem, too, when you don’t have a peer group,” he says. “An editor starts out doing what he wants, which isn’t the way it should be. I hate criticism, but when you don’t get any, it’s really weird.”
Schimmel writes that Golas is “living the journalist’s dream of telling the truth without being badgered by bean counters.” That’s only partially true. PlanPhilly is funded by The William Penn Foundation, which has shown significant concern over the future of journalism in Philadelphia. They insist that grant recipients like PlanPhilly experiment with models that will lead to financial sustainability. Not that PlanPhilly is under threat of getting cut off: William Penn just wants to make sure grantees are testing new revenue models that could benefit journalism as a whole.
“What William Penn is interested in is pilot testing,” he says. “They want to know what works and what doesn’t.”
Golas says they are discussing a number of revenue possibilities, including charging for expert panels co-produced with PennPraxis and producing a paid newsletter for the development community. And they are currently planning on reconfiguring the site to make it more attractive to a broader readership.
“We would go to a planning commission meeting and there would be ten agenda items, and we would do one large story with six videos. What we’re thinking is, let’s break that out, let’s do shorter, punchier stories,” says Golas. “Our demographic is fifty and up, white, rich. It’s a great demographic to sell ads, which we don’t do but may do someday. But it’s a horrible demographic for people who might be buying their first house or condo, or who just moved into the city.”
The New York-based real estate blog Brownstoner closed its Philly operation in December 2010 after just nine months in operation. They cited a dearth of ad dollars and the city’s “less evolved blogosphere.”
But they did have a loyal readership. “My traffic went up tremendously after they died,” says Golas. He hopes to pick up some Brownstoner style coverage, with “a slightly higher journalistic quality.” He also notes that PlanPhilly is largely focused on Center City, a shortcoming in a “city of neighborhoods.”
PlanPhilly has already covered more of this city’s built environment than has ever been reported before. Obsessing over the arcane (and even boring) meeting minutes and hearings, they strike a blow against the banality of bad planning.