Bridget Conroy-Varnis, a school crossing guard, voted this month in Philadelphia’s mayoral election—and won $10,000 for her trouble.
Conroy-Varnis was the randomly selected winner in a voting lottery run by The Philadelphia Citizen, a nonprofit news start-up that launched in full force, after a long gestation period, in September. Taking a page from the book of Ed McMahon, Citizen editor Larry Platt greeted Conroy-Varnis with an oversize check and a fleet of news cameras as she exited her polling station. “I can’t believe this,” she said. “This is crazy!”
A stunt like that would be pretty crazy, for a typical news organization. But Platt will tell you that the Citizen isn’t supposed to be typical.
A veteran of the Philly media world with stints atop Philadelphia Magazine and the Philadelphia Daily News to his credit, Platt describes a sense of frustration with how the news business worked. “I’d think to myself, if you didn’t know anything about Philadelphia and you picked up our publication, you’d kind of think the city sucks,” he said in a recent interview. Too often, he says, the predictable result of coverage would be “to make average citizens feel helpless.”
So now, he’s trying to build something different. Arriving at a moment when the pillars of the city’s media establishment are in crisis, the Citizen is less about filling gaps in news coverage with nuts-and-bolts reporting than it is about celebrating disruptors and innovators, boosting civic engagement, and identifying “solutions that can move our region forward.” The purpose of local media, Platt says, should be about “reigniting democracy in the city where it was born.”
“I call myself a recovering journalist,” he adds. “I’m much more interested in civic health, in Philadelphia, and changing the dynamic.”
The voter lottery—in addition to being a canny bit of publicity for the Citizen itself—was designed to support that mission by giving voters an incentive to turn out in a chronically low-participation off-year local election. (The Citizen is partnering with the Emerson College Polling Society for analysis about whether the eye-catching offer actually did have an impact at the polls; the prize money came from the family foundation of the publication’s co-founder, Ajay Raju.) A series of public events is also meant to inspire, like a recent discussion on athletes and civic engagement between former NBA star Charles Barkley and Connor Barwin, a linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles who writes a column for the Citizen. And the Citizen recently hosted an apparently awkward but entertaining-sounding unmoderated debate for two seats on City Council; when not all candidates showed up, the publication attempted to put live chickens in their place, but instead had to settle for stuffed ones.
Photo courtesy of The Philadelphia Citizen
Civic action is a regular theme in the Citizen’s published content, too. With four staff members, including Platt and a full-time “social action coordinator,” as well as several freelancers, the Citizen publishes one story a day, sometimes two. One of its regular features is “Ideas We Should Steal,” which reports on innovative projects in other cities and questions why they can or can’t happen in Philadelphia. Other pieces profile developers who give discounts to teachers, offer advice to the incoming mayor, and spotlight “citizens of the week.” Many stories feature a “do something” button that prompts readers to get involved by, say, signing an online petition or attending an event. (The Citizen’s vision of civic uplift has been paired from the start with scathing denunciations of the local media establishment, not excepting Platt’s former employers, and it still includes some room for those critiques.)
The emphasis on engagement and solutions is in line with trends in the nonprofit start-up world, and the Citizen has received support from numerous foundations and civic leaders, providing it with 18 months of runway to develop a sustainable revenue model. Supporters include the Knight and Lenfest foundations—the latter of which, interestingly, was co-founded by Gerry Lenfest, owner and publisher of the Philadelphia Media Network, which operates the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. Jeremy Nowak, the former president of the William Penn Foundation, signed on as the publication’s chairman; he also moonlights as a columnist. When Nowak was featured on a Knight Cities podcast earlier this year, the host enthused over the Citizen’s purpose: “nothing less than to spark a new movement of citizens who refuse to outsource leadership to a political class.”
And with the media incumbents in Philly as beleaguered as anywhere in the country, the Citizen should have an opportunity to win some fans. Just this fall, the Inquirer and Daily News announced that they would be merging newsrooms, resulting in layoffs of 50 journalists and other employees; the alt-weekly City Paper was abruptly closed, with its digital archives left in limbo; even public radio saw a pair of abrupt, high-profile departures.
Those trends have many of the city’s reporters looking hopefully for alternatives—though the response from other journalists to what they’ve seen so far from the Citizen has not always been positive.
“I’d never want to underestimate Larry Platt or Ajay Raju. But I keep waiting for the Citizen to mean something beyond brash manifestos and high-profile stunts,” says Joel Mathis, an associate editor at Philadelphia Magazine, who once referred to one part of a Citizen mission statement as “not-at-all-creepy-and-Orwellian.” He adds: “In an age where the big daily newspapers are shedding journalists by the dozens, the city will need the new alternatives to step up. The Citizen still hasn’t proved that it will.”
Maybe that assessment shouldn’t be surprising, given Platt’s own account of his alienation from the news business. My own sense, having read a chunk of the Citizen’s recent work, is that the site could use more focus as it seeks a broader audience. One hopes, too, that the optimistic outlook will be paired with clear-eyed evaluations of solutions and disruptions that don’t work out.
But though it’s now been two years since it was first announced, the full-fledged Citizen is still taking shape, and it has a base to build from. Relying mostly on word of mouth, Platt says, the Citizen has developed a weekly email newsletter with 10,000 recipients. One of the next tests will be growing the online audience, in particular reaching beyond “influentials” and a core group of people who are already highly engaged. That will be important for achieving genuine influence and depth, and also sustainability—the business model includes a range of membership options with various perks.
Corporate sponsorships are also in the works, especially to underwrite the events. And in 2016, the Citizen wants to sell shares. Modeled on the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers of the NFL, where community members own shares but can’t sell them for a profit, the idea is that shareholders will be “part of the team,” Platt says. Those who buy shares will get a vote to elect a representative to a non-voting seat on the Citizen’s board, be invited to live-stream editorial meetings and contribute their own ideas, attend an annual “ideas summit,” and vote on Citizen of the Year awards—“like the ESPYS but for civic engagement,” he says.
At one point in our interview, I asked Platt why the Citizen was founded as a journalistic entity at all, especially when he said he felt so outside the Philly media landscape. Did he consider developing this simply as a citizen-centered nonprofit?
“I think everything is a story,” he replied. “What Philadelphia needs, and probably what most American cities need, is a new narrative. A counter-narrative about the shared experience of the city.”