AxisPhilly, The William Penn Foundation, and “Old Philadelphia”
On July 11, Philadelphia’s AxisPhilly, a public affairs news site bankrolled by the William Penn Foundation parted ways with its CEO Neil Budde, a move which will likely lead to the site being shuttered or significantly downsized. I no longer live in Philadelphia and am no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of its media community via Technically Philly, but the news of Budde’s departure left me a mix of angry, upset, and frustrated.
Why? The Inquirer/Daily News/Philly.com ownership group has changed hands several times while executing a series of perplexing business decisions. Alt-Weeklies Philly Weekly and Citypaper get thinner every month. AxisPhilly was a beacon of light in the city’s media community, a chance to start something great from scratch. As Chris Krewson alluded above, Budde’s departure (and the likely end of AxisPhilly) is a sad and maddeningly frustrating waste of an opportunity for the city and journalism; and one I attribute to a refusal by those holding the purse strings to try anything new.
Mainly, The William Penn Foundation does more harm than good when it dabbles in the local journalism community and AxisPhilly is just the latest in a long line of disappointments from the foundation.
Since 2009 the promise (or threat) of money from the William Penn Foundation has stifled the city’s journalism community as many of its members hope to receive a check from its $2 billion endowment. Moreover, as Erika Owens alluded to on Twitter, many people are scared to speak up as they may bite the hand that feeds them.
Instead of a vibrant network of independent and sustainable news sites, Philadelphia has a hodge-podge of entities who have to burn lots of calories worrying about how and when to get the next William Penn check that could disappear any moment if the foundation changes their mind, something they did with its previous director: Jeremy Nowak.
In 2011, Nowak was hired as the new head of the William Penn Foundation. Then in late 2012, Nowak was ousted. Philly Mag’s Jason Fagone called this a reaction of “Old Philadelphia” in his profile of Nowak. Old Philadelphia is the same group of people numbering in the hundreds that are responsible for the city government, the non-profits, universities, and the handful of large corporations that call Philadelphia home. They are members of the Union League. They passed through Leadership Philadelphia. The certainly include the William Penn Foundation.
The group can be a force for good, but instead it often reinforces bad behavior and ideas that stifle and hold back the city. It’s the reason SEPTA still requires freakin’ tokens for payment. The reason we have a goddamn statue of Rocky but not a Joe Frazier bust. The reason the Divine Lorraine Hotel sits empty, decaying. The reason the city’s journalistic institutions are falling apart in slow motion. The reason there’s no political backbone to end the pension crises, strangling funds to other aspects of government. It’s the reason the Texas Tribune is successful with an initial raise of $3.6 million to cover the entire state of Texas. Meanwhile, Philly couldn’t make good with $2.4 million. It’s the reason Nowak lost his job.
To quote Fagone shortly after Nowak’s departure:
Politically and otherwise, [Nowak] argued, many Philadelphians are too concerned about tending their own little kingdoms; they’re too afraid of competition and change. According to this story line, the city’s defining conflict is the one between Old Philly, the Philly of fiefdoms and inertia, and New Philly, the Philly of youthful energy and entrepreneurship. Nowak tried to do something about it—to use old money to hasten the coming of a new city. And he paid the price.
Nowak wanted to try something new. William Penn wouldn’t let him.
Shortly after we founded Technically Philly in 2009 we heard lots of Philly media folks murmuring about a journalism project by the William Penn Foundation. I, and many of my journalist friends, were interviewed. There was a panel convened. Reports were written. Significant money was spent on consultants, “fiscal agencies,” and eventually a big time CEO search (The CEO search firm called me in their process. One of the things they emphasized in their conversations was the ability to fund raise. Not entrepreneurship. Fund raising.) By early 2012, Former Wall Street Journal Online Publisher Neil Budde was tasked with taking upwards of $2.4 million to help broaden the city’s public affairs journalism. There were promises by the Foundation of a “regional news network,” as a result every independent site (including at times, Technically Philly) stopped and waited to see what would happen.
Now, years later, AxisPhilly looks to be abandoned by the William Penn Foundation while the city lost three years of experimentation by its local journalism community3. And what’s worse, AxisPhilly leaves us no smarter about news, as the site didn’t try any interesting ways to bring in revenue.
For entrepreneurial journalism to thrive in Philadelphia, the city’s journalist need a William Penn Foundation that does one of two things:
- Provides seed grants to those looking to try new models or improve upon working ones.
- Stay the hell out of the way.
In the ideal world, Jeremy Nowak is given more time to execute and a $2.4 million journalism grant spurs entrepreneurship rather than stagnation. In his piece about city pensions, Patrick Kerkstra said it best:
None of the solutions are easy. Each is fraught with political risk and loaded with very real consequences. The alternative, though, is to limp along indefinitely, a diminished city, in hock to the past.
William Penn is content to let the city’s journalism community limp along. And that’s a shame.
And now, disclaimer time:
- I was contacted by the William Penn Foundation in its CEO search. No, I never thought I had a chance. Nor should I have. I was 24.
- In my time at Technically Philly I benefited from the William Penn Foundation’s money, either through a direct grant to the company or indirectly through one of our clients.
- I offered my thoughts as an individual and as part of Technically Philly to the Foundation’s many reports on the local journalism ecosystem.
- I no longer live in Philadelphia and, thus, there could be developments that have occurred since I left that would disprove my theory. I encourage you to let me know if that’s the case.