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Getting in the Mix

17 Jan

I admit to being pretty impatient with people who are dismissive of newspaper comments sections. Yes, I’m familiar with all of their downsides. But they also offer the potential — I emphasize — for something other than business as usual.

Joseph DeStefano headshot
Joseph N. DiStefano (Photo credit: Philadelphia Inquirer)

One local journalist who actually engages in meaningful conversation with online commenters is Joseph N. (Joe) DiStefano, the Inquirer’s longtime business columnist.

Here’s a great example:  His recent article on the Dupont chemical company. The article spawned a 148-comment thread (really!) with plenty of opinionated (and often well-informed) commenters joining in.

DiStefano was right there in the mix, posting more than a half-dozen comments of his own. Some were brief acknowledgements, but others were more substantive, like this one:

Good points, thanks. I would add tho that ‘elderly cousins’ on the DuPont board are outnumbered by sitting CEOs. From our distance, it looks like they were all for Kullman until a sub-3% activist investor began rallying pension and hedge funds to press for more. Then they were all for the Dow deal. Raises real questions about the efficacy of what passes for the gold standard in corporate governance.

I would draw 4 lessons from DiStefano’s example:

  1. Commenters respond to an engaged reporter. There is less baloney on a thread where people know the reporter is “watching.”
  2. Smart reporters know that they aren’t just writing for commenters, but for the larger audience of lurkers — both of whom may include potentially valuable sources for future articles.
  3. It’s OK for a reporter’s tone in comments sections to differ from the tone of a news story. They should be consistent, not identical.
  4. Good comments sections are built over time. They don’t start afresh with every new article. Good commenters will hold a reporter’s feet to the fire about stuff he or she screwed up months ago. And good reporters will know when to hold their tongues and listen.



A Moment of Optimism

17 Jan

It’s been a while since I checked in, and during that time we’ve had some interesting developments here in Philadelphia. One is a refreshingly bold — though quite risky — new step for our major newspapers, the Inquirer and the Daily News. The papers’ billionaire owner, Gerry Lenfest, has donated them to a new institute being housed at a local community foundation.

Photo credit: Wellcome Images. Used by permission under a CC-BY license (via Wikipedia)

Get a board member’s take on the new initiative. Relevant excerpt:

The basics of the rather complex transaction are these: The umbrella company for the news organizations, Philadelphia Media Network, was donated to a new nonprofit entity called the Institute for Journalism in New Media. The institute is under the auspices of the Philadelphia Foundation. With [Gerry] Lenfest’s $20 million gift as a kick-start, the institute will raise money from foundations, corporations, and individuals to support investigative and other public-service journalism and – ultimately, more important – to be a catalyst for transformation in the digital age.

It’s a creative effort that may or may not work to sustain the newspapers in the long term. But in my opinion, Lenfest & co deserve huge credit for acknowledging that “more of the same” (layoff, decrease quality of coverage, lose subscribers, repeat) was not going to do it, and actively brainstorming a potential solution.

Both papers have been through cycle after cycle of demoralizing layoffs. Aside from the human cost to employees, there has been a terrible cost to civic power. Community-minded citizens, gadflies, and the general public can’t hold elites accountable if we don’t know what they’re up to. Journalists are one of the few occupations that are actually paid to find out what powerful are doing with their money and influence, and tell the rest of us.

Let’s hope this is the first page of a chapter that sees greater investment in high-quality journalism for our city — especially the investigative kind.

(I’m also cautiously optimistic that the newly-revamped website [now visually tolerable for the first time in years] may yet give birth to an effectively utilized commenting community. But that’s a topic for another post.)

What I love about Philadelphia

4 Jul
English: Fairmount Park near where Cresheim an...

English: Fairmount Park near where Cresheim and Wissahickon Creeks meet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the Fourth of July. And I especially love living in the place where the United States was born. Philadelphia is a grand place to celebrate our birthday.

In honor of the Fourth, here are a few of the things I love about Philadelphia.

1. Walkability. Sure, there are some exceptions. But by and large, this is a very darn walkable city. And with new additions like Penn Park, it’s getting more pedestrian-friendly all the time.

2. Our whole park system. I’ll probably do a post on this someday, but for now I’ll just note that Fairmount Park is the largest city park system in the world. Bet you didn’t know that.

3. Neighborhoods. Yup, we’re a city of neighborhoods. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times. But one of the things that actually means is that Philadelphia isn’t really a city of 1.5 million. Rather, it’s more like a series of small circles of 5,000 to 20,000 people. That can make our city feel a lot more homey (okay, or sometimes stifling) than it might seem at first glance.

4. The Mural Arts Program. I love being able to look up and see something creative rather than yet another casino ad. Of course not all the art is to my taste, but what is?

5. SEPTA. Seriously, it’s a phenomenally useful way to get around our city. There have been days when I went for not just the trifecta but the quad-fecta in using a trolley, regional rail, subway, and bus line.

6. Newspapers. I know I was hard on the DN and the Inquirer just a couple of days ago, but I rant because I care. And I’m very glad they’re out there fighting the good fight and documenting the good, the bad, and the nutty here in our city. So thanks Daily News, Inquirer, Al Dia, Tribune, and all the other voices trying hard to tell our region’s story.

I could add a whole lot more, but let me end here for now.  Happy Fourth, everyone. Be safe, peaceful, and kind to each other.

You could be better, Philadelphia Inquirer

3 Jul

I really like good newspapering. I clip it and annotate it and save it and share it.  I have a soft spot for that shopworn Jefferson quotation (rather have newspapers without a government than the reverse). And I abhor bad journalists, because they do so much harm to the work of the good ones.

But today I’m writing about customer service. Which might seem a little crazy, except that…well, my hometown paper* is doing pretty dismally in that department.

Over the years, I’ve made an awful lot of reader suggestions to an awful lot of people at the paper, so at this point I don’t feel I’m talking out of school to complain.

Here are my top 5 customer frustrations:

1. Hassle. Promo codes that still require me to use an e-mail address to log in, Twitter links that go nowhere, constant expiration problems with story links (maddening to send a link to someone and have the article vanish an hour later).

2. Confusion. Is the Inquirer part of or not? They say no, but virtually all of the content on is branded with an Inquirer (or Daily News) byline. If you click on a paywalled link at, half the time it bounces you to a free version of the same article at As a reader, I would love to vote with my feet and not patronize…except:

3. Pricing. It’s boggling to me that a digital-only subscription costs two and a half times as much as digital-and-print bundle — $6.44/week compared to $2.50/week.

I have to assume that’s because print advertisers are still willing to pay for my eyes, but it still grates. I travel too much to want a Sunday paper delivery — it would just sit there, advertising my empty house.

Plus, $300+ a year is a LOT of money. (So is $100+ a year, but it’s a bit closer to being within reach.)

Which brings me to:

4. Lack of creativity. Why not offer a menu of subscription options such as being able to subscribe to a specific reporter, beat, or story? (I bet a lot of people would have paid $5 to have every update on the building collapse sent directly to them for that week when we were all glued to the story.)

There are a million ways the company could be creative about how they package and distribute their excellent journalism. I wish they’d try just two or three of them.

5. Competence. Their Twitter handle is @PhillyInquirer…but they don’t even pony up the $20 a year or whatever it would cost to buy the domain and use it as a redirect.

Sure, it’s a petty point — but it’s symptomatic of the larger issues.

The name of this blog is Better PHL. So come on, my city: Be better!

*I love ya, Daily News, but sorry.

People you should know: Solomon Jones (second in a series)

23 Jun
Solomon Jones headshot

Solomon Jones

Solomon Jones is a multimedia editor and writer for Axis Philly and WHYY’s NewsWorks site.

Learn more about Axis Philly and his work in this terrific Loraine Ballard Morrill radio interview.

I’ve posted links to Jones’s work here before. Most recently, he’s been doing projects for Axis Philly on the School District.

Below is a video he put together from their recent forum on the closing of Bok High School.

For NewsWorks, he writes a regular column that often focuses on people helping to build a better and more caring community. His latest column advises fathers to fight for the opportunity to be present in their children’s lives.

One of the things I most appreciate about Jones is that he hasn’t forgotten his roots. That could mean a lot of things, but in this case it means keeping in mind that many Philadelphians have pretty tough lives.Dead Man's Wife book cover

Jones himself survived tough times, including homelessness and addiction. You can read more about his remarkable personal story in this NPR interview.

Today, he teaches a creative writing class called Words on the Street for parents and teens. It’s offered through the Schoool District’s Parent University program.

He’s also a novelist. Interestingly, he created a video trailer for his latest mystery/thriller novel, The Dead Man’s Wife.

Watch the trailer:

Probably the easiest way to stay up-to-date with Jones’s myriad activities to make Philadelphia better is to follow him on Twitter. I recommend it.

Recording school history

17 Jun

Philadelphia-based photographer Zoe Strauss is nationally recognized for her work illuminating moments from everyday life.

Now she and a group of other photographers have stepped forward to help document the massive, unprecedented wave of school closings here in our city.

The Notebook reports:

She is calling her project the Philadelphia School Closings Photo Collective.

After the School Reform Commission took action, “it suddenly seemed as if everything was going to close without being properly documented, that a school would be closed and no one was going to have a photographic record of it,” said Strauss….

Strauss has put out the call for other photographers to each choose one of the 24 schools slated to be shuttered and document its final days….

Strauss realizes that people in the schools are stressed and that District staff is concerned about their sensibilities. So is she, Strauss said. She understands that school is a “safe place for students and staff and this is a traumatic moment.”

She wants her photographers to “have a sense of what it means to go into a school at a time like this.”

Bok High School in 1937

Bok Technical High School in 1937. Photo:

Strauss herself will document Bok Technical High School, in her South Philadelphia neighborhood. She calls it a “great building,” one that has seen generations of students learn trades.

“Some of these buildings will become condos, some will be torn down,” she said. “This is about the importance of archiving the spaces before they go.”

Photographers interested in collaborating on the project can request to join the Philadelphia School Closings Photo Collective Facebook group.

I wish it wasn’t necessary to do this, but I’m very glad someone is. When I look at photos on and similar archives, I am often struck by the unrecognizability of many familiar buildings and neighborhoods.

Iconic images stay more or less the same over the years — City Hall will always be City Hall. But people don’t live in City Hall. We live in neighborhoods, and neighborhoods can change radically even in a short space of time.

Schools live in neighborhoods too. Chronicling the death of 24 schools is a modest but powerful way of affirming their role in the life of our city.

Photo credit:, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records.

Can a tech fix help neighbors deal with abandoned property?

16 Jun

A post at Axis Philly describes how 8 lots in Kensington failed to sell at a recent sheriff’s sale. Absolutely no one bid on them.

The folks at PhilaDelinquency have a handy how-to guide for getting a property in your neighborhood put onto the sheriff’s sale list

There’s also this very hands-on overview from Naked Philly.Axis Philly logo

Of course, both of these are focused on how to get a nuisance property listed for sheriff’s sale. They don’t deal with how you can buy a property, clean it up, and make it not a nuisance.

It seems to me the Sheriff’s Office ought to let people sign up for e-mail or text message alerts that tell them when a property in their neighborhood is up for sale.

It stands to reason that some of the people interested in buying and fixing up vacant land or abandoned houses already live in those neighborhoods.

Maybe they’re bothered by eyesore properties, or motivated by the hope that their own property values will increase if they clean up a dump. Whatever motivates them, we should capitalize on their energy — not squash it in a sea of confusing, opaque municipal processes.

It shouldn’t be too hard to set up the alerts. You can already get a Google News alert for a specific phrase and a alert for your municipality or county. This is a solvable problem.

Unfortunately, the technology part is the easy part.

As other reporting by Axis Philly reveals, the Sheriff’s Office apparently doesn’t have a functioning accounting system (?!?!)  and the city refuses to disclose how it sets the price of properties for sale.

So there are definitely municipal culture factors at work that go far beyond a simple technical fix.

Bad neighbors

14 Jun
Inga Saffron headshot

Inga Saffron (photo credit: Philadelphia Inquirer)

Philadelphia Inquirer architecture columnist Inga Saffron has quite a story. I’d call this aggressive negligence.

Once upon a time it was a stately Philadelphia townhouse…. Today the 19th Century building is a weed-choked wreck with bricks popping out of the facade.

Upper windows hang slack-jawed, like a drunk who just passed out. Graffiti dances across a side wall. A family of possums has colonized the interior.

It has been like this, neighbors say, for a good 15 years, perhaps longer. They’ve called building inspectors, signed petitions and corresponded with city officials – with little results.

Neighbors have even offered to buy the house from its owner, who currently owes $31,772 in back taxes.

Such tales of neglect and lax enforcement could be told about any number of blighted, vacant houses that litter the hardscrabble corners of Philadelphia. What distinguishes this one is that the property is located two blocks off Rittenhouse Square.

Read the whole thing.

This kind of neglect has consequences — not just for the neighbors who live on that block, but in promoting civic apathy.

If even rich, well-connected people can’t get an eyesore like this taken care of, what chance do the rest of us have?

(As an aside, kudos to Saffron for re-imagining her role as an architecture critic and practicing actual journalism. I don’t always agree with her, but I’m grateful for her legwork and effort.)

Mapping crime

14 Jun

Inquirer crime mapper tool screenshot

I’ve hesitated to post this, because I’m not totally sure I endorse the frame it imposes.

But here it is: The Philadelphia Inquirer website now has a crime mapping tool, which is slightly less useful than it sounds.

Basically, you can look at the rate of crime by neighborhood, calculated as a rate of X crimes per 1,000 residents. (They break out the property crime rate and the violent crime rate separately.)

I’m not sure how they are defining neighborhood boundaries, although I suspect it might be by police district.  Regardless, it’s a somewhat weird — some “neighborhoods” have 10,000 people and others have close to 60,000. That’s a big range.

You can search by address, sort of. If you type in an address it will take you to the crime data for that neighborhood, with a list of specific incidents by block number (e.g., “Robbery — 3900 block of Chestnut St.”)

An important caveat: The tool includes only data from the last 30 days. So seasonal variation or passing trends could really mess with the numbers.

I haven’t quite figured out how this tool connects to a better Philadelphia. Would like to hear your thoughts in comments.

Note: I suspect this will go behind a paywall soon, but will leave this post up regardless.

A market opportunity for journalism

11 Jun

Dave Davies at WHYY makes an interesting point regarding Philadelphia’s recent horrible building collapse:English bulldog

I want those responsible for this atrocity held accountable too, but I wonder if a year from now, all the furor over slipshod demolition and shady contractors will have changed anything.

  • In 1996 a massive fire of discarded tires shut down a section of I-95, and for a weeks politicians and TV crews were all over the issue of tire disposal.
  • In 2000, a nightclub on a pier in the Delaware River collapsed and killed three people. City inspectors were immediately dispatched to examine every pier on the river.
  • And last year, the tragic Kensington fire that killed two firefighters led to a new focus on large, abandoned properties.

Davies says some kind things about the city’s most recent efforts to improve oversight, and continues:

The question is whether the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections can really do all this stuff in addition to the other burdens they carry, many of them heavier because of past disasters….

I’ve seen a lot of people in city government over the past 25 years. Plenty of them occupy the corner office while things in their departments go on as they always have.

Then once in a while, but you see somebody who has the vision, guts and managerial skill to make change. It’s not easy in the public sector, but it does happen.

It means getting better technology and putting it to good use. It means understanding the arcane civil service system and making it work. It means listening to union leaders and joining them in common purpose. It means holding supervisors accountable for getting the job done. I’ve seen it happen, and it can be inspiring.

You know what else can be inspiring? When a journalist takes hold of a story like a bulldog and hangs on for years, wringing every drop from it.

C’mon, WHYY, I’m looking at you. Make a topic page and stay on this. Check back in six months, in seven months, in eight months. Track the incremental progress/lack of progress, not just the big anniversaries or the inevitable court case. Be journalists.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.