Temple University axes nonprofit news site AxisPhilly, shifts focus to other ventures

By Sean Meehan

The Center for Public Interest Journalism at Temple University shuttered nonprofit news website AxisPhilly June 13 after two years of reporting that earned national recognition but failed to meet the school’s expectations for local impact.

Yet CPIJ, which is operated by Temple’s School of Media and Communications, is embarking on another digital news venture. It is helping to launch Brother.ly, a Philadelphia-focused news startup headed by Jim Brady, former editor-in-chief of Digital First Media.

CPIJ launched AxisPhilly in 2012 with a two-year, $2.4 million grant from the William Penn Foundation. The site’s first director, Neil Budde, left after the first year as CPIJ looked to restructure the site to make it self-sustaining. Earlier this year, Tom Ferrick, a journalist with a background in public-service reporting in Philadelphia, was named interim director.

The site delivered in-depth reporting on Philadelphia civics and politics, employing two reporters and one writer/multimedia producer at the time of its closing.

But it struggled to create a sustainable funding model and, according to CPIJ’s press release, “did not achieve consistent local impact.” It also fell short of furthering CPIJ’s mission to catalyze news startups and cooperation among Philadelphia media, said David Boardman, dean of the School of Media and Communications at Temple University. 

Boardman said he initially hoped to restructure AxisPhilly to better meet the Center’s mission but ultimately lacked resources to make the necessary changes. 

“It was clear to me that AxisPhilly was doing some good work, especially in the data realm, but I looked at some of the metrics, and the site was getting extremely low traffic and was burning through the initial grant at a pretty quick pace,” he said. “Frankly, at that point I saw AxisPhilly as yet another of many public-service oriented websites that very few people are reading and that wasn’t for the most part having very much impact.”

That resulted from the site’s focus on producing content rather than supporting Philadelphia’s overall news environment, said Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, an incubator for innovation in journalism based at American University in Washington, D.C.

In 2010, before the launch of AxisPhilly, Schaffer authored a report commissioned by the Penn Foundation in which she said Philadelphia needed an independent news site that could bring together other media sites around key public-service issues. According to Schaffer, AxisPhilly focused too much on its own reporting to fulfill that role.

“One benefit of a news site is not only to create its own news but to provide traffic for other media assets in the city,” she said. “There are areas in the city that really cry for more reporting,” Schaffer said, noting that small media organizations are covering these issues but need “a bigger megaphone.”

Chris Satullo had also hoped that AxisPhilly would do more to improve the reach of public-interest reporting in the city. The v.p. of news and civic dialogue at WHYY Newsworks, a daily news site associated with the Philadelphia pubcaster, said he views AxisPhilly as a missed opportunity to foster more collaboration. Satullo and colleagues worked with individual reporters at AxisPhilly, but the two organizations never formally partnered on a project.

“A lot of the resources that might’ve fueled existing collaboration efforts that were going on in Philadelphia went to AxisPhilly, and then AxisPhilly used a lot of it to set up basically a competing news site,” Satullo said. 

According to Boardman, closing AxisPhilly will allow CPIJ to better fulfill its mission by supporting news startups and collaborative projects with technology, office space and professional training.

Brother.ly, CPIJ’s effort with Brady, “is the first of what I would hope will be many news startups that we can help people with by providing physical space, technology, and faculty and student resources where it’s a win-win,” he said. “It’s a win for our school because our students and faculty get real-world experience in entrepreneurial journalism, and it’s a win for the community in that Temple is contributing in a very concrete way to improving the news menu in town.”

Brother.ly will target audiences not reached by most media outlets and, unlike AxisPhilly, will be a for-profit venture.

CPIJ will continue to maintain OpenDataPhilly, a database of information about Philadelphia’s government and other public services that was part of AxisPhilly. The school recently received a $35,000 grant from the Knight Foundation for the repository.

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