When I arrived in Philadelphia in March 2012 to begin establishing what was then called the Philadelphia Public Interest Information Network and is now AxisPhilly, I joked that the project was a bit like the story of the blind men who encounter an elephant, where each touches a different part (trunk, an ear, a leg, the tail) and describes the beast in a very different way.
Everyone had a different idea of what PPIIN should be and what the city of Philadelphia needed in a non-profit public interest news organization – an investigative news outfit, a network to support different sites, a newspaper-like site similar to MinnPost, and many other variants.
What I did know is that it would take a long time to pull this off. After all, a mother elephant is pregnant for 645 days before delivering her calf, and the young calf takes much longer to grow into a mature animal. If you use my arrival in Philadelphia as the beginning of the “gestation” period for AxisPhilly, we’re now at about day 500.
I knew it would take time for the basics of incorporation and business setup and staffing, it would take time (considerable time, as it is turning out) to secure IRS approval of our tax-exempt status, it would take time to launch a site and refine it, it would take time to establish our brand and build our audience, it would take time to demonstrate the kind of impact we could have, it would take time to cultivate donors and build a fundraising campaign.
But time equals money — much more money than in the initial grant from the William Penn Foundation (a bit less than $2 million after subtracting funds retained by Temple University). In recent weeks, we learned that substantial additional funding was not readily available to support our plans in the near future.
Fortunately, a significant portion of the original grant is still unspent. And it seems likely that the Wyncote Foundation will provide a modest grant in 2014. This money is sufficient to buy AxisPhilly considerable more time. But I also recognized that the expense of a well-compensated CEO would cost the organization some of that time, and I recommended that my own position be eliminated to give AxisPhilly even more time.
I am confident that AxisPhilly is well positioned to succeed. I’m extremely proud of the work the AxisPhilly team has already produced and the recognition it has already received. We have shown that AxisPhilly can be a force for journalism innovation in Philadelphia, combining solid reporting, great data journalism, thoughtful community engagement and productive collaborations across news organizations. While our overall audience is still growing, as the chart below illustrates, the city officials we seek to hold accountable seem to be paying closer attention.
I was fortunate to launch the Wall Street Journal Online and look back over the years to see how it has continued to evolve in exciting ways after I departed. I was fortunate to lead Yahoo News to category dominance at a critical time, and have watched as it built on that success in the years since. I’m confident that I will see AxisPhilly continue to blossom from the roots planted over the past 16 months.
See the Center for Public Interest Journalism’s press release here.