Grant-Funded Journalism Outfit Closes. Is There Any Hope?

Making waves, coverage of Owen Humphrey's weather pictures dated yesterday, 6th February of heavy seas across Seaham Harbour.
Making waves, coverage of Owen Humphrey's weather pictures dated yesterday, 6th February of heavy seas across Seaham Harbour.

Today, in my email Inbox, I got the latest issue of Metropolis, a grant-funded online publication that has covered Philadelphia for the past three years. I always look forward to opening the email and heading to the website. There are always, without exception, stories there that I won't find anywhere else told by journalists who are either former staffers of the city's struggling dailies and weeklies or young J-school grads who no longer have access to what was once a fairly straightforward professional trajectory.

Today, along with a new issue, came a farewell note from Metropolis Senior Editor Tom Ferrick: This would be the last edition.

The site will cease operations as of Sunday, February 10. The reason is simple: I have run out of money. Like Blanche DuBois, this site has depended on the kindness of strangers. We were a cheap date -- our total budget runs $80,000 a year -- and we were lucky to have various local foundations and other entities provide financial support.

With our latest grant running out, I considered trying to get another round, but decided against it. In order to grow audience, we needed to increase the frequency and array of stories and topics covered. However, that requires more money than I have been able to raise.

In the past few years, there's been a lot of panic among longtime journalists about the death of print. There has also been a lot of optimism about the growth of online journalism and the potential for telling stories in a different way. The question always comes back to where the money will come from, so while the medium itself is very exciting, people continue to lose jobs as the transition from print to web bumps along.

In Philadelphia, the situation with the two daily newspapers is an ongoing mess. Bankruptcies, revolving ownerships, guild battles, layoffs and buyouts, embarrassing lurches toward tech relevance -- general incompetence at every level except editorial (while management flounders to figure out business models, reporters win Pulitzers). The two weeklies have shrunken and shriveled like old birthday balloons, and neither has reinvested money into the web. Blogs come and go, but even the most successful can't pay their editors a living wage. At parties where writers gather, the talk -- which used to be about politics, investigative work, ideas for covering the city -- now turns to worries about health coverage, making ends meet and whether to leave journalism for some other field. What field? Who knows.

Into this often-hopeless mix comes the idea of the grant-funded/nonprofit journalism, where writers can do investigative work, data-driven journalism, maybe even... long-form work? An infusion of funds can foster projects that dailies can no longer afford -- an expansion of sites like Homicide Watch, for instance. Journalists hear about such grants and get warm all over, tingling with renewed enthusiasm for the field -- let's call it the ProPublica Effect. When Metropolis arrived on the scene in Philly, the PPE took hold after one look at the mission statement:

Metropolis is a website dedicated to the notion that the time has come to stop worrying about the future of local journalism and to start creating it... we will offer in-depth and investigative pieces, plus smart commentary and analysis. ... We surely won't be the answer to the demise of the traditional media, but we do hope to be an answer.

And they were. Metropolis broke stories. They provided analysis of issues that were cloudy. They covered minority communities that traditional media ignored. They provided a forum for voices that otherwise wouldn't be heard. But they couldn't have done so without money -- can't do so, as it turns out.

They fulfilled their mission for as long as they could. Perhaps the next incarnation will have deeper pockets.