Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation. What does that mean?
It means more than a quarter of Philadelphians are experiencing poverty, and that 40 percent of those people are trying to break out of deep poverty while earning less than $13,000 per year for a family of four. It means almost half of city residents can’t provide the basics for themselves and their families.
It means we’re in deep trouble and in need of drastic change. Which is why I was eager to dive into the mounds of research Resolve Philly Editor Jean Friedman-Rudovsky had done to prepare for the city’s 2018 solutions journalism collaborative. Resolve Philly is a solutions-oriented news hub built around newsroom collaboration and community engagement.
In 2017, newsrooms around Philadelphia produced in-depth stories about reentry after incarceration. I was editor of Billy Penn for part of that year, and our newsroom had a designated freelance reporter contribute to the project. The collaborative has grown since then and is reporting on poverty this year, with help from 19 local newsrooms on an effort called Broke in Philly. My role this time is different. I attend meetings alongside project editors to discuss reporting approaches and event ideas, but my biggest contribution is the 30-page reporting guide distributed to participating newsrooms — a small portion of which is publicly accessible.
The guide outlines key terms and phrases that every reporter should familiarize themselves with; explains the policies that create poverty and keep people impoverished; analyzes federal, state and local overlap and gaps; dives into Philly’s history with poverty and current efforts to eliminate it; explores pilot programs in other cities; and includes clear instructions on how to remove bias from interviews and language.
This guide sets the tone for how reporters can lead the change of the poverty narrative and demonstrate that solving poverty is a shared societal responsibility. Can a single guide fix the problems outlined above? Not even close. But here are a few ways purposeful, thoughtful content can help people better understand problems and see clearer paths toward solutions:
Name the problems
Don’t ignore or dance around the problems in front of you. State them plainly using clear language, and have evidence to make your case. You can’t solve something if you’re unwilling to talk about it.
Identify (every) (possible) cause and pathway out
You have a headache. You think back and realize you didn’t drink much water to day. You take some medicine and the headache goes away. Was dehydration the cause of your headache? Maybe. It could have been any number of other things, but the cause you identified first seems plausible, so you didn’t give it another thought. Did the medicine work? Yep, and probably pretty quickly. So you chose that as the fix rather than drinking more water to see if the headache would clear up later. You don’t have a headache right now, but you haven’t helped yourself avoid another one.
That’s an overly simplistic explanation, but the same rule applies. Strategy means thinking through all possible scenarios instead of just the most convenient. There will be cases that call for easy or temporary solutions. But solving a complex problem like poverty in a city of 1.5 million requires every effort.
Focus on people
Yes, content strategy is about people. Everything is about people. The guide I worked on was distributed to reporters and editors who will spend the next year talking to and about people who are food-insecure, home-insecure and are about to have their stories shared On. The. Internet. If the goal is to change the narrative about poverty — to help newsroom audiences understand that poverty isn’t a choice or the result of laziness — then these content creators need to produce with care. The Broke in Philly guide outlines some terminology dos and don’ts, and also advises on things like how to appropriately find sources, how to ask questions and how to frame photos.
Own your mistakes
You will make mistakes. Own them and learn from them and do better next time.