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AxisPhilly rethinks local journalism, one hot-button issue at a time

Solomon Jones and Neil Budde at Axis Philly







Jones edits a recent video


The Axis Philly office on 3rd st

This month, 23 Philadelphia public schools will close. The decision was announced by the Philadelphia School District back in March and continues to be questioned by local media: Does low enrollment justify closures? Are charter schools a solution? How can the city gut education for low-income students and then build a $400 million prison?

Rather than editorialize on the decision, AxisPhilly chose to launch Schoolhouse Watch, a multi-faceted civic engagement platform that tackles a specific concern: Leftover real estate. School properties, developed with local tax dollars, have a large footprint and a long legacy in their respective neighborhoods. Shouldn't residents have a say in what happens to them?

Axis was created by the William Penn Foundation following a study on the decline of news readership. To establish the publication, they hired Neil Budde, former editor in chief of Yahoo! News and founding editor and publisher of The Wall Street Journal Online, as publisher and CEO. The staff has several high-profile local reporters including Solomon Jones, author of eight novels and former staff reporter for Philadelphia Weekly and the Daily News; and Carla Robinson, creator of the Urban Warrior Daily News column

The site focuses on inspiring activism and community engagement. With the tagline, "Where news breaks through," Axis aims to provide ongoing, in-depth coverage of public interest issues -- including vacant land, litter, taxes and poverty -- in lieu of focusing on faster-paced current events. They also work hard to make city data, whether it's AVI tax changes or crime statistics,  more digestible.

The Schoolhouse Watch project, spearheaded by Jones, combines reporting, data applications and live neighborhood forums. The goal is to get community members involved in redevelopment discussions well before any decisions are made. The site -- which Jones co-created with Pam Selle and Casey Thomas -- republishes data from the District's Open Data Initiative and Facilities Master Plan. Users access individual school profile pages that list the property's market value, physical condition and neighborhood resources, including political representatives. The data is augmented with relevant stories from Axis and partner sites, including PlanPhilly, The Notebook, NBC10, WHYY and Hidden City

Each page has a forum that asks, "What's the best new use for this building, and how can we make it happen?" Aside from serving the public, Jones says these profiles give context to potential developers.

"We put that information together -- and it's evolving -- so that people can have an understanding of the buildings," he says. "I think people do have a sense of ownership, that's why they got so angry about the decision to close the schools."

At SchoolhouseWatch's live events, moderated by Jones, community members meet with a panel of civic leaders, city council reps, government officials and subject experts to discuss the future of the buildings. So far, Axis has held three forums (Germantown High School, University City High School, and Bok Technical High School) and plans for more. Meetings have been well attended -- over 130 people showed up at both -- and are streamed live by NBC10.

"In real simple terms, it's about giving the community a say in what happens to these buildings," says Jones. "They are, in a large sense, community institutions that people feel a connection to."
The issues surrounding these newly vacant properties aren't limited to community involvement. Schoolhouses are a hard sell -- they are specifically designed as education facilities and often boast a variety of maintenance issues; some need up $20 million in repairs. According to a recent Pew study, most are purchased for less than $1 million (sometimes as little as $200,000). But even when a school sells, the new owners aren't always quick to redevelop. More than half of schools in U.S cities that closed between 2005 and 2012 are still empty. Affected communities are often already struggling with poverty. When schools close, their multi-acre properties add significant blight.  

"If someone isn't continuing to shine a light on this then many of these buildings will slowly become abandoned hulks just siting in the neighborhood," says Budde. "The more we keep this at the forefront of public thought, the more we can say, 'You can't just let these slide off into shells.'"

Part of the broader Axis mission is to increase transparency in city matters using innovative digital tools. Much of this effort revolves around data. The Nutter Administration touts an open data policy that has the potential to create stronger partnerships on civic issues. Unfortunately, the raw stuff, available in isolated reports and endless spreadsheets, isn't very accessible.

Axis first made waves in the local data revolution by releasing a map of Property Tax Changes, a color-coded GIS illustration of the city's Actual Value Initiative (AVI). The tool -- which can be used to isolate and analyze specific areas -- has been embedded in numerous civic and neighborhood sites. 

Similarly, the Changes in Crime by Neighborhood tool combines a series of raw data point maps to illustrate overall crime trends since 2006. 

"It's not enough just release the data, which is a big step for the government," says Budde. "Government probably shouldn't be doing the mapping and illustrating, they need an independent arm. That's a big part of our role."
Of course numbers are only part of the story. To provide a more complete context, Axis produces investigative reports on different aspects of its target issue. With SchoolhouseWatch, for example, Jones has reported on development interests as well as residents' personal histories with their schools. 

The live forums are a new frontier for Axis. While the news outlet has no immediate plans to create public meetings for other issues, the method has been fruitful for SchoolhouseWatch. Community members have proposed and discussed a range of reuse concepts, including senior living, community centers, artist studios and vocational charter schools.

Germantown offers a particularly resonate example. When the nearly-hundred-year-old institution closes its doors, it leaves behind a 350,000-square-foot space right between a section of abandoned properties -- including a town hall building, a YWCA facility and a former Department of Public Welfare building -- and an emerging commercial corridor. According to Jones, the fate of the building could determine the fate of the neighborhood. 

During the forum, community members largely supported combining Germantown High School with Fulton Elementary and Roosevelt Middle School to create a K-12 school, addressing the capacity problem. Whether it could also fit city budget plans remains to be seen. 

"There's a balancing act that the city has to go through when it's making these decisions," says Budde. "Let's keep that conversation out in the public."

DANA HENRY is Flying Kite's Innovation & Job News editor.

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