Exploring Philadelphia institutions’ effectiveness and holding them accountable

Julie Christie is the Enterprise Editor for The Temple News — the independent, student-run newspaper at Temple University. She hopes to focus her journalism career in data journalism and criminal justice. Julie interned at The Reentry Project over the summer and developed a passion for solutions journalism. The Reentry Project is a 15-newsroom collaboration that focused reporting on issues people face after leaving incarceration. She spends what little free time she has watching The Lord of the Rings or listening to audio books and cooking something that probably includes potatoes or a recipe that came from the International Pasta Organization’s monthly newsletter. 

She’ll be working with Diana Shalenkova to cover the effectiveness of different institutions and programs around the city.

Yes, a lot of Philadelphia media is covering institutional effectiveness.

Coverage of institutional accountability isn’t too difficult to come across — it’s the focus of a lot of investigative reporting and solutions journalism around the city. From huge city-wide efforts on specific topics like The Reentry Project to individual investigative teams within newsrooms, the city’s media doesn’t avoid the topic.

That doesn’t mean everything is being reported on.

There are more city organizations and programs than investigative efforts — and those efforts often focus only on the biggest issues at that time. It’s also often approached without the angle of effectiveness, but instead with simple success or failure. There needs to be more acknowledgment and discussion of the fact that sometimes institutions are successful in what they do, but it fails in its level of effectiveness. Also, with coverage of institutional effectiveness and accountability, sometimes news outlets do cover the full scope, but it’s with a specific focus and not applied widely to the rest of the city. This beat will apply the need for accountability to any kind of program, focusing on the difference between success, failure and effectiveness.

It takes some unique skills to be able to tell these stories.

Diana and Julie have different sets of skills, which makes them a good pair to collaborate on this beat. Julie takes her focus on data and solutions to evaluate how effective an institution can be, while Diana can translate data points to the human element. Their skills, however, are not exclusive. By having different instinctive approaches to storytelling, Julie and Diana can develop ideas to make sure that they are telling the whole story. They are also able to make the story more dynamic and digestible for readers: Diana’s photographic experience adds another way to look at the humanity of the story, and Julie’s experience in breaking down and visualizing statistics takes away the intimidation of numbers. Together they just a couple of nerds who share a passion for exploring the effectiveness of institutions and holding them accountable.

There are already some programs that need to be explored.

  1. The Philadelphia Housing Authority’s MENTOR Program – It’s a program that’s supposed to help provide housing for people returning from incarceration in order to “interrupt the cycle of recidivism”, according to the linked article. However, the MENTOR program is extremely limited, offering housing to only 20 “qualified program participants”, which is rather insignificant when considering that about 40,000 people return to Philadelphia each year from federal and state prison as of 2011.
  2. SEPTA Key – the forever most topical of all topics to any Philadelphian. Seems like Philly’s finally stepping up to the 21st century and getting rid of tokens, and in the same breath causes outrage at the $10 minimum and fare increase.
  3. The Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program – It does good, but who does it really help, and how cost effective is it to a city with an already struggling budget?
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