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The Notebook & the Future of Journalism

I just wrote a short article for Next American City on a Philadelphia newspaper called the Notebook. Basically, the Notebook is a non-profit paper dedicated solely to covering the city’s public schools. While the Inquirer and Daily News – Philly’s jointly operated major dailies – are in bankruptcy, the Notebook is flourishing. Its circulation is up to 57,000 and it’s being published 6x a year. And, it recently picked up a major grant from the Knight Foundation…

At any rate, here’s a preview of the piece. I believe the whole piece will be available only in print, in August.

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From Benjamin Franklin’s screeds in the Pennsylvania Gazette to Woodward and Bernstein’s sleuthing for the Washington Post, the press has long been a vital part of the American experiment. For democracy to flourish, citizens need basic information about their communities, an engine of oversight for their elected officials and a forum to publicly exchange ideas. Given the decline of daily newspapers, it is important to ask who, or what, will fill these roles in the future. In Philadelphia, The Notebook is one entity filling this growing void. And it’s a newspaper.

Founded in 1994 by a group of parents and teachers, The Notebook is a free publication dedicated solely to coverage of the city’s public schools. Recent stories have focused on the plight of immigrant students, the persistence of opaque and misleading line-items in the district’s budget, and the disparity in teacher experience between high- and low-poverty schools. As Philadelphia Media Holdings – the parent company of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News – languishes in bankruptcy, The Notebook is growing. First printed as a pamphlet and passed out on playgrounds, the paper is now published bimonthly and has a circulation of 57,000. It has a full-time staff of five, including Dale Mezzacappa, who spent 20 years at the Inquirer covering education. “After struggling for a long time,” says Notebook editor and director Paul Socolar, “we’re getting a little more notice and a little more respect.”

Though The Notebook is a newspaper, it is vastly different from most daily papers of record. To start, necessity forces the non-profit organization to be opportunistic in locating sources of funding . The operating budget for 2009-2010 is approximately $600,000, cobbled together from foundations, advertising, individual memberships, an annual fundraiser and even governmental sources like Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services. Socolar and his staff are keenly aware that these funds are not permanent revenue streams and continue to cultivate advertisers, donors, and foundations.

Another unique characteristic of The Notebook is its willingness to drop the pretense of distance in its reporting. The driving force behind the publication is the determination of Philadelphia parents – including Socolar – to provide a quality education for their children. “We’re upfront about being passionate that schools need to be a whole lot better than they are now. So, in that sense there are some things we’re not neutral about,” says Socolar. He maintains that it is critical for the publication to be fair and accurate, but the paper has an edge that the dailies have lost.

Put another way, The Notebook has a discrete purpose. “We have a vision of how we think school change is going to take place,” Socolar says. “Community involvement and public accountability is really key.” It is clear that Socolar sees The Notebook as a vehicle for this involvement and accountability. In contrast, major dailies look like bloated generalists suffering an identity crisis. Does today’s edition feature the suburban extra section, the healthy-living supplement, or the weekend entertainment picks?

Asked about the predicament facing the Inquirer and Daily News, Socolar says, “A world without either of them is hard to imagine…It’s a tragedy what’s happening to the daily papers, but I also think that they haven’t at all levels smelled the toast burning or asked why the toast is burning. The opportunity for us is that there are better ways to cover some of this stuff – especially with the Internet.”


I’m not exactly sure when this will be published  – I believe it’s slated for Next American City’s Fall edition – maybe out in August? I’ve left off the last few paragraphs of the piece here..might be worth picking up the magazine!

 

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