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HARPER: Hope from a rising generation of journalists

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Every January, I get a first-hand look at the next generation of journalists — a generation I hope can start to save the craft I plied for more than 20 years. I generally like what I see.

My colleague Linn Washington, a longtime Philadelphia reporter, and I teach philadelphianeighborhoods.com, the final class that every Temple University journalism undergraduate — more than 600 students — has to complete before graduation.

The website, which recently was named the best college online publication in the nation, focuses mainly on the poor and hardscrabble neighborhoods in the city that the mainstream media only cover after the police tape goes up when something bad happens. What we do is almost completely different. The journalists at Philadelphia Neighborhoods provide multimedia stories on what is really happening in the communities: an Iraqi youth who became an Eagle Scout; scrappers who collect metal for a few dollars a day; a young man living on food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Many editors and reporters seem to have forgotten that cities and towns are made up of communities of real people who have the same aspirations as people everywhere: a better job, a better future for their children and a better outlook for their neighborhoods.

All indicators show "hyperlocal journalism" is gaining a foothold as people bring the stories closer to the communities they serve.

According to the Pew Foundation, which releases a yearly report on journalism, some sites — such as The Texas Tribune and MinnPost — continue to build solid foundations, while others have struggled to gain stability. For example, Washington-based tbd.com, a much ballyhooed website, merged its operations with WJLA-TV (Channel 7). (The study on hyperlocal journalism can be found here.)

Pew researchers also found that hyperlocal sites have started to focus on specific issues such as state government, schools, investigative reporting and niche areas that attract viewership from people specifically interested in these topics. Some notable successes include thenotebook.org, which focuses on public education in Philadelphia; Health News Florida at wusf.usf.edu/, which looks at health issues and policies in the state; and Oregon Arts Watch at orartswatch.org/, which started in 2011 with arts organizations in the Portland area as partners.

Technically Philly, at technicallyphilly.com and built by three Temple University graduates, is another success story, covering technological issues in Philadelphia and recently opening offices in Baltimore and Brooklyn, N.Y.

Philadelphia Neighborhoods sells content to the organization. (Read more about the founders here.)

J-Lab's Jan Schaffer of American University told Pew's researchers what she saw as the fundamental aspects of these enterprises. "You figure out the job that needs to be done, and you do it," she said. "You can have a business out of that. I think there is no doubt the evolution is ongoing, and I think there is no question there is good journalism being produced."

Those behind Technically Philly and other such sites provide some hope that this generation of journalists will make the craft better in the days ahead, rather than continuing down the useless path the business seems to be following. At least they had better change the direction of journalism; our nation will be worse off if they don't.

Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20" for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com.

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